Harvard Removes the Human Skin Binding from a Book in Its Collection Since 1934

In June of 2014, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s Houghton Library put up a blog post titled “Caveat Lecter,” announc­ing “good news for fans of anthro­po­der­mic bib­liop­e­gy, bib­lio­ma­ni­acs, and can­ni­bals alike.” The occa­sion was the sci­en­tif­ic deter­mi­na­tion that a book in the Houghton’s col­lec­tion long rumored to have been bound in human skin — the task of whose retrieval once served, they say, as a haz­ing rit­u­al for stu­dent employ­ees — was, indeed, “with­out a doubt bound in human skin.” What a dif­fer­ence a decade makes: not only has the blog post been delet­ed, the book itself has been tak­en out of from cir­cu­la­tion in order to have the now-offend­ing bind­ing removed.

“Har­vard Library has removed human skin from the bind­ing of a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s book Des des­tinées de l’âme (1880s),” declares a stren­u­ous­ly apolo­getic state­ment issued by the uni­ver­si­ty. “The volume’s first own­er, French physi­cian and bib­lio­phile Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839–1933), bound the book with skin he took with­out con­sent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hos­pi­tal where he worked.” Hav­ing been in the col­lec­tion since 1934, the book was first placed there by John B. Stet­son, Jr., “an Amer­i­can diplo­mat, busi­ness­man, and Har­vard alum­nus” (not to men­tion an heir to the for­tune gen­er­at­ed by the epony­mous hat).

“Bouland knew that Hous­saye had writ­ten the book while griev­ing his wife’s death,” writes Mike Jay in the New York Review of Books, “and felt that this was an appro­pri­ate bind­ing for it — ‘a book on the human soul mer­its that it be giv­en human cloth­ing.’ ” He also “includ­ed a note stat­ing that “this book is bound in human skin parch­ment on which no orna­ment has been stamped to pre­serve its ele­gance.” This copy of Des des­tinées de l’âme isn’t the only book rumored — or, with the pep­tide mass fin­ger­print­ing (PMF) tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped over the past decade, con­firmed — to have been bound in human skin. “The old­est reput­ed exam­ples are three 13th-cen­tu­ry Bibles held at the Bib­lio­thèque Nationale in France, write the New York Times’ Jen­nifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs.

Jay also men­tions the espe­cial­ly vivid exam­ple of “an 1892 French edi­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug, adorned with a skull emblem, is gen­uine human skin: Poe en peau humaine.” In gen­er­al, Schuessler and Jacobs note, the largest num­ber of human skin-bound books “date from the Vic­to­ri­an era, the hey­day of anatom­i­cal col­lect­ing, when doc­tors some­times had med­ical trea­tis­es and oth­er texts bound in skin from patients or cadav­ers.” Now that this prac­tice has been retroac­tive­ly judged to be not just deeply dis­turb­ing but offi­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic (to use the vogue term of recent years) it’s up to the anthro­po­der­mic-bib­liop­e­gy enthu­si­asts out there to deter­mine whether to put the items in their own col­lec­tions to the PMF test — or to leave a bit of macabre mys­tery in the world of anti­quar­i­an book-col­lect­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Har­vard Libraries (and Else­where in Boston)

When Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Recy­cled & Used to Make the First Print­ed Books

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

A Mes­mer­iz­ing Look at the Mak­ing of a Late Medieval Book from Start to Fin­ish

3,500 Occult Man­u­scripts Will Be Dig­i­tized & Made Freely Avail­able Online, Thanks to Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

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

How the 13th-Century Sufi Poet Rumi Became One of the World’s Most Popular Writers

The Mid­dle East is hard­ly the world’s most har­mo­nious region, and it only gets more frac­tious if you add in South Asia and the Mediter­ranean. But there’s one thing on which many res­i­dents of that wide geo­graph­i­cal span can agree: Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥam­mad Rūmī. One might at first imag­ine that a thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry poet and mys­ti­cal philoso­pher who wrote in Per­sian, with occa­sion­al for­ays into Turk­ish, Ara­bic, and Greek, would be a niche fig­ure today, if known at all. In fact, Rumi, as he’s com­mon­ly known, is now one of the most pop­u­lar writ­ers in not just the Mid­dle East but the world; Eng­lish rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of his verse have even made him the best-sell­ing poet in the Unit­ed States.

“The trans­for­ma­tive moment in Rumi’s life came in 1244, when he met a wan­der­ing mys­tic known as Shams of Tabriz,” writes the BBC’s Jane Cia­bat­tari. She quotes Brad Gooch, author of Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love, describ­ing them as hav­ing an “elec­tric friend­ship for three years,” after which Shams dis­ap­peared. “Rumi coped by writ­ing poet­ry,” which includes 3,000 poems writ­ten for “Shams, the prophet Muham­mad and God. He wrote 2,000 rubay­at, four-line qua­trains. He wrote in cou­plets a six-vol­ume spir­i­tu­al epic, The Mas­navi.” He did all this work in ser­vice of what, in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, Stephanie Honchell Smith calls his ulti­mate goal: “the reuni­fi­ca­tion of his soul with God through the expe­ri­ence of divine love.”

How is such a love to be accessed? “Love resides not in learn­ing, not in knowl­edge, not in pages in books,” Rumi declared. “Wher­ev­er the debates of men may lead, that is not the lover’s path.” He pur­sued it through devo­tion to Shams’ Sufism, “par­tic­i­pat­ing in rit­u­al­ized danc­ing and preach­ing the reli­gion of love through lec­tures, poet­ry, and prose.” Lat­er in life, he shift­ed “from ecsta­t­ic expres­sions of divine love to vers­es that guide oth­ers to dis­cov­er it for them­selves,” incor­po­rat­ing “ideas, sto­ries, and quotes from Islam­ic reli­gious texts, Ara­bic and Per­sian lit­er­a­ture and ear­li­er Sufi writ­ings and poet­ry.” Per­haps there can be no full appre­ci­a­tion of Rumi’s work with­out a schol­ar’s under­stand­ing of the lan­guages and cul­tures he knew. But if his sales fig­ures are any­thing to go by, the long­ing into which his com­plex work taps is uni­ver­sal.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Mys­ti­cal Poet­ry of Rumi Read By Til­da Swin­ton, Madon­na, Robert Bly & Cole­man Barks

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

500+ Beau­ti­ful Man­u­scripts from the Islam­ic World Now Dig­i­tized & Free to Down­load

The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Ani­mat­ed (622‑1453)

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

Download Issues of “Weird Tales” (1923–1954): The Pioneering Pulp Horror Magazine Features Original Stories by Lovecraft, Bradbury & Many More

We live in an era of genre. Browse through TV shows of the last decade to see what I mean: Hor­ror, sci-fi, fan­ta­sy, super­heroes, futur­is­tic dystopias…. Take a casu­al glance at the bur­geon­ing glob­al film fran­chis­es or mer­chan­dis­ing empires. Where in ear­li­er decades, hor­ror and fan­ta­sy inhab­it­ed the teenage domain of B‑movies and com­ic books, they’ve now become dom­i­nant forms of pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive for adults. Telling the sto­ry of how this came about might involve the kind of lengthy soci­o­log­i­cal analy­sis on which peo­ple stake aca­d­e­m­ic careers. And find­ing a con­ve­nient begin­ning for that sto­ry wouldn’t be easy.

Do we start with The Cas­tle of Otran­to, the first Goth­ic nov­el, which opened the door for such books as Drac­u­la and Franken­stein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short sto­ries and poems cap­ti­vat­ed the public’s imag­i­na­tion and inspired a mil­lion imi­ta­tors? Maybe. But if we real­ly want to know when the most pop­ulist, mass-mar­ket hor­ror and fan­ta­sy began—the kind that inspired tele­vi­sion shows from the Twi­light Zone to the X‑Files to Super­nat­ur­al to The Walk­ing Dead—we need to start with H.P. Love­craft, and with the pulpy mag­a­zine that pub­lished his bizarre sto­ries, Weird Tales.

08_wtcover_1949_07

Debut­ing in 1923, Weird Tales, writes The Pulp Mag­a­zines Project, pro­vid­ed “a venue for fic­tion, poet­ry and non-fic­tion on top­ics rang­ing from ghost sto­ries to alien inva­sions to the occult.” The mag­a­zine intro­duced its read­ers to past mas­ters like Poe, Bram Stok­er, and H.G. Wells, and to the lat­est weird­ness from Love­craft and con­tem­po­raries like August Der­leth, Ash­ton Smith, Cather­ine L. Moore, Robert Bloch, and Robert E. Howard (cre­ator of Conan the Bar­bar­ian).

In the magazine’s first few decades, you wouldn’t have thought it very influ­en­tial. Founder Jacob Clark Hen­nen­berg­er strug­gled to turn a prof­it, and the mag­a­zine “nev­er had a large cir­cu­la­tion.” But no mag­a­zine is per­haps bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the explo­sion of pulp genre fic­tion that swept through the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and even­tu­al­ly gave birth to the jug­ger­nauts of Mar­vel and DC.

Weird_Tales_1934-09_-_The_People_of_the_Black_Circle

Weird Tales is wide­ly accept­ed by cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans as “the first pulp mag­a­zine to spe­cial­ize in super­nat­ur­al and occult fic­tion,” points out The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion (though, as we not­ed before, an obscure Ger­man title, Der Orchideen­garten, tech­ni­cal­ly got there ear­li­er). And while the mag­a­zine may not have been wide­ly pop­u­lar, as the Vel­vet Under­ground was to the rapid spread of var­i­ous sub­gen­era of rock in the sev­en­ties, so was Weird Tales to hor­ror and fan­ta­sy fan­dom. Every­one who read it either start­ed their own mag­a­zine or fan­club, or began writ­ing their own “weird fic­tion”—Lovecraft’s term for the kind of super­nat­ur­al hor­ror he churned out for sev­er­al decades.

Fans of Love­craft can read and down­load scans of his sto­ries and let­ters to the edi­tor pub­lished in Weird Tales at the links below, brought to us by The Love­craft eZine (via SFFau­dio).

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Sep­tem­ber 1923 – Sep­tem­ber 1923

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Octo­ber 1923 – Octo­ber 1923

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Jan­u­ary 1924 – Jan­u­ary 1924

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, March 1924 – March 1924

Impris­oned With The Pharaohs – May/June/July 1924

Hyp­nos – May/June/July 1924

The Tomb – Jan­u­ary 1926

The Ter­ri­ble Old Man – August 1926

Yule Hor­ror – Decem­ber 1926

The White Ship – March 1927

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Feb­ru­ary 1928 – Feb­ru­ary 1928

The Dun­wich Hor­ror – April 1929

The Tree – August 1938

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part XIII: The Port – Sep­tem­ber 1946

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part X: The Pigeon-Fly­ers – Jan­u­ary 1947

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part XXVI: The Famil­iars – Jan­u­ary 1947

The City – July 1950

Hallowe’en In A Sub­urb – Sep­tem­ber 1952

Fans of ear­ly pulp hor­ror and fantasy—–or grad stu­dents writ­ing their the­sis on the evo­lu­tion of genre fiction—can view and down­load dozens of issues of Weird Tales, from the 20s to the 50s, at the links below:

The Inter­net Archive has dig­i­tized copies from the 1920s and 1930s.

The Pulp Mag­a­zine Project hosts HTML, Flip­Book, and PDF ver­sions of Weird Tales issues from 1936 to 1939

This site has PDF scans of indi­vid­ual Weird Tales sto­ries from the 40s and 50s, includ­ing work by Love­craft, Ray Brad­bury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Stur­geon.

And to learn much more about the his­to­ry of the mag­a­zine, you may wish to beg, bor­row, or steal a copy of the pri­cy col­lec­tion of essays, The Unique Lega­cy of Weird Tales: The Evo­lu­tion of Mod­ern Fan­ta­sy and Hor­ror.

06_wtcover_1948_07

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the First Hor­ror & Fan­ta­sy Mag­a­zine, Der Orchideen­garten, and Its Bizarre Art­work (1919–1921)

Enter a Huge Archive of Amaz­ing Sto­ries, the World’s First Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Launched in 1926

Down­load 15,000+ Free Gold­en Age Comics from the Dig­i­tal Com­ic Muse­um

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

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How a Bach Canon Works. Brilliant.

Bril­liant. This mov­ing man­u­script depicts a sin­gle musi­cal sequence played front to back and then back to front. Give the video a lit­tle time to unfold and enjoy.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

The Romans Stashed Hallucinogenic Seeds in a Vial Made From an Animal Bone

What’s pop­u­lar in the metrop­o­lis soon­er or lat­er makes its way out into the provinces. This phe­nom­e­non has become more dif­fi­cult to notice in recent years, not because it’s slowed down, but because it’s sped way up, owing to near-instan­ta­neous cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion on the inter­net. Well with­in liv­ing mem­o­ry, how­ev­er, are the days when what­ev­er was cool in, say, New York or Los Ange­les would take time to catch on in the rest of the US. This went for fash­ions, movies, and bands, of course, but also for mind-alter­ing sub­stances: dis­tant-future archae­ol­o­gists are as like­ly to unearth a Vel­vet Under­ground album and the remains of its own­er’s stash in the ruins of Cleve­land as those of Chelsea.

A rough­ly anal­o­gous dis­cov­ery from the ancient world was recent­ly made by Dutch zooar­chae­ol­o­gists Maaike Groot and Mar­ti­jn van Haasteren and archaeob­otanist Lau­ra I. Koois­tra, who this past Feb­ru­ary pub­lished a paper in the jour­nal Antiq­ui­ty on “evi­dence of the inten­tion­al use of black hen­bane (Hyoscya­mus niger) in the Roman Nether­lands.” A mem­ber of the night­shade fam­i­ly, black hen­bane is “an extreme­ly poi­so­nous plant species that can also be used as a med­i­c­i­nal or psy­choac­tive drug,” the researchers write. It may have been the lat­ter pur­pose that encour­aged the cre­ation of a pecu­liar arti­fact: “a sheep/goat bone that had been hol­lowed out, sealed on one side by a plug of a black mate­r­i­al and filled with hun­dreds of black hen­bane seeds.”

“Phys­i­o­log­i­cal reac­tions to black hen­bane were well doc­u­ment­ed through­out the Ancient Mediter­ranean world,” writes Hyper­al­ler­gic’s Elaine Velie. She quotes Greek philoso­pher Plutarch as describ­ing its effects as “not so prop­er­ly called drunk­en­ness” but rather “alien­ation of mind or mad­ness.” Pliny the Elder “dis­cussed the plant’s med­i­c­i­nal, hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry, and poten­tial­ly lethal effects, not­ing that although it could be tak­en to heal ail­ments rang­ing from coughs to fever, the drug could also cause insan­i­ty and derange­ment. The Greek and Roman physi­cian Dioscorides wrote that black hen­bane and its close cousins could alle­vi­ate pain, but cause dis­ori­en­ta­tion when boiled.”

It would be nat­ur­al to assume that this hol­lowed-out, plugged bone func­tioned as some kind of pipe for smok­ing hen­bane. Though Groot, van Haasteren, and Koois­tra don’t find evi­dence for that, nei­ther do they rule out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it was the stash box, if you like, of some res­i­dent of the Roman Nether­lands two mil­len­nia ago. Groot points out to Velie the espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ing ele­ment of a “poten­tial link between med­i­c­i­nal knowl­edge described by Roman authors in Roman Italy and peo­ple actu­al­ly using the plant in a small vil­lage on the edge of the empire.” Though far from Rome itself, this hen­bane stash’s own­er pre­sum­ably used it how­ev­er the Romans did. If it met with dis­ap­proval, this indi­vid­ual could have resort­ed to a still-famil­iar refrain: “Hey, it’s med­i­c­i­nal.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Drugs Used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans

Humans First Start­ed Enjoy­ing Cannabis in Chi­na Cir­ca 2800 BC

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Down­load 100,000+ Images From The His­to­ry of Med­i­cine, All Free Cour­tesy of The Well­come Library

Pipes with Cannabis Traces Found in Shakespeare’s Gar­den, Sug­gest­ing the Bard Enjoyed a “Not­ed Weed”

Carl Sagan on the Virtues of Mar­i­jua­na (1969)

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

How Las Vegas’ Sphere Actually Works: A Looks Inside the New $2.3 Billion Arena

If the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca is the Roman empire of our time, sure­ly it must have an equiv­a­lent of the Colos­se­um. A year ago, you could’ve heard a wide vari­ety of spec­u­la­tions as to what struc­ture that could pos­si­bly be. Today, many of us would sim­ply respond with “the Sphere,” espe­cial­ly if we hap­pen to be think-piece writ­ers. Since it opened last Sep­tem­ber, Sphere — to use its prop­er, arti­cle-free brand name — has inspired more than a few reflec­tions on what it says about the inter­sec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and cul­ture here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, not to men­tion the con­sid­er­able ambi­tion and expense of its design and con­struc­tion.

A $2.3 bil­lion dome whose inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or are both enor­mous screens — vis­i­ble, one often hears, even from out­er space — Sphere would hard­ly make sense any­where in Amer­i­ca but Las Vegas, where it makes a good deal of sense indeed. Its loca­tion has also made pos­si­ble such irre­sistible head­lines as “Sphere and Loathing in Las Vegas,” below which the Atlantic’s Char­lie Warzel gets into the details of this “archi­tec­tur­al embod­i­ment of ridicu­lous­ness,” includ­ing its sur­pris­ing ori­gin: “Accord­ing to James Dolan, the enter­tain­ment mogul who financed the Sphere, the inspi­ra­tion for the build­ing came from ‘The Veldt,’ a 1950 short sto­ry by Ray Brad­bury” involv­ing a fam­i­ly house with giant screens for walls that can ren­der what­ev­er the chil­dren imag­ine.

Nat­u­ral­ly, the kids get hooked, and when Mom and Dad try to inter­vene, the screens send forth a pack of lions to eat them. “Though the Sphere’s mar­ket­ing pitch doesn’t explic­it­ly men­tion being mauled by big dig­i­tal cats,” Warzel writes, “I got the notion that at least part of the allure of com­ing to the Sphere is a desire to be over­whelmed.” How, exact­ly, the venue mar­shals its advanced tech­nol­o­gy to do that over­whelm­ing is explained in the MegaBuilds video at the top of the post. With its form not quite like any event space built in human his­to­ry, it neces­si­tat­ed the inven­tion of every­thing from a cus­tom cam­era sys­tem to audio-per­me­able screen sur­faces, none of which came cheap.

Hence the cost of see­ing a show at Sphere, whether it be the Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s “docu-film” Post­card from Earth, U2’s Achtung Baby-based res­i­den­cy ear­li­er this year, or the now-show­ing Dead & Com­pa­ny, which revives not just the Grate­ful Dead in their var­i­ous incar­na­tions over the decades, but also the sto­ried venues in which they played. Its view­ers could hard­ly fail to be aston­ished by the sheer spec­ta­cle, even if they know noth­ing of the Dead­’s col­or­ful his­to­ry. All of them will no doubt be moved to con­sid­er his­to­ry itself: that of human­i­ty, tech­nol­o­gy, and civ­i­liza­tion, all of which has led up to this rare thing Warzel calls “a brand-new, non-phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” Say what you will about the over­stim­u­la­tion and excess rep­re­sent­ed by Sphere; if you can blow a Dead­head­’s mind, you’re def­i­nite­ly on to some­thing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Absurd Logis­tics of Con­cert Tours: The Behind-the-Scenes Prepa­ra­tion You Don’t Get to See

U2’s Bono & the Edge Give Sur­prise Con­cert in Kyiv Metro/Bomb Shel­ter: “Stand by Me,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “With or With­out You”

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Japan’s Inflat­able Con­cert Hall

Stream a Mas­sive Archive of Grate­ful Dead Con­certs from 1965–1995

Read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as It Was Orig­i­nal­ly Pub­lished in Rolling Stone (1971)

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

Oh My God! Winston Churchill Received the First Ever Letter Containing “O.M.G.” (1917)


Win­ston Churchill is one of those pre­pos­ter­ous­ly out­sized his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who seemed to be in the mid­dle of every major event. Even before, as Prime Min­is­ter, he steeled the resolve of his peo­ple and faced down the Third Reich jug­ger­naut; even before he loud­ly warned of the Nazi men­ace before it was polite to do so; even before he was pil­lo­ried in the press for the dis­as­trous Gal­lipoli inva­sion dur­ing WWI, Churchill was a famous and con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure. As a young cav­al­ry offi­cer, he left his post in India to report on the bloody colo­nial cam­paign in the Swat Val­ley in present-day Pak­istan. His huge­ly pop­u­lar arti­cles pushed the mil­i­tary slang word “sniper” into pop­u­lar use. Dur­ing the sec­ond Boer War, Churchill was not only cap­tured at gun­point by future South African prime min­is­ter Louis Botha but he man­aged to suc­cess­ful­ly escape from his POW camp. And after being pushed out of the gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing Gal­lipoli, he returned to the mil­i­tary as a Lieu­tenant Colonel and com­mand­ed a bat­tal­ion of troops in France. He also won a Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1953 and was, as we’ve recent­ly seen, a pret­ty good painter too.

Add to this one more tri­umph: he unwit­ting­ly had a hand in shap­ing the speech pat­terns of teenaged girls some 50–60 years after his death. Churchill was the recip­i­ent of a mis­sive con­tain­ing the first ever usage of the oft-texted acronym “O.M.G.”. Accord­ing to the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, O.M.G.’s ori­gins can be traced back to a let­ter to Churchill from Admi­ral John Arbuth­not Fish­er, sent on Sep­tem­ber 9, 1917. After com­plain­ing about the state of affairs of the Navy dur­ing the war, Fish­er clos­es with the fol­low­ing lame joke: “I hear that a new order of Knight­hood is on the tapis – O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) – Show­er it on the Admi­ral­ty!!”

Churchill’s rela­tion­ship with Fish­er was com­plex. While he was the First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty, Churchill brought Fish­er out of retire­ment in 1911 to head the roy­al navy. Their rela­tion­ship went south in 1915 fol­low­ing the fail­ure of the Dar­d­anelles cam­paign. Churchill was still round­ly blamed most­ly because of Fisher’s loud, pub­lic protes­ta­tions. (In fact, had the naval offi­cers pushed through the Dar­d­anelles to Con­stan­tino­ple, as Churchill com­mand­ed, the war would have like­ly end­ed years ear­li­er than it did.) Yet, much to his wife’s dis­may, Churchill remained cor­dial enough with Fish­er to exchange friend­ly notes.

The first online usage of O.M.G., by the way, came on a usenet forum about soap operas in 1994. Churchill does not appear to be con­nect­ed to that instance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Win­ston Churchill Gets a Doctor’s Note to Drink Unlim­it­ed Alco­hol While Vis­it­ing the U.S. Dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion (1932)

What Hap­pens When Mor­tals Try to Drink Win­ston Churchill’s Dai­ly Intake of Alco­hol

Win­ston Churchill Goes Back­ward Down a Water Slide & Los­es His Trunks (1934)

Win­ston Churchill’s List of Tips for Sur­viv­ing a Ger­man Inva­sion: See the Nev­er-Dis­trib­uted Doc­u­ment (1940)

Jonathan Crow: You can fol­low him at @jonccrow

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A heads up on a deal: Between today and June 23, 2024, Cours­era is offer­ing a 40% dis­count on its annu­al sub­scrip­tion plan called “Cours­era Plus.” Nor­mal­ly priced at $399, Cours­era Plus (now avail­able for $239.40) gives you access to 7,000+ cours­es for one all-inclu­sive sub­scrip­tion price. This includes Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cates from lead­ing com­pa­nies. Take for exam­ple the Data Ana­lyst Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from Meta, the UX Design Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from Google, or the AI Devel­op­er Pro­fes­sion­al Cer­tifi­cate from IBM.

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Note: Open Cul­ture has a part­ner­ship with Cours­era. If read­ers enroll in cer­tain Cours­era cours­es and pro­grams, it helps sup­port Open Cul­ture.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.