During the rule of Charlemagne in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the Carolingian Renaissance saw the revival of Latin studies, the creation of a royal scriptorium, Alcuin’s revision of the Vulgate Bible, and the advent of a minuscule (lowercase) writing system, which eased the labor of copying. Charlemagne himself, however, could barely write a word in any language.
Committed to learning the principles of Latin grammar as a child in Mexico in the 1650s, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz recalled that she cut her hair very short, and if she had not “learned such and such a thing” by the time it grew out, she “would again cut it off as punishment for being so slow-witted.”
Henry James said in 1915, “The war has used up words; . . . they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms.” While writing A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway copied out part of this interview, wrote above it “on the debasement of words by war,” and gave his main character the line, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
“But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?/It speaks, and yet says nothing.” An apt description of TV, Marshall McLuhan said, when he quoted Shakespeare in Understanding Media. Romeo’s line is in fact “She speaks, yet she says nothing,” and refers to Juliet, who is likened to light—and it actually occurs in the play ten lines after the first.
Using symbolically coded messages hidden in beer barrels, Catholic conspirators communicated with the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, about a plan to kill Elizabeth I. Francis Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster, obtained a message, employed a codebreaker, and found evidence that Mary approved of the assassination. She was beheaded for treason in 1587.
Before the entire palette of modern mathematical notation existed, Johannes Kepler relied on musical notation to describe the planets’ rotation around the sun in his Harmonies of the World, published in 1619. The plus and minus signs were introduced in print in 1489 by Johann Widman, and the equal sign in 1557 by Robert Recorde, but the multiplication sign (×) was not introduced until 1631, by William Oughtred; modern exponential notation in 1637, by René Descartes; and the obelus (÷) to indicate division in 1659, by Johann Rahn.
Papal indulgences were brisk business for early printers, since they were single sheets and the type did not need to be reset. Between 1498 and 1500, the Benedictine monastery in Catalonia commissioned more than 200,000 indulgences from printers in the area. A total of two thousand single-sheet items survive from the whole of the fifteenth century; over one-third are indulgences.
Referring to the printers’ strike that began in St. Petersburg in 1905 and helped to inaugurate the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote, “They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per thousand letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike—that is, a strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.”
Having surrendered at the Appomattox Court House earlier that year, Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1865 became the president of Washington College—now Washington & Lee University—where he suggested, “The study of the mother tongue in any country is an important element of polite education, and is moreover valuable for its practical utility and necessary relation to other branches of learning.” He established in 1869 a chair in English language and literature, the first of its kind in the United States.
Concluding that he and Bertrand Russell possessed irreconcilable “value judgments,” Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote Russell on March 3, 1914, to suggest that a continued correspondence could only be achieved by “restricting our relationship to the communication of facts capable of being established objectively, with perhaps also some mention of our friendly feelings for one another.”
From 1929 to 1965, Sherman Billingsley ran the Stork Club, called by columnist Walter Winchell “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” Among its patrons were Orson Welles, Grace Kelly, Tallulah Bankhead, and Frank Sinatra. When photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life in 1944, Billingsley shared the hand signals he used to communicate with his waiters: hand on tie (no bill for the table); hand touching nose (unimportant people, do not cash their checks); hands interlocked, thumb raised (get them out and don’t let them back in); and pulling ear (summon me to a phone call).
In order to economize while sending a telegram, people sometimes relied on code books that reduced phrases to single words. From the third version of Anglo-American Telegraphic Code, published in 1891: Babylonite (Please provide bail immediately), Titmouse (I [we] accept with pleasure your invitation for the theater tomorrow evening), Mahogany (Malaria prevails extensively), Enringed (the news causes great excitement).