February 28th, 1939: A Dord by Any Other Name is Still Not a Word


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The Paris Review, February 24, 2016

One of the areas of history that I’ve always found fascinating is etymology – the study of where words come from and, sometimes more importantly, why they become part of our culture. There’s a reason, for example, why in addition to saying we have bad dreams, we also say we have nightmares: a “mare” in German folklore is an evil demon that sits on the chest of a sleeping person, choking out the good thoughts and leaving them with only bad things to dream about.


New words are born all of the time. Sometimes they’re invented to describe a new object that’s never had a title before. The internet. Ambivert. Tetraseasonal.  Sometimes we add meaning to a word in a way it’s never been looked at before. In 2018, not only birds Tweet, and you should Google the name of that snack you’re texting to make sure you’re not being catfished by her selfie.

Once a word enters our lexicon, there’s no test to whether or not it’s “officially” part of our language.  Language is dynamic; if we use it, it’s now part of the annals of our history. No committee sits around marking a list of vocab words with a big red REJECT stamp when they don’t seem like they’re worthy of a place in our etymological history, and on the inverse, there’s no single body that can make a word accepted. No, not even the folks over at Merriam-Webster.

The company traces its roots back to two of the earliest collectors of words – Noah Webster and the George and Charles Merriam Co., having merged when the latter bought the rights to Webster’s dictionary after his death in 1843. The company’s dictionaries are kind of the de facto record of English language usage. If you play me in Scrabble, and I can’t find your word in the old M-W, you’re not getting any points from me. The company employs lexicographers to find, cite, record, research, and ultimately decide to publish (or not) new words.

Still, they’re only human. Humans make mistakes. And today in 1939, someone noticed one of those mistakes. Dord.

Here’s what seems to have happened. Way back in 1931, one of those human lexicographers, Austin Patterson, submitted an abbreviation for the word density: “D or d.”  Patterson specialized in scientific terms, specifically chemistry, and it wasn’t unusual for abbreviations to be included in the publication. Unfortunately for Patterson, his submission was misinterpreted as a word in and of itself. Dord was published in Webster’s Second New International three years later as an alternative word for density and went unnoticed for an additional five years.

Dord. Six Scrabble points. Zero etymological context.  It was removed from the dictionary upon the next printing, and few were any the wiser. Still, it makes you wonder how many people, searching for a clever word to use for a school assignment or to use in conversation, referred to the quantity of mass per unit volume using this pseudo-word.

February 14, 1779- Captain Cook is Killed in Hawaii


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The Death of Captain Cook, The British Museum 


Talking about Valentine’s Day on Valentine’s Day would be too easy, so let’s instead turn to everyone’s favorite subject: death and dismemberment!

Today’s victim: Captain James Cook, British explorer responsible for beginning the cultural erosion of the Hawaiian islands by setting into motion a complex series of social, cultural, and biological exchanges and calling it “discovery!”

In all fairness, Cook was a product of the times and his environment. A Royal Navy master whose experiences in the Seven Years War provided a taste of the thrill of exploration. He spent the next several years exploring the Pacific in places like New Zealand and Tahiti before making his way to Hawaii in January of 1778. Christening them the Sandwich Islands, he left for a bit to check things out off the North American coast, and then made his reappearance the following November.

This time, he happened to arrive during a religious harvest holiday and, even more remarkably, his ship seemed to resemble religious artifacts that the native Hawaiians were familiar with. This may or may not have caused Cook and his crew to be seen as brought by, or embodied by, some religious being once they made contact. The historical jury is still out on that one.


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Captain James Cook, The British Museum 


After a few weeks, things started to get tense and there were small skirmishes and accusations of theft on both sides. Cook tried to take off again, but had trouble with the mast on one of his ships caused him to return after a few days. This time, it seems that the native Hawaiians were both unconvinced of his deification and tired of him coming and going as he pleased while taking resources without regard to their traditions or customs. In response to a missing cutter, Cook and a small crew moved inland in an attempt to kidnap a powerful chief, Kalani`opu`u.

Imagine that kind of self-aggrandism and machismo – to think that you were within your rights to exploit an entire nation of people and then kidnap their leader  when they start to become suspicious of your intentions. Some historians have postured that Cook may have been ill – physically and mentally – leading to some of his irrational behaviors.

Unfortunately for Cook, this decision cost him his life. The villagers fought back to keep their chief on dry land, and the Captain was bludgeoned and stabbed to death.

“Cook was last seen alive standing on the rocks and waving to the boats to cease fire and to come in closer. A man slunk up behind him, hesitated once or twice as he approached, and struck Cook on the back of the head with a club. Cook staggered to his knees. Another man then sprang up behind him and drove an iron dagger into the back of his head. A marine immediately dropped him with a musket shot. Cook crumpled into the water in a heap. The mob fell upon him and held him under water. He struggled up with a final gesture and was beaten with rocks about the head and repeatedly stabbed with iron daggers that were snatched from one hand by another to share in the killing.” (source)

Dozens of Hawaiians were killed in retaliation before a truce was called. Hawaii, of course, would soon be visited by even more Europeans and, in their wake, missionaries who converted them to Christianity and discouraged their traditions and customs. Their last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was overthrown by an American business faction just a little over 100 years after Cook’s voyages.

February 12, 1554 – Lady Jane Grey is Beheaded


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Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, National Gallery of London


Nine days. That’s all Lady Jane’s reign as Queen of England lasted.  Two-hundred and sixteen hours, give or take, from the time she was usurped and arrested. Seven months later, she would be dead.

Historians still have a hard time classifying Jane Grey’s role in the English monarchy – specifically whether she was a legitimate monarch or just a pawn in a dangerous game of power and intrigue.  Only sixteen years old and undoubtedly naive to the situation into which she was cast into, Jane is generally seen as a sympathetic figure whose death was the result of an orchestrated power grab for the throne.

To understand why Jane died, we need to first talk about how she even got to the palace in the first place, and to do that we first need to talk about her great-uncle, Henry VIII. You’ve undoubtedly heard about Uncle Hank’s penchant for marrying and discarding a bevy of women and then having them beheaded in order to move on to the next one. His marital machismo has been exaggerated a bit by history – although he did indeed order the execution of two of his wives, he divorced two more and left a widow, Catherine Parr, when he died at 55 years old.

Henry’s died as a father of three – Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward VI. Mary was a product of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a staunch Catholic whom he divorced only after leaving the church and starting his own form of Protestantism that he was in charge of.  Like her mother, she remained devoted to the Roman faith and not at all fond of Protestantism. Elizabeth’s mother was converted Protestant Anne Boyelyn, Catherine’s former lady-in-waiting and – unfortunately – the first to fall under the axe when Henry’s passion for her died out. Edward was the son Henry had waited so long for, a sickly boy whose mother, Jane Seymour (Anne’s lady-in-waiting and arguably Henry’s favorite wife) died just weeks after giving birth to him. Raised Protestant, Edward seemed poised to keep the nation Anglican after his father’s death.

Unfortunately, it became apparent that Edward was unlikely to secure an heir before dying. He suffered from a lung disease – possibly tuberculosis – that caused him to suffer greatly. His death would mean that the succession of the English throne would fall to his Catholic sister Mary, and that Protestantism would be likely be outlawed or punished.

Here’s where Jane comes in. After the king’s death, Jane was sent to live with Thomas Seymour, Edward’s uncle. Seymour had married Henry VII’s widow, Catherine Parr. It must have been a fascinating household dynamic – the young king’s uncle, now married to his step-mother, also raised his half-sister, Elizabeth. Adding to the mix that Seymour had shown interest in marrying Elizabeth prior to marrying her step-mother and was often described as overly affectionate towards her, and the arrangement seems vastly more inappropriate.

Jane was Parr’s ward, an interesting and antiquated arrangement where children from noble but maybe lesser economically inclined households were sent to live with more affluent relatives under the guise of learning manners and graces. Catherine’s death after childbirth shortly after left her at the mercy of Seymour, who was constantly at odds with his own brother, also named Edward, for control over the young king.
After a bizarre incident where he tried to break into the king’s sleeping quarters, shooting one of his pet dogs in the process, Seymour was arrested and executed for treason. Yeah, it got really weird there for a bit.

Having seen her household fall apart after the death of Parr and Seymour, Jane married Guildford Dudley, the son of the Duke of Northumberland. It was Guildford’s father, John, who seemed to be most instrumental in what would happen next – pressuring the dying, teenaged King Edward VI to name Jane as his successor, skipping over both Mary and Elizabeth. When Edward passed away on July 6th, 1553. The council appointed Jane as Queen of England and Ireland on July 10th.

Mary, as you may suspect, was simply not having it. She set out, willing to physically capture Jane, rallying troops along the way. Hoping to prevent all-out religious war, and recognizing the support Mary had by Catholics and Protestants alike, the Privy Council denounced her appointment nine days later, allowing Mary to become Queen.

Jane was arrested, along with Guildford, put on trial for treason, and found guilty. There is some argument that her life may have been spared; Mary also came close to killing her sister Elizabeth but ultimately chose not to sign her execution order. Perhaps, despite her rather unfair bloodthirsty image as a woman furiously cleansing England of Protestantism one death at a time, she didn’t take the killing of blood relatives that lightly.

Her death was really precipitated by her father – ironic when you consider he hadn’t been much of a fixture in her life in a decade. His participation in Wyatt’s Rebellion, prompted by Queen Mary’s decision to marry Philip of Spain, made Jane’s continued presence a liability that couldn’t be chanced.

Seven months after their arrest, on this day in 1554, Jane and Guildford were executed. Jane was likely just seventeen years old. Mary went on to rule for just four more years before dying, childless, and naming Elizabeth as her successor, bringing Protestantism back to the English throne after all.

February 9th, 1913: The Great and Mysterious Meteor Procession

“To most observers, the outstanding feature of the phenomenon was the slow, majestic motion of the bodies; and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained.” – University of Toronto astronomer, Clarence Chant (source)

On a cloudy and cold February evening in 1913, residents of eastern North America witnessed an astronomical phenomenon that modern scientists are still struggling to define.

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Painting by Gustav Hahn / Image: University of Toronto Archives (A2008-0023/P), © Nathalie McMinn

Dozens of brightly colored “fireballs” tore through the sky, one after another, sometimes in small clusters. They were bright and described as being red and yellow in color. As the traveled faster into view, some observers noticed that they were followed by a large, tailless ball. Some people also reported hearing an accompanying noise and felt a slight shaking of the ground.

But the fireballs didn’t act like a normal meteor may- there was no fizzle, no downward journey as they plummeted to Earth. In fact, these strange meteors seemed to follow an orbit- an observation proven by the wide berth in which they were spotted from Canada down to the Brazilian coast. More than a meteor shower, this was more of a procession – a cosmic parade of light that almost looked synchronized against the night sky for nearly five minutes.

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Source: Sky and Telescope

What kind of strange meteors would behave this way? If this had happened a hundred years later, we would surely have multiple sources of video and photographic evidence to dissect and analyze. Instead, we must rely on eyewitness accounts – more than a hundred of them- to solve the puzzle, and modern science may provide a surprising answer.

The leading theory? That the fireballs seen cascading in parallel arcs weren’t just regular meteors, but evidence of a temporary “minimoon” that orbited the Earth for a period of time before dissolving. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s not unheard of.  Scientists have discovered asteroids that enter into a sustained orbit of the Earth – sucked in by our planet’s gravitational pull, they become a natural satellite that orbits similar to our moon.

Of course, not all scientists are in agreement. Some felt that the procession was nothing more than an ordinary meteor shower, but that the untrained eye’s perception caused observers to view it as more. Since no known terrestrial evidence exists of what happened that night in 1913, we may never know for sure.