The following column by Jim LeMonds was published in the March 2009 issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly.
I taught a Shakespeare class at R. A. Long High School for nearly 20 years. The students loved the characters, and, despite the passage of four centuries, had no trouble relating to the conflicts faced by Hamlet, Prince Hal, Othello, and Benedick.
The language, however, was another matter. Shakespeare frequently referred to Greek mythology, English history, geography, and politics. Footnotes were helpful but, at times, even they weren’t enough.
When my students complained about Shakespeare’s seemingly incomprehensible references to Eastcheap, Moorditch, Bristol Castle, Tewksbury, St. Albans, and so many more, I talked about William “the Refrigerator” Perry, who rose to prominence with the Chicago Bears during the mid-1980s. Perry attained iconic status when Coach Mike Ditka began to use the 380-pound defensive lineman as a running back in goal line situations.
At that time, a reference to “The Fridge” was clearly understood. I asked my students whether that would be true in 400 years.
I thought of Shakespeare and William Perry as I read Karen Johnson’s transcription of a letter titled “Through the Bowels of the Land,” written in 1852 by Pacific Northwest traveler Edwin Allen.
I was quickly drawn in by Allen’s references to Ford’s Prairie, the Monticello Convention, Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company, John Jackson, and the Lewis, Kalama and Cowlitz rivers because they have relevance for me. I stayed with him when he alluded to Dickens and quoted Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – “Some (men) are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
But other references had me resorting to Google[i].
- “Governor (John )Gaines” – Served as governor of the Oregon Territory from 1850-1854.
- “Hogarth” – 18th century English painter.
- “Doniphans’ (sic) men” – Most likely volunteers under Alexander Doniphan who fought in the Mexican-American War in 1846 and ’47.
- “General Lane” – Possibly Confederate general James Lane.
- “Kamakers” – Local historian Irene Martin informed me that this was probably a misspelling of Kanakis, a name for Hawaiian laborers under contract to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
We are all captives of our time period – its language and its mores. Allen’s reference to “squaws” and “half breeds” would rightly be considered disparaging and unacceptable today. Fifty years ago, whites referred to blacks as colored then as Negroes and now as African-Americans.
While most of Allen’s language was accessible to me and I found the letter entertaining and informative, I also wondered if that will be the case for readers a century from now.
The world changes, and language changes with it. That’s one of the reasons we’re most comfortable with people our own age. They share our history, and – where communication is concerned – history is the greatest common denominator. Without it, we have no meaningful nouns and verbs – only prepositions and adverbs that are little more than an excuse to move our lips.
[i] Internet search engine developed in 1997.