Generally, literacy is used nowadays to convey an exceeding familiarity or comfort beyond a fluency with a given language or idea or set of skills. Its meaning gets at the core of what it means to know and to do and to be, how skills are imparted and articulated, how information is shared and organized, all of these objective tasks require ‘literacy’ to be at the top of the game.

This is one of those circular words that is defined be the state of being pretty much what it is, so if you look up ‘literacy’, you’ll often find that it means being ‘literate’. Yet how can this mode of definition ever really get at explaining what something is to the uninitiated, let alone the curious?

Literacy is a late 19th Century word, coming to English in 1883. Perhaps oddly enough, ‘illiteracy’ has been part of the English language since the late 1600s, and even farther back, the same concept, was held by the word ‘illiterature’ in the 1590s. So, although, ‘illiterate’ make seem to appear linguistically what ‘literacy’ is not, it is the other way around, with ‘literacy’ appearing later in the language to describe the converse of ‘illiterate.’ ‘Literate’ stood all on its own to mean ‘educated and instructed’ in the early 15th Century; it is derived from the Latin litteratus/literus, meaning, ‘the one who knows letters,’ which are terms Latin speakers stole from the structure of the Greek word grammatikos, from which we get the equally studious ‘grammar.’

So, if a ‘literate’ knows ‘letters’, what are these letters? ‘Letter’ appeared on the scene in the early 1200s has an Old French word meaning ‘graphic symbol or written character’ and is derived from Latin, which again, took its cues from Eutruscan and Greek before it (in loose words that meant ‘tablet’ or some part of an alphabet). The Old French term ‘letter’ also encompassed the written places where these pieces of the alphabet happened: in missives and notes, document and record, and in writing and learning (which would become ‘literature’). Before ‘letter’ was borrowed from Old French, speakers of what would become English, used Germanic and Old English words like bocstæf and buchstabe and buohstab–quite literally translated as ‘book staff’.

As a side note, I should note that Old English already had terms in place that meant the same things at Latin and Greek’s ‘letters’ and ‘grammar’; “Staff” is an Old English term that means not only the walking stick that supports you, but also staf supports, places, fastens and holds together stæfcræft, the Old English term for “grammar.” In Old English back to Sanskrit, ‘staff’ is at once letter, pillar, stem, and a group of military support, collapsing the whole pen/sword debate about who is mightier… a ‘staff’ is both pen and sword.

From ‘literate’ is added ‘cy’ in the late 19th Century. With the advent of institutional education and formalized public schooling, ‘literacy’ described a state of being, a condition, of being ‘literate’, and its usage narrowed in reference to reading and writing from the earlier collocations of documentation and record.


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Going to ALA Anaheim!

Looking forward to the conference of librarian dreams at #ALAannual12 this year!

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Brand (verb)

Before the 1500’s, “brand” appears in Middle English as “bronde” and “brend” (which mean ‘an illuminated torch’ or the verb ‘to burn’). It was not until the 16th century that the spelling changed to our current usage. Its distinction from to burn, or burning, seems to have occurred as a new spelling evolved. As a transitive verb, in the OED, its first definition means to burn with a hot iron, whether for the purpose of marking the flesh (as in the case of criminals or slaves), or of cauterizing as a surgical operation. This definition is interesting as it aligns a medical subject alongside the slave and criminal. This first definition clearly points to its technical use in distinguishing types of human bodies. Absent from the 16th century citations are any references to typographies of torture, or of lettering. The OED’s citation that does mention lettering and branding is from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1850, specifying the letter H, the initial of a master. The material of hot iron appears to be more strongly collocated with this definition than the ideology of ownership–which surprises me since slaves are mentioned.

A century later, in the 1600’s, the OED charts a new definition of “brand” as a verb, meaning to mark indelibly, as a proof of ownership, as a sign of quality, or for any other purpose. Remarkably, it is at this time that “brand” comes to also mean to impress (a word, letter or device) by way of brand. It is also here that the marking of horses and cattle are introduced into the history of “branding.”
During this century the plays Shakespeare predominantly composed in quires became accessible in larger folios. In 1611 the King James bible was published, and the relatively new technology of the printing press allowed words, and intellectual property, to circulate through society with an ease previously unknown. I want to argue that the mark of the word, a letter impressed or imprinted on a page, comes into the usage of “branding” in the 1600’s, and it is from here that “branding” branches off into ownership specifically. And though “branding” had been used to mark slave bodies, its concurrent usage to define criminal and the medicalized individuals exposes a discursive variety in its usage before the printing press. Ownership, lead and typeface appear to have replaced hot irons.

The OED’s next definition relays “branding” closer to our usage of it in abstract, figurative and cognitive realms. Meaning to set a mental mark of ownership, or to impress indelibly one’s memory, this definition exposes how power begins to be wielded to control minds as well as bodies in the middle and late 19th century, when most of these citations come from.

The OED’s 2004 draft edition is the first charting of “branding” as part of marketing and business, tied to “brand loyalty” and “brand name.” As early as the turn of the 20th century, the OED has cited “branding” to mean the application of a trade mark or brand to (a product); to promote (a product or service) on the basis of a brand name or design. From bodies to minds, “branding” has an interesting relationship to the specification of property in terms that rely upon the ideology of the immortality of the word, especially fantasies of the word’s indelibility in print, and the permanency of any declaration of ownership.

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto




The Robot Institute of America (founded 1979) defined a “robot” as a “reprogrammable, multi-functional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.”

Besides the fact that as a lexical entry, I find the definition above to be a sort of dictionary-robot, performing various tasks of definitional work simultaneously, I think it is interesting because it is purely functional.  There is no etymology, no key to how to use the term, and it assumes a certain position of approach from within mathematics and computer science.  I found an even dorkier (or more poetic?) definition at :

Force through intelligence, where AI meets the real world.

Webster’s 3rd has defined a “robot” as an “automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.”

Here, we see the introduction of the human form, mechanized movement and machinery to the definition of “robot.”

The Czech playwright Karel Capek coined the term “robot” in his 1921 play “R.U.R.” (Rossom’s Universal Robots).  The term came from the Czech word for one who performs forced labor, as in a serf or a slave.  The play was a critique of what Capek saw as the dehumanization of “Man” in an increasingly technological civilization.  In his play, “robots” were chemically created, and not derived from machines, as the word is used now.



In 1942, Isaac Asimov coined the term for the science of robots, “robotics” in his short story “Runaround.”  His 1950 short story, “I, Robot,” established the three Laws of Robotics, which mainly define a relationship of servitude between robots and humans.

“Robot” and “Robotics” have invented etymologies, directly tied to the literature of science fiction and anxieties of technology and civilization.

For further internets readin’ make sure to browse this Victorian Robots page.

and finally,

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“Terms of Venery”

Tip o’ the nib to my lonely brains for this amazing article on the origins of collective nouns for animals. Bird are especially delineated. Perhaps the take away from all of this, is that Middle English was still very much influx, because the competing Norman, Saxon and Anglo languages all pre-dated the printing press.

Also, An Exaltation of Larks!

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You Ain’t Just Whistlin’


(proper noun)

“Dixie” is an imagined region, a geography laid out in the soundscape of the minstrel song with the same name.  It has been adopted to refer to the Southeastern United States, and is usually employed to identify a chronic space distinct from the present and contemporary political climate–this is as true for 1842 as it is for 1963 or 2011.

The term has a heated position as proper noun and song, as it is associated with a usage by racist white Southerners.  South Carolinian Strom Thurmond’s 1948 bid under the anti-integration  “Dixiecrat” party is perhaps the most vivid usage of the term to specify a union of antiquated politics with place in the 20th century.  By converse comparison, the colloquial phrase “you ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” actually inflates the term, meaning that some one is not saying something small, something actually very important.  I have a theory that the Southeastern grocery chain “Winn Dixie” makes use of the term to indulge in historical fantasies, subliminally reversing the outcome of the Civil War.  The more recent novel and release of the movie, “Because of Winn Dixie,” show that the term maintains a powerful position in fictions of America’s regionality.

Much like the etymologically redeemed “niggardly,” whose root is in Old Norse and Swedish—not Scotch Gaelic or English, the origin of “dixie” is contested and inflamed. Just as “niggardly” sounds as if it is connected to an etymology of racism (though its origin is divergent), so “Dixie’s” power derives from the aural activity of song; that its etymology is obscure, ramified and indistinct, only adds to the term’s mystification.  As with all issues of nationalistic fervor and zealousness, there appear to be camps or schools of thought attached to the differing theories of the term’s “origin.”  I hope that by synthesizing these origin theories, the word’s initial context will be re-introduced, allowing cultural evaluation.

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps not the best place to start stalking an American term, and indeed the OED points to Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951).  Mathews admits from that the onset, “many theories have been advanced in vain efforts to account satisfactorily to this term.”  He nevertheless lays out the 3 forerunners:

1. (the most ridiculous to me…) The word is the namesake of a kind [look forward to an upcoming post on “kind”] slave owner on Manhattan island, a Mr. Dixy.  He was such a ‘nice’ master that “Dixy’s Land” was greatly missed after his death. This origin story clearly romanticizes the most peculiar institution, although it plants that institution firmly in Yankee soil. There is also some obscurity in this etymological source in that some accounts separate Dixy’s slaves by either death or sale from he and Manhattan.  Either way, “Dixy’s Land” is actually closer to Madison Avenue than Peachtree St.

2. The Citizen’s Bank in antebellum Louisiana was the most stable of Southern banks, and issued currency in $10 bills, that were labeled with the French “dix.”  I find this origin convincing for New Orleans if not the whole of the South, since the white “Dixieland Jazz Band” started using the term after Storyville closed in 1920 and black musicians like Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong headed North to Chicago.

3. Dixie is derivative from Mason & Dixon’s survey line.

In citation, but not etymology, the OED mentions D.D. Emmett (1815-1904), a minstrel songwriter who wrote “Dixie” in 1859.  By that time, Emmett had been playing in New York City in blackface since 1842, advertising “authentic Ethiopian melodies,” and “Congo Minstrels,” and claimed to be the first musical act to play bones on an American stage.  “Dixie” premiered with this group, then going by the “Virginia Minstrels,” in pool halls and bars in Manhattan’s Bowery district.  The troupe travelled with circus performers, who alongside the bones must have provided spectacle and freakery to urban working class audiences.   This was the first time “Dixie” appeared in print.

Daniel Decatur Emmett was from Ohio, and his contemporary [name omitted from source] claims that Emmett did not originate the term, but it was used by the touring performers:  “…[Dixie] as not, as most people suppose, a Southern phrase, but first appeared among the circus people of the North…” to refer to a warmer climate and a romanticized milder times.

I found one other citation of “Dixie” prior to Emmett’s song, used as a male character name in minstrel shows from 1850.

The 30 December 1872 issue of New York Weekly claims that “Dixie” originated in New York City as part of a children’s game of tag. I found no other references to a children’s game, but its location in New York City’s streets follows the pattern. 

I cannot, to use Mathews’ term, “satisfactorily” define the etymology of “Dixie.”  My best guess is that the term started its wider cultural circulation in blackface minstrel shows in New York City in the 1850’s, who in turn, like so much else of minstrelsy, had appropriated the term from the circus performers with whom they toured.  I’m guessing that the freakshow geeks used the term to refer to the South as region and climate (being migratory), and the blackfaced performers had to modify the meaning of the term slightly in order to work it into their act.  Emmett was simply eavesdropping in the right place at the right time, wearing the right face.

The song “Dixie” has been played both at Jefferson Davis’ inauguration and requested by Abraham Lincoln after declaring Union victory.

Works Cited:

Simpson, J. A., E. S. C. Weiner, and Michael Proffitt. “Dixie.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford [England: Clarendon, 1993. Print.

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