The course, career, and currency of Coach

In this week's video I trace the course of the word "coach":

The surprise in this word's etymology is that so common a word comes from the name of relatively obscure town in Hungary. A word derived from a place name is sometimes referred to as a toponym (a term which also refers to the place name itself). There are of course many such words in English, such as armageddon, bikini, bohemian, champagne, hamburger, marathon, tuxedo--the list goes on. Tracing the town name back further to a word meaning "ram" made the tempting connection with the many sports teams named the Rams (not only the American football team -- here's a list on Wikipedia).  The further interesting etymological detail is the figurative use of the word "coach", in the sense of the type of wagon, to refer to an academic tutor and then a sports coach. (For a larger discussion of metaphor, see my earlier video "Paddle Your Own Canoe".) And along the way, there are some bonus etymologies like carriage, academia, and Oxbridge. Thackeray also coined the parallel word Camford in the novel Pendennis, by the way, but it didn't catch on the way Oxbridge did. For more on the technological history of the coach wagon, have a look at the sources listed on the show notes page.

The main story I wanted to tell through the lens of this etymology was the history of learning and academics, from Plato's Academy, through the Italian Renaissance and compilation of libraries, to Oxford and Cambridge, with their tutors and graded exams. I first heard that fact about William Farish inventing the graded exam, by the way, from QI (possibly their Twitter stream, if I'm remembering correctly). And one of the subplots is the history of women's education, with books on the subject from Erasmus Darwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and the later efforts by Anne Clough at Cambridge.  Darwin's ideas on women's education are quite interesting. He was against sentimental novels and the sort of false refinement that Wollstonecraft argued against as well. Instead he had in mind very practical and pragmatic subjects such as the sciences, industry, finances, and foreign languages. A later detail that ties in with this story is Virginia Woolf's use of the word Oxbridge in A Room of One's Own, in which she tells a hypothetical story of a woman's experience at such a university. And finally, the epilogue to the video's story is the relationship between academics and athletics at universities/colleges. This has been discussed in many venues, but I'll leave it with this one clear example from PHD Comics.

Speaking of Erasmus Darwin, by the way, he is a fascinating character. In his long poem The Temple of Nature, he describes his conception of evolution through natural selection, preceding his famous grandson Charles Darwin:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.

And though I couldn't find a rights-free image I could use in the video, here's a picture of the mechanical bird constructed from his design:

And here's a reconstruction of Darwin's speaking machine, which apparently at the time Darwin built it was good enough to fool people into thinking it was a human voice:

And here's the reference to Mary Shelley's inspiration for Frankenstein, from the preface to the novel:

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin, (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him,) who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

One other detail you'll often hear about Darwin, is that he was quite a large man. He apparently hollowed out a semi-circle in his table to sit closer to his food, and because of the rather shoddy construction of the houses of his patients he often visited he would send in his driver (remember all those coach rides), who was also a substantial man, to test that the floors would hold before he himself entered. We'll be hearing a little more about Erasmus Darwin in an upcoming video, so stay tuned...

Speaking of which, for those like me who like to keep track of recurring nodes and references across the videos, in this one there are quick name checks of Florence Nightingale and Mary Shelley, who were previously mentioned in my videos "A Detective Story" and "Yule" respectively. Also, in "Cocktail part 1" I mentioned that the Old Fashioned cocktail was invented in the Pendennis Club, which was indeed named after Thackeray's novel Pendennis, in which we find the first occurrences of the the verb "to coach" (in its figurative sense) and Oxbridge.

First Full Episode! - "The Endless Knot: An Introduction"

Here's the first full episode of the new web series:

In this video, I talk about the importance of connections, in particular how language, history, and thought are linked and interlinked. I also talk about interdisciplinarity, and why that's important. You can have a look at the show notes for links, image credits, and a full transcript.

This video was originally going to be a very short introduction, but I realised I needed to do a bit more to set the scene for the next few videos, especially episode 2 which comes out in a couple of weeks. You can see a quick glimpse of those videos as thumbnails towards the end of this intro video. Much of the ground I cover in this one I originally wrote about in the blog a while back, so if you want to see a slightly fuller account with lots of explanatory links you could read those. First is this one, in which I discuss the theoretical background to interconnectivity, and next this one on the importance of interdisciplinarity.

As I think is pretty evident, I've been deeply influenced by James Burke -- I remember watching his documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed a long time ago, and I have since read his various books. I've also been delighted more recently to discover Stevyn Colgan and his very entertaining books Joined-Up Thinking and Constable Colgan's Connect-O-Scope, which also take a connective view of the world. In the video I mention Sebastian Seung's TEDTalk "I Am My Connectome", which is definitely worth a watch, and if you want to go further you can read his excellent book on this topic called Connectome. So the line of thinking that kicked this whole project off was putting together this connective principle on both the macro scale of history and culture and the micro scale of cognition, along with this linguistic idea of frame semantics which sees the meaning of words deriving not just from the words themselves but the way they interact with each other. By the way, the examples I used to describe frame sematics in the video are the standard textbook examples that I think many linguists use.

As for the interdisciplinarity stuff, well my graduate work was in a medieval studies department, which is an interdisciplinary programme that brings researchers together from many different fields (history, literature, religious studies, linguistics, music, art history, etc.) who all have an interest in the middle ages. So I'm very committed to the idea of crossing disciplinary boundaries, even if it means sometimes wandering away from your comfort zone and exploring someone else's turf. And that's kind of what I've done in this and my other videos to come. I'm bringing my background in historical linguistics and literature (primarily in medieval England) to a variety of other topics and places and times.

One last note for the curious and technically minded. As I indicate in the video, the core of the visual presentation I'll be using is based on the idea of the concept map, with a web of interconnected nodes to demonstrate the way words, concepts, and history are interconnected. I've played around with a number of different concept mapping and mind mapping softwares, but settled on TheBrain to keep track of all my research. TheBrain is an excellent research tool and I highly recommend it. The heart of The Endless Knot itself is a database of interconnected etymological and historical information I've been building using TheBrain software -- a sort of etymological dictionary grafted onto an encyclopedia. To visually represent this in the videos I use Inkscape to create concept-map-style collages of public domain and creative commons images to illustrate what I'm talking about. As you'll see in future videos, these collages can get quite visually elaborate. And to animate them for the videos I use the Sozi extension for Inkscape. Oh and the font I use is Daniel Midgley's Du Bellay, particularly appropriate since Daniel is a linguist and co-host of the excellent Talk the Talk radio show and podcast.

Well I'd love to hear what you think about all this, so feel free to leave a comment!