Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Truth Is Out There

1. When were contractions (don’t, can’t, even ain’t) first used in speech?

2. Is “picnic” really a racist term?

3. Who is buried in Grant’s (or Shakespeare’s, or Mary Magdalene’s) tomb?

4. Where is Queen Street West, and why should we (readers) care?

5. Why do writers of historical erotica so often ignore biological facts (e.g. if a young woman has random, unprotected sex with one male or several, she is likely to become pregnant)?

These are questions that haunt writers as well as readers. Who, what, when, where, why and how?

As a reader, I want to know. As a writer, I need to know. As a teacher, I am expected to know.

Google is my friend – sometimes. At least it provides me with a starting-point in the quest for knowledge.

Re contractions, I still don’t (or do not) have a clear answer for this. I would like to know.

Re “picnic,” I was surprised to learn that some folks believe it is a reference to the grosser-than-fiction but absolutely factual tradition of lynching: torturing and killing someone accused of a crime but not tried in court by the usual methods. Lynch mobs of the 1700s/1800s sometimes enjoyed an outdoor meal after leaving the body of a victim prominently displayed as an example to others. However, I haven’t found any evidence that “picnic” is short for “pick a nigger” or “pickaninny” or any such term.

Re supposedly racist terms, apparently “blackmail” was originally distinguished from “whitemail” in Scotland in a time when cattle-stealing was a popular sport. Payment of rent (“mail” after the bag it was carried in) could be in silver coins (whitemail) or in cattle, particularly Black Angus (blackmail), which was actually under-the-table protection money to the outlaws who would steal more of your cattle if you didn’t sacrifice a few. “Extortion” is the current legal term, and it’s more accurate.

Re who is buried where, it’s hard to know without doing a forensic investigation. In past centuries, graves were often used more than once. In Dan Brown’s books, it’s possible to locate the body of Mary Magdalene, the widow of Christ and source of the “sang real” (holy bloodline). In the real world, this would probably be harder to do.

Queen Street West is in the city of Toronto, and the use of terms like this in fiction and journalism is one of my pet peeves. The population of North America has become increasingly urban for at least two generations (“How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Broadway?” Apparently you can’t.) The general migration from small towns to Gotham City is reflected in modern literature in all genres. Stories, novels and articles take place in particular neighbourhoods with particular landmarks that the reader is expected to recognize. The current Comedy of Manners deals with street names as coded references to cultures and lifestyles (“Queen Street West/East,” “Park Avenue,” “The Castro”), usually without footnotes for the ignorati in the wilderness.

On the other hand, few readers in the Western Hemisphere are expected to know how to spell or pronounce “Saskatchewan,” or even recognize the postal abbreviation, SK. I’m just saying.

Biological omissions are just annoying. Dealing with biology at all (which all sex-writers must do) should involve carnal knowledge in the most literal sense.

Sometimes a crucial piece of information will drop into one’s lap without warning, as though the universe at large wanted to encourage us all to be researchers.

Years ago, I met and then married a Nigerian who claimed to have been born in 1944, but he was always strangely vague or momentarily confused about his present age. I was 22 at the time we met (born in 1951), so could he have wanted to appear younger than he really was so as not to seem like a pedophile, relatively speaking? He claimed that all his official ID disappeared during the Nigerian civil war, which seemed possible. Wars destroy all sorts of evidence. On arriving in London, England, he went to a notary public and had a full set of identification papers produced that showed his birth date as August 17, 1944.

After our separation (1978) and divorce (1981), my mother told me that while sorting through some of our laundry, she found an old passport for my then-husband, showing his year of birth as 1935. She kept this information to herself, not wanting to open a can of worms.

After my ex-husband’s death in 2006, his niece found me on-line. And one of the first things she sent me by email was the scanned photo of the family patriarch, Karibi Ikiriko, husband of five wives including my ex-husband’s mother. Notice the chief’s date of death. (Dr. Sagbe Karibi Ikiriko is the brother of my ex and the father of his niece.)

So there it is. Either my late ex-husband was not the son of Chief Karibi Ikiriko, or (more likely) he was born earlier than he claimed.

There is something inexpressibly sad about discovering information long after it could have been most useful, but – to use a current buzz-word – such a discovery provides closure. The answer has been found.

Whether research is a trivial pursuit or something bigger depends on whether one would rather know or not know. Me, I would rather know.


  1. You make a good point. I've been similarly annoyed to find I'm expected to know cultural details when reading novels, and I suspect I'm guily of writing English customs for American readers.

  2. Hi, Jean,

    Using locations as cultural shorthand cuts both ways. I suppose that I'm guilty as charged, but I never expect a reader to recognize a place/style/set of assumptions purely from a place name. I'll always add enough description to clarify the intended ambience for someone who's unfamiliar with the locale.

    As for contractions - I think they've been around for a long time (centuries) but it would difficult to detect the onset of their use. Doesn't Shakespeare employ them on occasion?

  3. I don't suppose you can tell students that you aren't their Google bitch.

  4. Leatherdykeuk & Lisabet - I love local colour in literature if it's explained! The problem arises when a writer assumes that every reader on earth must recognize local references. (If anything I say seems unclear, feel free to ask for an explanation.) Kathleen - ha! That might make more sense to current 18-22-year-olds than most of the other stuff I tell them. :)

  5. P.S. Did anyone get the punch-line about the dates? You can enlarge the photo of Chief Karibi Ikiriko by clicking on it, and then you will see that he died in 1941 (of untreated diabetes, according to what I was told). So he couldn't have fathered a child who was born in 1944. Not that it's important now, but the photo answered some of my questions (including where my late ex got his attractiveness, IMO).

  6. I lovc that old photo, those are always evocative to me.

    It makes me realise how hard it must be to do historical research for a biography. THe whole process takes a special kind of tenacity.


  7. I recently read a terrific (and very engagingly written) book called The Unfolding of Language, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in things like the history of contractions. I can't promise contractions are specifically covered in much detail—I don't recall—but it's all about the general processes whereby languages evolve, especially insofar as this involves words fusing together, new prefixes and suffixes being created from once-independent words, etc.

  8. Jeremy, I'll look it up. I have a few anecdotal books about word-histories, but nthing really comprehensive. Garce, at an annual conference of the local writers guild, one of the star presenters was Denise Chong, who researched her own Chinese immigrant family to write The Concubine's Children (highly recommended). It was really interesting to hear about the process of recovering info from
    the late 19th century.

  9. Im the niece lol ...I think back in the day they really didnt save dates but used important events like the Queens visit etc to remember times and years so ...even my father is not sure his exact date of birth as Ive been told so they pick a date out of a hat lol !!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.