For the sake of argument

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    In deep Australasian seas lurks a fish serenely unaware of a name so embarrassing it leaps out of the pages of Te Papa’s The Fishes of New Zealand and smacks us between the eyes. 

    Surely not?

    Can it be true?

    But there it is. 

    Meet the shortarse feelerfish (Bathymicrops brevianalis), named after its stumpy anal fins – the Latin species name brevianalis means ‘short anus’.

    Senor Shortarse is not alone. A support group for fish with silly names would include – and I am not making these up – the wonky duckbill eel, the hairy conger, the blue mascara slickhead, the bugeye smelt, the southern bastard cod, the horrible rattail, the confused goby, the limp eelpout, the hairynose blobfish and the warty seadevil.

    Although a sensitive person might feel outrage on behalf of fish, reduced – lets face it – to laughing stocks, I can’t help thinking that these names have potential as insults. A book on fungus throws up equally magnificent taunts – orange ping pong bat, toughshanks, stinky squid, witch’s hat, hedgehog jelly, slime mould, stinkhorn and violet potato fungus. You never know when these might come in useful, even when shouted into your pillow.

    The late Christopher Hitchens, who wrote books like Letters to a Young Contrarian and For the Sake of Argument, was a lifelong provocateur too clever for mere name-calling. His insults contained red meat, as in “where did anyone get the brainless opinion that the super-rich are too wealthy to steal?” and “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Although he did call Trump, in 2000, “a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 percent of his skull with 30 percent of his hair.”

    Some things are worth fighting for, and as our grandmothers used to say, “fine words butter no parsnips.” 

    Greta Thunberg has buttered plenty of parsnips in her 20 years on the planet, most of them in the last five years. In 2021, outside what seemed another ineffectual climate conference, she shouted:

    “You can shove your climate crisis up your arse. Inside COP they are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis. Change is not going to come from the inside; that is not leadership. We say no more blah blah blah.” 

    In speaking of his long fight against racism, civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

    Social media might be infested with idiotic trolling, but there is eloquence there too if you know where to look. We cannot say the same about the Beehive, which today lacks a wit as delightfully caustic as the late Prime Minister David Lange. The member for Māngere was known for his cutting remarks, such as “He’s gone around the country stirring up apathy,” (the Leader of the Opposition, Jim Bolger, was on a campaign tour); and, “The only member of Parliament named after a concrete block, and I can understand that” (Winston Peters). 

    On seeing a machine labelled ‘media steriliser’, Lange joked: “Have that sent to my office immediately.”

    Lange was mature enough to take barbs too, often his own. When asked, “So, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?”, Lange, notoriously rotund, quipped “I’m going to be a jockey”.

    Unlike bullying tyrants the world over, Lange knew how to use humour to defuse tense situations. “It is, of course, completely inappropriate in some [situations],” said Lange, “but in the end, you know, if you were serious in this job you’d go mad.”

    During his tenure as Prime Minister, Lange let off steam by competing in motor racing, appearing in the New Zealand One Make Ford Laser Sport series wearing a uniform emblazoned with the title ‘flame crusher’.

    No doubt he would have enjoyed this weekend’s Great Gulf News Trolley Derby. What it may lack in warty seadevils, toughshanks, shortarses or flamecrushers it promises to deliver in droll trolley names like ‘Fireball’, ‘Metal Maniac’ and ‘Destroyer’.  

    May the best trolley name win! • Jenny Nicholls

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