May 21, 2021 by libroshombre
“Mutable” is a good word that means “prone to change, inconstant,” according to Merriam-Webster, and it also describes all words. At the risk of echoing Thomas Middleton, one of Shakespeare’s playwright competitors, who complained about “How many honest words have suffered corruption since Chaucer’s days!” I want to mention “evite,” an old word that was new to me when I encountered it in a big, fat (5.45 pounds) “Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary,” that’s on my workbench. It was assembled by Funk and Wagnall, who published many cheap editions of dictionaries, encyclopedias often available a volume at a time and distributed through grocery stores in the 1960s and 70s.
My eye happened to alight on “evite,” which I took in its modern sense to mean “an invitation sent by email,” just as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, but that Reader’s Digest dictionary was published decades before social media came to be. Upon closer review, I learned that “evite” once meant “to avoid,” coming from the Latin “evitare” – “to shun.” Our language’s history contains lots of irony but even more mutations in its words’ shifting meanings. Here’s a fun tool for looking at how words evolve over time: the Google N-gram Viewer (https://books.google.com/ngrams). The N-gram Viewer is an online search engine that charts how often words and phrases are used by searching through millions of books, articles, speeches, etc. found in sources printed between 1500 and 2019. “The program can search for a word or a phrase, including misspellings or gibberish … and, if found in 40 or more books, are then displayed as a graph,” according to Wikipedia.
“Democracy” and “republic,” for example, were n-grammed from the years 1720 to 2020 in the “Democracy” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, with the terms running neck-and-neck in 1730. But “republic” took off in 1740 and by the 1760s when revolution was fermenting, “republic” was 30 times more popular than “democracy,” which poked along for several centuries until shooting up in the 1920s and even more in the 1940s, right when “fascism” peaked. “Republic” declined from the mid-1800s on and today is just above “fascism,” which never went away following World War II.
It will be interesting to read future N-grams to see if “fascism” rose in the last few years, when evidence of it around the world has become so apparent, especially here at home. That’s nothing new, though; Oscar Wilde said “Democracy is simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people,” and when it comes to American examples, you need look no further back than last January 6. In the light of that tragedy, a 2018 BaltimoreSun.com article by Charles Mitchell, “Politics May Be Ugly Today, But At Least It’s No Longer Deadly,” smacks of irony. Mitchell described the 1856 elections when armed gangs in cities around the country were allied with political parties to physically control voting.
The Bloody Tubs of Baltimore were among the most infamous. Ballots were color coded so poll watchers of all stripes could tell who voted for whom, and if someone voted against the Bloody Tubs’ favored candidates they’d dump him in a tub of slaughterhouse blood, at the very least. Mitchell wrote that they “kidnapped men off the streets, usually immigrants who spoke little English, and marched them off to the polls.” Edgar Allen Poe was likely “cooped” and kidnapped, drugged and left to die by a political gang after forced to vote repeatedly (look up “cooping” in Wikipedia).
The Bloody Tubs were allied with the American Party, which became better known as the Know Nothings, after another of the party’s gangs. “How the 19th-Century Know Nothing Party Reshaped American Politics,” a Smithsonian Magazine article described how joining the Know Nothings, which was a secret society, involved rules including an initiation rite called “Seeing Sam,” memorizing passwords and handshakes, possessing “a pureblood pedigree of Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock and rejection of all Catholics. And above all, members of the secret society weren’t allowed to talk about the secret society. If asked anything by outsiders, they would respond with, ‘I know nothing.’” The party filled the void left by the Whig Party who splintered over deciding what to do about slavery, while the Know Nothings ignored slavery and in the 1850s elected over 100 congressmen, eight governors, controlled entire legislatures and countless local politicians. They were “the first party to leverage economic concerns over immigration as a major part of their platform” by literally fighting to severely restrict immigration to anyone not from Western Europe, which in their race-sensitive eyes didn’t include Italy and Spain. However, slavery overtook immigration in the nation’s consciousness in the late 1850s, and the Know Nothings went the way of the Whigs. The Smithsonian noted that “the Know Nothings displayed three patterns common to all nativist movements. First is the embrace of nationalism … Second is religious discrimination: in this case, Protestants against Catholics rather than the more modern-day squaring-off of Judeo-Christians against Muslims. Lastly, a working-class identity.”
Librarians appreciate the fact that it was Muslim libraries that preserved many great classics from ancient Greece and Rome long enough for Western crusaders to take some home for later Renaissance printers to mass produce. Muslims also greatly advanced the studies of medicine, mathematics, science, and engineering, all of which led to the Western Renaissance. Take al-Jazari, the author of “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” for instance. Leonardo da Vinci lived five hundred years later than al-Jazari and is known among many modern engineers as “the al-Jazari of the West,” and Al-Jazari’s known as “the father of robotics” due to his numerous technical innovations, such as the reciprocating crankshaft, timber lamination techniques, and camshafts. These he used to create all sorts of machinery, including amazing automatons, like one looking like a servant that poured water into a basin for the caliph to perform his pre-prayer ablutions, and afterwards presented him with towels, brushes and combs. Al-Jazari also created a famous elephant-shaped clock powered by water that was the first clock to audibly note the passage of time with birds singing and a human robot astride the elephant striking a gong, and it was the first to be calibrated accurately enough to align the passage of hours to correspond to the uneven length of days throughout the year.
A copy of “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” is owned by al-Qarawiyyin Library, the oldest continuously operating library in the world. It was established in Fez, Morocco in 859 CE by Fatima al-Fihri, a wealthy heiress who also built al-Qarawiyyin University and later a mosque that didn’t plan for sufficient drainage and the runoff created a recently discovered artificial stream under the rotting library structure. Fortunately, that problem’s been addressed in a major structural overhaul.
All libraries need periodic upgrades to be healthy, and so does Noel Wien Library. Every other major Alaskan public library has been overhauled since Noel Wien Library’s 1997 renovation, and since most of the Borough’s entire population possess active public library cards, there’s great community support for the Assembly’s recent approval of planning our beloved library’s renovation. But as James Howell wrote, “An acre of performance is worth the whole Land of Promise.”