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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Mark Twain’s words

HistoryMarkTwain

The above is a picture of what Mark Twain looked like in the 1860s next to the quote I’ve selected for Writer’s Quote Wednesday.

On 15 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion that would become the American Civil War. On the same day, four years later, Lincoln would die from a gun shot wound to the head. In the days that followed that, hundreds of people were arrested all over the United States under suspicion of conspiring to kill the president. One of them, Francis Tumblety may have gone on to become Jack the Ripper.

Twain was a deserter of the Confederate side, after serving for two weeks, and claimed to have been ignorant of the politics behind the war when he joined. Later, her reflected that the war was:

“A blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.”

Twain didn’t believe that history repeats it. The idealist in me likes to believe that is because we learn from it, but I do know better. Like each of us individually, we seem to collectively repeat the same mistakes over and over. I confess that I started thinking about the politics behind the American Civil War as I watched the various states taking sides over Indiana and their so-called religious freedom.

NevadaJones

Thankfully, this didn’t start a war, but oh-my-gosh you know you’ve hired a terrible PR firm when the story breaks about you hiring a PR firm to make people stop talking about the embarrassing incident. Sadly, Indiana’s government is happily throwing $2 million at this problem and hoping it will go away, as they sit there, like a bumps on a log, ignoring the ways that its residents are marginalized, discriminated against, and bullied every day for their gender, or sexual orientation.

Incidentally, Twain coined the phrase “bump on a log,” during the American Civil War. It might not rhyme, but there’s definitely a strange poetry to that.

Because it’s April 15th, I feel I should be writing some sort of tribute to Abraham Lincoln. He certainly deserves tribute, but he has many and this is a blog about a dictionary. Lincoln certainly influenced culture and language, but I’ve selected Twain as my author today and his contributions to the English language are manyfold.

He coined so many common terms, like ‘bicentennial,’ or ‘bug,’ as it pertains to eyes, and ‘multibillionaire.’ So, I shall leave you today with a brief selection of Twain’s contributions to the English language.

  1. slim jim: a very skinny person.
  2. poundiferous: characterized by thumping, or pounding.
  3. plunkety-plunk: the sound or action of playing a banjo, or other stringed instrument.
  4. jokist: an actual, or would-be, comedian.
  5. damfool: an idiot, or fool, who is, or should be, damned.
  6. brontosaurian: clumsy, like a brontosaurus.
  7. lunkhead: an idiot, or fool, regardless of their state of damnation.
  8. yawl: a drawn out shout, or the action thereof.
  9. softy: the way I am when I look at my puppy.
  10. slumgullion: roughing it.

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Once upon a time…

OnceUponATime

This classic introduction to the modern fairy tale sets a story in the distant past, usually in a land far far away, and changes the tone of everything that follows. It’s possibly one of the most powerful narrative devices in the English language.

After we hear those words, we expect that everything that follows will be whimsical and probably fictional. If a story starts with ‘once upon a time,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if a fairy, witch, or some other magical creature appears. The words ‘once upon a time’ instruct the reader to suspend their disbelief.

It’s as old as the fourteenth century, Chaucer used it and there was a variation in the tale of Sir Ferumbras.  The history of its use parallels the history of the fairy tale itself. In The Wonder of a Kingdome (1636), Thomas Dekker uses it to convey a mode of telling stories orally: “Cannot you begin a tale to her, with once upon a time there was a loving couple…”

The written fairy tale was properly invented in the salons of the next century and the fairy tale, as we know it, was invented the century after that by our beloved Victorians, who took all of the naughty bits out and started saving and creating these stories for children. The Victorians did this to so many stories they had to make up a word for it in 1836:

bowlderize: to expurgate (a book or writing), by omitting or modifying words or passages considered indelicate or offensive; to castrate.

The changes, modifications, and invention of the fairy tale follows shifts in culture socially and economically, like nationalism. Nationalism is also a very Victorian word, which was coined in 1798 to describe a phenomenon that was already underway.

nationalism: Advocacy of or support for the interests of one’s own nation, esp. to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations. Also: advocacy of or support for national independence or self-determination.

The Brothers Grimm were motivated by nationalism. They wanted to protect the stories that were uniquely and historically German from the increasing (even militant) influence of French culture. Before the rise of nationalism, people were generally loyal to their regions. It took the French and American Revolutions to make people think of themselves as devotedly part of a larger national whole, or like they had any role in shaping what belonging to that whole actually meant. Hence, the interest of the Brothers Grimm in creating a record of a distinctly German identity.

Before the Brothers Grimm told their stories, academics were gathering in salons to share fairy stories. These stories were meant for other scholars and were often made up by the scholars themselves. The women, who hosted the salons told stories of aristocratic females, suffering some sort of oppression, who was saved by magic, or came to a terrible end for failing to abide by the social sanctions of her time. Thus, these stories mirrored the experiences of the writers themselves.

Then the industrial revolution happened, which created a new middle class and an idealized concept of what it meant to be a child. Before the industrial revolution, social mobility was a fairy tale of its own (Cinderella), and whole families generally worked together as an economic unit. Children were expected to contribute to the household through labour. The industrial revolution centralized the capitalist system moving labour outside of the home and creating new socio-economic systems.

The Victorian interest in evolution and psychology contributed to the belief that childhood should be a time of personal development, during which one gains the skills they need to successfully contribute to the economic system in adulthood. Consequently, children didn’t need to hear about the real world. Fairy tales were and still are a great insulating tool, especially once the naughty bits are taken out.

What naughty bits do I mean?

In Rapunzel, the witch figured out that Rapunzel had been secretly letting the prince into her tower because Rapunzel was pregnant.

In Little Red Ridinghood, Red and her grandmother obviously die. They were eaten by a wolf! What do you expect?

The original Snow White is a girl of about ten years old, which is way too young. Also, the stepmother asks for the girl’s heart because she wants to eat it.

In Speeping Beauty, the prince does more than just kiss the sleeping princess, and before she awakes, she gives birth to twins.

Today, scholars debate the usefulness of these stories, particularly because we still like to tell them to children. The main argument is that it fills children’s heads with warped ideals of masculinity and femininity. In some cases, stories are modernized, or given a new twist, to make them appeal to modern readers. I spoke about hypermasculinity in my last post.

hypermasculinity

These stories definitely present warped ideas, but if we have to share the story of a warped idea, there may as well be fairies and dragons, or what have you. Maybe a story doesn’t have to be useful.

As Oscar Wilde said, once upon a time:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

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The Victorian Post Office (willing to risk death daily)

TomPostman

In the mid-nineteenth century, postmasters had to swear an oath, like the one above. It was a dignified career, in which one had to post a bond and be responsible to the community in which one lived and served. The postmaster couldn’t be drafted to the army or militia, but could be called upon to work on the roads. People were sometimes recommended for the job by their members of congress. In the larger post offices, postmasters were appointed by the president.

When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be a mail carrier. Give me a pair of shorts, a sunny day, and I will gladly deliver a bag full of birthday cards to everyone in my neighbourhood. (I don’t recall ever wishing I were a mail carrier in winter.)

Victorian postmasters often got their job as some political favour and kept it as a secondary occupation to running a shop, or something. In many parts of the United States, mail was even delivered on Sundays. Though they had to close the post office while church services were going on. Evidently, ministers complained about parishioners leaving church to hang out at the post office and play cards.

Today, you can’t even get the Postal Service on the phone, if you don’t have a 750 character code that contains BOTH letters and numbers. The automated system hung up on me twice today because I only had a tracking number. Evidently, tracking numbers are useless.

Modern postal workers are depicted as mole people, but the phrase “going postal” didn’t exist until 1993, when a Florida newspaper used it as a reference to several cases in which postal workers shot at their colleagues.

There aren’t many things that were actually better in the nineteenth century (moustaches, language, manners, jokes, fashion), but the United States Postal Service was one of them. In many places, the mail came two or three times a day and getting it to you was a sacred duty. Created as the Post Office Department, in 1792, American mail delivery was revolutionary in its approach to changing technology and its commitment to service. They even sought out young men, who were willing to risk their lives delivering the mail.

PonyExpress

Something about email seems to have caused them to simply give up on using new technologies and innovations to get your mail to you sooner. It’s not that new technologies and innovations don’t exist; it’s that the Postal Service isn’t taking advantage of them anymore and it just seems to be giving up, forcing online retailers to take matters into their own hands (Amazon and delivery drones, for example).

I am not surprised to find that the Postal Service has no official creed, or motto.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

…was just the inscription outside the James Farley Post Office in New York.

Even if I lived in a place where it was sunny all the time, there’s no part of me that wants to be a mail carrier anymore. Sadly, I don’t think the people who work as mail carriers want to be mail carriers anymore either.

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Love Tokens

tokenThis Valentine’s Day, the heroine in the novel you’re writing dutifully cut a lock of her hair and tied it in a bow for her beau. In return, he’s given her some token of his love, but did you know that means he might literally be giving her some token of his love?

Love tokens originated in the 1700s, but were very popular in this sentimental era – especially in the 1880s. The hero in your novel would visit a jeweller, or some other metal worker, and have the coin decorated at the one pictured above. On the reverse, Nellie might find her beau’s initials and the date. To make it more special, Nellie’s beau has included a picture. If he could afford it, he might have embellished her love token further with precious stones, raised enamel, or cut-out designs within the coin.

The tokens might be made of any metal and became souvenirs, or mementos, of a special time. They might be maid out of actual coins, like a nickel or a dime, and they might have a hole punched in them to allow Nellie to wear it on a chain around her neck. The great variety in Victorian love tokens illustrates how they could be given by a beau of any class. One might take a copper coin and engrave it themself.

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Nineteenth-century Nellie may have given a love token to her best friend, her sister, brother, or any other member of her family. They’re making a comeback and are a popular item on sites that sell handmade goods, like Etsy.

Are you giving someone you love a love token on Valentine’s Day?

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Americanophobia

AmericanophobiaCharles Dickens was born on this day in 1812. Though he is one of the most iconic writers of the nineteenth-century, there are many things most people don’t know about him. For instance, did you know he coined the term ‘Americanophobia’?

The word has nothing to do with fearing espresso drinks.

Americanophobia n.  Fear or dislike of the United States or its culture.

Oscar Wilde usually gets most of the credit for criticizing Americans in Victoriana, but Dickens coined this term in a letter written in 1942.

Nineteenth-century anti-Americanism should be read as a marker of European culture, rather than as a product of U.S. policies. Europeans, including the English, enjoyed poking fun at Americans, Australians, and other European colonies, as if they were too far removed from the origins of high culture.

The only dislike that Dickens personally had for the New World was its abuse of the copyrights on his work. Copyright laws vary from country to country and Dickens had to work hard to prevent the pirating of his books in the U.S.A. and Canada. Dickens travelled extensively through both countries and his son was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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Adorable mug shot of 19th century pear-nibbling toddler

Most adorable mug shot ever!

The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

1893 Mug shot of two year old Francois BertillonAlphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who was responsible for standardizing the modern mug shot. (Fun fact: the profile shot was included because Bertillon thought our ear shape might become a unique identifier, in the days before fingerprinting). This freaking adorable mug shot features his two-year old son François Bertillon, a hardened criminal who was caught nibbling all the pears from a basket on 17 October 1893.

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