The Negro Motorist Green Book

March 28, 2017


A travel guide published from 1936 to 1966 by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green. Later called the Negro Travelers Green Book, or just the Green Book, it was designed to help Blacks travel safely during the Jim Crow era.


Queen City

March 2, 2013

The Queen City at night

Came across a passage referring to Cincinnati as the Queen City and wondered the origins of it.  After a little bit of research, I discovered there are hundreds of queen cities throughout the world.  The title seems to be given to any city which is second best at something.  Buffalo, for example, is the Queen City of the Great Lakes for being the second largest city on the lakes, next to Chicago.  The town is also the Queen City of New York, as the second largest city, next to New York.

Cincinnati’s use of the title is less clear, but it is clear that it is not because it was second fiddle.  The name goes back at least until 1819, well before the founding of Chicago – the city that will eclipse it in the midwest.  In Cincinnati’s case, queen must be a reference to its beauty, not any status as a runner-up.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the name in his poem “Catawba Wine” which reads:

“And this Song of the Vine,
This greeting of mine,
The winds and the birds shall deliver,
To the Queen of the West,
In her garlands dressed,
On the banks of the Beautiful River.”

Circassian beauties

November 30, 2010

A seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ideal of womanly beauty.  The Circassians are a Muslim people of the non-sovereign state of Adyghe in the North Caucasus.  Their women became famed for their beauty during the height of the Ottoman Empire when many of them served in the sultans harem.  Beauty products were sold with the Circassian name and P.T. Barnum began to feature supposed “Circassian beauties” in his sideshows to appeal to their oriental exoticism (his women were identifiable by their bushy hair reminiscent of 1970s afros that bore no resemblance to fact).


September 4, 2009

Defenestrate is one of those favorite words for anyone interested in history in high school, and threat of defenestration became a staple threat of cranky teachers both trying to cow and awe their students.  The word means to throw through a window and it is immortalized through the famous Defenestration of Prague.  Shockingly, Prague seemed to be the sort of place where people are thrown out windows all of the time, and there are actually two defenestrations of Prague.  The first occured on July 30, 1419, when a crowd of angry Hussite’s threw several members of the town council out of a window killing them.  A lego depiction of the event can be found here.

The second, more famous defenestration occurred on 23 May 1618 as a result of a conflict over Protestant chapels being built on land claimed by the Catholic Church.  Two Catholic governors and their scribe were defenestrated by a Protestant assembly from the Bohemian Chancellery, one hundred feet up, and landed in a pile of manure and survived.  The Catholic Church claimed they were saved by angels, and the event was key in the start of the Thirty Years’ War.  Here is a woodcutting of the event.

What triggered my use of this word today was this Newsweek article on South Africa’s District Six, the segregated settlement that inspired the movie District 9.  Note the caption to the photo: “Neill Blomkamp’s new blockbuster, District 9 (left), was inspired by the Cape Flats (right), which were populated by defenestrated inhabitants of South Africa’s real-life District Six.”  I’ve read the article and at no point is their any discussion of anyone being thrown out a window.  I can only assume the author meant the word figuratively, but I’ve never heard of a figurative defenestration.  Neither has the O.E.D.

See y’all on Tuesday!

Labyrinth of Jerusalem

July 9, 2009

n. A twisted path drawn into the ground to aide in prayer and meditation.

One last word from Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  Also known as a prayer labyrinth or meditation labyrinth, a Labyrinth of Jerusalem is a popular pagan ritual adopted by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.  While one would focus on the following the winding path to the center, one would reflect upon God.  Without knowing its name, I walked one of these at a church in California (interesting because they supposedly have fallen out of favor in modern times).

According to Wikipedia, the most famous of these can be found at the Cathedral of Chartes and seen here.  The standard maze design, including the one I walked on as well as the Chartes, can be found here


July 8, 2009

n. A  circuit criminal court, common in medieval Europe.

Another term from Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  Apparently, the court still exists in some places today, but they were a common form of judicial procedure in medieval England.  Franklin’s book is set around the time of Henry II’s Assize of Clarendon in 1166.  The event is noteworthy, Franklin explains, because it marks a shift in the British judicial system, away from trial by ordeals and trial by battles toward the more modern model of evidence and testimony and trial by jury.

Trial by ordeal, the process of determining guilt by whether or not the accused survives a painful process, has been most famously parodied by Monty Python in this famous scene from the Quest For the Holy Grail.  Trial by battle is exactly what it sounds like, a Thunderdome form of meting out justice.  The Assize of Clarendon did not eliminate these forms entirely, but it was the beginning of the end for these barbaric systems of justice.