Two Questions for Journalist

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Sat Dec 15 03:30:00 UTC 2012

For a discovery made by reading 250-year-old newspapers, issue by issue, I
offer my "Gomragunt", introduced here in January, 2006:

        Whereas, a surprizing MONSTER, Was caught in the Woods of Canada,
near the River St. Lawrence, and has with great difficulty been tamed, and
brought to the House of James Elliot, at Corlaer’s Hook.  This is to inform
the Publick, That it will be exhibited at said House till the Curious are
        This MONSTER is larger than an Elephant, of a very uncommon shape,
having three Heads, eight Legs, three Fundaments, two Male Members, and one
Female Pudendum on the Rump.  It is of various Colours, very beautiful, and
makes a Noise like the conjunction of two or three Voices.  It is held
unlawful to kill it, and is said to live to a great Age.  The Canadians
could not give it a Name, ‘till a very old Indian Sachem said, He
remembered to have seen one when he was a boy, and his Father called it a
         New-York Mercury, February 16, 1761, p. 2, col. 3

This is 20 or 25 years earlier than the only other appearance of the word,
in Capt. Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (in the form
"Gormagon"); he explains it as a man and a woman riding the same (msle)
horse.  Your journalist should like it: it's goofy, and there is a bit of
sex to it -- there's not a journalist living who doesn't like a bit of
sex.  Beyond the strange word and the goofy story, I find it of interest
because it's a glimpse of tavern culture in colonial America, with a
parallel with an English practice.

Nothing replaces actually reading the sources.
First, the digitization after the fact of newspapers particularly is very
unreliable.  I haven't kept score, but my hunch is that a search will
retrieve only maybe 1/3 of what is there to be found.   I wrote at the time
I first posted this: "Speaking of the unreliableness of the Early American
Newspapers database: if one searches for "gormagunt", one will find a
notice dated February 23, 1761 from Mr. Elliot, that the Gormagunt had gone
to Long Island, but not the February 16 paragraphs."  This is still true.
Searching a newspaper from the last 20 or 25 years, when one is searching a
file derived from the tape that was used to produce the paper in the first
place, is a different matter.
Second, searches are often greatly hampered and sometimes mdntirelye
impractical if one is looking for an uncommon sense of a common word --
it's like looking for a particular leaf in a forest. It's true that no one
is going to read 25 years worth of, say, the Christian Science Monitor,
looking for a special sense of the word "milk", but it is fruitful to do
what I have been doing for years: to read long files of old newspapers
noting whatever seems of interest.
Third, we can't search for what we don't know exists.  No one knew until I
stumbled over this item that the Gormagunt once roamed North America.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society -

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