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The History of -Ess

August 16, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.


-ess (or -esse): from ME -esse < OF < LL -issa < Greek
-Merriam-Webster Online



English borrows words from many languages. One way to identify the origin of a word is to look at the word parts. Today’s blog will outline some details about the suffix -ess (or -esse). When investigating a single morpheme, such as -ess, the dictionary is a good place to start. In this case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists -ess as a noun suffix which means “female.” In other words, -ess does not mean female by itself, but that when attaching it to a specific noun, that noun becomes gendered. So, instead of steward, we have stewardess, or a female flight attendant, for example. Or instead of host, we have hostess.

The next thing to notice from the dictionary entry is the suffix’s etymology. One of my favorite parts of a dictionary is the line that reads like a math equation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ess suffix comes from Middle English (ME) -esse, which comes from Old French (OF), which comes from Late Latin (LL), and originates in Greek. However, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition offers a slight adjustment. The following note changes Old French to “Anglo-French” in this entry. The note explains their reasoning:

“Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label ‘Anglo-French’ (abbreviated AF) to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label ‘Anglo-French’ should not be taken to mean that the etymology is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings.”

This note alone demonstrates the complexity involved in tracing etymologies. It is often hard to find the date that a word came into English usage as well as the parameters which define a specific language such as Anglo-French or Old French. And though suffixes were common in Old Engish, documents demonstrate that English borrowed this specific suffix from French about a century after the Norman Conquest.

One of the oldest known usages of -ess in English comes from the Ancrene Wisse, which is a Guide for Anchoresses written in the early 13th century. Since the anchoress tradition no longer exists today in the same form, the term has also fallen out of use. However, the Middle English offers insight into the suffix -ess itself.

-Ess is of particular interest to me because what was once so popular has now become almost an anathema. For example, female TV and radio show hosts now prefer host over hostess, because the latter sounds more like someone throwing a party than an official job title. In other words, hostess runs the risk of belittling or demeaning rather than granting respect. Likewise, stewardesses are now flight attendants and actresses prefer actor. (It is interesting to note that the decline of stewardess has also dropped the usage of steward, while actors and hosts remain unchanged.)

Dictionary.com notes that: “Nouns in -ess denoting occupation or profession are rapidly disappearing from American English. Airlines now refer to cabin personnel as flight attendants, not stewards and stewardesses. In the arts, authoress, editress, poetess, sculptress, and similar terms are either rejected or discouraged and almost always replaced by author, editor, poet, sculptor. Nouns in -ess designating the holder of public office are hardly ever encountered in modern American usage. Women holding the office of ambassador, mayor, or governor are referred to by those titles rather than by the older, sex-marked ambassadress, mayoress, or governess. (Governess has developed a special sense in relation to childcare; this use is less common in the U.S. than in Britain.) Among other terms almost never used in modern American English are ancestress, directress, instructress, manageress, oratress, postmistress, and proprietress. If the sex of the performer is not relevant to performance of the task or function, the neutral term in -er or -or is now widely used.”

The suffix -ess demonstrates one of the many, many ways in which language is always changing. -Ess seems to capture the instability of this precise juncture in history which combines women’s rights, Me Too movements and political rhetoric. Our desire for precision, accuracy and political correctness adjusts our speech, whether we notice it or not.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of language, or suffixes, I suggest the following resources (in addition to dictionaries, of course!).

  1. The History of English Podcast on suffixes

  2. The Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. The Dictionary of Prefixes and Suffixes by Manik Joshi

  4. The Ancrene Wisse

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The Day After Independence

July 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

What happened the day after independence? Or the next day, or the day after that? How does one go about constructing a cohesive, yet flexible, democratic society? What is it like to transition from a single goal – defeat the British – to a much more fluid goal of a free society? To better understand some of the history of this period, I have been reading Cokie Roberts’s books Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Roberts includes some amazing research which helps to paint the picture of the day. She worked tirelessly reading through notes, letters, receipts, transactions, logs – basically any existing writing which would offer clues about the time period. With this research, she writes eloquently about the struggles of founding a nation – and also the prominent female voices of this time period. Roberts cautions that these are not books about the common experience of the day, but rather ones focused on those with means and power. Today’s blog will glean a few details about the powers that be in the years that followed the fight for independence. I truly appreciate Roberts’s work and recommend these books to anyone interested in the history of America and/or women’s rights in general.

Ladies of Liberty begins with the death of George Washington, which had the potential to be a truly destabilizing event. Washington was revered by all. He and Martha had long served the country and in his wake, Martha received many visitors long after George was no longer in office. He died during John Adams’s presidency at a time of rising factions in the U.S. and problems with the French. In fact, Washington had warned against both of these things at the end of his presidency. His eloquence did not assist the second president, however. Instead, political rhetoric and vicious party fighting marked the campaign for the second presidency. Roberts writes:

“Political parties emerged in this country soon after the men who had fought together in the Revolution and struggled to ratify the Constitution formed the first federal government. With each side claiming to carry the banner of the Spirit of Seventy-Six, John Adams’s Federalist Party – which advocated a strong central government – was derided as pro-British and monarchical while Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party - more inclined to support states’ rights – was attacked as pro-French and anarchical. Since it was considered unseemly to seek the job of president openly, surrogates waged this first presidential campaign through the bitterly partisan newspapers, with intraparty shenanigans making the outcome unknown. When the ballots were counted the results proved interesting indeed. Under the system at the time, the man with the most Electoral College votes became president, the number two in the tally vice president. As president of the Senate, John Adams announced the totals on February 9, 1797: John Adams 71, Thomas Jefferson 68, Thomas Pinckney (running for vice president as a Federalist) 59, Aaron Burr (running for vice president as a Republican) 30. Not only was it a hair-thin victory for Adams, but the president and vice-president for the first – and last – time would hail from opposing parties.” (8)

In addition to the creation of political parties and state roles such as vice president, the newly born America witnessed the birth of the position of “First Lady.” Both Martha Washington and Abigail Adams worked tirelessly to support their husbands and their country. They viewed civic responsibility with utmost importance and both sacrificed much personal pleasure. Like John Adams, Abigail was in the unique and difficult position of following in Washington’s footsteps. Adams’s presidency also encompassed moves from New York to Philadelphia to D.C., into what would ultimately become the White House. In its initial days, the move was a struggle, making consistency difficult. It also created major problems with entertaining, an important role for any First Lady. Furthermore, the role of entertaining and receiving guests came entirely from the president’s own pockets. Roberts notes, “As the first person to play the role of Second Lady, Abigail enjoyed her time in the temporary capitals – New York, then Philadelphia – but found that the constant entertaining was taking its toll on the family finances, which she had so carefully husbanded for many years” (7).

During John’s reelection bid, Abigail returned to Philadelphia and then to D.C., to no avail. John Adams served only one term before losing to Thomas Jefferson in a bitterly fought battle. During the campaign, Abigail continuously noted the lack of factual information in the papers, which were strongly partisan (something else that Washington had warned about). During the heat of the campaign, John Adams wrote to Abigail from the White House: “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” (42). Roberts notes that today those words are “inscribed above the fireplace of the State Dining Room” (42).

John and Abigail Adams wrote many letters and their correspondence paints a portrait of their characters, strong will, determination and opinions. In fact, Abigail kept up such correspondences that we are blessed to see a rich picture of the day, both in and out of the White House. From these (and other resources), Roberts highlights important American firsts, such as the first American Sunday School set up by Catherine Ferguson in New York City. Her story, like many others in her day, was an unlikely one. Born into slavery, she received freedom only after raising $200 to purchase her independence. It is thought that some of this money came directly from Abigail Adams who opposed slavery. Catherine lamented the numbers of poor children on the streets of New York, and so she “took charge of forty-eight kids, both black and white, either placing them with other people or taking them in herself. In about 1793, when she realized how little the children knew about religion, she set up Katy Ferguson’s School for the Poor in New York City” (53). This school subsequently moved to the Murray Street church which, Roberts tells us, launched the Sunday School movement in New York (53).

Two other exciting finds from Roberts’ research include mentions of female authors at this time. Roberts notes that “Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, published a couple of texts about religion in order to earn a living, making her the first woman in the country to live off her writing income” (53). Other writers included Susanna Rowson, who was a school teacher as well, but published one of America’s first popular novels, Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. In fact, this time period at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s saw great changes in printed materials. As technology advanced, publications reached new and specialized markets, including women’s magazines. Roberts explains that “More publishing meant not only more bookstores but the birth of lending libraries – making books, newspapers, and, especially, magazines available to all comers” (59). Also during this time, Amelia Simmons published the first American Cookbook.

Looking at the political rhetoric of the Thomas Jefferson and John Adams debates - driven largely by media and newspapers, factions and political parties - one realizes that the past is not so distant. On the other hand, education models and recipes evidence a bit more change. Does custom influence one arena more than another? How are customs intertwined with laws? Where do these customs come from and who sets the precedent? This book explores mostly those with money and power, but yet also notes women of small means who took great risks in order to influence higher powers, such as Catherine Ferguson. Certainly their legacy is worth more than a footnote.

America’s founding figures are rich with intrigue, flavor, romance, debate and, of course, politics. I find the reading entirely enlightening, educational, and entertaining.

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An Ancient Southwestern Town

June 14, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Ancient history can be a difficult subject for students because it is inherently foreign to them. Not only is there a language difference, but it is genuinely difficult to envision life removed from today’s technologies. When speaking of ancient cities, most people think of ancient Greece or Rome, but today I want to focus on an ancient city of the southwestern United States.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is a great example of an early city. Archaeologists continue to find information which explains this rare and incredible site to us. Getting there today is not so easy, but in the past, Chaco was the center of a large pueblo system that covered up to 60,000 miles. According to the Chaco Culture Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymillian L. Peschel (Chaco Complete Guide),

“There are 400 miles of documented roads that connected Great Houses in the canyon with perhaps 150 large pueblos in all four directions. Eight roads lead out of the canyon…. The Great North Road is mainly aligned to true (celestial) north. Many road segments are aligned to the rising of stars or constellations. In some places there are two parallel pairs of roads, each thirty feet wide and the pairs separated by 50 feet, for no apparent reason…. Outliers, or great houses outside Chaco, are defined by a cluster of small unit pueblos around large public buildings and great kivas. Many are associated with roadways….Through these outliers there is line-of-sight communication between Chaco and Mesa Verde.”

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Archeologists have identified various construction styles by which they have labeled the phases of Chaco. Archaeologists use dendrochronology (using tree rings to date the construction) as well as noting the level of sophistication in building techniques in order to date the various structures. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, Chaco began as a sparsely populated area. In the beginning (ca. BC 9300) it was used as a hunting ground for mammoth and giant bison. Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indians for this time up until about 5500 BC in which the pueblo peoples enter the Archaic period. As the hunting grounds changed, so did the peoples who used Chaco. They began to leave small camps filled with stone tools. The Chaco Complete Guide adds that, “Around 3000 BC, the size of camps increased, postholes are found, and the atlatl (spear thrower) came into use, as did cooking in large subsurface ovens. But the people still moved with the seasons.” As the community grew, they began to use caves, they developed basketry and grew maize. Between 800 and 400 BC, they cultivated squash.

From 400-700 AD, many changes began to take place. The bow and arrow was introduced as well as pottery. Beans became a staple diet and most importantly, pit houses allowed for full time residences. During this time, the community began to perfect the pit house model by digging down into the earth one or two feet to allow for better temperature regulation. They also added a center hole at the top of the structure for ventilation. Pit houses then became kivas, as the community built surface houses. These structures contain many levels, often with the lowest and darkest levels reserved for storage which might contain pottery, turquoise, food, baskets, etc.

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Chaco stands apart from other plateau pueblos in that during the massive constructions, it became a town. With large plazas, many kivas, and long apartment-style buildings, Chaco was able to support a large population. Those who lived here spoke many languages, but shared customs, traits and religious views. They also traveled between the various pueblos of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. They traded with tribes from Latin and South America. They exchanged ideas which is demonstrated in the various types of construction styles, pottery styles and clothing. Unfortunately, weather finally forced the peoples to relocate. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, “A fifty year drought began in the mid-1100s. If people continued to live in the canyon there is little evidence of it.”

While they may have had to move to new fields and build new homes, however, many people continued to visit and rely upon the spiritual practices found at Chaco Canyon, which are still practiced today. The Hopi, which would have been one of the peoples present in Chaco’s heyday, incorporated a sipapu, or hole in the center of their floor to represent the “emerging hole.” In this tradition, it is said that “Grandmother Spider and two grandsons, the Hero Twins, led the animals and the people out of the dark land. They climbed a pine tree, moving up to a dimly lit world. Grandmother Spider led them on. As they climbed, it got lighter. At last they emerged from a hole in the floor of a canyon. They stepped out into brightness on the surface of the earth.”* At Chaco, too, they felt that “every tribe came into this world from their own ‘emerging place.’ They were each to migrate from place to place, learning what they needed, until it was time to return to their own center place. Chaco Canyon, for all of its magnificence, was just another stop in their migrations.” (Chaco Complete Guide)

Weather ranges greatly at Chaco. While mostly dry, it can quickly become a flood zone. Winds and breezes blow most days, and when they don’t, the air turns hot. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Chacoans found a climate ideally suited to their needs and built one of the southwest’s first true towns. I wonder what they would be able to tell us about trade and immigration, about community and harvests. How long did they wait out the drought before moving on? How did they identify future communities? Was it difficult to leave the grand, bustling city for a quieter, less-trafficked and distant pueblo?

With over 4,000 archaeological sites, Chaco Canyon makes for an excellent research project, vacation destination, or picnic area. Also, each fall, the National Parks celebrate International Archaeology Day. Check back on their website in the upcoming months to find a celebration near you!

And finally, for teachers who need an archaeology-based lesson plan (for mid to high school), the park service has some resources. Here is one potential lesson plan.

* From The Hopis: A First Americans Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, 1995.

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Forget Blue or Brown Eyes, My Baby Will Have Five-Hundred Eyes

August 17, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Ramona Ausubel’s short story “Atria” illustrates the ineffectiveness of logic against constructed but powerful societal pressure. She imagines the struggle of teenage pregnancy through the eyes of Hazel. Regardless of the outside evidence Ausubel provides that the child is a healthy girl, after a non-consensual pregnancy, Hazel cannot be convinced that what she is carrying is in fact human. Still an adolescent, she cannot align herself with her ingrained models of what a mother should be. Overwhelmed by her inadequacies, her loneliness manifests in a child whom she perceives to be as alien as she feels.

Culturally-speaking, sexual experience is often regarded as a divide between adolescence and adulthood, and Hazel falls victim to this ideology. Unplanned by her mother and far younger than her sisters, “Atria” begins with Hazel ready to skip her teenage years. Her vision of adulthood is perfect in its ambiguity—a “small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting” (53). This fantasy is built from glimpses of her family’s life, an incomplete collage Hazel believes she is joining when she lies in the bushes with the gas-station boy Johnny. She agrees to have sex “because, having decided an hour before to say Yes to growing, she could hardly now say No” (54). After the experience, she expects to feel matured, to have undergone her right of passage into adulthood. She feels nothing but regret. A few days later, a much older man approaches Hazel and demands that she follow him. As he leads her away, Hazel asks herself: “Why am I walking? Why am I not drinking a Shirley Temple and adjusting my bikini top over at the country-club pool like all the other girls? Why did I agree to grow up?” (58). She asks herself these things as if her rape correlates with her desire for adulthood, as if her having sex with Johnny bears her culpability in this man’s decision.

Since society expects young women to remain virgins, Hazel keeps her assault a secret until her body refuses to hide it any longer. When she does tell her mother, she describes only the rape. Her omission of Johnny causes Hazel a guilt that solidifies to her with a karmic certainty that the boy must be the father. Because no one understands what led up to Hazel’s pregnancy, she believes no one can understand her child, and her secret transforms the fetus into a mysterious glowing knot of fur with claws and long, yellow teeth. And as the lie progresses, so does the ball of fur, evolving into a bird of prey and later a three-headed giraffe.

Outraged over her daughter’s rape, Hazel’s mother begins a crusade, the town starting up self-defense classes and emergency phone lines in her daughter’s name. The townspeople drop off condolence casseroles and cakes, gifts for the baby. They tell Hazel being raped doesn’t make her a slut, insinuating that a pregnancy by consensual means would. Every gift and comment reminds Hazel that she is being watched, that her rape and pregnancy have made her an anomaly, one vulnerable to judgment. She already knows that if she confessed Johnny as a potential father, the town would shame and reject her. She internalizes the cultural standards and projects them onto her fetus whose strangeness ensures her a place as distant in society as she already feels.

Hazel cannot conceptualize herself as a typical mother, and when she delivers a typical baby girl, she cannot recognize her as her own. She falls asleep without touching the child; however, when she wakes, Hazel finds not a human baby in her crib, but a seal. Her predictions validated, Hazel grows more confident. She sees the mop bucket in the corner and rubs it up and down the baby, believing she needs water. “‘Now that I am mother,’ Hazel said to the baby, ‘I get to set the rules, and the rules are: swimming, sunning, playing. Everything else we ignore’” (72). Stuck between her disparate roles as child and parent, Hazel creates a new position for herself, that of animal-mother, one unmarred by external expectations. With her seal-child, Hazel finally has someone to live on the outside with her, a comrade in her isolation. Conservative society—such as the one Hazel lives in—promotes motherhood as a woman’s ultimate purpose and creates firm ideals as to how a woman should carry out that purpose. Therefore, any slight deviance from expectation—such as Hazel’s youth—can stir feelings of catastrophic failure. Hazel defends against such condemnation by mentally exiling her and her child. Only once she is alone in the room and nursing does Hazel feels secure enough in her own maternal instincts to see her baby’s human arms and legs.

As the atria passes on blood to the heart’s ventricles, society and family pass on expectations to Hazel who passes them on to her child. When the expectations cannot be met, Hazel separates, internally moves to where she cannot be judged and, therefore, cannot fail. While everyone may have ideas on how to raise a human baby, no one has birthed an animal like the one Hazel believes she is carrying and that deviance allots her some protection from scrutiny. Hazel’s point of view allows readers to see how supposedly thoughtful acts—like the townspeople’s delivering of gifts—raise the stakes for Hazel’s secrecy as she knows she does not meet the conditional premises on which they were given. Her perception of her child thereby becomes a defense mechanism, turning outside opinions obsolete and reducing Hazel’s potential deficiencies. Fortunately, the story ends in a moment of escape for Hazel. Alone with her girl at last, Hazel feels less foreign as a mother and sees the little girl begin to shed her animal form.

Ausubel, Ramona. “Atria.” The Guide to Being Born. New York, Penguin, 2013.

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