Two Questions for Journalist

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sat Dec 15 18:30:25 UTC 2012

I am in complete and enthusiastic, if sometimes
depressed, agreement with George's thesis that
"Nothing replaces actually reading the
sources".  George has been reading colonial
American newspapers through the years.  I've read
all the issues published in Boston during two
particular 18th-century years, and many scattered
issues of other dates and places as I vet secondary sources.

1.  "The digitization after the fact of
newspapers particularly is very unreliable."

2.  "Searches are often greatly hampered and
sometimes [entirely] impractical if one is
looking for an uncommon sense of a common word."

One example I offer is an antedating from the
Boston Weekly News-Letter of 1740 Jan. 10:

"LONDON, October 8, 1739.  WE are assur’d that an
Embassador from a certain great Court has made an
Offer of 50,000 _Bears_ for the Service of his
Britannick Majesty.  'Tis to be hoped at the
Opening of the next Session of Parliament that
our worthy Representatives will petition against French Mediation."

50,000 plantigrade quadrupeds of the genus Ursus
("bear, n.1"), offered by the Russian Court for
the service of George II in anticipation of an
imminent "rupture", as they used to say, with
France?  The image is entrancing,  but ...

This surely is "bear, n.6", defined by the OED by
reference to its current earliest quotation of
1775 as "a kind of tent".  (I rejected not only
"bear, n.1" but also nominal bears 2, 3, 4, and
5.)   A computer search for bear 6 seems even more than entirely impractical.

Another example is reading a 1736 postdating of
"bob, n.2" ("A trick, deception, befoolment"),
which the OED has only up to 1682.  Not a
productive search for by computer, I warrant.

3.  "We can't search for what we don't know exists."

Found reading, "trench their duds".  I think not
in the OED, but known in France as "tranchée
leurs fringues" (a notable Google Translate success!):

"We hear, that one Day last Week a Number of N.
End Ladies took Slay and went to a Publick House
at Roxbury, where they stay'd till pretty late at
Night, having Eat and Drank freely, and been
extream merry; but when the Reckoning was brought
in (which was not very small) they looked with
sorrowful Countenances upon each other, and at
last told their Host, that they expected to have
been followed by some young Gentlemen, upon whose
Credit they relied for the Payment of their
Expences: But this no way satisfying the
Landlord, they were forced to _trench their
Duds_, as the Phrase is in other Countries, viz
to leave some of their most superfluous Cloaths
behnd them, as Pledges for the Debt."  Boston Evening-Post, 1737 Feb. 21.


At 12/14/2012 10:30 PM, George Thompson wrote:
>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 -

The American Dialect Society -

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