Lost in translation

People say the past is a foreign country (well, L. P. Hartley wrote it in 1953 and we’ve sort of just been repeating it when it suits ever since), which is a sentiment that, as it turns out, is a lot more complicated than I initially thought when I decided it would make a good framing device for this post. I’ve got it stuck in my head now, though, and I can’t think of another way to start this, so I’m just going to run with it. It’s an appealing statement, one that seems to, in six words, encapsulate the gulf that can appear when we look back on past ages and aeons and the people, societies and cultures that inhabited them. However many questions I have about the analogy (and it’s a lot, apparently), I have to admit that it’s also one that seems startlingly apt, sometimes, when I’m researching people and places from long ago. There’s a great deal of familiarity in the past, in the way that people interact with each other, in their motivations and behaviour, in the way they use objects and construct their physical surroundings. But there’s also quite a lot of unfamiliarity, a dissonance between then and now that is apparent in many ways, but perhaps, for me, never quite so much as when I come across terminology and phrasing from the Victorian era that is either completely indecipherable in meaning or somehow close enough to modern English to be even more obviously from a different time (or country). 

Me, a lot of the time.

I’ve already written about language and archaeology on here, in relation to the languages of analysis and recording around the world, and how speaking the same language is not always a guarantee that words have the same meaning. This post takes the same principle, but shifts focus a little to the language of the 19th century, not as a linguist (which I’m not!) but as a researcher who finds that the English of the Victorians sometimes requires a bit of thinking outside the box to translate to the modern day. So, the following is a handful of terms and phrases that a) confused me greatly when I read them and b) turned out to have interesting (if not always good) stories behind their meaning.

“Dead-eye dick literature”

The story behind this phrase involves one of my favourite anecdotes from Victorian Christchurch. I came across it while researching a man named Thomas Pillow, the proprietor of one of the shops I have artefacts from and a man who had the misfortune to be remembered, at least in part, through this misdeeds of his son, Albert. In 1879, at the tender age of 18, Albert decided to a) steal a bunch of antique weaponry from Canterbury Museum and b) hold up a carriage in Riccarton, wearing a black mask with cut-out eyeholes, two pairs of trousers and two coats, armed with a revolver and an antique Japanese dagger, one of the spoils from his trip to the museum.

It did not go to plan.

The people being held up did not take kindly to it, there was a bit of a scuffle and Albert was arrested and charged with assault and, after the police had searched his bedroom at his dad’s house and found the imitation poignard, and two spear heads from the museum, larceny. Headlines at the time had fun telling the story of “Pillow, the Christchurch Highwayman” and the story lived on long enough to be included in George Ranald Macdonald’s Dictionary of Canterbury Biography  entry for the Pillow family. In it, Macdonald has this to say about Albert’s actions and motivations: “A youth of 18 after doing a course of Dead-Eye Dick literature stole 2 daggers from the museum and armed himself with a revolver and ammunition. Putting on 2 suits to increase his size, he held up a carriage in Riccarton. He couldn’t quite carry it off and was charged with assault.”

Part of the 1879 account of the incident in question. I particularly like the sequence of Albert asking for money, Mr May saying he doesn’t have any and the driver coming to the rescue with “I’ve got four shillings, will that do?”. Image: Ashburton Herald 14/10/1879, p. 2.

It turns out that “Dead-eye Dick literature” refers to the dime novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, stories of adventure and daring – often in the American west – that featured characters like “Deadwood Dick”(possibly based on a real cowboy, Nat Love?) and “Dick Deadeye”, among many others. The term ‘dead-eye” seems to be synonymous with marksmanship and straight shooting, although it might also have something to do with sailors but, by the 1930s, “Dead-eye Dick literature” appears to have become a proxy for all dime novels, as this 1937 headline in the New York Times magazine suggests.

A screenshot of a 1937 article on the collectability of Deadeye Dick literature, which mostly waxes lyrical about how much these books were beloved by children and hated by adults in the nineteenth century. Image: New York Times, 1937.

The emergence of dime novels seems to be attributed to Irwin P. Beadle and company in 1860s America (well in time for Albert Pillow to have grown up with them) and they were very popular by the 1870s, when they’re first mentioned in New Zealand newspapers. As the decades progress, they quickly become associated with bad behaviour – not just of children! – in newspaper accounts, a kind of anti-moralistic devil-on-the-shoulder kind of influence (not far from the modern day “kids and their videogames!” I reckon). All of which might come to explain why George Macdonald uses the term to explain Albert Pillow’s somewhat ill-fated actions in 1879 (although it’s worth noting that I couldn’t find a reference to dime novels in the 1879 accounts of the incident).

“for their booty consisted only of thirty-six keys, which they had taken from the bed-room doors” Image: Hawera and Normanby Star 27.02.1884: 2.

This whole story, and the terminology used in the different accounts of it, is a great example of how much the information in a historical record can be influenced by the time period in which it was written, as well as the person who wrote it. And how much language changes over decades. Macdonald was writing in the mid-twentieth century, about an incident that occurred in 1879, both of which I’m reading about from 2020. It seems likely that the phrase “dead-eye dick literature” would have been as unfamiliar to Albert as it is to me – it doesn’t appear in New Zealand newspapers until the 1900s, despite frequent mention of dime novels themselves in earlier decades, and a lot of the international examples I could find of the term were early to mid-twentieth century in nature, like these “Dead-Eye Western Comics” from 1948. In a way, its use tells me as much about mid-twentieth century New Zealand as it does about Victorian Christchurch, as well as mid-twentieth century attitudes towards objects and events of the nineteenth century.

“Knights of the burnt cork”

In an era that happily named meetings of like-minded people things like the “Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes”, this seems like it could mean anything. But no, it’s a reference to blackface (surprise, racism!).

Blackface is a topic too huge and too complicated to really discuss in a short section of a single blog post (and one that has been written about in detail elsewhere), but suffice to say that minstrelsy, including blackface minstrelsy, was a part of the live entertainment available to New Zealanders during the course of European colonial settlement, from the nineteenth century onwards (unfortunately, it still crops up sometimes, even in 2020). I came across this particular term for it in an account of a ‘juvenile’ minstrel show performed by children at a school in Christchurch in 1879, and it can be found in other advertisements for blackface minstrel shows throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Image: Nelson Evening Mail 14/12/1885, p. 2.

The term itself comes from the use of burnt cork – often mixed with water or petroleum jelly – to darken the skin of the white actors performing in blackface (Mahar 1999). The title of ‘knights of the burnt cork’ serves to imply a gallantry and nobility that is completely at odds with the nature of blackface as a tool that demeans, caricatures and denigrates, but it also – at least to me – evokes the terminology of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were also called ‘knights’. It seems like peak Victorian whimsy on first reading, but, like so much of that era, the whimsy is just a cover for the deeply terrible attitudes and racism that went hand in hand with European colonialism around the world.  

“Gone over to the great majority”

Monty Python should have used this one in the parrot sketch. Yep, it’s yet another way of saying that someone has died. One that both implies a sort of crossing of the picket line between life and death and recognises that the living are greatly outnumbered by the dead.

An excellent example that nevertheless makes me laugh, mostly for the inclusion of “he has done good service at the stud even with limited opportunities.” What a way to be remembered. Image: Lyttelton Times 4.06.1890, p. 6.
Image: Southern Cross 17.09.1898: 5.

Good wine needs no bush”

Image: Star 17.09.1913, p. 5.

I really didn’t understand this one when I read it. I came across it in an advertisement for Woods’ Great Peppermint Cure, which is ironic, as the phrase appears to mean that a good quality item or product requires no advertising (similar sentiment to gilding the lily, I think). It seems to be derived from two things – the use of a branch  or bunch of ivy, hung outside a tavern, to advertise the presence of wine within and a very old tradition of adding a ‘bush’ of rosemary to drink to improve the flavour. Like so many English idioms, it’s also Shakespearian, found in the epilogue to As You Like It.

In nineteenth century New Zealand, it seems to have been co-opted by everyone from politicians, advertisers and entertainers to those who also seemed to be confused by it, including a contractor who managed to baffle the Lyttelton Times by stating that “good wine needs no bush, but a good bridge needs a great deal”.

What DOES it mean!? Image: Lyttelton Times, 7.11.1870, p. 2.

Funambulist” and “Equilibrist”

I love both of these terms, because you can see the relationship of the word (especially the compound ‘funambulist’) to their meaning. They both refer to tightrope walkers: funambulist – rope + walker (sadly, not fun + walker, as I first thought); and equilibrist – basically, ‘balancer’. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between the two terms, although I’ve found at least one example of an equilibrist act involving bicycles, and I get the sense it might have been more generally used to refer to those whose acts involved feats of balancing.

Equesquiriculem! Another incredible word. Image: Lyttelton Times 21.01.1884, p. 1.

Both terms appear in several of the advertisements for the circuses that used to set up shop on what is now the site of the Isaac Theatre Royal, from which a fairly large assemblage of artefacts was excavated between 2012 and 2014 (Webb et al. 2016). The section was vacant during the nineteenth century and, as well as functioning as a space for people to throw their litter, it was the temporary home of a number of different circuses and travelling performances during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, including those who travelled with equilibrists and funambulists (and, just in case you thought this was a light-hearted fun story, also featured a variety of acts that were racist in execution and/or in advertising, including minstrel troupes likely to have included blackface).

“Finest white snowdrops”

This, you’d think, is fairly self-explanatory, but no. It doesn’t refer to flowers, but to sugar. “Finest white snowdrops in pockets”, as advertised frequently during the 1870s in Christchurch.

Image: Lytelton Times 13.03.1878, p. 2.

You might be amused to know that I found myself wondering if the term was ever co-opted in the twentieth century for cocaine and so googled “finest white snowdrops cocaine” and, rather than finding anything about the history of drug terminology, found this story about Walmart selling a “Santa snorting cocaine” Christmas jersey. Never underestimate the ability of the internet to surprise you.

Enjoy the long weekend everybody!


An encounter with an unexpected nappy (and other things)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about languages. Languages and cultures. Specifically, the languages of archaeology, as a profession: how, around the world, they reflect our different cultural backgrounds and historical contexts and, more personally, how they code the perspective and background of the collector and analyst into the archaeological record. Basically, I’ve been reminded how much of ourselves we put into what we record and just how much that reflects our lives and where we come from.

I’ve been away, in the US, Canada and, now, England, where I’m writing this in a café in Whitechapel, London (across the road from a fish and chip shop amusingly named Jack the Chipper…). Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through archaeological collections from these places with a view to finding similarities and differences, or maybe it’s just me, but hopping from country to country has been a bit of a study in duelling senses of familiarity and strangeness. Some of the differences were obvious: street after street after street of brown brick and stone row housing in Boston and liquor stores disguised as “wine emporiums”. The cobbled streets and age-weathered building facades of London. The politeness of Canadians. I thought it was a stereotype, if I’m honest, but I have never seen so many people have such polite and friendly exchanges with bus drivers: it puts the rest of us to shame.

The snow and -12 to -20 temperatures were also something of a reminder that I was not where I should be in January. Clockwise from top left: snow in London, Ontario; the row houses of Boston; snow in Toronto; Jack the Chipper in Whitechapel, London, where ‘Ripperology’ is still very much a thing.

At the same time, there’s a commonality of culture between all these places – not necessarily on a grand scale, but in the minutiae of daily life. There is much that is the same, or that can at least be easily, unconsciously translated, but the little points of difference remain, creating a weird sort of cognitive dissonance where I feel at home and then remember where I am. It’s something I’ve felt before, living in Australia, although it can sometimes be less obvious there, I think, for a kiwi. There have been times when I’ve genuinely forgotten that I live in Australia, even when I am actually in Australia (funny story, at Canadian passport control, the passport person said “So, you live in Australia?”, to which I replied very authoritatively, thinking I’d been mistaken for an Australian, “No, New Zealand”, until she said, “but you’ve written Australia on the form in front of me”. I forgot. Again. I do live in Australia.).

As those differences and similarities exist in culture, they also exist in language (unsurprisingly, given how one is entangled with the other). In all the places I’ve been over the last few months, we speak the same language, but, still, the words don’t always mean the same thing (there are too many examples of this to list, but my favourite is the word “tramping” and the many baffled faces it elicits from Australians when I say I’m going tramping for the weekend). People and places, even those with shared cultural histories and language bases, grow together in different ways and, sometimes, even the same language requires a little translation.

This is the classic example, isn’t it, when it comes to English-speaking words for the same object: jandals, flip-flops, thongs, slippers, “toe-post sandals”. Image: J. Garland.

And, as with life, so too with archaeology (you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but this is actually a blog about archaeology, I promise). Working with archaeological collections in different countries has been an exercise in translation, of systems and of terminology. Despite sharing a great deal of our disciplinary and methodological foundations, we have each developed archaeological languages, or dialects, of our own. Never has this been more apparent to me than in navigating my way around collections of the same types of material culture from different parts of the world. I already knew that artefact terminology can be inconsistent, having spent a lot of time standardising catalogues created by different people, but I hadn’t quite realised how much that inconsistency, when viewed from a global perspective, reflects the different geographical, cultural and archaeological contexts of place.

Some of it is as simple as frames of reference. The British archaeological context is very different to the New Zealand one and their language of analysis is built upon a very different archaeological tradition. Recent, nineteenth century archaeology is only a tiny part of what is excavated and ‘colonial archaeology’ doesn’t apply in quite the same way, so things are labelled and ordered according to other frames of reference: what I would call colonial, European, or British ceramics in New Zealand are post-Roman or post-Medieval pottery in England. The system of archaeological data recording is structured differently, written for a different archaeological record, a different chronology. Just talking about systems of recording material culture data probably deserves a whole other post, if I can figure out how to make it interesting to more than just the data nerds, as does the more general framework surrounding the repositories and collections of archaeological material around the world and, more specifically, in New Zealand.

Some of it is even more meta than just the archaeological context and references the actual disciplinary tradition of archaeology in different places and the influences (for example, the language of collectors) that have impacted that tradition. This became apparent at the SHA Conference in Boston (which Kat wrote about last time), where I went to a forum on the use of synonyms in artefact collections and the need for a glossary of terms, particularly for researchers from different states and countries. This is a very good idea, as anyone who has come across a term like “glass nappy” in a report and had to very gingerly, and with some trepidation, google it at work, will be well aware.

Not what you expected from “glass nappy”, is it? Another term that might require checking, depending on where you come from, is the delightfully named “twiffler“. More mundanely, even something as ubiquitous as a black beer bottle can have multiple names: I’ve seen it called an English wine bottle, black glass stout or black glass porter, even just ‘dark olive bottle’. Image from here.

It was illuminating to hear people from Australia, England and the US talking about just how varied our archaeological languages are (the discussion on white granite and ironstone alone was INTENSE; so too, surprisingly, was the discussion about coarse earthenware). Among the many interesting points covered was one on the unexpectedly diverse languages used for site recording, including, for example, ‘spit’ and ‘artificial or arbitrary level’. Spit, which is, as far as I’m aware, the term used in New Zealand, is a more British term and our use of it, instead of the American artificial level, shows the influence of British field recording on the development of the discipline in New Zealand. Yet, when it comes to colonial archaeology in New Zealand, we borrow more heavily from American artefact terminology than we do from the ‘post-medieval’ British traditions, because so much of what is considered colonial or historical archaeology developed in North America in the twentieth century.

Another mix of terminology that confused me slightly the first time I encountered it: ‘Lots’. This is part of a Certificate of Title from Christchurch, in which “Lot” references a historic property boundary. But in Canada, it’s used to label archaeological features and contexts: “Lot 22” might instead refer to a cesspit.

On a more personal note, thinking about all of this made me think again of the reflection of my own personal disciplinary history and socio-cultural background in the language I use as an archaeologist and an analyst. I don’t know that I have any specific examples, but I have absolutely no doubt they exist. All of the things I’ve just talked about have a very clear and visible influence on the development of archaeological languages, but so too – especially in artefact terminology and analysis – does the human in the equation, i.e. me. The importance of objectivity in cataloguing, especially in the design of typologies, is undeniable, but it’s also impossible to avoid subjectivity entirely, because, in the end, it’s all done by a person and we are nothing if not a product of the world around us.

All of which is very meta and post-modern and other people have written about it with far more clarity than I’ll ever be able to articulate, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not a bad idea to be reminded every now and then of the world – in all its diversity and similarity – that influences the way that we, in turn, conceptualise the past. And, as always, to remember that context is everything.