Linus’s Blanket in Special Collections

20 Dec

Grad School Lesson #1121 (or something like that) – don’t spend 10 hours in an archives with nothing but a protein bar to eat. It was a productive day, but sleep deprivation and inadequate nutrition left me crabby and tired by the end of it. I suppose standing for nearly three hours in the special collections reading room probably didn’t help either, but I was so engrossed in the 1771 Dictionnaire universel that I didn’t really notice. Who knew such a work could be so fascinating? I’m sure it would bore most people to tears, but I am intrigued by words and how their meanings change over time. For one of the papers I’m preparing for publication, I trace the etymology of the word “civilization” (civilisation, in French), and the Dictionnaire I worked with today was the first of its kind to define civilisation in its modern sense.

While I was paging through volumes of the enormous 240-year-old books, I began to wonder how the French understood other concepts that have some bearing on the essay’s topic. For instance, I looked up the word “sauvage,” which is so often mistranslated in English as “savage.” It was the term most often used to describe American Indians, and I wondered after nearly two centuries of colonization in North America how the French defined it. For the minority who might be a tad curious… The first definition given in the dictionary applied the word to wild, undomesticated animals who lived far from places frequented by people. Then, in a separate paragraph, the author states that it was also used to describe “people who roam the woods without a fixed home, without laws, without police, and almost without religion … [who] live by hunting, fishing, and from the bounty of the Earth” (vol. 7, p. 567). This definition is quite similar to what may have been given in 1608 when Quebec was founded, but I am planning to check the earliest Jesuit Relations from 1610-1612 tomorrow to see if my hypothesis is correct. From what I remember of previous research in both primary and secondary sources, this seems to have been the consensus of many Frenchmen prior to their arrival in North America. Once they became acquainted with Native American communities and cultures, they were forced to drastically revise their previously held notions.

Grad School Lesson #1122 (which I’ve mastered): Always wear layers to an archives.  I knew I would be in the special collections reading room today, which is kept the same temperature as the rooms housing all of the books – a balmy 65 degrees (or maybe it was 68). Given that I prefer 80 degrees, that’s cold! I came prepared though – a long sleeve shirt, a wool sweater, a scarf, and a wrap that looks suspiciously like a cream version of Linus’s trusty blanket, and it serves nearly as many purposes.  Today, it became a booster seat for the few minutes I sat.  I swear all of the desks and wooden, unadjustable chairs in the library were designed for 6′ 2″ men, not women who barely reach 5′ 5″ on a good day.  And none of them were meant for typing.  It’s probably a good thing I had to spend so much time on my feet. The tables are so tall, I can type almost comfortably while standing.  Once again, my cozy wrap came in handy, as I shivered under my wool sweater and my hands began to go numb.  I huddled up in it and found that the third layer made the reading room temperature bearable and almost comfortable.  Tomorrow I’ll be in the second floor reading room, which is much warmer, but the tables and chairs are all the same height there as they are in special collections.  Time to haul out my trusty blanket… I mean wrap… or cushion… or…


Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Research


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4 responses to “Linus’s Blanket in Special Collections

  1. Murakami

    December 21, 2011 at 7:12 am

    The interesting thing is the drift in connotation as time passes and more and more people make the word their own. I get a sense too in what you’re writing of, of a certain thing I call “metaphorical drift” as the meaning of a word moves from a more concrete definition to one that is more ethereal in substance, much more metaphorical. For example, “arm” and “leg” as “upper limb” and “lower limb” respectively: “Arm” drifted to become metonymously associated with “weapon” as “arms” – e.g. “He was heavily armed.” As that metaphorical use of the word “arm” became the standard use of the word as a connotative definition it grew and acquired even more connotative and then denotative meanings. We speak of “arms” and “legs” of chairs (as in those ones made for scholars much larger than you) without thinking of the way that those are “dead” metaphors. “Really – the upper and lower limbs of a chair?” That’s always the “drift”: from concrete, exclusionary and definitive to abstract, inclusive and connotative. I suppose that in translation throughout the ages those are the meanings that always get lost and confused. To tell a non-native American English speaker that “He was out of his head with worry” would confuse them greatly. How does one go out of his head? It only works on that metaphorical level, and metaphors always get confused in translation. It is funny then, how one academic’s use of a metaphor can be taken literally after translation when it becomes the repeated foundation for other academic examinations. It is truly “savage.”

    Remember, Linus does need that blanket, and using it doesn’t make him any lesser.

  2. Svetlana Zayas

    December 27, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Wow! Thank you! I permanently needed to write on my website something like that. Can I take a portion of your post to my site?

    • pilgrim752

      December 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      Sure. I would just ask that you cite it. Glad I could be of some help!

  3. Sergio Losinger

    February 6, 2012 at 6:36 am

    Thanks for your post, it was interesting and compelling. I have found my way here through Google, I will get back once more 🙂


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