Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 15, 2019
Stories from your Colyumnist
Last week, I vented about how certain words and their uses can irrationally irritate me. But there is a flip side. As a journalist,
words are an integral part of my trade, playing a similar role as does wood for a carpenter. But much as he may pause in his work
to admire a particular piece of lumber, sometimes for a moment, a word or grouping of words briefly becomes the story for me.
Etymology is the study of the origins and shifts in spelling of words through time. Husband Art and I seem to be frequently looking up such things. Meander is the name of a river in Turkey which, well, meanders. Boondocks means mountains in a rural Filipino language.
But while discovering these things makes me feel good, I really enjoy when a word or a few words hide a story in plain sight.
A typical such revelation occurred a number of years ago when we had stopped at the western edge of Bear Creek, a small village in Wisconsin. The pause in our wandering was to look at a then-dilapidated home that had previously been a proud and substantial structure. It was once the residence of a late-19th century lumber baron named Welcome Hyde, who had become wealthy selling logs from the nearby dense forests to make into lumber to build homes in Chicago.
The origin of the town's name was lost in time, but was well-established when the railroad arrived. But the villagers wanted to honor the most important man of the community and so, changed the name to Welcome.
That created a problem. Railroads generally didn’t appreciate places changing their names as it caused confusion among employees and customers. So the one passing through Welcome continued to call it Bear Creek. This, in turn, caused confusion among the villagers, which they eventually addressed in a clever way. Today, anyone approaching the village will first notice the water tower that to many seems to just be a friendly announcement of the settlement. Printed in bold letters is "Welcome Bear Creek."
Another "hiding in plain sight" moment occurred when we were pulling into a filling station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin and a Jeep zipped by us on the right. Art suddenly asked me to look up the origin of "Crossing the Rubicon." I wondered what had prompted that, and so asked.
"The model of that Jeep was Rubicon and I have always wondered about the expression," he explained.
According to Wikipedia, in ancient Italy, any leader of armed men who crossed a state border without first disbanding was inviting the local lord to a fight. So when Caesar crossed the river Rubicon - the border between two states - with a legion, he knew what was coming. Ever since, "Crossing the Rubicon" has come to mean making a decision from which there is no going back. It also implies that the move is a bold one. I imagine the Jeep manufacturer wanted to associate that boldness with the sporty vehicle when they selected the name.
And it wouldn’t be the first time they had done that. The "general purpose" transport vehicle of World War II was generally designated the GP and "gee-pee" morphed into Jeep. After the war, a similar vehicle called a Jeep was made to capitalize on returning soldiers being familiar with its rugged predecessor.
Another “reveal” happened just before we headed back to Kansas. We stopped in Southwestern Wisconsin to visit our friend Jo and chat with a fellow columnist who is also Jo's friend. She thought it would be nice to make a collage from some of John's favorite columns and present it to him. The idea had sprung from coming across an old book that had an essay titled "Confessions of a Colyumnist." Reading the title, I had assumed author Christopher Morley had spelled columnist in that way as a fun thing, much the way shopping malls are sometimes called centres rather than centers, or a coffee place might be named Coffee Tyme rather than Coffee Time.
But while searching for information about Morley, Art noticed the word spelled in that odd way in a number of unrelated articles. More digging revealed that most were centered on the period 1910 to 1930.
While newspapers have long published articles that are a mixture of facts and opinions, the term columnist is relatively recent. No precise date of origin has been established, but late in the 19th century is a safe bet.
When World War I broke out, the United States was deeply divided between those who thought we should get involved and those who wanted to remain on the sidelines. Columnists who came down firmly on a side different from the newspaper publisher found themselves without work. Once America joined the war, the government used sedition laws to punish newspapers that published views that were not considered full-throated support.
So columnists who wished to remain employed chose to write about things that were of little importance in the grander scheme of things, subjects that were instead just entertaining. This type might even choose to write about, oh, I don't know, maybe the meaning of words. Whoever was the first to use the spelling "colyumnist" to distinguish those who pursued this lighter style of column writing has been lost. But newspapers of the time embraced it. The spelling appeared in advertising for such writers, the implied message being they wanted someone who would keep it light.
After the war ended, restrictions were lifted. But most columnists remained colyumnists, although the Roaring Twenties enticed many, such as Manhattan, Kansas native Damon Runyon, to focus on show business, celebrity gossip and the effects of Prohibition. By the time World War II was at the door, colyumnist had lost its place at the table, replaced by the spelling we use today.
And that's the story about a word that came and went, but whose history was uncovered by this colyumnist!
Lower-left: The water tower in Welcome Bear Creek, Wisconsin. Center: outline map of Italy with the Rubicon river marked in red - a rather modest stream to have inspired such a long-lasting expression as well as a car model. Upper-right: An artist's illustration that appeared at the opening page of the essay of the poor Colyumnist fretting over his next piece. Water tower from www.waymark.com.