SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Deaf Gahan has become Sardonicus, but what is to be our verdict?


Deaf Gahan has a new nom de plume at Twitter, and it’s perfect for a cash-infused, well-oiled, imperial re-election campaign.

Nom de plume: a name that a writer uses instead of his or her real name; pseudonym, pen name. 

But who is Sardonicus?

It begins with the adjective sardonic, which means grimly disdainful or cynical, and bitter, scornful derision to the point of malevolence. The word sardonic is derived from Greek.

Sardonic comes from the Greek adjective Sardonios, which actually describes a plant from a place called Sardinia that supposedly made your face contort into a horrible grin … right before you died from its poison. The Greeks used sardonic for laughter, but we only use it when someone’s humor is also mocking or ironic.

This facial contortion worked its way into the medical literature and is now used to describe an actual condition.

Risus sardonicus or rictus grin is a highly characteristic, abnormal, sustained spasm of the facial muscles that appears to produce grinning. Risus sardonicus may be caused by tetanus, strychnine poisoning or Wilson’s disease, and has been reported after judicial hanging.

Much later science proved the ancient Greeks were on to something.

In 2009 scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy wrote that they had identified hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) as the plant historically responsible for producing the sardonic grin. This plant is the most likely candidate for the “sardonic herb“, which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman, Nuragic Sardinia.

“Mr. Sardonicus” became a 1961 Hollywood horror film directed by Wiliam Castle, based on short story by Ray Russell.

But let’s not forget the way most music fans of a certain age were introduced to Sardonicus, via the rock group Spirit’s 1970 release, The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, which was reviewed in Rolling Stone at the time by none other than the estimable literary figure Nick Tosches. He explains.

Any illusions that might still be clung to along the order of Spirit’s being an Epic house organ anthropomorphization-of-eclecticism shuck, complete with baldpated, cerebral – looking leftover from the bongo drums and black beret era, should be flushed down the old metaphysical crapper as quickly as one would dispose of just so much Nathan’s ® chicken chow mein sandwich puke, because this here Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (a hep reference to William Castle’s great 1963 horror flick Mr. Sardonicus, which was about this mick who had his face paralyzed by banshees into a super-hideous grin when he crashed his father’s casket to get a winning lottery ticket out of the old geezer’s jacket pocket and then went around wearing this creepy plastic mask and bringing women down his cellar to ball except you should’ve seen the shit that went down whenever he would take off the mask) lay languidly upon the very steps to Parnassus.

The album contains the song most geezers like me associate with Spirit, as it was an FM radio staple during the 1970s — and appropriately named considering the subject matter of today’s column.

“It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong” strikingly conveys the very idea of a third term for Jeff Gahan. Consequently, the answer lies in Castle’s movie.

Castle, with his reputation as the “king of gimmicks” to market his films, built the marketing for the film around the idea of the two possible endings.

Near the end of the film, audiences were given the opportunity to participate in the “Punishment Poll”. Each movie patron was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb out. At the appropriate time, they voted by holding up the card with either the thumb up or down as to whether Sardonicus would live or die.

Come November, the verdict on Deaf Gahan Sardonicus is as clear as the malevolent grin on the faces of his special interest donors.