October 27, 2015 by libroshombre
“This world’s a bubble,” according to Saint Augustine, and I think he nailed it. I recently read a Slate.com article by Seth Stevenson titled “Bubble Vocabulary: The Words You Almost Know, Sometimes Use, But Are Secretly Unsure Of.” He wrote, “We’ve all experienced moments in which we brush up against the ceilings of our personal lexicons … [w]ords on the edge of your ken, whose definitions or pronunciations turn out to be just out of grasp.” It’s the common complaint of prolific readers:sometimes unfamiliar words are encountered whose meanings can be generally extracted from the context of the accompanying text.
Take “betimes,” for example. It means “before the usual or expected time,” according to OxfordDictionaries.com, was popular from 1300-1700 CE, and was one of Samuel Pepys’ favorite expressions. This I know after reading Pepys’ famous diaries of 1660-1669, in which entries often begin with “Up betimes,” such as, “Up betimes, about 9 o’clock, waked by a damned noise between a sow gelder and a cow and a dog.” After reading similar statements on other days, it appeared “betimes” meant “early,” but uncertainty lingered.
Another “be” word recently engaged my attention: “bespoke.” An adulthood of enjoying P.G. Wodehouse’s comic tales engrained “bespoke,” but it was, lo these many decades later on that I confirmed it meant “of goods, especially clothing, made to order.” “Bespoke” was recently featured in a graph in the endlessly entertaining Lapham’s Quarterly, which is hands-down my favorite magazine. Lapham’s is described by Wikipedia as “a literary magazine established in 2007 by former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis H. Lapham. Each issue examines a theme using primary source material from history.” LaphamsQuarterly.org says “Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern – war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime.” Short extracts by great writers and artists throughout history are salted with gorgeous illustrations, pithy quotations, mini-biographies of the writers, and amazing graphs.
The current Lapham’s focuses on “Fashion (divided into sections on “Mode, Manners, Mores, and Markets”), and includes the graph “Local Colors,” a two-page color wheel composed of unusual hues, their sources, origins, and histories. I was unaware that “Tiffany Blue” was chosen by New York jeweler Charles Tiffany in 1845 for his first catalog and liked it so much he trademarked it. “Prussian Blue,” created in Berlin in 1705, contains cyanide, which was named after “the Greek ‘kyranos, for dark blue.” But it was “Egyptian Blue” that sent me to the deep end of the library reference pool.
A discussion with the library reference staff indicated that the topic was promising, and I soon learned from a variety of reputable sources that Egyptian blue is one of the very first artificial pigments used by civilized mankind. The Egyptians adored blue gemstones, especially the then-extremely expensive lapis lazuli and turquoise. Some bright-eyed Egyptian discovered that heating calcium carbonate, copper-infused compounds (filings or malachite), silica sand from granite, and soda produced several shades of turquoise that was used to decorate papyrus scrolls and ceramics.
The AncientOrigins.net blog delved deeply into Egyptian blue’s origins, and one couldn’t help but notice other related and irresistible articles, like “Scota: Mother of Scotland and Daughter of a Pharaoh” and “Exploring the True Origins of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Somehow I wound up reading about another bubble word, “fuller,” in an article from the University of Waterloo in Canada titled “Cleverness, Cleanliness, and Urine in Ancient Rome.” The heavy wool togas and other garments of the period were usually easily mussed, being white or light colored. Roman fullers were “the ancient equivalent of today’s dry cleaners … they worked with urine, nitrum, or fuller’s earth in laundering. Of these three agents, urine was the most heavily used.” The cleaning consisted of stomping the immersed cloth, rinsing, drying, and pressing it. I’ll spare you the details
You can buy issues of Lapham’s at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, or you can read it at the public library and borrow recent issues, like “Time,” “Travel,” and “Swindle and Fraud.” They make great icy day reading and help us to forget for a while that, as Nathaniel Ward wrote around 1601, “The world is full of care, much like unto a bubble.”