Weeds at embarcation

As he waits to board the car on the right, the young man’s derby seems to be anchored to his head by a cord running to a clip behind his ear. The effect seems disproportionately serious, like the obsessed drawings in one of those books about funny patents. Furthermore, in the years since this photograph from 1905 was taken, the derby itself has acquired comical connotations, and men’s hats in general have gone ironic. But if we treat the image with the common intellectual decency of trying to see it as of 1905, it will go tender on us. The young man and the pretty little woman next to him then might be, oh, Gabriel and Gretta Conroy from “The Dead,” and the little girl in her sailor suit might be one of their children. Backs turned on us who look at them, they are off now to wherever it is that Gabriel and Gretta will voyage through their long snowy night.

Simultaneously, from the door of the car on the left, a young woman is watching two more women say goodbye. One of them, middle-aged, has a foot already on the trainman’s portable step. She is the one who will be leaving on this train, and the car she is about to board has been given a 1905 purpose that, like the derby, is no longer in use: ladies’ dressing room. She seems emotionally undressed herself as she exchanges a kiss with an older woman, but once she boards the dressing room she will become fully clad in the wear of 1905. As to the older woman, she is already dressed because she won’t be boarding the dressing room, and her clothes are another specialization for the seen universe of 1905.

The clothes are called weeds, and weeds were the mourning wear dictated for widows in 1905 America. The word “weed,” singular, had meant “clothing” for about a thousand years before then, from the ninth century through the nineteenth, but it soon acquired specialized meanings which by 1905 had diminished only to one. Some time before 1905, “weed” came to refer only to a widow’s veil, and then (says the Oxford English Dictionary) the rest of the wardrobe followed and became an outfit strictly in the plural.

But the fashions of signifying death didn’t stop changing with that, and as the term “weeds” became incomprehensible in time, the related terms “dressing room” and “lady” also had to be read in new lights. Flash photography, too, is no longer executed with a frying pan full of powdered magnesium, and so we see in new lights as well. On the evidence of this photograph, the fourth wall stood closer to the backdrop in 1905 than it stands now, and the farewell speech in between was more aglare with high contrast.

But we don’t seem able now to read the expression on the face of the third actress, the one standing at the door of her dressing room. In the glare of 1905 it ought to be immediately understandable, but the immediate seems to have vanished from this image. Requiring a mediation that the image can’t supply, the expression on the woman’s face is one more term dated strictly 1905. Time-stamped, it is to be understood as a word extracted from a body language that is no longer comprehensible now.

It has changed, and in the disembodied language you’re now reading we can’t know how. But at least we can say why. Moments after George T. Nicholson took this picture, the ladies’ dressing room rolled away into what’s called forever after, and in the shed whose flashlit form remained in memory over the darkened track, nothing remained.

 

Source: George T. Nicholson, “CC Ladies’ dressing room on the Limited.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649442/. Photoshopped. I don’t know what “CC” stands for — “chair car,” maybe? The Chicago & Alton Railroad used the term, and in 1900 its Alton Limited was the subject of a famous panoramic photograph by George T. Nicholson’s employer, George R. Lawrence.

http://www.midcontinent.org/rollingstock/dictionary/hortonseats.htm

Coed

In the course of the Republican primary campaign of 2012, the conservative policy intellectual Rush Limbaugh weighed in on Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who had addressed some Democratic members of the House in favor of birth control coverage under government-mandated health insurance. According to David Crary’s article for the Associated Press (Honolulu Star-Advertiser 3 March 2012: A3), Mr. Limbaugh told his radio audience on February 29:

What does it say about the college coed . . . who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

About that, three language notes.

1. A septuagenarian myself, I remember the term “coed” from the 1950s. I don’t think I’ve heard it since then.

2. The OED traces the term back to 1893. From 1903, it offers an anti-Limbauvian quotation: “Any college where the girls are commonly called ‘co-eds’ is not a truly co-educational institution.”

3. For conservatives who understand that conservatism of thought entails conservatism of language, Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” offers this reassuring statement of faith.

I almost venture to affirm that not one in a hundred amongst us participates in the “triumph” of the Revolution Society. If the king and queen of France and their children were to fall into our hands by the chance of war, in the most acrimonious of all hostilities, (I deprecate such an event, I deprecate such hostility,) they would be treated with another sort of triumphal entry into London. We formerly have had a king of France in that situation: you have read how he was treated by the victor in the field, and in what manner he was afterwards received in England. Four hundred years have gone over us; but I believe we are not materially changed since that period. Thanks to our sullen resistance to innovation, thanks to the cold sluggishness of our national character, we still bear the stamp of our forefathers. We have not (as I conceive) lost the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century; nor as yet have we subtilized ourselves into savages. We are not the converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helvetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers; madmen are not our lawgivers. We know that we have made no discoveries, and we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality,— nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity. In England we have not yet been completely embowelled of our natural entrails: we still feel within us, and we cherish and cultivate, those inbred sentiments which are the faithful guardians, the active monitors of our duty, the true supporters of all liberal and manly morals. We have not been drawn and trussed, in order that we may be filled, like stuffed birds in a museum, with chaff and rags, and paltry, blurred shreds of paper about the rights of man. We preserve the whole of our feelings still native and entire, unsophisticated by pedantry and infidelity.

Commercial directed at historical linguists

The new National Jukebox project at the Library of Congress

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/

is a trove of acoustic recordings from 1901 to 1925 with a great streaming-audio engine. Among much else in the collection, the spoken-word discs show us how strong the regional differences were in American speech before radio started homogenizing them. Here’s Warren G. Harding in 1922, for instance, with an Ohio accent thicker than anything I’ve heard in Ohio in my own excessively long life.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/8878

And now that I’ve heard this song from 1906, I’m going to have an easier time reconstructing the voices of the tough guys in Stephen Crane’s Maggie, A Girl of the Streets — right down to the tone of disdain in the cry of “Aw, gee.”

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/1068