Eric Hoffer, the American longshore philosopher, remarked that “Whenever you trace the origin of a skill or practices that have played a crucial role in the ascent of man, we usually reach the realm of play. ” This was certainly the case with the reference librarians of my pre-WorldWideWeb days.
The Beginner’s Reference Skills course at my school of library science (University of Texas at Austin) required learning 800 different reference sources – textbooks, encyclopedias and heaps of indexes – and 95% of our overall mark came from final exam: where to find the answers to 100 typical questions without marks. The goal was not to know the answers but to know where the answers were.
Staffing the Public Library Reference Desk has been such a kickstarter, answering questions that could pertain to anything in the known universe. In Fairbanks, I worked alongside a few reference librarians who thrived on both intellectual challenge and fully helping everyone, no matter their position in life. We had handy map file drawers with answers to frequently asked questions, such as Nenana Ice Tripod drop dates, previous years’ PFD payments, local record temperatures, and more.
The cards included trivial hard-to-find answers, such as the name of the space between and above the eyebrows (glabella) and the word for “the day after tomorrow” (overmorrow). Two in particular stood out: “scribble” (a term Merriam-Webster describes as “careless handwriting: a coarse or illegible scribble” because my handwriting was particularly bad even before six hand surgeries), and “the bundles of phloem”, the thin strips hanging from peeled bananas.
Bananas are fascinating physiologically and in their relationship to physical mood. For starters, there are no banana trees; they’re the tallest grass in the world, according to “What Are the Parts of a Banana Tree?”, a recent Hunker.com article by Shelley Hoose. Banana plants have bases called rhizomes that clump together to form mats from which aerial shoots (AKA “ramets” or “pups”) grow into “huge, juicy stems, called pseudostems because they are not neither trunks nor actual stems but rather made up of tight leaf sheaths.As the pseudostem grows in height, banana leaves emerge, tightly coiled like cigars and, in fact, are called “cigar leaves” Then there is the “peduncle” – “the part of the stem between the crown of the plant and the fruit…The banana flower…subsides into a complex structure that produces the fruit.” flexible bands along the inner fruit of the banana, the phloems, carry all the nutrients to the fruit Peeling bananas from the bottom also often removes pesky phloems.
How many banana peels have you ever slipped on? Yet how ubiquitous is the slapstick gag of falling banana peels? These thoughts came from watching a WWII cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny fighting a German gremlin that was intent on destroying American bombers. This was explained in “How Did Slipping on a Banana Peel Become a Comedy Staple?”, a MentalFloss.com article by Laura Turner Garrison.
“Before the discovery of its comic potential, the banana peel was considered a real public hazard. In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York. The fruit quickly became a popular street food across America, but increased urban migration and lack of health regulations posed a major problem in cities. People often dumped their trash in the streets, causing a general stench and a buildup of public trash. A fresh banana peel may seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a drool-covered trap.
“The banana peel has become a symbol of bad manners. Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly warned anyone who threw their banana peels on a public walkway, as it would likely result in broken limbs…Sunday schools were warning children that an improperly discarded peel would not only permanently lead to a broken limb, but that the person with the broken limb would inevitably end up in the hospice because of that injury… In the 19th century, cities relied heavily on wild pigs roaming the streets to rid themselves of decaying organic matter. This method was not completely effective. According to the book ‘Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World’ by Dan Koeppel, the banana peel epidemic in New York was finally solved at the turn of the century by a public agency led by a former wartime colonel. civil. Colonel George Waring organized a fleet of uniformed workers, known as the “White Wings”, who swept the streets in shifts and disposed of waste in public composting facilities. Koeppel cites this as the “first large-scale recycling effort in the United States”.
The official name of street cleaners in the early 1900s was a matter of reference that eluded me for decades until I recently read about Colonel Waring’s White Wings. The brief New York Historical Society article about them said that Waring “ordered his entire brigade of sweepers to wear all white uniforms and caps.” He believed that snappy regulation whites would keep members of the force on the job and keep them from slacking off.
The country clearly said “nix”, a term particularly popular in the late 1800s for carelessly discarded banana peels, but now only heard in old movies. Etymonline.com says that nix means “nothing or nothing” and comes from the German “nix”, a dialect variant of “nichts” (nothing), and traces it back to the Proto-Indo-European root word “ne-” which meant ” do not.”
Speaking of origins, “A Reader’s Book of Days” noted that on February 19, 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson recorded in his diary a conversation he had on a stagecoach ride with an old sailor who told of “an old sperm whale that he was calling a white whale who had been known for many years by whalers as Old Tom, & who rushed on boats that attacked him & crushed the boats to small shards in his jaws.
The Melville.org site stated that the name “‘Moby Dick’ was suggested by an article by Jeremiah Reynolds, published in the New York Knickerbocker Magazine” about a similar whaleboat crusher titled “Mocha Dick: Or the Whale White Pacific”: “The meaning of the name itself is quite simple: the whale was often sighted in the vicinity of the Isle of Mocha, and ‘Dick’ was only a generic name like ‘Jack’ or “Tom” – names of other deadly whales cited by Melville in Moby Dick Chapter 45: “But not only did each of these famous whales enjoy great individual fame – no, you can call it fame at the ‘scale of the ocean… Was it not, O Timor Jack! Thou famous Leviathan, scarred like an iceberg, who so long prowled the eastern strait of that name, whose beak has often been seen from Ombay palm beach?
Melville, who worked as a simple sailor from 1841 to 1844, could well have turned Mocha into Moby Dick. ‘Moby Dick’ was published in 1851 in London, but the publisher hired ‘revisers’ who were, according to Wikipedia, ‘responsible for ‘unauthorized edits ranging from typographical errors and omissions to acts of outright censorship’ …the UK edition was ‘badly mutilated'” cutting out 1,200 words they deemed sacrilegious, and others dealing with sexuality and “bashing of royalty”.
They also completely cut the book’s “epilogue” describing Ishmael’s ultimate survival. Consequently, ‘Moby Dick’ did not sell well during his lifetime: only 3,215 copies over the next 34 years, and it was largely forgotten until 1930 when Rockwell Kent insisted on illustrating it. Kent’s fame led to it being rediscovered and becoming a bestseller and a literary classic. There is a copy of the first edition in the Noel Wien Library’s antiquities collection, which nicely enhances the library’s incredible collection of Kentish artwork.
Usually, as Vladimir Putin said, “it is necessary to suppress all extremist actions, from all sides, regardless of their origin”.
Greg Hill is the former Director of Fairbanks North Star Borough Libraries. Contact him at 907-479-4344.