Behold the Astronomicum Caesareum, “Perhaps the Most Beautiful Scientific Book Ever Printed” (1540)

Art, sci­ence, and mag­ic seem to have been rarely far apart dur­ing the Renais­sance, as evi­denced by the elab­o­rate 1540 Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum — or “Emperor’s Astron­o­my” — seen here. “The most sump­tu­ous of all Renais­sance instruc­tive man­u­als, ” the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art notes, the book was cre­at­ed over a peri­od of 8 years by Petrus Api­anus, also known as Api­an, an astron­o­my pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ingol­stadt. Mod­ern-day astronomer Owen Gin­gerich, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, calls it “the most spec­tac­u­lar con­tri­bu­tion of the book-maker’s art to six­teenth-cen­tu­ry sci­ence.”

Apian’s book was main­ly designed for what is now con­sid­ered pseu­do­science. “The main con­tem­po­rary use of the book would have been to cast horo­scopes,” Robert Bat­teridge writes at the Nation­al Library of Scot­land. Api­an used as exam­ples the birth­days of his patrons: Holy Roman Emper­or Charles V and his broth­er Fer­di­nand I. But the Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum did more than cal­cu­late the future.

Despite the fact that the geo­cen­tric mod­el on which Api­an based his sys­tem “would begin to be over­tak­en just 3 years after the book’s pub­li­ca­tion,” he accu­rate­ly described five comets, includ­ing what would come to be called Halley’s Comet.

Api­an also “observed that a comet’s tail always points away from the sun,” Fine Books and Col­lec­tions writes, “a dis­cov­ery for which he is cred­it­ed.” He used his book “to cal­cu­late eclipses,” notes Gin­gerich in an intro­duc­tion, includ­ing a par­tial lunar eclipse in the year of Charles’ birth. And, “in a pio­neer­ing use of astro­nom­i­cal chronol­o­gy, he takes up the cir­cum­stances of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal eclipses.” These dis­cus­sions are accom­pa­nied by “sev­er­al mov­able devices” called volvelles, designed “for an assort­ment of chrono­log­i­cal and astro­log­i­cal inquiries.”

Medieval volvelles were first intro­duced by artist and writer Ramón Llull in 1274. A “cousin of the astro­labe,” Get­ty writes, the devices con­sist of “lay­ered cir­cles of parch­ment… held togeth­er at the cen­ter by a tie.” They were con­sid­ered “a form of ‘arti­fi­cial mem­o­ry,’” called by Lund University’s Lars Gis­lén “a kind of paper com­put­er.” Api­an was a spe­cial­ist of the form, pub­lish­ing sev­er­al books con­tain­ing volvelles from his own Ingol­stadt print­ing press. The Astro­nom­icum Cae­sareum became the pin­na­cle of such sci­en­tif­ic art, using its hand-col­ored paper devices to sim­u­late the move­ments of the astro­labe. “The great vol­ume grew and changed in the course of the print­ing,” Gin­gerich writes, “even­tu­al­ly com­pris­ing fifty-five leaves, of which twen­ty-one con­tain mov­ing parts.”

Api­an was reward­ed hand­some­ly for his work. “Emper­or Charles V grant­ed the pro­fes­sor a new coat of arms,” and “the right to appoint poets lau­re­ate and to pro­nounce as legit­i­mate chil­dren born out of wed­lock.” He was also appoint­ed court math­e­mati­cian, and copies of his extra­or­di­nary book lived on in the col­lec­tions of Euro­pean aris­to­crats for cen­turies, “a tri­umph of the printer’s art,” writes Gin­gerich, and an astron­o­my, and astrol­o­gy, “fit for an emper­or.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

16th Cen­tu­ry Book­wheels, the E‑Readers of the Renais­sance, Get Brought to Life by 21st Cen­tu­ry Design­ers

A Medieval Book That Opens Six Dif­fer­ent Ways, Reveal­ing Six Dif­fer­ent Books in One

160,000+ Medieval Man­u­scripts Online: Where to Find Them

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Meet the Linda Lindas, the Tween Punk Band Who Called Out Racism & Misogyny and Scored a Record Deal

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” we chant­ed as kids, but “words will nev­er hurt me.” The say­ing seems to both invite phys­i­cal vio­lence and deny the real effects of ver­bal abuse. Maybe this was once effec­tive as a stock play­ground retort, but it’s nev­er been true, as any­one who’s been picked on as a child can attest. When the taunts are racist, the dam­age is expo­nen­tial­ly mul­ti­plied. Not only are kids being sin­gled out and mocked for immutable char­ac­ter­is­tics, but their fam­i­ly and entire cul­ture of ori­gin are being tar­get­ed.

What to do? Lash out? Fight back? Ignore it and pre­tend it isn’t hap­pen­ing? To quote anoth­er cliche, “the best revenge is suc­cess.” More appro­pri­ate­ly for the case at hand, take an orig­i­nal line from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke: “Be con­struc­tive with your blues.”

The Lin­da Lin­das, a four-piece punk band rang­ing in age from 10 to 16 would agree. When one of the girls was harassed by a class­mate, they got bummed about it, then ral­lied, wrote a song, went viral, and scored a record deal. Deal­ing with bul­lies will rarely lead to such joy­ful results, but it’s worth pay­ing atten­tion when it does.

The song, “Racist, Sex­ist Boy” has “become some­thing of a 2021 anthem,” writes NPR, with its glee­ful call-outs (“Pos­er! Block­head! Riffraff! Jerk face!”) and crunchy pow­er chords. “In what has become a very famil­iar cycle to music-indus­try watch­ers, the band land­ed a record deal almost as soon as its video went viral,” sign­ing with L.A.’s Epi­taph Records. “By Fri­day, the band’s per­for­mance of ‘Racist, Sex­ist Boy’ had been post­ed on Epi­taph’s YouTube chan­nel.” The video comes from a per­for­mance at the Los Ange­les Pub­lic Library, which you can watch in full above, with an intro­duc­tion and inter­view with the band. (See a setlist on YouTube and don’t miss their cov­er of Biki­ni Kil­l’s “Rebel Girl” at 35:56.)

So, who are the Lin­da Lin­das? On their Band­camp page, they describe them­selves as “Half Asian / half Lat­inx. Two sis­ters, a cousin, and their close friend. The Lin­da Lin­das chan­nel the spir­it of orig­i­nal punk, pow­er pop, and new wave through today’s ears, eyes and minds.” You can meet the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed tweens and teens in the video above, made in 2019 by a fifth grade teacher to inspire his stu­dents. The girls are hard­ly new to the music busi­ness. Clips in the video show them per­form­ing with Mon­ey Mark and open­ing for Biki­ni Kill. They got their start in 2018 at Girlschool LA, “a cel­e­bra­tion of females chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo,” and they’ve been men­tored by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The Lin­da Lin­das also cap­tured the atten­tion of Amy Pohler, who fea­tured the band in her Net­flix doc­u­men­tary Mox­ie. See a clip above. Not every kid who fights bul­ly­ing with music — or art, sci­ence, sports, or what­ev­er their tal­ent — can expect celebri­ty, and we shouldn’t set kids up to think they can all win the inter­net lot­tery. But the Lin­da Lin­das have become heroes for mil­lions of young girls who look like them, and who dream not of fame and for­tune but of a unit­ed front of friend­ship and fun against racism, misog­y­ny, and the pains of grow­ing up.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Ven­er­a­ble Female Artists, Musi­cians & Authors Give Advice to the Young: Pat­ti Smith, Lau­rie Ander­son & More

Ele­men­tary School Kids Sing David Bowie’s “Space Odd­i­ty” & Oth­er Rock Hits: A Cult Clas­sic Record­ed in 1976

Hear 11-Year-Old Björk Sing “I Love to Love”: Her First Record­ed Song (1976)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

Dur­ing the past year’s stretch­es of time at home, quite a few of us have attempt­ed to intro­duce more plant life into our sur­round­ings. By some accounts, indoor gar­den­ing ranks among the most cost-effec­tive ways of increas­ing the qual­i­ty of one’s domes­tic life. But those of us who get too deep into it (aggres­sive pur­suit of inter­ests being a known char­ac­ter­is­tic of Open Cul­ture read­ers) may find them­selves get­ting more than they bar­gained for, or at any rate pay­ing more than they intend­ed to, espe­cial­ly if they go down the road of bon­sai. Though it has its ori­gins in the Chi­nese prac­tice of pen­zai, one must look to Japan to find the prac­ti­tion­ers who have made the great­est invest­ments in the art of grow­ing pro­por­tion­al­ly impec­ca­ble dwarf trees — invest­ments of time and mon­ey both.

Buy­ing a mature work of bon­sai can cost up to near­ly one mil­lion U.S. dol­lars, accord­ing to the episode above of Busi­ness Insid­er’s “So Expen­sive” series. That was the price of one tree at the 2012 Inter­na­tion­al Bon­sai Con­ven­tion, but oth­ers have received val­u­a­tions near­ly as impres­sive. This reflects the enor­mous amount of labor a prop­er bon­sai demands: not just dai­ly water­ing, but “years of prun­ing, wiring, repot­ting and graft­ing,” as the nar­ra­tor puts it.

“Many of these tech­niques require years to mas­ter, and any errors made can result in per­ma­nent­ly ruin­ing the shape, or even killing a plant that has been grow­ing for cen­turies.” The work of bon­sai is the work of gen­er­a­tions, a fact embod­ied by Chieko Yamamo­to, the fourth-gen­er­a­tion bon­sai mas­ter shown explain­ing the pur­suit in which she’s spent more than half a cen­tu­ry.

Even Yamamo­to’s rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple-look­ing bon­sai have tak­en fif­teen, per­haps 25 years to take their shape. When exe­cut­ing a new idea, she must wait about five years just to see how it turns out, and the out­come isn’t always to her sat­is­fac­tion. “There are no imme­di­ate answers,” she says, “so I need to live a long life to see the results.” Bon­sai has on its side the famous longevi­ty of the Japan­ese pop­u­la­tion, as well as the equal­ly famous ded­i­ca­tion of Japan­ese civ­i­liza­tion to cul­ti­vat­ing mas­ter crafts­man­ship. But even so, the now-dimin­ish­ing num­ber of bon­sai busi­ness­es aggra­vates an already severe lim­i­ta­tion of sup­ply ver­sus demand, and the trade itself has cer­tain for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­ers to entry. “The bon­sai parts and the tools are often hand­made,” says the Busi­ness Insid­er video’s nar­ra­tor, “and can cost thou­sands of dol­lars them­selves.”

In the case of Sasuke scis­sors, pro­filed in the Great Big Sto­ry doc­u­men­tary short just above, they can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars. In his shop of that name out­side Osa­ka, black­smith Yasuhi­ro Hira­ka — a fifth-gen­er­a­tion scis­sor­mak­er, and the last of his kind in Japan — works for a week or longer, ten hours a day, just to make one pair. A stan­dard mod­el runs about $1,100 and a deluxe one costs more than $32,000, but a full-fledged bon­sai mas­ter can­not set­tle for less. “I nev­er thought I would be able to have them,” says one such adept, Masakazu Yoshikawa, of his first Sasuke scis­sors. “It was very emo­tion­al.” But the mere act of tak­ing them in hand, he adds, “makes me want to make good bon­sai.” For Hiraka’s part, he says, after 50 years of scis­sor-mak­ing, “I final­ly think I am start­ing to reach my peak.” As we West­ern­ers say, you can’t rush qual­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art & Phi­los­o­phy of Bon­sai

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

A Dig­i­tal Ani­ma­tion Com­pares the Size of Trees: From the 3‑Inch Bon­sai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

Daisu­gi, the 600-Year-Old Japan­ese Tech­nique of Grow­ing Trees Out of Oth­er Trees, Cre­at­ing Per­fect­ly Straight Lum­ber

See How Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Car­pen­ters Can Build a Whole Build­ing Using No Nails or Screws

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

De-Mystifying Mindfulness: A Free Online Course by Leiden University

From Chris Goto-Jones–now Dean of Human­i­ties and Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Victoria–comes a free course which was named ‘one of the best online cours­es of all time’ in 2020. The course descrip­tion for De-Mys­ti­fy­ing Mind­ful­ness reads:

Inter­est in med­i­ta­tion, mind­ful­ness, and con­tem­pla­tion has grown expo­nen­tial­ly in recent years. Rather than being seen as mys­ti­cal prac­tices from ancient Bud­dhism or eso­teric phi­los­o­phy, they are increas­ing­ly seen as tech­nolo­gies root­ed in evi­dence from psy­chol­o­gy and neu­ro­science. Mind­ful­ness has become the basis for numer­ous ther­a­peu­tic inter­ven­tions, both as a treat­ment in health­care and as a means of enhanc­ing well-being and hap­pi­ness. For mil­lions around the world, mind­ful­ness has become a life-style choice, enhanc­ing and enrich­ing every­day expe­ri­ence. Mind­ful­ness is big busi­ness.

But, what actu­al­ly is mind­ful­ness? Is it real­ly good for you? Can any­one learn it? How can you rec­og­nize char­la­tans? Would you want to live in a mind­ful soci­ety, and would it smell like san­dal­wood? What does it feel like to be mind­ful? Are you mind­ful already, and how would you know?

Evolv­ing from the pop­u­lar Hon­ours Acad­e­my course at Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty [in the Nether­lands], this inno­v­a­tive course com­bines con­ven­tion­al schol­ar­ly inquiry from mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines (rang­ing from psy­chol­o­gy, through phi­los­o­phy, to pol­i­tics) with expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing (includ­ing spe­cial­ly designed ‘med­i­ta­tion labs,’ in which you’ll get chance to prac­tice and ana­lyze mind­ful­ness on your­self). In the end, the course aims to pro­vide a respon­si­ble, com­pre­hen­sive, and inclu­sive edu­ca­tion about (and in) mind­ful­ness as a con­tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non.

You can take De-Mys­ti­fy­ing Mind­ful­ness for free by select­ing the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a cer­tifi­cate, you will need to pay a fee.

De-Mys­ti­fy­ing Mind­ful­ness will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions From UCLA: Boost Your Aware­ness & Ease Your Stress

Philoso­pher Sam Har­ris Leads You Through a 26-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions

Lis­ten to Bill Mur­ray Lead a Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion on How It Feels to Be Bill Mur­ray

The Creation & Restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Animated

With The Hunch­back of Notre-Dame, Vic­tor Hugo intend­ed less to tell a sto­ry than to mount a defense of Goth­ic archi­tec­ture, which in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry was being demol­ished in cities all across France. The book’s orig­i­nal pur­pose is more clear­ly reflect­ed by its orig­i­nal title, Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482, and the tit­u­lar medieval cathe­dral’s impor­tance to the cap­i­tal for near­ly two cen­turies now owes a great deal to the nov­el­ist’s advo­ca­cy. Hugo would no doubt be pleased by the effort that has gone into pre­serv­ing Notre-Dame into the 21st cen­tu­ry, share in the feel­ings of dev­as­ta­tion that fol­lowed the fire of April 2019, and admire the spir­it that moti­vat­ed com­mence­ment of the restora­tion work imme­di­ate­ly there­after.

Or rather, the com­mence­ment of the sta­bi­liza­tion work imme­di­ate­ly there­after: giv­en the extent of the dam­age, the then-674-year-old struc­ture had first to be made safe to restore. The AFP News Agency video above explains and visu­al­izes that process, a com­plex and dif­fi­cult one in itself. The first pri­or­i­ty was to pro­tect the exposed areas of the cathe­dral from the ele­ments and shore up their fly­ing but­tress­es (a sig­na­ture struc­tur­al ele­ment of Goth­ic archi­tec­ture) to pre­vent col­lapse.

Melt­ed togeth­er by the fire, sec­tions of scaf­fold­ing that had been set up for pre­vi­ous restora­tion work also posed con­sid­er­able dif­fi­cul­ties to remove with­out harm­ing the build­ing. As for the rub­ble heaped inside, sort­ing through it required con­duct­ing a 3D scan, then bring­ing in remote-con­trolled robots and a team of archae­ol­o­gists.

“I saw the dis­as­ter unfold­ing before me,” says one such archae­ol­o­gist, Olivi­er Puaux, in the Radio France Inter­na­tionale video just above. “It was so sad that I went home before the spire fell.” But just a month lat­er he returned to work on the ambi­tious restora­tion project, sev­er­al of whose work­ers appear to share their expe­ri­ence with its chal­lenges, dan­gers, and per­haps unex­pect­ed learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Remov­ing and sort­ing through all the fall­en wood, stone, and oth­er mate­ri­als — some of which came through the blaze in re-usable con­di­tion — has pro­vid­ed new insights into the cathe­dral’s con­struc­tion. Even its very nails, says Puaux, turn out on close inspec­tion to be “very large, very well forged.” As dis­tressed as Vic­tor Hugo may have felt about Notre-Dame’s future, its orig­i­nal builders were sure­ly con­fi­dent that they were cre­at­ing a sur­vivor.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Dig­i­tal Scans of Notre Dame Can Help Archi­tects Rebuild the Burned Cathe­dral

A Vir­tu­al Time-Lapse Recre­ation of the Build­ing of Notre Dame (1160)

Paris in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images from 1890: The Eif­fel Tow­er, Notre Dame, The Pan­théon, and More (1890)

Notre Dame Cap­tured in an Ear­ly Pho­to­graph, 1838

Take an Aer­i­al Tour of Medieval Paris

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Real D‑Day Landing Footage, Enhanced & Colorized with Artificial Intelligence (June 6, 1944)

Steven Spiel­berg’s Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan drew great acclaim for its har­row­ing depic­tion of “D‑Day,” the 1944 Allied land­ing oper­a­tion that proved a deci­sive blow against Nazi Ger­many. More specif­i­cal­ly, Spiel­berg and his cre­ators recre­at­ed the land­ing on Oma­ha Beach, one of five code-named stretch­es of the Nor­mandy coast. The video above depicts the land­ing on anoth­er, Juno Beach. This, its uploader stress­es, “is not the famous movie D‑day the Sixth of June but actu­al and real footage.” No won­der it feels more real­is­tic than that 1956 Hen­ry Koster spec­ta­cle — and, in anoth­er way, more so than Spiel­berg’s pic­ture, whose use of not just col­or and widescreen dimen­sions but advanced visu­al effects made World War II vis­cer­al in a way even those who’d nev­er seen com­bat could feel.

The tak­ing of Oma­ha Beach was assigned to the Unit­ed States Army, with sup­port from the U.S. Coast Guard as well as the U.S., British, Cana­di­an and Free French navies. As such, it made a suit­able inclu­sion indeed for an Amer­i­can war sto­ry like Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. Juno Beach, how­ev­er, was pri­mar­i­ly a Cana­di­an job: that coun­try’s army land­ed there under sup­port from the Roy­al Cana­di­an Navy (with addi­tion­al help from sev­er­al oth­er Allied navies).

As on Oma­ha Beach, the troops who first land­ed on Juno Beach came under heavy Ger­man fire and sus­tained seri­ous casu­al­ties. But with­in two hours the Allied forced man­aged to over­come these coastal defens­es and began mak­ing their way inland — a direc­tion in which the 3rd Cana­di­an Infantry Divi­sion man­aged to push far­ther than any of D‑Day’s oth­er land­ing forces.

These Juno Beach D‑Day clips ben­e­fit from a tech­nol­o­gy unavail­able even in Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan’s day: arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence-based enhance­ment and col­oriza­tion process­es. Orig­i­nal­ly shot in black-and-white like most (but not all) Army footage of the 1940s, it’s been “motion-sta­bi­lized, con­trast- and bright­ness-enhanced, de-noised, upscaled, restored to full HD and arti­fi­cial­ly col­orized.” The result looks crisp enough that any­one with­out first-hand mem­o­ries of the West­ern Front — a gen­er­a­tion, alas, now fast leav­ing the stage — may well for­get that it isn’t a war film but a film of war. None of the par­tic­i­pants are re-enac­tors: not the Allied troops board­ing their boats by the hun­dreds, not Gen­er­al Dwight D. Eisen­how­er, not the Ger­man pris­on­ers of war, and cer­tain­ly not the wound­ed and dead. What’s more, none of their actions are rehearsed: as the 77th anniver­sary of D‑Day approach­es, we should remem­ber that, what­ev­er the brav­ery on their faces, not one of these men could have felt assured of vic­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Nor­mandy Inva­sion Cap­tured on 16 mm Kodachrome Film (1944)

Pho­to Archive Lets You Down­load 4,300 High-Res Pho­tographs of the His­toric Nor­mandy Inva­sion

Watch Col­orized 1940s Footage of Lon­don after the Blitz: Scenes from Trafal­gar Square, Pic­cadil­ly Cir­cus, Buck­ing­ham Palace & More

Dra­mat­ic Col­or Footage Shows a Bombed-Out Berlin a Month After Germany’s WWII Defeat (1945)

Bryan Cranston Nar­rates the Land­ing on Oma­ha Beach on the 75th Anniver­sary of the D‑Day Inva­sion

David Lynch Recounts His Sur­re­al Dream of Being a Ger­man Solid­er Dying on D‑Day

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malev­o­lent lit­er­ary device for cramp­ing the growth of a lan­guage and mak­ing it hard and inelas­tic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dic­tio­nary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could nev­er acquire sticks and stones’ capac­i­ty to wound.

Talk about a max­im no longer worth the paper it was print­ed on!

Lan­guage is organ­ic. Def­i­n­i­tions, usage, and our response to par­tic­u­lar words evolve over time.

Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er Ilan Sta­vans’ TED-Ed les­son, Who Decides What’s in the Dic­tio­nary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when school­mas­ter Robert Caw­drey assem­bled the first Eng­lish lan­guage dic­tio­nary “for the ben­e­fit of Ladies, Gen­tle­women, and oth­er unskilled folk.”

Oth­er Eng­lish dic­tio­nar­ies soon fol­lowed, expand­ing on the 2,543 words Caw­drey had seen fit to include. His fel­low authors shared Caw­drey’s pre­scrip­tive goal of edu­cat­ing the rab­ble, to keep them from butcher­ing the high-mind­ed tongue the self-appoint­ed guardian con­sid­ered it his duty to pro­tect.

Word­smith Samuel John­son, the pri­ma­ry author of 1775’s mas­sive A Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, described his mis­sion as one in which “the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of our lan­guage may be fixed, and its attain­ment facil­i­tat­ed; by which its puri­ty may be pre­served, its use ascer­tained, and its dura­tion length­ened.”

Lest we think John­son over­ly impressed with the impor­tance of his lofty mis­sion, he sub­mit­ted the fol­low­ing gen­tly self-mock­ing def­i­n­i­tion of Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er:

A writer of dic­tio­nar­ies; a harm­less drudge that busies him­self in trac­ing the orig­i­nal, and detail­ing the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of words.

150 years lat­er, Ambrose Bierce offered an oppos­ing view in his delight­ful­ly wicked dic­tio­nary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pesti­lent fel­low who, under the pre­tense of record­ing some par­tic­u­lar stage in the devel­op­ment of a lan­guage, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiff­en its flex­i­bil­i­ty and mech­a­nize its meth­ods.

Sta­vans points to broth­ers George and Charles Merriam’s acqui­si­tion of the rights to Noah Webster’s An Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage (1828) as a moment when our con­cept of what a dic­tio­nary should be began to shift.

Web­ster, work­ing by him­self, set out to col­lect and doc­u­ment Eng­lish as it was used on these shores.

The Mer­ri­ams engaged a group of lan­guage experts to curate sub­se­quent edi­tions, strik­ing a blow for the idiom by includ­ing slang and region­al vari­ants.

A good start, though they exclud­ed any­thing they found unfit for the gen­er­al con­sump­tion at the time, includ­ing expres­sions born in the Black com­mu­ni­ty.

Their edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing was of a piece with pre­vail­ing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like lan­guage, evolve.

These days, lex­i­cog­ra­phers mon­i­tor the Inter­net for new words to be con­sid­ered for upcom­ing edi­tions, includ­ing pro­fan­i­ty and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be wide­spread, sus­tained and mean­ing­ful, in it goes… even though some might find it objec­tion­able, or even, yes, hurt­ful.

Sta­vans wraps his les­son up by draw­ing our atten­tion to Merriam-Webster’s tra­di­tion of anoint­ing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the words peo­ple look up in extreme­ly high num­bers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a tes­ta­ment to how deeply non-bina­ry gen­der expres­sion has per­me­at­ed the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and nation­al con­ver­sa­tion.

The run­ner up?


Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How a Word Enters the Dic­tio­nary: A Quick Primer

A Dic­tio­nary of Words Invent­ed to Name Emo­tions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemö­dalen, Son­der, Chrysal­ism & Much More

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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From Peter Childs (Head of the Dyson School of Design Engi­neer­ing at Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Lon­don) comes a free course that explores cre­ative think­ing tech­niques, and how to apply them to every­day prob­lems and glob­al chal­lenges. The course descrip­tion for Cre­ative Think­ing: Tech­niques and Tools for Suc­cess reads:

In today’s ever-grow­ing and chang­ing world, being able to think cre­ative­ly and inno­v­a­tive­ly are essen­tial skills. It can some­times be chal­leng­ing to step back and reflect in an envi­ron­ment which is fast paced or when you are required to assim­i­late large amounts of infor­ma­tion. Mak­ing sense of or com­mu­ni­cat­ing new ideas in an inno­v­a­tive and engag­ing way, approach­ing prob­lems from fresh angles, and pro­duc­ing nov­el solu­tions are all traits which are high­ly sought after by employ­ers.

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Cre­ative Think­ing will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Long Game of Cre­ativ­i­ty: If You Haven’t Cre­at­ed a Mas­ter­piece at 30, You’re Not a Fail­ure

How Walk­ing Fos­ters Cre­ativ­i­ty: Stan­ford Researchers Con­firm What Philoso­phers and Writ­ers Have Always Known

David Lynch Explains How Sim­ple Dai­ly Habits Enhance His Cre­ativ­i­ty

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