Name Tag

Name Tag

Assuming that the shadowy conference goer pictured above isn’t wearing somebody else’s name tag or traveling in mufti, we may surmise that his name is Ernest. Similarly, when a person is tagged in a Facebook photo, we make a comparable match between the person and the Facebook tag, though here we need to assume that the tagger has (a) correctly identified the person tagged—yes, that’s Ernest in the photo, not his evil twin Alex—and (b) affixed the tag to the right person in the photo—yes, when you move the cursor over the photo, it’s the guy with the beard and not, say, the person with the blond hair next to him, that should be identified as Ernest:

Tagged Facebook pic

Facebook Tag

The use of names or other labels to identify the subject or subjects of interest in a picture is not new (though some uses of the term tag are of recent vintage). For example, the photo tag is essentially the offspring of the May-September romance of the pop-up and the callout:

pic with callouts


And even before that, people annotated photos by hand:

Humez Family Photo

Humez Family Photo

[“Grandfather Humez’s brother Ernest & his family — wife Aunt Ida (2nd wife) Adele, Paul his children by first wife ?? (?? Desguin’s sister). The girl in the center is child by Aunt Ida — Mildred Humez.”]

All of the people in Humez Family Photo are identified by name. (That there are people mentioned in the annotation whose identity is not clear, whether by omission or smudgy handwriting—Grandfather Humez, Ernest’s first wife, and the first wife’s sister, not to mention the likely family member who annotated the photo—is another story.) Pictures in the family album (or desk drawer, shoe box, wallet, Facebook page, or other such repository) are not always annotated in such a way as to make positive identification of their subjects possible. Sometimes, though, a bit of detective work will allow us to tag the hitherto unannotated.

The following is a case in point. Printed on postcard stock, the photo labeled Four Generations shows four people seated in somebody’s yard. The annotation “Four generations 1917” appears on the back:

Fhotoour generations p

Four Generations

Where to begin? We recognize Ernest Humez from Humez Family Photo. If the annotation on the post card is to be taken to mean that the photo has captured four generations of the family of which Ernest Humez is a member, we might suppose that the four subjects are (full names) Ernest Désiré Humez, his father Emmanuel Jean Baptiste Humez, one of his grandchildren (more on whom presently), and his son Paul Ernest Humez (né Paul Ernest Léopold Humez). Due diligence: Paul Ernest Humez was my paternal grandfather who died when I was ten years old and whom I remember as a physical presence though, obviously, as an older man than the one I believe to be the leftmost man in Four Generations and the fellow with the pince-nez in the back row of the undated Humez Family Photo. Other family members who knew my grandfather agree that it is indeed he on the left. So: two down and two to go.

 Identifying the other two subjects—the gentleman holding the child, and the child him- or herself—is not so easy. Taking the annotation on the back of the photo at face value, we may guess that the child is Paul Ernest Humez’s son, Paul Ronald Humez, born in March, 1916, the eldest of his eventual four children, the second of whom (my father, David Ernest Humez) was born in October, 1917. We may guess that the photo was taken in New England, quite possibly in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Paul Ernest Humez lived with his wife Charlessie, their child(ren), and his parents-in-law Charles and Louisa McKinnon. (The likelihood that Paul Ernest would have traveled with a toddler and a pregnant spouse or new mother and infant for a photo-op away from home is presumably nil.) If the 1917 date is correct and it is warm enough to be outdoors sitting on the lawn, Paul Ronald Humez is roughly a year and a half old and his mother is pregnant with my father.

 That leaves the gentleman holding the child whose father and grandfather we have previously identified on the left and right. A reasonable hypothesis would be that the man in question is Emmanuel Jean-Baptiste Humez, father of Ernest Désiré, grandfather of Paul Ernest, and great-grandfather of Paul Ronald. Four generations of Humez males. Unfortunately, Emmanuel Jean-Baptiste Humez died in 1888, thereby precluding his appearance in Four Generations or, for that matter, any photo taken after 1888. Perhaps the answer is to be found in another family photo:

Another Humez Family Photo

Another Humez Family Photo

Could the fellow identified here as Grand[pere Humez] be the mystery holder of the child in Four Generations? As it turns out, no, because Grandpère Humez is actually Uncle Ernest’s elder brother (by some 15 years) Antoine Charles Humez, which technically makes Uncle Ernest Great-uncle Ernest. (We may guess that the annotator of Another Humez Family Photo belonged to an American-born generation in which the French language was at best vestigial.)

 So, in true mystery-story fashion, the spotlight returns to a character previously seen only in passing, Charles McKinnon, here shown with his wife LouisaLouisa:

Louisa and Charles McKinnon

Louisa and Charles McKinnon

In that case, the annotation “four generations” would have to be taken not to mean “people representing four generations in the same (male) line” but, rather, “people (some but not all of whom happen to share a direct line of descent) whose ages place them in four adjacent generations, assuming 20-25 years, give or take, between generations.” Charles McKinnon was born in 1839, Ernest Désiré Humez in 1866, his son Paul Ernest Humez in 1889, and his son Paul Ronald Humez in 1916. So far so good.

 But while we may have completed the crossword puzzle, a couple of the words in the lower left corner look suspicious. For openers, there is the disparity between the 1917 date on the back of the photo and the officially documented date of Charles McKinnon’s death in September, 1916. Well, maybe the date is off by a year, the baby is a remarkably robust five-month-old, and Mr. McKinnon is having a really good day. Could the elder gentleman be Ernest Désiré’s elder brother, Antoine? My genealogist third cousin Diane Flynn (with whom I share a great-great-grandfather, Emmanuel Jean Baptiste Humez and on whose extensive research I have based much of this posting) offers two reasons to reject this hypothesis: (1) In all the photos she has seen in which he appears, Antoine looks really grumpy and (2) why would the tot have been entrusted to his grandfather’s brother—rather than to his father or his father’s father?

As only a casual puzzle solver, I’m prepared to live with a couple of three-letter words without vowels and quietly call it a day, though I still wonder if perhaps Uncle Antoine really was having a good day as he got to hold the kid and be in the center of the picture.


With the approach of Valentine’s Day, we offer three endnotes to the most recent viabrevis posting ( Each involves a dialog between a member of a romantic triangle (actual or hypothetical) and what is known in the trade as an agony aunt, i.e., a newspaper advice columnist. Actually, like the proverbial aboriginal nuclear family consisting of a mother, a father, a child, and an anthropologist, the advice column dialog invariably has multiple participants, as David Gudelunas suggests in his Confidential to America: Newspaper Advice Columns and Sexual Education: “Readers write to advice columnists to participate in a sort of public discourse, and readers who never actually mail a letter to the columnist use the column as a way to gauge their own behavior and to eavesdrop on the problems of their friends and neighbors many of whom they will never meet in person.”

The first is from the Athenian Mercury (April 23, 1692):

Quest. It is my misfortune (if I may call it so) to fix my affections on a person, whose circumstances cannot admit of an address, being a wife, which has made me often endeavor to stifle the passion, but all is in vain: And were it not for an uncertain, or rather imaginary expectancy, I should fall into despair, which I am satisfied will produce fatal consequences.

Quest. If the lady may within the rules of modesty, and with a due respect to her own virtue and honor, make me a conditional promise, in case she should survive her husband, without breach or violation of the vow she made him in marriage.

Quest. If such a request in me be any breach of the Ten Commandments, it being only executory after the death of the husband.

Ans. The relation is a very great folly and wickedness. A folly to wait for any thing, which morally speaking, is two to one odds; whether it happens or not, since our lover is not certain, but he, or his mistress may one or both die before the husband; besides ‘tis a manifest breach of the tenth commandment, and may be of very ill consequences, for if she condescends to such a conditional promise, it necessarily follows (if she’s in earnest, and if in jest ‘tis a poor remedy) that it will alienate her affections from her lawful husband, and there’s a gate open to many horrid practices that don’t now shew themselves; such a person so continuing must certainly be in a state of damnation; therefore our advice is, that he repent himself of such a wicked folly, avoiding all such opportunities of converse, or otherwise, that may renew so vile a flame.”

The second is a letter written in 1907 to the editor of the Yiddish daily newspaper Forverts [פֿאָדװעדטם ‘Forward’] who offered advice in his column “A Bintel Briv
[א בינמל בריװ ‘A bundle of letters’] to his largely immigrant readership new to the ways of the New World. The letter quoted here is from Isaac Metzger’s A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward:

“Worthy Editor,

In the “Bintel Brief” I have already read about many kinds of problems, but never about such a misfortune as the one that befell me. I beg you to print my letter as quickly as possible and advise me how to save myself.

About four years ago, when I was still at home in Russia, a young man from another city boarded with us. When I decided to go to America he told me he wanted to go too. At the time I was nineteen years old. But my mother, who was a widow, said it was not proper for a girl and boy to make such a long journey together. She hinted that if we were planning to get married it would be all right. As long as I liked the young man, who was quiet and decent, I answered my mother that if he agreed I would too.

My mother began to talk to him, and he said it was impos¬sible because he had a girl friend whom he was going to marry. Meanwhile, I fell in love with the young man. My love for him grew from day to day, until I couldn’t restrain myself any longer, and I spoke to him openly about it. He listened to me attentively, and told me, too, that he was obligated to his sweetheart. When I asked him who she was and where she lived, he didn’t answer me, but burst into tears. I was suffering, and decided to leave for America as soon as possible, in order to forget him.

When I finally got a steamship ticket from my aunt and began to get ready for the trip, the young man came to me one day and told me he loved and wanted to marry me.
Then I was the happiest girl in the world. We became engaged and decided that right after the wedding we would go to America together. A few weeks passed, and the day of our wedding came.

The guests gathered, the music played gaily, but about an hour before the ceremony my bridegroom called me in to another room and told me he couldn’t marry me, because he didn’t want to make me unhappy. He explained it was all a mistake on his part, because he couldn’t forget his sweetheart. I didn’t know what hit me, I began to cry and plead with him to have pity on me and not shame me so. But he was adamant. Since I thought that his sweetheart was in America, I promised him that, if he found her, I would release him. He grasped my hands and kissed them, and after that we went through with the ceremony.

A few weeks after the wedding we left. My aunt, who met us in America, greeted us warmly, and my uncle found a good job for my husband. My husband loved me honestly, and of course I loved him, and we lived together happily almost three years, but after that came my misfortune.

I had noticed, weeks ago, that he was upset. My heart told me then that trouble was brewing. He went about sadly, and I heard him sighing and groaning. He started coming home late and didn’t even go over to our baby, whom be loves very much.
I finally asked him what had happened to him. He looked at me. He asked me if I remembered what I had promised him before the wedding. When I heard those words I fainted and was sick for several days. When I felt better he talked to me and, with tears in his eyes, begged me to calm down, because there was no other way out.
He explained that since he had just met his sweetheart, who had been in America all the time, he no longer belonged to me but to her. He says he will leave me our home, his money, and will pay me alimony too. But we must part. I fell at his feet, cried, and begged him to have pity on me and our young child, but he had one answer: “It can’t be any other way.”

I beg you, have mercy on me. My husband is a good man with a fine character, and he is a faithful reader of the Forward.

Write a few words to him in your answer to my letter. How can and of me that I set him free? The truth is that when I made him that promise I never believed he would ever find his sweetheart.

I wait with greatest impatience to see my letter and your printed.
Thank you in advance,

The man has no right to leave his wife now, after he lived with her for three happy years and has a child with her. Even though his wife promised him before the wedding that she would free him, he dare not demand now that she keep her word. If he is really a decent man with a good heart and fine character, he must understand that he now has more obligation to his wife and child than to that sweetheart who vanished for years and didn’t concern herself about him.”

Meredith Goldstein’s December 22, 2012 “Love Letters” column in The Boston Globe makes itself at home in the 21st century. Vintage vin ordinaire in a mix of new and recycled bottles, “Love Letters” combines the familiar subject matter and confessional format of the traditional newspaper advice column with elements of the contemporary blogosphere, giving hitherto silent eavesdroppers speaking parts in the discourse:

Can he reach out to married ex? He just wants to tell her he made the wrong choice 14 years ago…oh, and that he still loves her

Q. About 14 years ago I made a decision between two women. I had feelings for both of them and they had mutual feelings for me, as well. I ultimately made my decision and I believe the wrong one. I was married for almost 10 years and am now divorced. I think of this other woman on a daily basis even though I have not spoken to or seen her in almost 14 years. She lives in the same town as me, and I know through Facebook that she is married now. I am tempted to write a letter to this woman and just tell her that 14 years ago I should have pursued a relationship with her. I know it sounds crazy but I think somehow I am in love with her. I almost need closure because I cannot get over her. I just want to write this letter and tell her how she made me feel so long ago and express that I think she is a great person and hope she is happy in her life. Is this a bad idea? Please offer some advice. Thank you. –PAST REGRET, Boston

A. You’re not in love with this woman. You’re just lonely and sad about your divorce.

You’ve turned this ex into some mythical soul mate who can magically fix your life, but in reality, she’s just an old crush. Had you chosen her back then, you might have dumped her after a few months. Don’t make up a crazy narrative about the path you didn’t take. You’re just inventing fairy tales.

You’re not allowed to write a love letter to a married woman. It’s be one thing if you just wanted to say hello, but you’ve admitted that you want her back. Your intentions are all wrong, and I will not endorse any form of communication.

Use your energy to meet new people. It’s a big world. Go explore. –MEREDITH

Leave it alone. You’re dreaming. TONICNOTSODA

Oh, just stop it. You will probably tick her off. “Hey, remember me? I rejected you 14 years ago in favor of another woman? Oopsky.” MOVA

You’re not in love with her. And you shouldn’t confess your love for a married woman … especially one you haven’t seen in 14 years. I am very different than 14 years ago. The guy I was in a relationship with back then probably wouldn’t be a good fit for me now…. We’ve both changed. POWDERGIRL…”

Plus ça change…

The practice of publishing solicited advice aimed at the general (Anglophonic) public is usually held to have had its genesis in London in March of 1691 in the form of a double-sided broadsheet entitled The Athenian Gazette or Casuistical Mercury resolving all the most Nice and Curious Questions. Proposed by the Ingenious (Gazette being changed to Mercury after a competing newspaper—The London Gazette—complained about the similarity of their names). Published twice weekly and sold for a penny to London coffee houses to be shared by their (male) patrons and to chocolate houses where both women and men were welcome, peddled by (female) hawkers on the street, and sold directly from the shop of its enterprising publisher, the London bookseller, John Dunton, issues of The Athenian Mercury were periodically collected into leather-bound volumes and sold (for two shillings sixpence) as reference books under the paper’s original title (the title conflict with The London Gazette apparently not being raised with the books). The masthead of the first issue gives the date of publication as March 17, 1690 though the year should actually have been given as 1691, as it was in the subsequent issues of The Athenian Mercury that year. (The fact that England at the time had yet to replace the Julian with the Gregorian calendar, “losing” eleven days in the process, is neither here nor there as far as the year is concerned.)

In any event, the first issue lead off with a statement of purpose, the nub of which was this: “…The Design is briefly, to satisfy all ingenious and curious Enquirers into Speculations, Divine, Moral and Natural, &c. and to remove those Difficulties and Dissatisfactions, that shame or fear of appearing ridiculous by asking Questions, may cause several Persons to labor under, who now have opportunities of being resolv’d in any Question without knowing their Informer…”

Accordingly, the paper’s anonymous panel of experts then gamely proceeded to address the following questions drawn from “those already proposed” by their equally anonymous prospective readers:

  1. Whether the Torments of the damn’d are visible to the Saints in Heaven? & vice versa?
  2. Whether the Soul is Eternal, or pre-existent from the Creation, or contemporary with its Embrio?
  3. Whether every Man has a good and bad Angel attending him?
  4. Where was the Soul of Lazarus for the four days he lay in the Grave?
  5. Whether all Souls are alike?
  6. Whether ‘tis lawful for a Man to beat his Wife?
  7. How came the Spots in the Moon?

Actually, “panel of experts” is not quite right: In fact, “panel of casuists,” as the paper’s subtitle suggests, would be more like it. According to the OED, the term casuist first appears in English in 1616 designating “a theologian (or other person) who studies and resolves cases of conscience or doubtful questions regarding duty and conduct. (Often with a sinister application: see casuistry n.),” casuistry (first attested in 1712, after casuistical in 1649) being “The science, art, or reasoning of the casuist; that part of Ethics which resolves cases of conscience, applying the general rules of religion and morality to particular instances in which ‘circumstances alter cases’, or in which there appears to be a conflict of duties. Often (and perhaps originally) applied to a quibbling or evasive way of dealing with difficult cases of duty; sophistry.” Casuist is a borrowing of French casuiste, which Le Petit Robert derives “from Ecclesiastical Latin casus ‘matter of conscience’ [cas de conscience]” and goes on to define as “1. A theologian who sets himself the task of resolving matters of conscience by the rules of reason and Christianity. 2. A person who likes to [se plaît à] compromise with his conscience.”

While we may assume that Mr. Dunton and his team had only the positive sense of casuist in mind, if there lingered a whiff of ecclesiastical authority about their work, they did nothing to dispel it. Indeed, a number of cultural historians have remarked on the similarities between the dynamics of the advice column and those involved in the Sacrament of Penance: The process by which an anonymous penitent makes his (or her) confession to an anonymous priest, who offers a recipe for absolution is echoed by the anonymous seeker of advice to whom the anonymous casuist offers an answer, which may contain a recipe for resolving a particular problem. (A further similarity: The priest and penitent may in fact be known to each other; the advice-column petitioner may have to enclose his or her name—typically reduced to initials on publication—and address, and it is no secret that Ann Landers was really Eppie Lederer. Indeed, the Boston Globe’s “Miss Conduct” column states explicitly that “Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.”) Question 6 and its response are an interesting case in point.

The questioner asks if it is lawful to beat one’s wife. It is hard to read this question as a matter of idle curiosity, and the response suggests that it has not been taken as such:

Answ. The affirmative would be very disobliging to that Sex, without adding any more to it, therefore we ought to be as cautious and tender as may be in asserting such an ill tatur’d Position.—We allow a Wife to be naturaliz’d into, and part of her Husband, and yet nature sometimes wars against part of itself, in ejecting by Sweat, Urine, &c. what otherwise would be destructive to its very Frame; nay, sometimes there is occasion of greater violence, as lancing, burning, dismembering, &c. which the Patient submits to as his Interest: Now if a Man may thus cruelly treat himself, and be an Ancillary to his own Torture, he may legally chastise his Wife, who is no nearer to him than he is to himself, but yet (for I am not covetous of the Fate of Orpheus) as none but Doctors are proper Judges of reasonable Violences to nature; so there are but few Husbands that know how to correct a Wife. To do it in a passion, and pretend Justice, is ridiculous; because that passion incapacitates the Judgment from its Office; and to do it when one is pleas’d, is a harder Task; so that we conclude, as the legality is unquestionable, so the time and measure are generally too critical for a Calculation; when a Wife goes astray, ‘tis safe to use a Sympathetick Remedy, as the rebuke of a Kiss: the Antipathetick may prove worse than the Disease.” In other words, while strictly speaking it’s not against the law, you really shouldn’t beat your wife. (So don’t.)

As for the other questions, the answers (which I will shamelessly reduce to their essence in the interests of space):

  1. “…we assert that every Individual Person in Heaven and Hell, shall hear and see all that passes in either State…”
  2. “Souls are not Eternal, for then they would be Gods, and not Created Beings (Creation supposing a Commencement of time) and that they are Created Beings, we have the Testimony of Scripture.—Nor is the Creation of Souls contemporary with any of the six Days labours…[W]e conclude, that the Soul is only contemporary with its Embrio… ”
  3. Everybody has a Good Angel from birth, “But for the particular attendance of Bad Angels, we believe it not, and we must deny it till it finds better proof than Conjectures.”
  4. For various theological reasons, he couldn’t have been in either Heaven or Hell, “so we conclude, that those Angels which had Commission for the Reception of Souls…had also the extraordinary Order to retain them in their Custody, till the time limited for their re-entry into their respective bodies…” and Lazarus, extraordinarily, got a pass back to life.
  5. All Souls are of equal Excellency and Perfection…” They may differ, like the organs of the body, in “accidental perfection,” but basically all souls are of equal value. As with Question 6, the columnist addresses a possible subtext, this time having to do with the relative worth of different people.
  6. See above.
  7. Rejecting the notion that the Angel Gabriel created the spots by accidentally brushing his wing against the moon, “…we affirm, that in it’s [sic] Creation it was made an Opake and dark Body illuminable by the Sun, as more proper for the Regiment of the Night, a time of Repose and Cessation from Labor.”

Connsider the following words of advice addressed to the urban pedestrian:

  1. Look both ways when you cross the street.
  2. Cross at the green, not in between.
  3. descanso

    Good Advice

Like most advice, these variations on a theme have both an explicit and an implicit component. The explicit component advises you to do or to not do something (or in the case of variant #2, both to do something and to not do something else) while the implicit component predicts the consequences of not following the advice. Here, the explicit message is that you should be careful when you cross the street, and the implicit message is that if you aren’t, you may not make it to the other side safe and sound, a point underlined by the descanso bouquet in variant #3 and the elaboration by the F. B. Washburn Company of variant #2: “Look both ways when you cross the street / so you’ll be around to live and eat/ Waleeco, Waleeco / cocoanut bars are the best I know.” The implicit message rests upon the understanding that from the first decade of the 1900s when the terms were originally minted, jay drivers have always trumped jay walkers—jay in this context signifying a silly or stupid person, so called after the characteristic chattering of the bird of that name.

Sometimes the explicit and implicit are reversed, as in “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the implicit advice being to eat an apple a day, the explicit consequence of doing so being good health as evidenced by the absence of house visits from the medical establishment; or “He who hesitates is lost,” loserhood being the spoken consequence of failing to heed the unspoken advice to seize the day. The boundary between advice and proverb is sometimes fuzzy (especially when the advice rhymes, as in variant #2). So are most of the boundaries between adjacent neighbors on the continuum of (expressed) opinion, advice, exhortation, admonition, warning, threat, and command(ment). Indeed, the word advice comes to us through French (cf. Modern French avis ‘opinion,’ Spanish aviso ‘warning’), ultimately from a reworking of the Latin expression vīsum est mihi ‘it looks/seems to me,’ vīsum being a nominal form of the past participle of the verb vidēre ‘to see.’ The differences are basically in the degree of firmness with which an opinion is articulated (and its following is urged), and these differences can be difficult for the recipient to decode, all the more so at second hand.

For example, imagining yourself in Adam’s place, what are you to make of the different renderings in Genesis 2:16-17 of the advice concerning the tree of knowledge? The King James Bible reads “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying Of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The New English Bible has “He told the man, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden, but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; for on the day that you eat from it, you will certainly die.'” St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin (Vulgate) version is not altogether illuminating: “praecepitque ei dicens: Ex omni ligno paradisi comede; de ligno autem scientiae boni et mali ne comedas; in quocumque enim die comederis ex eo, morte morieris.”  One standard dictionary glosses praecipere as ‘to give rules, advise, admonish, warn, inform, instruct, teach, enjoin, direct, bid, order,’ from which the following imperative comede (‘Eat!’) suggests we can rule out the warmer and fuzzier items here, though the injunction to not eat (ne comedas) is a form of the (hortatory) subjunctive and, as such, weaker than an out an out order.

The threat of fatal consequences is clear enough in all tellings, though the fact that Adam did not die immediately after eating the forbidden fruit (showing that the consequences of heeding or failing to heed advice don’t always turn out as predicted) could be taken as a sign of forgiveness for his confusion over whether he had been told rather than commanded (or advised, admonished, warned…) to restrict his diet. The fact that in the Hebrew version וַיְצַו [vayitsav] is unambiguously ‘commanded,’ and the injunction against eating from the tree of knowledge (ל תֹּאכֵל [lo tochal] ‘Do not eat!’) is definitely an imperative is not much help for Adam’s monolingual English-speaking (or even bilingual English- and Latin-speaking) avatar when all is said and done.

The advice offered to Adam was unsolicited, was delivered orally (as writing had not yet been invented), and Adam, being at that time the earth’s sole human inhabitant, was the only possible recipient and beneficiary of that advice. Variants #1 and #2 are typically unsolicited and delivered orally as well but are sometimes addressed to a group rather than to an individual. By contrast, the unsolicited advice of variant #3 is delivered in writing and intended for any and all literate street-crossers who find themselves at the intersection. So, what about solicited advice (in oral or written form to the one or the many)? As a form of social interaction, the active solicitation and subsequent delivery of advice can be fairly complex. In its simplest form, a human being A asks another human being B for advice, and B responds:

Bad Advice

Bad Advice

In our next viabrevis posting (“The Agony and the Exposition”), we’ll look at a familiar elaboration of this scenario in which advice is sought and dispensed quasianonymously through the medium of print. Our advice: Stay tuned.


Here’s an exercise for the student: What, exactly, is the message that the PLOWS USE CAUTION sign is intended to convey? Three possibilities come immediately to mind:

1. People who drive plows do so cautiously. This is a simple matter-of-fact statement like SLIPPERY WHEN WET:


or the epimenidian NO TRAFFIC SIGNS:


Well, actually NO TRAFFIC SIGNS is ambiguous, as it could be read either as an assertion—There are no traffic signs up ahead, so you’re going to be on your own—or an imperative—Don’t post any traffic signs here [other than this one]. The same, for that matter, could be said of the iconographic version of the SLIPPERY WHEN WET sign:


which could just as well be read as a warning to look out for drunk drivers. So, perhaps a better example of a declarative would be WRONG WAY:


2. Watch out for plows! This message is a warning to the effect that you may encounter plows in the area and, if you do, you are advised to give them wide berth. Here, “USE” is to be taken as an imperative addressed to you who are presumably using a means of locomotion—car, bike, feet—less formidable than a plow (let alone a herd of plows). Compare the imperative DO NOT ENTER:


or the archetypical STOP:


though, as noted in the discussion of détournement in our Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, & Other Forms of Minimalist Communication, “STOP” is ambiguous to the extent that it can be parsed as either a noun or a verb, which can be construed as intransitive or transitive, its object (yourself, your vehicle) being implied or made explicit by creative (if typically unsanctioned) embellishment, e.g.,


3. Hey, you guys driving the plows, be careful! Here again, “USE” is an imperative, but the addressees are plow drivers, not the motorist/cyclist/pedestrian.

So, how might we determine which of these three readings is the intended one, given the constraints on traffic signage promulgated by the Federal Highway Administration in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) that include the admonition that “word messages should not contain punctuation, apostrophes, question marks, ampersands, or other characters that are not letters or numerals unless absolutely necessary to avoid confusion” and an almost impenetrable set of instructions governing the terseness and chunking of such messages (see “Section 2M.05 Message Length and Units of Information” at

 Supposing for the moment that you were unable or sufficiently unsporting to do the obvious, namely: google “plows use caution,” look at the first hit [], and call it a day, you might with confidence rule out reading #1 (the assertion of fact) on the grounds that not only is reading #1 silly, the shape of the sign and its background color are those conventionally associated with a warning—see, for example the current specifications for highway signage in Massachusetts ( ), which, like those of the other states, have evolved from the standards proposed by the members of the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments in 1923 who, according to historian Gordon Sessions, “agreed on a signing-and-marking plan which was destined to become the basis of the national standards agreed upon two years later” (see his Traffic Devices: Historical Aspects Thereof). The group proposed restricting signage to the following six shapes: round (to mark railroad crossings), octagonal (to signify “stop”), diamond (for regulatory information), square (for caution and “attention”), rectangle (for directional and regulatory information), and “route markers of some characteristic or conventional shape different from the above.” Lettering was to be black on a white background.

In 1925, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHO) proposed “to introduce into the caution signs a series of distinctions which would indicate different degrees of danger,” in descending order of potential danger: circle for railroad crossings, octagon for “Stop,” diamond for “ordinary conditions of danger requiring precaution on the part of the driver at all times,” square “to be used where the dangerous condition is intermittent and involves little more than ordinary care or attention in driving.” All of these signs were to have black lettering on a yellow background. The STOP sign would wait to get its white lettering on a red background until 1955 by which time the science of industrial chemistry had evolved to make possible the development of a red pigment that would withstand inclement weather.

In addition to the STOP sign’s white-on-red makeover, the 1950s saw the introduction of the YIELD sign:


to which may be compared the STOP  sign formerly in use in England:


and the STOP sign still in use in Japan:


This new (to the US) shape and message betoken the evolution from the basically rural  society in which the first traffic signs appeared, thanks largely to the early recreational automobile clubs of the 1920s, to the increasingly urban and trafficky world in which we operate today. Small wonder that there is some confusion in the ever-proliferating traffic signage between the levels of danger originally encoded by the yellow-backed diamond, square, and rectangle:


And, yes,  there is an alternate reading of this message available at, perhaps a reflection of the snarkiness surely absent from the good old days of rural America that preceded the invention of the internal combustion engine:


But back to PLOWS USE CAUTION. Color and shape—not to mention the word CAUTION—clearly suggest that somebody’s caution is strongly advised. But whose? Here, context provides an important hint:


The setting is clearly urban, so we may guess that the kind of plows involved are the kind used to remove snow (as opposed to the kind used for tilling fields). As it happens, another piece of contextual information is offered by the railing of the highway overpass in the center of the view. This is in fact the MacGuffin in the story in which snow plow drivers are warned take it easy as they go about their business so as not to dump snow onto the unsuspecting vehicular traffic below.


“How miraculous is the effect of music! As if someone pounded on the door of our soul from outside, from the world of Beauty and Reality; but we no longer understand the voice. It is this language they speak in Faremido.”

So begins Frigyes Karinthy’s Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver’s Fifth Voyage, originally published in Hungarian as Utazás Faremidóba: Gulliver ötödik útja in 1916. When his combat ship strikes a mine, Gulliver escapes by hydroplane and eventually lands on a planet whose inhabitants are sentient machines, one of which (whom?) befriends him: “Now and then it turned to me its gleaming, golden metal head; a bluish light shone upon me from the brilliant eyes; then it started to sing, and now I felt clearly that it was addressing me with these sounds; that in this country the language was made up of music, and that the words consisted of musical phrases. As soon as I realized this, I tried to make it understand that I would like to learn the language. Pointing repeatedly at the palace, I mimed my desire to know its name. The machine immediately caught my meaning and replied: mi-fa-re — which I repeated at once. … I now started to point out various objects, identifying each by its name, and I continued to repeat the sounds. It pointed to itself and sang: so-la-si. Then with a sweeping gesture that embraced the whole horizon it told me: fa-re-mi-do — the phrase I had already heard when I first landed in the place. Now I knew that the country was called Faremido. (I must ask the reader to sing these words rather than read them silently or pronounce them aloud; this is the only way they make sense.)”

Frigyes  Karinthy (1887-1938) was not the first to envision a language constructed from the seven tones of the major diatonic scale—think the white keys of the piano starting on C—named (or, solmized as) do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si (or ti), though he could legitimately claim to have been the first to translate Winnie the Pooh and Gulliver’s Travels into Hungarian and to have originated the theory of “six degrees of separation,” which posits (in the short story “Chains”–files/soc180%3Akarinthy-chain-links/Karinthy-Chain-Links_1929.pdf) that any two people on earth will share a common acquaintance no more than five intermediate acquaintances away. For precursors, we need search no farther than Jean-François Sudre (1787-1862), whose posthumously published [1865] Langue musicale universelle inventée par François Sudre également inventeur de la téléphonie [‘Universal Musical Language Invented by François Sudre, Likewise the Inventor of Telephony’] lays out his proposal for a “universal musical language,” which he introduces as follows: “I have thus enclosed all ideas within the seven notes of music; I have expressed them as combinations that are easy to remember, and I have formed of them a language that is accessible to all minds [intelligences] and all peoples of the world. It is by no means a translation of the French language that is to be looked for in this work, since ideas belong to the domain of all languages.”  ( Basically, what Sudre had in mind was a language in which all human thought could be expressed by various sequences of the seven notes of the major scale. He dubbed this language Solrésol, the musical sequence sol+re+sol signifying ‘language’ in his system.

 Solresol evolved from an earlier system devised by M Sudre for which he coined the term téléphonie (‘telephony’). An editorial in the Supplement to the Musical Library of March – Dec. 1834 refers—somewhat disparagingly—to “the telephone of M. Sudré,” about which the writer says, “By the sounds of a violin, a pianoforte, a trumpet, &c., he proposes to accomplish what the telegraph does by figures or colours. Hence the word Telephone, from τηλε, far, at a distance, and φωνη, sound, which however is not quite appropriate, in whatever way considered.” Sudre’s “Telephone” was essentially aural semaphore, a system for encoding alphabetic letters as notes of the dodecaphonic (twelve-tone) scale over multiple octaves. The subsequent notion that musical notes could be used for the encoding of a universal semantic system was an inspired (if perhaps overly ambitious) leap forward. 

Mindful of the criticism raised against téléphonie that its successful employment presupposed at least minimal musical ability on the part of the conversants, Sudre and his followers provided a variety of nonmusical way of representing the canonical seven tones on which the language was built. Couturat and Leau in their 1903 Histoire de la langue universelle list these as “1. One can utter or write  the international names of these notes, or just their initials (s = sol, so = sol); 2. One can sing them or play them on whatever musical instrument; 3. One can write them on a musical staff; 4. One can represent them by seven special stenographic signs, whether written or drawn in the air with a finger; 5. One can represent them by the first seven Arabic numerals, or by corresponding numbers of sonorous beats, of tactile pressures, etc.; 6. One can represent them by the seven colors of the spectrum (lights, lanterns, flares, etc.); 7. Finally, one can designate them by touching the index finger of the right hand to the four fingers of the left hand or the spaces between them (which thus represent the musical staff).” Thus:

Solresol Manual

There is some disagreement as to where to locate Do on the hand. Some illustrations show it near the wrist, though elsewhere (e.g., it’s in the fist. In any case,  Sudre was not the first to associate the notes of the diatonic scale with different parts of the hand. That particular honor is generally considered to have gone to Guido D’Arezzo (ca. 990 – 1050) who is also credited with inventing do-re-mi-fa-sol-la solmization—originally, ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la, the initial syllables of the words Ut, resonare, mira, famuli, solve, and labii in the hymn to St. John the Baptist sung at Vespers as part of the Divine Office on the saint’s nativity day (June 24):


The ascending notes on which the syllables ut (later replaced by the more mellifluous do), re, mi, fa, sol, and la fall in this hymn constitute a hexachord, a basic building block in medieval Western music consisting of a sequence of a whole tone plus a whole tone plus a semitone plus a whole tone plus a whole tone (T-T-S-T-T), e.g., C-D-E-F-G. By overlapping the hexachords starting with G, C, and F and working your way up the pitch ladder, you could derive all the tones needed for modal (“white-key”) music (with “black-key” b flat thrown in for good measure). Guido D’Arezzo proposed the following mnemonic for this system:

The Guidonian Hand

The bottom note (called the gamma ut) is at the tip of your thumb. (Gamut eventually came to be used as a term for the whole range of notes; to run the gamut was to traverse the whole system from bottom to top.) The Guidonian system proceeds from the gamma ut down the thumb, then along the first joints of fingers, up the pinky finger, across the tips of the fingers, down the index finger to the second joint, across the second joints of the middle and ring finger, across the first joints of the ring and third fingers, and off into the ozone. Feel free to try this at home.

Finally, before calling it a day, Guido D’Arezzo seems to have invented the musical staff (originally four lines) and two moveable clefs (basically a paper-saving device that allowed the notes to stay within the staff), one to signify the location of C and the other the location of F:

Guidonian Fa-re-mi-do


three castas

Casta Paintings

On September 21, 2012, the Boston Globe offered the following account of an interchange videotaped at a fund-raiser for presidential candidate Mitt Romney:

 “When he [Mitt Romney] lamented that his father was born in Mexico to American parents—‘Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this’—a female donor spoke up.

 ‘You can pull an Elizabeth Warren,’ she said.

 Romney explained to the audience, ‘Elizabeth Warren, she’s the woman who’s running for US Senate in Massachusetts who said she’s Cherokee.’

 ‘It turns out that at most she’s 1/32d Cherokee,” Romney added. “And even that can’t be proven. So, in any event, I mean I could put down my dad was born in Mexico and leave it at that.’”

There are several take-aways here for both political pundits and sociolinguists (not to mention prospective voters).  Mr. Romney’s interlocutrix suggests that he could garner a larger share of the increasingly important Latino vote by claiming to have had a Mexican parent.  Presumably the suggestion is facetious, given the considerable negative hay Ms. Warren’s Republican opponent has attempted to make of her assertion of having had Native Americans among her Oklahoman ancestors.  Mr. Romney’s response (presumably equally light-heartedly) acknowledges his father’s Mexican birth to American ex-pats and essentially dismisses the idea of pursuing the matter for political gain, thereby avoiding the possible accusation that his father had actually been an anchor baby.

For the political pundit, how candidates for public office choose to handle the presentation of their and their opponents’ racial and ethnic backgrounds for good or ill is a general subject of interest on which the fund-raiser dialog provides some focused illumination. For the sociolinguist, what is equally of interest are the ways in which the relationship between race (genetics) and ethnicity (culture) is construed by campaigners, the news media, and the general public—as a thought experiment, try substituting, say, “Canadian” for “Mexican” and see how your mental image changes.

 Mexico, like the other New-World Spanish colonies, was originally both multicultural and, as its indigenous population was joined by the arrival of (white) Europeans in the early 1500s and, shortly thereafter, (black) Africans, multiracial as well. And these canonical groups—indios, españoles or blancos, and negros or moros (literally, ‘Indians,’ ‘Spanish’ or ‘Whites,’ and ‘Blacks’ or ‘Moors’)—were themselves culturally heterogeneous groups: Indio could designate a member of any of a variety of quite distinct native societies (Aztec, Mayan, Chichimeca, etc.), españoles or blancos could refer equally to white Europeans (a.k.a. gachupines) or their white New-World progeny (a.k.a. criollos), while a negro or moro could be a black person who was the product of one or another of several African societies or was born in the New World, the word moro in either case having been repurposed from its original sense in (European) Spanish, where (according to Gómez de Silva’s Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española) it referred to “a member of the Muslim community of mixed Berber and Arabian origin chiefly inhabiting northern Africa,” the region known in Roman times as Mauritania (Greek Μαυρουσία).  

 As indios, blancos, and negros mingled and produced multiracial offspring who in turn mingled and reproduced, the Old-World Spanish rulers attempted to pigeonhole the members of the increasingly complex New-World population mix through a system of nomenclature that assigned a name to (theoretically) each of the possible types of offspring of each possible pairing of existing racial types. The system was known as the sistema de castas, your casta (from Latin castus, -a, -um ‘pure, unpolluted,’ whence English chaste as well as caste) being your racial type, an identifier of the percentage of indio, blanco, and negro ancestry which you inherited as your birthright. The definition of a casta had in addition to its genetic component an overlay of associated social attributes that, in theory if not in actual practice, characterized your legal rights (e.g., what part of town you could live in and whether you could carry arms) and the range of professions open to you. Period paintings of parents-cum-child showing idealized casta physical features, dress, and  accoutrements were all the rage as souvenirs to take back to Europe after a trip to the New World, post cards and the Kodak Brownie having yet to be invented.

a colonial family

A Colonial Family

The number of possible castas was obviously considerable: From the six possible indio/blanco/negro X india/blanca/negra pairs, you get six different offspring types (indio X india = indio; indio X blanca = mestizo; indio X negra = zambo; blanco X blanca = blanco; blanco X negra = mulato; negro X negra = negro); from a like pairing of these six, you get 21 different types of offspring; from 21, you get 231; and so on. (Mathematically, we’re calculating the sum of N where N is the number of offspring types—three, six, 21, and so on—the formula for which is X =  N * (N+1) /2 in case you’d like to try this at home.)  The following table shows a portion of the system, where parents appear to the left and right of the X immediately above their offspring:


Family Tree

You do not have to do much of the math to figure that there must have been quite a few empty slots in the system (which was finally abandoned in the early 1800s during the Latin American wars of independence) between those occupied by the first couple and the one occupied by their possible albarazado descendent (who could reckon himself 8/128 indio, 75/128 blanco, and 45/128 negro should he be interviewed on the campaign trail). Part of the explanation for these lacunae involves the way in which the system viewed the “whitening” (blanquesimiento) of the indio population:



Thus, if you were 7/8 blanco and 1/8 indio, you were considered blanco and got to start all over again. Not so if seven of your great-grandparents were blancos and the other was a negro or negra:

family tree variant

Family Tree Variant

In this case, instead of collecting $200 and passing Go, you were as an albino, etymologically “white”—the standard Spanish term for  “white” is blanco, ultimately of Germanic origin, while albo (Latin albus ‘white’) has been largely restricted to poetic use—but socially tainted, however slightly.  The reasons for the disparity were several, genetics and actual physical appearance being, apparently, somewhat less important than the original relative numbers of indios, blancos, and negros and whether they were considered aristocracy, serfs, or slaves: Originally indios, both male and female, far outnumbered the blanco population, which was exclusively male; both societies were based on the estate system consisting of an aristocracy plus everybody else, two factors that facilitated the integration of indios with blancos and mitigated against the enslavement (if not the exploitation) of the former by the latter. Negros were imported as slave labor later to make up for the loss of the indigenous workforce due in large part to disease. Their numbers were relatively small.

The differences between the lineages in Family Tree and Family Tree Variant tell another part of the story.  First, while everybody seems to agree on the meaning of the terms español, negro, mulato, and morisco, terminology starts to vary when it comes to naming the next generation—albino or chino. (The term chino is most probably from china, a Quechua word meaning “female, woman.”) Second, there is some confusion as to the lineage of the salta atrás (literally, ‘jump back’ though perhaps ‘throw-back’ would be more apt), the parents being an albino/chino and either a blanca or an india. In fact, after the third generation, casta terminology tends to get rather fast and loose, suggesting that for all practical purposes nobody (with the possible exception of the souvenir portrait painters) actually kept track of more than three generations of  casta differentiation and probably fewer than that, given the general lack of contemporary genealogical documentation beyond oral tradition, the practice of rounding up (“passing”), and the refocusing of political power from Spain to the eventually independent colonies in which, while as far as skin color goes the light end of the color spectrum is still to some extent advantaged, centuries of intermarriage have rendered the sistema de castas mercifully irrelevant.

extended family

The Extended Family