Gerda Saunders in Slate:
For my 61st birthday, in 2010, I was given the diagnosis of microvascular disease, after Alzheimer’s the second leading cause of dementia. I was—as my rather blunt neurologist put it—already “dementing.” Insofar as I had thought about dementia until then, I was unaware that the word had a verb form: he/she/it dements, they dement, we all dement. Yet, no matter my incredulity that this absurd verb could apply to me, now, two years later, “the cloake sitteth no lesse fit” on my chastened back.
My initial denial will seem disingenuous in light of the fact that I knew the symptoms of dementia even then—and recognized them in myself. Also, my mother had a form of mental disconnect that made her increasingly out of touch with reality until her death at 82. Given that, together with the generally known fact that dementia can run in families, why did my doctor’s utterance fall so disconsonantly on my ear?
My belated pursuit of a Ph.D. in English in my 40s introduced me to the Enlightenment philosophers. I remember being intrigued by John Locke and William Whewell’s pursuit of, as Locke puts it, the “originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings,” a quest that took both men back to Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Locke describes fallen Adam as lost in a “strange Country” with “all Things new, and unknown about him”; Whewell pictures Adam doing the first work of postlapsarian orientation by giving names “distinct and appropriate to the facts” to newly encountered objects and concepts.