How shall we describe ourselves? Officially.


This weekly column is approaching its 15th anniversary. Over these long — for you, I expect — fun- filled — for me, no question — years, I have returned to this great, nagging question several times. It is a serious matter, an important public proposal of a progressive nature. It is not a mere week-to-week commentary on civic affairs. Rather, it is a forward-looking suggestion meant to distinguish our community from so many others.

My proposal is necessarily derivative of practices common elsewhere. Connecticut is the nutmeg state, is it not? New Hampshire’s official motto is “Live Free or Die.” The official state bird of Massachusetts is the seagull. (Or is it? Well, if it isn’t it might as well be. They’re everywhere, nasty birds, and the mess they make if your boat is moored in an area where they like to fish, well, it is unspeakable. Pretty soon, it may be the Canada goose, whose year-round population may soon grow large enough to hire a lobbyist to get the Great and General Court to repeal the seagull and install the goose. But I’ve gotten off the point.)

The point is that states all have official this’s and that’s, and I think the Vineyard should have an official something too. Back in the 1970s, when we agitated about seceding from the Commonwealth and even the United States but didn’t do it, there was a popular design for a Martha’s Vineyard official flag. Of course, it had a gull on it, if I remember it correctly. But it never caught on, and it never was officially adopted by anyone in authority.

What I have in mind is an official Martha’s Vineyard Adjective. I have done a careful study of the 50 states and nearly 60 English-speaking countries across the world. None has an official adjective. Official flowers, yes, birds, nuts, trees, mottos, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But not adjectives.

At first I thought my purpose would be served by the mere enshrinement of that adjective so favored by so many — especially letter writers — to describe, well, really everything. Thus when we or they referred to that “special intersection” where the collision took place between the pro-and anti-Roundabout armies, or that “special landfill” which is hosting a “special hazardous waste drop-off day” or that “special skunk” found flat on the road, or the tent city erected each summer in the “special scrub oak woods” as housing for summer employees — each such reference would be an official use of the Martha’s Vineyard Adjective.

I even imagined licensing “special” so that if someone wanted to employ it in advertising or even in conversation at the bar or around the house, they’d have to pay a small fee. The money would go to some some responsible and smart custodian — not the Dukes County government — that would be enabled by town meeting legislation to use the scratch to sponsor a Martha’s Vineyard Demolition Derby, like the informal ones we enjoyed years ago, with free refreshments. That would be the sole permitted use for the money.

But then, special, the adjective, has to my ear, and I suspect to yours, become a bit worn out, hackneyed, exhausted by overuse. Too much of a special thing, sort of. The beach is special, the grass is special, the pond is special, the air is special, the taxis are special, the highway department is special, the views are special, even those bloody gulls are special. It doesn’t work any more. It’s too much to ask of one adjective with no official status.

To address this problem, we need a fresh adjective — I almost wrote “special adjective” but caught myself just in time — and, just as important, we must act officially to have it adopted by the seven town meetings in Dukes County. I had thought to get it on the spring town meeting ballots, but it’s too much. We already have plenty on our plates.

What should it be, the new official and exclusive, consecrated Adjective of Martha’s Vineyard? Well, after considerable study, and with the advice of writers of undeniable accomplishment who, although they do not live here year-round consider themselves to have a, er, special relationship with the place, I propose “precious.” (I thought about “darling” or “cunning” but one was all tangled up with romantic love, and the other has a mildly sinister quality. I didn’t want that.) And keep in mind, this is just a suggestion.

Someone might argue — and come to think of it, how about disputative or its cousin, truculent, I hadn’t thought of them, or self-satisfied, or sporty, they’re all on the table — that the difference between special and precious is small, and in some senses you would be correct. But you could not argue that old faithful has escaped the threadbare appearance of a stooped and shuffling adjective of advancing years. It certainly has not.

Precious is sprightly by comparison. It has no common, familiar air about it. It is a modest step up in value from special, and were it to get the official nod from seven town meetings, it would absolutely attract the same sort of whole-hearted allegiance we give to any town meeting proposal that calls for shifting the tax burden from year-rounders to summer property owners.

Informal polling of voters in the Vineyard towns — at least those who were not swooning over the appallingly diminished value of their 401K statements and dreaming of corporal punishment for the 536 puerile elected members of the national government — suggests that precious would beat special handsomely if balloting were conducted today.

I have not investigated opinion on Gosnold, the estranged and mysterious seventh Dukes County town. And it is true that the language of choice among those peculiar Cuttyhunkers — “finest kind,” for instance, for a job well done — has fewer ruffles and flourishes than ours, but who among them, if pressed, would not agree that theirs is a precious island too.

Anyhow, you’ve heard my thinking on this problem. What’s yours. Don’t like precious? Happy with special? Why bother with this at all? Let’s hear from you.

Versions of this plea have appeared in this space several times over the years. DAC