A Closer Eye on the Potato

This week’s video is part of a larger collaboration looking at the potato, and in particular at the potato battery:

The video begins with the potato battery and specifically Alessandro Volta’s pile, the world’s first battery. But it could also be argued that another invention of Volta lies behind the video’s ending point with the potato cannon. He invented a glass pistol-like device which used an electric spark to ignite flammable gas. It came about from a device  called the eudiometer designed by Joseph Preistley for testing the quality of the air, in other words its oxygen content. Volta’s pistol version made the device more portable, and Volta used it to ignite swamp gas, what we know now as methane. When the gas in the glass pistol ignited it blew a cork out of the end, so basically a cork gun or pop gun. This principle of expanding gasses firing a projectile also lies behind the potato cannon. As a side note, the scientist who worked out the role of oxygen in combustion was Antoine Lavoisier, also influenced by Priestley’s work with flammable air, who also happens to have been one of the notable figures invited to potato PR man Parmentier’s potato dinner.

Volta's electric pistol

Volta's electric pistol

But getting back to Volta’s pile, though in English the word pile has been commonly replaced by that word battery, in French a battery can still be called a pile. In English a battery is also referred to as a cell. Cell comes from the Latin word cella meaning a "small room", and by way of analogy to the monastic cells, the small rooms in which monks lived in medieval monasteries, other concepts came to be referred to as cells, including biological cells, brain cells, and battery cells, essentially compartments that contain the anode and cathode suspended in the acidic electrolyte. So the term battery cell contains two metaphors, artillery and the medieval monastery. By the way if you’re interested in hearing more about the semantic development of the word cell and cellular, have a listen to the Words for Granted podcast episode on the word cellular.

Now as I said in the video, Volta was inspired to create the battery because of Galvani’s experiments with “animal electricity”. Well, experiments in galvanism was also one of the inspirations behind Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Those experiments in making animal muscles twitch using electricity suggested the notion of bringing a creature back to life, like the monster in Shelley’s book. And that brings us back to the potato-powered industrial revolution, because one of the ways Frankenstein is interpreted is as a response to industrialization. Romantic writers like Mary Shelley were often critical of the industrial revolution. You see they were great nature lovers and were therefore somewhat suspicious of the way industrialization and urbanization were transforming the countryside of Europe.  Furthermore, industrialization was seen as a perversion of the natural order, figured in the novel as Victor Frankenstein meddling with the natural forces of creation. And finally there was the worry that the industrial worker would be dehumanized or even replaced by scientific contrivances.

Frankenstein creates his monster

Frankenstein creates his monster

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution

In light of the rapid transformation of the western world through industrialization these fears are not surprising. But the novel Frankenstein still resonates today, only the way we apply its warnings is somewhat different. Today we fear the rapid development of genetically modified foods, which we sometimes term Frankenfoods in reference to the novel. Well, each era has its own preoccupations and fears about rapid progress. We can take this back to the potato, one such genetically modified organism, varieties of which have been designed so as not to bruise and become discoloured. There are even potatoes being developed that are resistant to the potato blight disease which led to the terrible Irish famine in the 1840s.

In the video I described how the global tuber trade led to the mixing up of two similar vegetables the potato and the sweet potato. Well there’s another tuber that similarly gets thrown into the mix, the yam. Properly speaking a yam is an African derived tuberous vegetable in the genus Dioscorea, but in some parts of North America the word yam is sometimes applied to the unrelated sweet potato. The word yam, by the way, comes through Portuguese inhame, ultimately from a West African root which means “to eat” (compare Fulani nyami “to eat”).

yams

yams

The spread of potatoes is just one example of the globalization of food, which I’ve touched on a number of times before, including the video and blog post on “Turkey” and more recently in our podcast episode on condiments. For Europe this globalization of food, and in particular the potato, allowed for the escape from the so-called Malthusian trap, the idea that population growth and a rising standard of living could not continue unabated due to lack of resources, which are finite. In other words population growth should outstrip the resources leading to shortage and starvation. But the agricultural revolution that was made possible in part due to the potato, along with the accompanying industrial revolution, took the limits off that resource growth and allowed it to keep up with the population boom, and our various technological advances, including things like artificial fertilizers and now genetically modified crops, allows us to continue to stay ahead of the Malthusian trap—for now.

Thomas Malthus

Thomas Malthus

But if all this talk of potato based revolutions is becoming too serious, we can remind ourselves of the fun side of potatoes, not only with potato batteries and potato cannons, but also toys such as the spud gun, a kind of mini version of the potato cannon which uses compressed air to fire off small chunks of potato from a pistol reminiscent of Volta’s electric pistol. The spud gun was surprisingly invented during the Great Depression, when you’d think they’d have thought better of wasting food in that way. But the most famous potato-based toy is of course Mr Potato Head, which was originally designed to use an actual potato as the head, before this was replaced with a plastic potato-shaped base. Surprisingly it too was invented during the 1940s, around the time of food shortages, caused by World War II and its rationing. And anyways, don’t parents always say not to play with our food?

spud gun

spud gun

Mr Potato Head

Mr Potato Head

And I’ll leave you on  one last light-hearted potato note, the welcome potato. This photoshopped image was supposedly a demonstration of the dangers of careless use of Google translate in a sign designed to welcome the Pope. You see the word papa in Spanish can mean "potato" (borrowed from the Quechua word for the vegetable as I pointed out in the video), but it can also refer to the Pope as a kind of word for father (as in holy father). Although this was a photoshop job and not an actual Google translate error, the image became a popular meme. But I’ll leave it to you to decide how welcome the potato is to world history.

If you want to watch more about potato science, check out this playlist for experiments with potato batteries, potato cannons, potato chip psychology & more!

Fishhooks and Swords: the Anglo-Saxon Foundations

This week we have a double bill of Anglo-Saxon videos! First, on my channel there's a video about the foundations of the English language, as I look at "What’s the Earliest English word?" Then over on Jabzy’s channel, a collaboration between us on the "Anglo-Saxon Invasion".

One of the challenges of putting together a coherent narrative of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain is balancing the literary historical sources and the archaeological evidence. In broad outline these sources of information are in agreement but there are some inconsistencies. One of the things we just couldn’t include in the narrative of the Anglo-Saxon settlement was a historiographical account of the literary sources, and so I’ll outline a very basic explanation of the sources here. One of our earliest written sources that discusses the Germanic peoples is the Roman writer Tacitus in his book Germania, written around the year 98. Since his approach is ethnographic we might be tempted to take his evidence at face value. However, it should be remembered that Tacitus may have an ulterior motive in his text, criticizing the corruption he saw in his own Roman society and thus making out the Germans to be a sort of “noble savage” people. Also, we don’t really know where Tacitus got his information from. That being said, he does seem to mention the Angles, as well as the Frisians (along with many other Germanic tribes).

Our earliest detailed account of the Anglo-Saxon arrival in Britain is Gildas's The Ruin of Britain. Gildas was a Celtic monk writing perhaps some 100 years after the invasion, and it should be remembered that his text is not a history, but a religious polemic that paints the coming of the Saxons as a divine retribution for the sins of the Britons, so again, he too has an ulterior motive. Gildas refers exclusively to the Saxons, which seems to have been a generic term for the various north Germanic peoples. In fact Saxon appears to be not an ethnic distinction, but a confederacy of various Germanic tribes. The name Saxon, by the way, seems to come from their favourite weapon, the seax, a kind of sword or dagger, a word which appears to be related to the word section, from the idea of cutting or dividing. So with the Angles being named after their fishhook-shaped homeland, the Anglo-Saxons are literally the fishhooks and swords!

A seax and a reconstructed replica

A seax and a reconstructed replica

Bede, an Anglo-Saxon writing nearly 200 years later, bases his account of the invasion in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People heavily on Gildas, though he may well have had other sources as well. Bede was a careful historian, who was clearly striving for accuracy, and he does his best with the limited information he had to establish a consistent chronology of events as he knew them. Of course Bede was specifically concerned with ecclesiastical history, that is the history of the church in England, so this can also be seen to colour his depiction of the events. He specifically names three groups of people arriving, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and tells us where they they made their new homes, the Jutes in Kent and the Isle of Wight, the Saxons in Essex, Sussex, and Wessex (literally the East Saxons, South Saxons, and West Saxons), and the Angles in East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The West Saxons are also at times referred to as the Gewisse. Bede also reports that the ancestral area of the Angles remained empty after they left, and there does seem to be archaeological evidence of this area being deserted ca. 450 due to rising sea levels. As for the Jutes, the obvious place of origin for them would be the Jutland peninsula, north of the Angles, but it’s assumed that the languages spoken in that region were probably north Germanic, more closely related to Old Norse, rather than the Anglo-Saxon dialects. This is a bit of a linguistic puzzle. One suggestion is that the Jutes who came to Kent stopped over for a time with the Franks, and so represented something of a hybrid group. This would make sense as the archaeological finds in Kent are kind of Frankish in nature. There’s also been some attempts to connect the Jutes with the Geats, Beowulf’s people in great Old English epic poem Beowulf.

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (St Petersburg manuscript)

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (St Petersburg manuscript)

Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf manuscript

There are also some minor sources from early on of the Anglo-Saxon arrival. Procopius, a Byzantine historian writing around the same time as Gildas in the 6th century, reports that Britain was comprised of three races, the Angles, Frisians, and Britons. This would make good linguistic sense, as Frisian is linguistically the closest Germanic dialect to Old English. Another minor source, the Gallic Chronicle, for the year 441 mentions Saxon invaders. The reality is likely that it was multi-ethnic groups that settled in Britain, and that the divisions weren’t as clear-cut as Bede makes them out to be, but in any case the archaeological evidence does more or less support this picture.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are a rather late source, dating from around the time of King Alfred the Great (in fact probably a royally appointed endeavour, and you can imagine how foundation stories would be useful to a king with country-unifying ambitions), but possibly drawing on sources of information now lost. The Chronicles provide a rather detailed account of the progress of the various Germanic invaders as they penetrated more and more of the Celtic Britons’ lands. Most of the detailed info in the video is drawn from this source. In addition to the West Saxon foundation story of Cerdic and Cynric mentioned in the video, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also mentions two other West Saxon foundation stories, Port and his two sons Bieda and Mægla arriving in Portsmouth in 501, and more West Saxons including Stuf and Wihtgar arriving in 514. Many of these accounts may be rationalizations attempting to explain placenames, such as Port in Portsmouth. And indeed Cerdic’s name is suspiciously Celtic sounding. Certainly the precision of the annalistic dates given in the Chronicles is suspect. Nevertheless the Chronicles are our best evidence for the progress of the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

The Peterborough Chronicle

The Peterborough Chronicle

King Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great

And that brings me to an issue I’ve been dancing around until now. Are we talking about an invasion of a small number of elite warriors or a large-scale migration? This is a hotly debated question, and one I don’t intend to try to answer here. Archaeological evidence suggest a slow process, one way or the other, with more Saxon burials found in the south and the midlands, and Anglo-Saxon rule north of the Themes only in the 6th century (which is consistent with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). The increasing number of grave sites over time suggests continued immigration throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. We also have placename evidence such as placenames ending in -ingas, like Hastings, commemorating followers of someone named Hæsta. And we can work backwards from the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the subsequent great census known as the Doomsday Book compiled in 1086, which suggests that by then England contained less than half its late Roman population. That would suggest substantial depopulation during the Anglo-Saxon period. Most recently we have genetic evidence. There have been multiple genetic studies of the current population of England to determine the degree of Germanic settlement. The results of these studies are contentious and uncertain, but perhaps suggest only a small Germanic impact on the genetic heritage of England.

One of the most famous events of the Anglo-Saxon invasion is the Battle of Mount Badon. Gildas tells us that the Britons were led by Ambrosius Aurelianus, whom Gildas identifies as the last of the Romans in Britain whose parents had “worn the purple” (however you wish to take that). Some have identified Ambrosius Aurelianus as the inspiration for the figure of King Arthur, or made connections between him and another proto-Arthur figure Riothamus, said to have been king of Britons in Gaul. But we don’t really know when or where this battle was fought. Gildas dates it to the year of his birth, 44 years before he wrote his account. Bede dates it to ca. 493 and the Annales Cambriae to 517. A later Welsh writer Nennius, writing in the 9th century, explicitly connects Arthur to the Battle of Mount Badon; his account of these events is very much tinged with romance. And speaking of the Welsh, by the way, it should be pointed out that the word Welsh is itself an English word, from Old English wealh meaning “foreigner”. In Welsh, Wales is called Cymru. So the takeaway from this whole story, I suppose, is that the Britons were eventually made to be foreigners in their own country.

A few final words about Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. As I said in the “What’s the Earliest English Word” video, our manuscript evidence for Old English is all relatively late, from the 9th to the 11th century, but we have various artifacts with earlier Old English inscriptions. One such artifact I didn’t mention is the Ruthwell Cross, a large stone cross located in Ruthwell in what is now Scotland. It has inscribed on it in runes a part of a poem of which we have a later manuscript copy known as the Dream of the Rood. It dates from around the same time as the Franks Casket, the early 8th century, though I’m assuming possibly a little later, from what I can tell. I won’t really get into the dating of the poem Beowulf, possibly ranging from the early 8th century to as late as the 11th century, contentious an issue as it is. Of course some have argued that it existed in some oral form earlier than the 8th century, but that’s a discussion for another time.

The Ruthwell Cross

The Ruthwell Cross

close-up of the Ruthwell Cross

close-up of the Ruthwell Cross

And one last sideline. We saw in the earliest word video a running theme of the foundations of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as an interesting parallel with the foundation story of Rome with Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, pictured on both the Franks Casket and the Undley Bracteate. Well if you’re therefore wondering what the earliest Latin word is, we seem to have the answer in an inscription on a Roman artifact called the Praeneste fibula. The inscription reads: “MANIOS MED FHEFHAKED NVMASIOI” meaning “Manius made me for Numerius”. A fibula, by the way, is a safetypin-like brooch for fastening garments. The word fibula is now also used to refer to one of the bones in the lower part of the leg running from the knee to the ankle, and forming part of the ankle joint, because of its resemblance to the brooch. But this might remind us of the astragalus ankle bone that has raihan “roe deer” inscribed on it, one of the candidates for the earliest English word.

The Praeneste fibula

The Praeneste fibula

Vermouth, Campari, and the Americano Way

In this month’s video we have a look at the Americano cocktail:

The word Americano in reference to the cocktail first appears in print in the 1928 book Ashenden: Or the British Agent written by Somerset Maugham: “He sat in the cool and drank an americano.” Cocktails often have a connection with secret agents (think James Bond’s vodka martini, shaken not stirred), and this novel fits into that mould. It’s the story of the adventures of a playwright-turned-spy named Ashenden set during WWI. Apparently it’s based on Maugham’s own experiences as a member of British Intelligence during the war, just as Ian Fleming drew on his WWII experiences for James Bond. Speaking of James Bond, the very first drink he orders in the very first James Bond novel, Casino Royal, is the Americano, so it certainly has its spy pedigree. In other Bond stories we find the famous super spy drinking a Negroni, so 007’s drink tastes certainly extended beyond his now-trademark martinis.

Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Although the caffè americano is supposedly connected with WWII, it doesn’t find its way into print in English until a 1964 issue of the Sunday Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica: “Cafe Americano or cafe Latino? The first is what it says. Mild American-style coffee.” The Oxford English Dictionary reports the phrase café americano being used in Central American Spanish at least as early as 1955. As for the Negroni, as I mentioned in the video, it was first used in print quoting Orson Welles: “Orson Welles, working in ‘Cagliostro’ in Rome, writes that he's discovered a new drink there—Negronis. It's made of gin, Italian vermouth and Campari bitters. ‘The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you. They balance each other.’” Shortly thereafter, Ernest Hemingway used the word Negroni to refer to something that sounds an awful lot like an Americano instead: “They were drinking negronis, a combination of two sweet vermouths and seltzer water” (Across the river and into the trees, 1950). By the way, there’s a Negroni week to celebrate the cocktail and it’s history. This year (2017) it falls on the 5th to the 11th of June, so mark you calendars and raise a glass to Count Negroni, whoever he is. Here’s a picture of bartenders dressed as “Count Negroni” mixing a giant cocktail. 

As for the invention of vermouth, the other main ingredient in the Americano, fortified wines containing wormwood seem to go back thousands of years, but the best claim for the invention of the modern vermouth as we know it goes to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who introduced the drink in 1786 as a sweet liqueur more suitable for ladies. The Carpano distillery also invented Punt e Mes, used in the original Americano.

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Antonio Benedetto Carpano

Vermouth and Campari are both classified as types of amaro, “bitter” in Italian. That word amaro comes from Latin amarus, which may come from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *om- meaning “raw, sharp-tasting”. The word amaro has as cognates two other liqueurs, amaretto and maraschino.

The etymology for America given in the video is by far the most widely accepted one, but there is an alternate suggestion that the Americas were not named in honour of Amerigo Vespucci, but after a man named Richard Amerike. According to this claim, Richard Amerike, an Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer, and sheriff of Bristol, was a backer of John Cabot’s expedition to the “new world”, which was subsequently named after him in gratitude for this sponsorship. The problem is there isn’t really any evidence for any of this, and so few have taken up the theory. By the way, his last name Amerike  is an anglicised spelling of the Welsh ap Meurig meaning “son of Meurig”, which is the Welsh form of the name Maurice, which comes from the Latin name Maurus. This in turn may be related to Greek mauros “dark” and/or to Moor, in other words inhabitant of Mauritania. But lest we lose our connection to the PIE *reg- root, Amerike’s first name, Richard, is made up of the elements ric “ruler” and harthu “hard”, so literally “hard or powerful ruler”.

And speaking of that root, and the Taler or Joachimsthaler coin, the other countries that picked up the coin also added that ric element to the name, not only the Holy Roman Reichsthaler, but also the Dutch rijksdaalder, the Danish rigsdaler, and the Swedish riksdaler. All of these names mean essentially “national dollar”. As for the American dollar, it’s colloquially known as the buck which is an abbreviation of buckskin, a common unit of exchange between Native Americans and Europeans in the early frontier days of North America.

The Creation of Create

This month’s video, part of the #CreateICG collaboration, is all about the word “Create”:

The spark of the idea of course came from those two base senses of the roots of the word create, “to grow” and “to cause to grow” or thus “to create”, both stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *ker- “to grow”. This seemed to be an apt way of thinking about the creative process, as both an active act of intentional creation and an organic process of growing. As we briefly touched on in the video, this etymology also brought up the related word creature, obviously meaning in its base sense “created thing”, which got us wondering if it was as a consequence of the novel Frankenstein and the movies it spawned that creature could be used in the sense of “monster”, especially under the influence of the phrase creature feature. Most of the dictionaries I checked didn’t list this sense, though the phrase creature feature is sometimes mentioned, and there is the sense of “a being of anomalous or uncertain aspect or nature” referring to creatures of fantasy or creatures from outer space. We did a quick Twitter poll and found that in British English the word creature was certainly not strongly associated with the meaning “monster”, with many citing the phrase “all creatures great and small” as a particular influence (as well as the TV series Creature Comforts) , but the results, though still negative were somewhat more mixed in North American and world English. So it would seem we might need to do a little more digging here. If you have any thoughts we’d be grateful to read them in the comments below.

Another possible word in the *ker- family might be sincere, though this has an uncertain etymology. Latin sincerus has the sense “clean, pure, sound”, and one suggestion for its etymology is that the first element is from Proto-Indo-European *sem- meaning “one” (also giving us the word same) and the second element is from *ker- thus giving us literally “one growth”, which would seem to make sense. Another suggestion, though rejected by the OED, is that it comes from Latin sine “without” and cera “wax”. But it’s appropriate enough that we bring the word sincere up in a discussion of creation, especially in light of the expression “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Indeed imitation and influence are essential parts of the creative process. As we say in the video, no one creates in a vacuum, ourselves included. So perhaps we should acknowledge here our own creative indebtedness to sources and influences, which are listed on the sources page. In particular, as is often the case, I took inspiration James Burke, famous for his Connections series and book, especially for the story of the development of artificial lighting technology (and its connection to the theatrical world) and for John Harvey Kellogg’s transformation of breakfast.

And speaking of connections, Mary Somerville’s great work On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences was an attempt to present a connected view of the sciences as they were known at the time, an ambitious and immediately highly celebrated work.  As it happens, John Herschel, son of William, had just recently called for such work in a letter to William Whewell, who went on to review Somerville’s bestseller. Herschel stressed the need for “digests of what is actually known in each particular branch of science ... to give a connected view of what has been done, and what remains to be accomplished”. Four years later, Somerville’s book was published, coincidentally enough under the publisher John Murray who was also publisher and friend of Lord Byron, the father of Somerville’s student Ada Lovelace. You can read an excellent outline of Somerville and On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences here if you want more information on the first “scientist”.

John Herschel

John Herschel

John Murray

John Murray

Somerville herself was well connected and knew many other great minds of the day, such as William Herschel, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Charles Lyell, Georges Cuvier, Humphry Davy, and John Playfair. On the subject of connected people, there’s another chain of connections that ties Joseph Haydn, composer of the oratorio The Creation, in with John Harvey Kellogg and his cornflakes. You see the libretto of The Creation mentioned in the video, either written by or passed along by Thomas Linley to Haydn, was the first English text of the oratorio, and is now lost. A second (and by all accounts much improved) English text was written by poet Anne Home. Home’s husband was one John Hunter, a surgeon who was in part responsible for bringing the scientific method into medicine. Hunter was a teacher of the famous Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination by using the less deadly cowpox to inoculate against smallpox, one of the most important contributions to medical science. The idea of inoculation against smallpox was initially brought into England from Turkey by aristocrat, writer, and all around celebrity Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She is perhaps most famous for her Embassy Letters, written while in Turkey as an ambassador’s wife. Lord Byron was deeply influenced by the Embassy Letters and seems to have been kind of obsessed with Lady Montagu herself, a woman who died well before he was born. Of course as the video demonstrates, Byron’s daughter was Ada Lovelace, mathematician and the world’s first computer programmer, who got harpist John Thomas into the Royal Academy of Music, who later taught Nansi Richards, who gave John Harvey Kellogg the idea for the cornflakes rooster mascot. So from creation to cereal, two words etymologically connected, in ten easy steps! Speaking of Kellogg, by the way, though Richards was punning on his name in Welsh, his actual name doesn’t mean rooster but is literally “kill hog”, an occupational name for a butcher. Odd name for a man who prescribed a bland vegetarian diet!

Anne Home

Anne Home

John Hunter

John Hunter

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

But getting back to Ada Lovelace’s tutor Somerville, and her admiring reviewer Whewell, in addition to inventing the term “scientist” Whewell was quite a coiner of scientific terminology, including a number of terms suggested to Michael Faraday for his work on electricity, such as ion, anode, and cathode. By the way, Faraday was another among the many admirers of Somerville and her work.  And Faraday brings us back to artificial lighting, so a small footnote or two on lighting technology—which does also tie into Somerville’s work too, as well to Haydn’s Creation. Of course Somerville included several sections on light and optics in On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Additionally that very same John Herschel, who called for a book like Somerville’s and whose father William (who was also a composer as well as a scientist) met Haydn, reported on the effectiveness of Thomas Drummond’s limelight. Drummond, by the way, after putting limelight to good use in surveying work, tried to get his invention into lighthouses, before it was taken up by the theatrical world. And one lighting technology I didn’t cover in the video deserves a brief mention here. Kerosene (a petroleum product) was invented by Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner, and became a useful lamp fuel still used today. The word kerosene, which Gesner registered as a trademark in 1854 before it ultimately became genericized, comes from Greek keros meaning “wax”, related to that Latin word cera in that possible though unlikely etymology of the word sincere. Kerosene, by the way, is also sometimes referred to as paraffin, a word originally coined by German chemist Karl von Reichenbach in 1838 to refer to the waxy substance he extracted from wood tar, the very same waterproofer for ships that Archibald Crane was trying to replace with his coal tar. The word paraffin comes from Latin parum “not very, too little” and affinis “associated with”, because the substance was not closely related to other chemicals.

Abraham Gesner

Abraham Gesner

Karl von Reichenbach

Karl von Reichenbach

And a small footnote or two on meal terminology. As briefly mentioned in the video, the word lunch is probably related to lump. The word lunch was initially expanded to the form luncheon, before being abbreviated back to lunch, though there may also be some influence from the Spanish word lonja meaning “a slice (of ham)”. Another meal word worth noting is supper, which is sometimes used to refer to the last meal of the day. It comes into English from the Old French verb soper “to eat the evening meal” but comes ultimately from a Germanic root, which also gives us the words sip, sop, soup, and sup, so I suppose etymologically speaking you should sup your supper by sipping your soup and sopping it up! As for breakfast, French shows the same shifting mealtimes, with the word dejeuner (coming from the same root that gives English the word dinner) originally referring to “breakfast” and then “lunch”, with the phrase petit dejeuner (literally “small dinner”) being used to refer to “breakfast”.

And one final point to round off this blog. I briefly mentioned the etymology of chaos in the video, but I give a fuller treatment of it in the video on “Linoleum” if you care to give it a look. Our modern sense of chaos meaning “disorder” doesn’t arise until the 17th century. The word chaos stretches back through ancient Greek to a Proto-Indo-European root *gheu- meaning “to gape, yawn” which also leads to the word Ginungagap, the primordial void in the Norse creation myth. And speaking of Norse mythology, it also has something to tell us about the nature of creativity, in the story of the Mead of Creation, which you can hear about in our accompanying podcast (being released soon), which along with this blog post and video makes up our creative contributions to the #CreateICG collaboration. Give it a listen!

The Evolution of Evolution

This month’s video looks at why and how the meanings of words evolve, and how this is connected to the word evolution and the history of the book:

If you’re interested in even more discussion of semantic shift have a look at The Ling Space’s video “Sense and Shiftability” and the episode “Polysemous Words” from the podcast Words for Granted. By the way, another term you might come across in reference to weakening is semantic bleaching — it’s a particularly evocative one, isn’t it. Another type of figurative change in meaning is synecdoche. That’s when a part stands in for the whole. So when a ship’s captain calls for “all hands on deck”, the word hands has taken on the new meaning of referring to the sailors themselves. Similar to this is when one uses the name of a capital city, such as Washington, to refer to the whole country or the whole government of that country. An interesting example of synecdoche in which the new meaning has taken over as the primary meaning is the word table, which in Old French meant “board”, but now refers, in both French and English, to the entire piece of furniture including board and legs.

As for the word evolution, in the video I summarized pretty briefly its semantic development, but a closer look at this will prove interesting. The first recorded sense of evolution in English is actually in reference to a military manoeuvre, in the early 17th century. Then we have some literal uses of the word to refer to various types of turning movements as in dancing, gymnastics, and even machine parts. From the 17th century we also see the word used in the more figurative sense of a progression of a series of events, like the unfolding or unrolling of history. From the late 17th century we also see the word used in a variety of mathematical senses, such as the opening out of a curve and the extraction of a root from a given power. Skipping forward, after the word has come to have its modern biological Darwinian sense, it comes also to be used in other scientific contexts from the mid 19th century, such as the development of the Earth or the Universe. But as I mentioned in the video, Darwin mostly avoided using the term himself, in part perhaps because of the notion of a simple unfolding or revelation of history, which might have invoked a more creationist notion of natural history, and also probably because it had previously been used in reference to other theories of biological development, such as preformationism in which organisms were thought to develop from miniature versions of themselves:

As I mentioned in a previous video on Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the senior Darwin also used the word evolution in reference to his own proto-evolutionary theories. So Charles himself used other terms such as transmutation and descent with modification, only using the word once (specifically in its verb form) in the final sentence of Origin of Species: “From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” For more on the chain of events that leads up to Darwin's theory of evolution, you can have a look at our video "Fossil".

And finally the history of the book. I got the idea of book sizes and sheep from an excellent blog post from Got Medieval. It fitted in well not only with the development of parchment to paper, but also with the general theme of the evolution and also repurposing of technology, with the carry over of book sizes all the way to ereaders. By the way, though the distinction is often made between parchment coming from sheep and vellum from cows, it should be pointed out that this distinction doesn’t always hold, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. As for the word folio, when we talk about foliation in medieval manuscripts, it’s customary not to number the pages as we do with modern books, but to number the leaves, referring to the front and back of each leaf as recto and verso respectively, literally meaning the “right” side and the “turned” side. The pages in medieval manuscripts were not originally numbered so this convention is a modern scholarly convenience, and this is an important point, as we’ll see in a minute.

And in the video, though I implied the importance of technological development in book technology, it’s worth taking the time here to discuss it more explicitly. The benefit of the scroll over the clay tablet is fairly obvious, as the thin rolled up papyrus can include far more text in the same amount of space, a higher information density you might say. What’s not so obvious perhaps is the leap ahead that the move to the codex affords. (By the way a quick sidenote: it’s frequently reported that Julius Caesar was responsible for the invention of the codex, though I haven’t been able to verify this story). With a scroll, the text is available in a purely linear order. You literally have to “scroll” through the text, making it difficult to go back to a previous passage in the text. But the codex allows for random access and it is perhaps not too much of an overstatement to suggest that this plays an important role in the explosion of information that has accelerated technical scientific progress. So it’s something of a feedback loop with technological progress accelerating the pace of the progress of technological progress. It’s funny that in a way we’ve taken a step backward to some extent with ereaders, which are somewhat more clumsy at flipping through the text, and we’re once again “scrolling” through a book. And with the switch to paper that’s much cheaper than parchment and the printing press, which caused in the 15th century it’s own information explosion (with more books being printed in the first 50 years than had been produced in the 1000 years before the printing press). By the way, uppercase and lowercase are also terms derived from movable type, like font, referring literally to cases in which the letters were kept in. But back to the codex, the other big advantage is that it allows for an index, since page divisions give us distinct reference points. Though, as I said, the pages weren’t originally numbered--that practise didn’t really take off until the early 16th century, and so indexes got their start toward the end of the 16th century. Also during the 16th century we find the invention of the bibliography, with Conrad Gesner’s Bibliotheca universalis, a bibliographic index of all the books Gesner could get his hands on.

The word index, by the way, as you might have guessed, is the same word as the index finger, and comes from the Latin verb indicare “to point out” — makes sense, right? And in Latin, the word index could refer not only to the finger but also to anything that points something out, like a sign or token, or a person who betrays a secret, in other words an informer, and appropriately to our discussion here it was also the word for the title of a book. In any case, all this 16th century pagination and indexing points out another problem with the modern ebook, that there’s no consistent pagination, as the screen and font sizes are potentially variable. You might for instance be reading on an ereader like a Kindle or a much smaller phone or a varying size of tablet (which by the way is related to the word table from earlier, literally a "little table" but in the earlier sense of a "board" without the table legs). On the other hand, the new technology gives us the compensatory function of a full search of all the text in the ebook. And indeed we can certainly make the case that, like the development of the codex, paper, the printing press, and the index, the move to electronic text has caused a similar explosion in information and innovation in our modern world.

Update:

A friend of mine and fellow medievalist has informed me that a couple of elements in the video are in fact myths about the history of the book (though seemingly quite widespread ones). First, parchment wasn’t in fact invented in Pergamon. For instance, the earliest known Egyptian use of parchment is from the 20th Dynasty (1195-1085 BCE). The widely reported story goes that parchment was developed in Pergamon when Ptolemy refused to export Egyptian papyrus to Pergamon. This belief seems to have developed from the fact that Pergamon was a major producer of parchment (but not in fact its originator). Most of the etymological sources I checked repeat the myth, though occasionally with hedging language like “was said to have originated” or “supposedly”. Surprisingly, Wikipedia seems to be the one place that gets it exactly right!

Secondly, there seems to be no evidence of the folding method to produce book sizes earlier than paper books, so it wouldn’t therefore be connected with parchment and sheep. As my friend points out, it doesn’t make a lot of sense with parchment anyway, since it would be very difficult to fold. The source for the idea that book sizes are connected to sheep sizes is a post on the blog Got Medieval, written by a medievalist who works with manuscript images, so seemingly a reliable source, but it’s been widely reported in places such as Wired and Neatorama. If anyone has any more information about this, I’d love to hear it.