More semantic drift?

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 29 03:20:53 UTC 2008

I'd have to be quite bigoted, myself, to consider Boucicault a bigot,
since his point is that this poor woman is forced by racist law to
give up the man that she loves and who clearly loves her in return,
breaking his heart as well as her own.

BTW, you've inadvertently solved a life-long mystery for me. Thank
you! I've long known that it was said to be possible to tell whether
an otherwise apparently-white person was of black ancestry by looking
at his fingernails. But, till now, I've never known what it was that
one was supposed to look for. I'd heretofore asked blacks and whites,
Northerners and Southerners, and no one had even heard of this test.
I'd examined the fingernails of blacks of all hues without ever seeing
anything except the hues of the fingers that they were attached to
indicate its owner's race. But I remember a movie still published in
Ebony magazine of an apparently-white young man staring at his
fingernails in shock and horror.

Boucicault certainly knows his octoroons, but he did make one glaring
error, even for his day. It's the curse of Ham, not Cain.

For the record, there is definitely no such blue tinge.


On 2/28/08, James Harbeck <jharbeck at> wrote:
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>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>  Poster:       James Harbeck <jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA>
>  Subject:      Re: More semantic drift?
>  -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>  Ah, octoroon... memories of my BFA in drama. We read Dion
>  Boucicault's play _The Octoroon_, written in 1859. The passage I'll
>  quote below might, by itself, seem to paint the playwright as a
>  bigot, but actually the thrust of the play was more the injustice of
>  this line of thinking.
>  Thanks to
>  for saving me the retyping:
>  ----
>  Zoe: George, you cannot marry me; the laws forbid it!
>  George. Forbid it?
>  Zoe. There is a gulf between us, as wide as your love--as deep as my
>  despair; but, oh, tell me, say you will pity me! That you will not
>  throw me from you like a poisoned thing!
>  George. Zoe, explain yourself--your language fills me with shapeless fears.
>  Zoe. And what shall I say? I--my mother was--no, no--not her! Why
>  should I refer the blame to her? George, do you see that hand you
>  hold? Look at these fingers; do you see the nails are of a bluish
>  tinge?
>  George. Yes, near the quick there is a faint blue mark.
>  Zoe. Look in my eyes; is not the same color in the white?
>  George. It is their beauty.
>  Zoe. Could you see the roots of my hair you would see the same dark,
>  fatal mark. Do you know what that is?
>  George. No.
>  Zoe. That--that is the ineffaceable curse of Cain. Of the blood that
>  feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black--bright red as the rest
>  may be, that one drop poisons all the flood; those seven bright drops
>  give me love like yours--hope like yours--ambition like yours--life
>  hung with passions like dewdrops on the morning flowers; but the one
>  black drop gives me despair, for I'm an unclean thing--forbidden by
>  the laws--I'm an Octoroon!
>  ----
>  The play also features an early use of technology as a plot tool -- a
>  camera catching an incriminating image of a murder, but even back
>  then the playwright wasn't very technologically astute (shades of Law
>  & Order's use of digital image analysis): the whole scene is played
>  out in front of the open shutter, the camera is smashed, and then the
>  photographic evidence is recovered from the plate.
>  James Harbeck.
>  ------------------------------------------------------------
>  The American Dialect Society -

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