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5 Things You'll Learn from Public Domain Review's New Book

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We here at mental_floss are huge fans of the website Public Domain Review. Founded in 2011, the site contains a curated collection of the most interesting things in the public domain; its contributors publish essays on some of the cool things they find, a selection of which have been compiled into a new book.

The Book of Selected Essays, 2011 - 2013 is divided into six sections—animals, bodies, words, worlds, encounters, and networks—and is pretty much a must-have for obscure history junkies. “Most of the subjects addressed in these essays—concerned as they are with the small, the unsung, the nooks and shadows—are not the stuff of what Nietzsche called ‘monumental history,’” Adam Green writes in the introduction. But though they aren’t monumental, you’ll probably find that these unfamiliar moments are more interesting than what you learned in history class. PDR was kind enough to send us an early copy of the book; here are five interesting things we learned.

1. ANIMALS WERE ONCE TRIED FOR HUMAN CRIMES.

In “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law,” theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey examines the exceptionally weird history of medieval animal trials. “The trials were conducted with full ceremony,” he writes. “[E]vidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid—a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defense.” A 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, details 200 cases of animals on trial. In one, which took place in 1494 in Clermont, France, a young pig was accused and, at trial, found guilty of entering a home on Easter morning and “strangl[ing] and defac[ing] a child in its cradle,” killing the infant. The judge declared that “the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.” The trials didn't always end so terribly for the animals, though; in another trial, which took place in 1587, weevils arrested for destroying a vineyard "were deemed to have been exercising their natural rights to eat—and, in compensation, were granted a vineyard of their own."

2. PRESIDENT CLEVELAND’S WIFE NAMED HER DOG AFTER THE FIRST POPULAR UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.

In “Trüth, Beauty, and Volapk,” Arika Okrent (Hey! We know her!) writes about Johann Schleyer, a German priest who, in 1879, was told by a divine presence to create a universal language. Volapük, which meant “world speak,” became so popular that there were 200 societies devoted to it by the 1880s, and yes, Frances Cleveland named her dog Volapük. “It was the first invented language to gain widespread success,” Okrent writes. “It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from european languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words.” It was also laden with umlauts. According to Schleyer, “a language without umlauts sounds monotonous, harsh, and boring.” But Volapük’s popularity wouldn't last; it began to fall out of favor in 1890.

3. A MINISTER CLAIMED THAT EDEN WAS LOCATED AT THE NORTH POLE.

Move over, Santa: Ten years after Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, one minister laid out a theory that the garden of Eden could be found at ... the North Pole. In “The Last Great Explorer: William F. Warren and the Search for Eden,” Brook Wilensky-Lanford writes that Warren, minister and also president of Boston University, “knew science was going to define the future. But he was unwilling to give up his theology to the new discipline.” So he found an unlikely way to combine them: by looking to Eden.

“He set about translating the Bible into science,” Wilensky-Lanford writes. “Eden was ‘the one spot on earth where the biological conditions are the most favorable.’ ... He took note of a newly discovered fact: millions of years ago, the earth had been much warmer. He followed the uncovering of fantastic creatures at once familiar and mythical, like the woolly mammoth, the dinosaur, and the giant sequoia. He knew there was still one blank spot on the world map, a place where nobody had been, and he arrived at the inevitable conclusion: The Garden of Eden is at the North Pole.”

He published his ideas in the 1881 book Paradise Found, the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole, which was bolstered by 580 sources, including Darwin. The book inspired a number of other “Eden seekers,” as Wilensky-Lanford calls them, whose theories frustrated Warren to no end. Other proposed locations for Eden raised during Warren’s lifetime, included Chautauqua, New York; California’s Santa Clara Valley; and Ohio.

4. BEFORE HE WROTE MADAME BOVARY, GUSTAVE FLAUBERT WROTE AN ADAPTATION OF THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT ANTHONY—AND IT WAS TERRIBLE.

In 1849, Flaubert invited two of his closest friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp, to hear his retelling of the tale of St. Anthony, which “he believed was to be his masterpiece,” Colin Dickey writes in “The Redemption of St. Anthony.” Flaubert, then 30, had been working on the story for four years; he read the entire 541 page manuscript in two uninterrupted four-hour blocks for four days. It was not a pleasant experience: “Bouilhet and du Camp would later remember them as the most painful days in their lives … Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, ‘we think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.’” They challenged him to write something “minutely detailed, objectively reported, as in the vein of Balzac.” The result was Madame Bovary.  

Still, Flaubert couldn’t let St. Anthony go; he rewrote it three times before publishing it in 1874. But as Dickey argues, the work didn’t truly come alive until artist Odilon Redon created plates based on the book, “which finally unlocked the strangeness and decadent symbolism that Flaubert had dreamt of but which he could never quite evoke on the page. ... Redon’s work, which caused a sensation in its day but has too often been neglected (particularly outside France), represents perhaps the true potential, and use, of Flaubert’s Temptation.”

5. JOHN ADAMS' GREAT-GRANDSON WROTE THE FIRST HISTORY OF TAHITI.

In 1890, historian Henry Adams—grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams—left America with his friend, painter John la Farge, for a tour of the Pacific. Depressed after the suicide of his wife five years earlier, Adams purportedly wrote a list of goals that included “tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King’s example and falling madly in lust with exotic native girls, and attaining enlightenment,” Ray Davis writes in “Tales from Tahiti.”

Instead, Adams became close friends with the last two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai and her daughter, Marau Taaroa. In 1891, he wrote in a letter that “By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook’s time.”

The result was Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa (also called Memoirs of Arii Taimai), which Adams self-published in 1901. Davis writes that “as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island’s annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ cultures, it deserves wider access than it’s attained to date.”

Buy The Book of Selected Essays before November 26 for a discount!

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

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