August 28, 2019

Words of the Month - Disease-Written

        Nowadays we tend to think of words for diseases as being quite clinical and precise, but before medical science had come that far, names for various illnesses and conditions gained much more colloquial use.  In fact, many adjectives we use today had their origins in the names of diseases.  I hope you’re feeling healthy as we enter the disease-ridden corridors of the English language…

poxy - an adjective of general insult.  The word pox covers a variety of diseases that cause sores or pustules, such as chicken pox and smallpox as well as syphilis.  The adjectival form started with the literal sense of having pox, and within 50 years had become a more general insult.  Presumably the negative social implications of syphilis added to its insulting connotation, but also the fact that pox can also mean any plague or curse more generally.

mangy - scabby; squalid, shabbyMange is a skin disease which causes poor condition of the fur.  The word may have been applied to humans more commonly in earlier centuries, but now is used only of animals.  The use of the adjectival form would seem to be quite obvious, but apparently took over a century to develop in English.

scurvy - contemptible, despicable.  The disease scurvy is caused by deficiency of vitamin C, causing a whole host of unpleasant symptoms.  Apparently in this case the adjective came first, meaning scabby and generally ill and disgusting, and was adopted as a name for the disease about half a century later.  It is no mere coincidence that we tend to hear the word now primarily in Pirate Speak, because scurvy was notoriously a disease of sailors, and a sailor with scurvy was notoriously useless.

rickety - unsteady, likely to collapse.  This is the adjectival form of the disease rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that became especially common among children during the Industrial Revolution.  Its effect is failure of bones to develop properly, meaning that a rickey person is indeed unsteady.  Nowadays it is used only of objects such as furniture, and no longer applied to people.  The disease itself is no longer common except in conjunction with areas of general malnutrition, so the disease is much less known than the adjective, and the figurative use is the only one that remains.

measly - contemptibly small.  The measles is a disease which causes little spots all over, and perhaps the adjective comes from the size of the spots.  On the other hand, it may just come from the general pattern of disease adjectives to become insults indicating little worth.  What’s interesting here is that the adjective’s connection to the noun seems to have entirely disappeared as far as common usage goes.  How many people complaining of a measly serving of food have any idea of the word’s origins?

jaundiced - affected with bitterness or envy, with a distorted or cynical view.  The disease jaundice is caused by an excess of bile in the blood, which gives skin and the whites of eyes a yellowish color.  The color yellow as well as the humor “yellow bile” were associated in classical and medieval medicine with anger, aggression, and envy, although the figurative use of the adjective is not recorded until about 1620.

myopic - shortsighted, lacking foresight or insight.  The medical condition of myopia is simply near-sightedness.  The figurative sense presumably had to wait until the neo-Latin medical coining of the eighteenth century had made its way into common usage.  What’s interesting about this one, as opposed to, say, rickety, is that when you call something or someone myopic meaning “narrow-minded” you are very conscious that this is a metaphoric use.  

        There are a couple of general themes here.  The first is how easily suffering from a disease or medical condition makes one an object of contempt.  Clearly it is not desirable to have a disease, and having unpleasant symptoms is a bad thing, however it is interesting to note that a “scurvy dog” is not simply an innocent sufferer deprived of necessary vitamin C.  To call someone scurvy is to say they are worthless.  A second note is that before hospitals and quarantines and modern privacy, people lived cheek by jowl with diseases of all sorts, were all too familiar with their symptoms, and were quite understandably horrified by the victims.  Under those conditions it isn’t surprising that people would more readily use words for diseases in colorful figurative ways, and I suspect that we will not be seeing much in the way of new adjectives coming from new medical terms taking on metaphorical meanings.  And finally, adjectives are more likely to take on an independent life, no longer tied to their original diseases, when the diseases become less common and/or when the older words for the diseases are replaced with more precise clinical jargon, leaving the older words alone with their colloquial meanings.

[Pictures: Aztec smallpox victims, drawing by anonymous artist, 16th century (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Rickets, wood engraving by Albert Abramowitz, 1935-43 (Image from The Met).]

August 21, 2019

Bestiary Progress Report

        The Kickstarter campaign for my mythical bestiary ended three and a half months ago, so here’s an update on what’s been happening since then:
        1. I completed the last few block prints, including the custom creatures designed for the highest-tier backers, and I worked on the writing, editing, proof-reading, finalizing, tweaking, and re-tweaking, as well as converting all the files to the CMYK color profile the printer requires.  So I was all finished with the content of the bestiary… until…
        2. I decided that I needed to add another creature (the wapaloosie), make a new author portrait, and sprinkle yet a few more little critters here and there (including this pyrallis.  What’s a pyrallis?  More here.)  So I finished up those blocks, and got them integrated into the layout, which required the writing of some new text and a certain amount of pushing and shoving in the notes pages.
        3. The next task was producing a pdf to the specifications required by the printer.  This was a new one for me.  I thought the whole point of a pdf was that it was a pdf, but no, only certain pdf formats will do for these guys.  Much frustration ensued, including calling in help from a couple of generous neighbors, and the third attempt was the charm.
        4. Once the cover and interior pdfs were uploaded and passed the automated check, there was a more in-depth check by the printer, followed by a digital proof for me to check.  I looked it over this morning and it seems good, so all that remains is to order a physical proof copy.  This will be when I confirm that colors are accurate and printing is sharp.  (Or, of course, discover that they are not okay, at which point I will have to redo some percentage of everything.  Needless to say, I hope it will not come to that.)
        5. Meanwhile, the magnets have arrived!  (Sets of mythical creature magnets were one of the pledge prizes in the Kickstarter campaign.  I’ll also be selling them at my upcoming shows.)  In order to keep the cost down, I ordered them in large sheets and have to cut them apart myself.  I’ve been doing a few at a time for a couple of weeks and I now have about 50 sheets cut, so I’m making progress.  I think they look good, and so does my daughter as an independent witness.
        I also need to start work on the calendars (another pledge prize) while I await my proof copy of the bestiary.  And to help educate and entertain you in the meantime, here’s a map of where the bestiary’s featured creatures hail from.  This map won't appear in the book, primarily because of the ambiguity of assigning locations to some of the beasts.  Should they be put in the place that tells stories about them, or in the place where the stories say they reside?  (Lots of cultures have stories of exotic creatures that live in other lands far distant.)  Where should they be pinpointed when their legends are widespread, or shifted over time?  What about creatures that don't come from this Earth at all?  Still, this map gives a general idea of their diversity: heavy on Europe and the Middle East, but a sprinkling across the rest of the globe.
        The beasts and I have been busy!

[Pictures: Dragonfly (Pyrallis), rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Mythical creature magnets;
Map of creature locations.]

August 14, 2019

First Impressions of London

        William Caxton set up the first printing press in England in 1476 and got right to work with this edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  This leaf is displayed in the Museum of London (which, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone who gets a chance to visit).  The typeface, while not particularly legible to my modern eyes, is modelled on contemporary handwriting, and is quite beautiful.  For this piece, as the others featured today, I have no way of knowing who might have been responsible for the actual design and carving of any blocks.

        Four years later Caxton published The Chronicles of England, with this illustration of London.  Practices of the day being what they were, I suspect it is merely a generic city, rather than an attempt at accuracy.  The towers do not particularly resemble those of the White Tower of London, which would have been a major icon at the time, but perhaps they were considered close enough.  The image illustrates the mythical story of the founding of London by Brutus of Troy, and of course the city doesn’t look very Trojan or Roman in this picture, either.  Nevertheless, it’s a very pleasing little wood block print with its crowd of walls and windows and spires.  This particular sheet comes from an edition of 1497, printed by Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde.
        This seventeenth century view of London is not any more recognizable, but to be fair, most of the London it depicts was wiped away by the fire it depicts.  The Great Fire of London was in 1666 and this image comes from 1651, courtesy of astrologer William Lilly and his book of predictions about the future of England.  He was far from the only one predicting a great fire, and I suspect that any reasonable person looking at the great heap of flammable material that was the City of London could surmise that it was only a matter of time.  Lilly, however, was famous enough for his prediction that after the Great Fire the Commons Committee investigating it called him in for questioning.  Pleading that he really had not known any details, he was released.  Far better to be deemed a poor astrologer than a successful arsonist.  All that’s tangential, however, to the charm of the wood block print, which really has
wonderful details, especially the ships on the Thames.  I include also my photo of the book as it’s displayed  in the Museum of London because I really like the pictures on the facing page, as well.  I have no information as to what they might foretell, although I’d guess that the dragon could represent Wales and the lion England.  Taking it at face value, however, it appears that a dragon once upon a time encountered a mole, and for reasons unknown they tied their tails together.  They subsequently separated, a lion came along, and they all lived happily ever after?  The picture of London burning seems a lot more literal of interpretation.
        I ran into plenty of other relief block prints in the various museums we visited, so it doesn't take an astrologer to foretell that more will appear here in time.

[Pictures: Page from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“The Clerk’s Tale”), William Caxton, 1476;
London, wood block print from The Chronicles of England published by Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, 1497 edition;
Predicting the Great Fire, wood block print from Monarchy or No Monarchy by William Lilly, 1651 (Image from Museum of London; other photos taken by AEGN at the Museum of London).]

August 7, 2019

Impressions of London

        Today’s theme is block prints of London, and I’m sticking with the iconic sights.  This first one, by Abigail Daker, covers all the bases with all the famous skyline elements from St Pauls and Big Ben to the Gherkin and London Eye.  Everything’s stacked up cheek by jowl, not laid out the way it is in real life or any way you could possibly see it; it’s a London sundae.  I especially love the way the background is patterned.

        Big Ben returns in this second piece, by Katie Jo Heiner Shupe, along with some of London’s smaller icons: a telephone box and a double decker bus.  This one is capturing a particular specific scene.  I like the details of every stone of the sidewalk and the building framing the picture on the left, and the textured clouds in the sky.
        By contrast, here’s a piece with sparser lines and lots of white space depicting the Tower of London by Lance Duffin.  It may be simple, but it captures all the necessary details so that its subject is instantly recognizable.
        We couldn’t possibly depict London without the Underground, so here’s the Piccadilly Station entrance with its iconic round symbol, and the statue on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in the background.  Fun fact: although usually called Eros, the statue was originally intended to depict Anteros, Eros’s little brother and god of requited love.  As for the block print,  by John Gledhill, it’s especially interesting in not putting white outlines around the various black objects, including the posts flanking the underground entrance and the man’s suit and briefcase.

        And finally, a juxtaposition of old and new: St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge, by Susan Short.  This one has an interesting depiction of the shadow of the bridge’s cables falling across its pier and the Thames below, but perhaps the most interesting thing is that it’s printed on paper that has a subtle wood grain pattern.  This makes a lovely, pale, slightly rosy sky in the large blank area that emphasizes our low viewpoint.
        So, five cool views of the city of London, five artists, five different icons on which to focus, with different styles, different levels of detail and texture.  (It's also interesting that 4/5 are in vertical rather than "landscape" format.)  What fun!

[Pictures: Central London Skyline and Landmarks, linocut print by Abigail Daker (Image from the artist’s Etsy shop abidaker);
London, linocut print by Katie Jo Heiner Shupe (See the artist’s Etsy Shop BonVoyart);
Tower of London, linocut by Lance Duffin, 2018 (Image from Flickr);
Piccadilly III, linocut by John Gledhill, c 2014 (Image from the artist’s web site.)
St Pauls & Millenium Bridge, woodcut by Susan Short (Image from the artist’s web site.)]