I recently was asked about a mysterious word, chilinquied, by a reader of the Phrontistery who found this word in a letter from Mary Nisbet (wife of Lord Elgin) and published in her 2001 biography by Susan Nagel:
The context is Nisbet’s time with her husband while they were in Constantinople, as guests of (I believe) Sultan Selim III, around 1799-1801.
It’s not a typo – Google Books shows that ‘chilinquied’ is in the 1928 edition of Nisbet’s letters as well (The letters of Mary Nisbet of Dirleton, countess of Elgin), but in literally no other source I can find. Not one book, article, or website. Not in the OED, or any specialized dictionaries, or any of my other sources. A true hapax legomenon. It could have been mis-transcribed from the original letter, of course, which I don’t have access to, or it could be Nisbet’s spelling of … well, just about anything. So what could it be?
‘Chilinqui’ does seem to be part of a phrase ‘compañeros de chilinqui’ used in some Panamanian and South American websites, some sort of colloquialism – it sounds Quechuan. And ‘Chilinque’ is a surname in Brazil, it seems. But I reasoned (correctly) that this must all be a coincidence – nothing to do with a 19th century Scottish noblewoman visiting Constantinople.
Given the context of Elgin’s Ottoman ambassadorship, I considered that angle to be the most likely. It seemed to mean ‘honored’ or ‘acknowledged’ or something like that. If it were Anglo-Indian I’d go to my trusty Hobson-Jobson, but this would be Ottoman, not Indian – so presumably from Turkish or Farsi (or Arabic at the outside).
But there you run into a problem. Practically every letter in ‘chilinquied’ could be different than in any putative source word, and Turkish was at the time principally written in Arabic script in any case. I don’t speak a word of Turkish or Farsi, and also had to consider that whatever this was could be specific to the time period or the Ottoman court.
I even took a quick tour through the Dictionary of the Scots Language, although most 19th century Scottish noblewomen would not be using Scots, certainly not in a letter otherwise in standard British English. I couldn’t rule it out, though – it was a letter home to her family – some familectal word shared only among close kin? But again, a dead end.
Ultimately my first instincts proved correct. In looking for ‘chilinqui’ and ‘chilinque’ in the Latin American context, it turns out that Lady Elgin also used a different ‘chilinque’ several times in her published letters. I was able to track down the full text of the 1926 version (thanks, HathiTrust!) and lo and behold, four instances of ‘chilinque’ in addition to the one ‘chilinquied’. The first instance of ‘chilinque’ was from a letter describing Christopher Hutchinson, the very figure who the Sultan had ‘chilinquied’. And the editor of Nisbet’s letters, Lieutenant-Colonel Nisbet Hamilton Grant (her great-grandson) usefully provided a footnote: “Chilinque or Aigrette. — An ornament, often of great value, fastened on to the turban.”
From there it was a quick dash to the answer: the Turkish chelengk (çelenk), an Ottoman military decoration bestowed for military merit, often worn as an ornament on the turban. Horatio Nelson was the first non-Ottoman to be awarded one, in 1798, by Selim III (see a photo of a replica below). Thereafter (Nisbet’s letter was from just after this point) the chelengk was granted to various visiting officials, including Hutchinson.
The key insight of Nisbet’s original letter, the one reproduced in Nagel’s biography above, was the revelation that Hutchinson was not a military official at all, but a lawyer, although he wore military garb in the hopes of being mistaken for an officer who had served (as Nelson had) in the Egyptian campaign a few years earlier. Bestowing the chelengk / chilinque on Hutchinson, so that he was “chilinquied”, was thus highly inappropriate.
In any event, ‘chilinquied’ appears to be Mary Nisbet’s own coinage, meaning ‘to bestow a chelengk upon’. Both ‘chilinque’ and ‘chilinquied’ are spellings unique to her as well, explaining why they don’t appear anywhere else. I had been fooled for some time by the ‘-quied’ ending into looking for a three-syllable word – if it had been ‘chilinqued’ I don’t think I would have spent quite so much time on the Spanish phrases.
And so, mystery solved, and another episode of Steve Goes Down a Rabbit-Hole Instead of Doing His Actual Work comes to a conclusion.
Once again, the early-career scholars in the 2022 edition of my course, Language and Societies, have written some amazing papers, for which the abstracts are linked below. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.
This week – the day is up for a little debate, but let’s celebrate it today – marks 25 years since the beginning of my longtime website on weird words, wordplay, and language, The Phrontistery. A silver anniversary, to go with the paper anniversary of my new book, Reckonings, this past December. To go with my hair, a wag might remark, fairly.
Some of you may not be aware that this is where I got my start, all those years ago, as a new graduate student full of a list of words culled from reading my old Chambers dictionary as a form of GRE prep. For a while, the Phrontistery was sort of a big deal: in the era before the big commercial dictionaries had mastered web content and search engine optimization, a big single HTML page full of words was surprisingly highly ranked. The Google algorithm is far less forgiving now. So if you only know me as an academic, and not as a very immature weird little PhD student obsessed with nerdish things, well, now you know.
It’s been a long road over the past quarter-century, and the story is told at some length over there. That story places the origins in 1996, and that is right, as far as the work of putting it together. But the site didn’t go live at its old (now long defunct) address at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/7044, until sometime in very late January or early February 1997 – hence the present celebration. As mentioned on the history page, my first email from a Geocities ‘neighbour’ (what a weird notion – these were the people whose four-digit URL was nearest to yours) was on February 2. So I know it was up by then, which is why I’m marking the date. Then, on February 4 I wrote an email to a bunch of my friends telling them about it:
I’ve been working for the past week or so on my new web site (see my signature for the URL). It’s a work in progress, but it’s starting to get OK now. Warning: if you decide to check it out, it is pretty weird. Although, seeing who its author is, that shouldn’t come as any surprise. At first, when I heard about this Geocities deal where they give you 2 megs of free drive space for your page, along with a free URL and email address, I figured that there had to be some sort of catch, such as being forced to put all kinds of advertising on your page, etc. In fact, after talking to one of the grad students here who had a Geocities account, there’s no catch … I’m still trying to figure out how these people make any money. But I’m not going to start complaining.
Why yes, I do still have every relevant email I’ve ever sent or received since 1995. Doesn’t everyone? *feigned look of innocence* Anyway, I was right about Geocities – no one, not when it was independent, not when Yahoo bought it – no one knew how to make money off that thing. And I’m still weird, but you probably knew that. Anyway, I was 22 years old at the time, very immature, way too clever for my own good and made lots of mistakes, most of which have thankfully been wiped clean (because things don’t really survive on the Internet forever, not really, not for 25 years at least). Other things survive on my hard drive, though, like this … thing:
I still get a couple emails a week from the site, from people writing with weird questions about language and such. I’m sure I would get more if I put more effort into it, and if I didn’t actively discourage potential emailers. I write folks back if their questions are interesting, but not if they’re just suggesting some addition, because I’m done adding new words. The Phrontistery at its inception wasn’t even Web 1.0 – we were still in beta, back in those early days a quarter-century ago. The world of 2022 doesn’t need a homegrown ‘hard words’ dictionary anymore. In terms of new content over there, it’s really just whenever my Twitter feed updates.
I’m fully confident, though, that some of you reading this now came to me originally from an encounter at the Phrontistery, including new people who follow me on Twitter, as well as some long-time readers. And that’s pretty cool, that I’m still making connections based on this vestige of a bygone era. If that’s you – let me know! And fear not – it’s not going anywhere. Happy silver anniversary, little website turned big website turned weird legacy. It’s been a fun ride.
Very fittingly, today is the first anniversary – or in the traditional reckoning, the paper anniversary – of my very own book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History. In the past year I’ve given over a dozen talks about it, tweeted endlessly about it, and despite all of the chaos of a world still (still!) in the deepest clutches of the pandemic, had an awesome time with this book. I think it’s some of my best and most accessible scholarly writing on numbers and numeracy. So, happy birthday, book!
Anyway, as it is a paper anniversary, I would note that you could get yourself or a loved one (or an enemy, I’m not picky) the gift of paper, in the form of their very own copy of the book, which you can even get at a 20% discount this month when ordering it through Penguin Random House using the promo code MITPHoliday21, with free US shipping.
You can also help the book (and who’s kidding who, me) out in lots of other ways:
Recommend the book for purchase to your local or institutional librarian. Seriously, folks, librarians are massively underappreciated and libraries are the temples of democracy / insert relevant approving metaphor here!
Recommend that your local independent bookstore carry it. Seriously, I know that shelf space is a precious treasure, but I can guarantee it’s worth it.
Write a review of the book online (on a blog, forum, or the website of your least favourite commercial bookseller) or for a journal (if you’re an academic)
Write me about the book! I’m always happy to hear from folks who have read it and have something to say.
Invite me to give a talk to your class / book club / convention / other fun event! I’m mostly scheduling online-only through the first half of 2022 but frankly, that makes it a lot easier to manage for everyone, pandemic or no.
Anyway, I’ll have more to say about numbery things in 2022 I’m sure – I have a bunch of projects on the go. Here’s to paper, and onward to … cotton? Who came up with this nonsense anyway?
Fifteen years ago today, I was the temporary occupant of an office that had been, for seven years from 1996 to 2003, a central part of my intellectual life. Since that August, I had been the very junior resident of the office on the seventh floor of the Leacock building at McGill University. It had been for thirty years, and was still, officially, occupied by my doctoral advisor, colleague, and friend, Bruce Trigger. I had come to be sitting on the other side of the desk by grave misfortune. Bruce had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before, and had retired to emeritus status. While he was still poking around the university in the fall of 2006, he wasn’t well, and despite heroic measures being taken, the prognosis wasn’t great. We all knew that. And so I had been hired to occupy his office, to teach ‘his’ history of archaeology course and a couple others as a visiting lecturer, which was fortuitous, since I had a new baby and no other income, since my postdoc at Toronto had ended and we certainly couldn’t afford to stay there. So we came back to Montreal, and I came back to McGill. And there was his office, sitting unoccupied, except now and again when he’d pop by. So that was how in 2006 I came to be on the flip side of the desk where, in 1996 as a new doctoral student, I had first met the great man himself.
Now here’s the thing you need to understand about the Leacock building at McGill. Most of the offices in Leacock are pretty small and not the best. The building is one of those 60s brutalist things, nine stories, and along the long sides (west and east) all the offices were pretty standard. But on the south-facing side, looking out across campus, down the mountain towards downtown, four offices on each floor are extra-long, maybe twice the length of an average office. You can see these great beasts jutting out here in this Google image:
So one of those, 724, that was Bruce’s. There wasn’t a lot of natural light or space, because practically every available square foot was occupied with bookshelves heavy-laden with books and journals, most of which, Bruce assured me, he had actually read. Stacks upon stacks of offprints and reprints, Bruce’s own articles and things sent to him. It was all there, a monument to an intellectual life. And all kinds of other crap. Like the inflatable sarcophagus Tutankhamun that just kind of was always, inexplicably, there in the back of the office. Or random 5¼” floppy disks, where Bruce saved most of his manuscripts (yikes! Thankfully, he also printed out everything). Or an axe, just … an axe, which we found after his death in the back of the office, as if somehow, if a fire broke out, Bruce was going to smash the seventh-floor window and then … who knows? I can’t find a photo of 724, though there must surely be one somewhere. The office pictured in his Wikipedia photo is far too empty. It doesn’t matter, because whatever its actual physical stature, it was nothing compared to the magnitude, that September in 2006, of me walking around to the other side of the office and taking a seat to use, however borrowed, as my own. To wait for Bruce to die.
Lots of people have complex, mixed feelings about their PhD advisors. Not me. It’s not that I think that Bruce was perfect — you don’t get to know someone that well, for a decade, and suppose somehow they are immune to human fallibility. But he was, for me certainly, but also, I know, for many others, a truly remarkable and supportive mentor. You don’t really have any expectation that when your advisor is also a Big Personage in the field, that they are also the kind of person who would, as Bruce often did, spend two hours with you in tutorial in the afternoon, then call you up on the phone that evening to talk some more about our excellent tutorial. Or turn around papers with detailed comments within a couple days. Or tap into his research funds to give you some summer work that I honestly think he would have preferred to do himself, because he preferred to do lots of things himself. Or — and this one is still a source of great shame — read and comment on a manuscript on the early modern abacus I’d written, from the hospital bed where he would eventually die. That paper, fifteen years later, is sitting in my metaphorical drawer, unpublished after a too-nasty bout of peer review. Or make sure to leave a detailed reference letter with the department staff, when he knew — though he wouldn’t say it out loud — that he wasn’t going to be there to see me land a tenure-track job. (Look at me, I’m still here, I did it!)
That fall started out great. Classes were good, and Bruce was, though thin, though unwell, still out and about. He’d been very sick through much of 2005-06, and hadn’t been well enough to travel to receive his Order of Canada in December 2005 (there was a private ceremony instead, in Montreal). But by the summer of 2006 he was, well, better. Well enough to attend the book launch that September of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, the volume that had emerged from a SAA session we had done a couple years earlier, before he was sick. I still remember the speech he gave at that event, ending with Bruce’s still-uninterpreted “cryptic pronouncement“. The book wasn’t originally intended to be a memorial, which is partly why a few years later, we put together Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, to make sure no one who wanted to have a voice was left out. The introduction to that volume summarizes how I still think about his intellectual legacy. But back in September 2006, we were really not thinking about legacies, but of futures. Bruce was even musing about teaching his renowned arch-theory graduate seminar that winter (which I had taken twice as a student, once for credit, once for … fun?). If I’m not misremembering, it was even on the books for students to register.
But then it started to get cold, and Bruce was in the hospital by late October, still working, furiously, on new work, a book about conservatism in Canadian politics that I don’t think survives even in his papers (although anyone who would like to take a peek through 5.4 linear metres of the Bruce Trigger Fonds could check for me). In the spring he’d done his page proofs for the 2nd edition of History of Archaeological Thought from the hospital while undergoing chemo (it came out in September) and this was no different. We — his friends and students who were around — would make the trip west along Avenue des Pins, the road you can see behind Leacock in the image above (which apparently Google Maps still calls ‘Pine Ave’, in curious anglo tradition), to the Montreal General to chat with Bruce in his hospital bed, to talk about things. He was cheerful, every time. But we knew where things were heading.
I taught my class that morning, before I heard the news. It was his class, History of Archaeological Theory, the undergrad class he had taught so many times, that was mine only by administrative fiat, not by any right. It met down in the basement of Leacock, a windowless, joyless room. I still have the notes from that day; I still have all my notes from all the classes I’ve ever taught. It was the last class before the exam, and the topic of the day was “What I Think”, the final lecture (in those days it was pretty much all straight lectures from notes for me, which is how Bruce also did it), where I brought the class to a close by trying to situate what we’d been learning in terms of my own personal experiences and thoughts. Looking at it now, it’s a pretty pretentious class for someone who didn’t even have secure employment. I guess it was a good one though. I’m still in touch with some of the folks from that class, and they tell me I was cool back then.
I heard the news from my friend and mentor Mike Bisson, who for thirty years was one of Bruce’s best friends. You can read the obituary Mike wrote here. I had come back up to the 7th floor for lunch, and he caught me in the hall and let me know. No one was surprised; no one could believe it either. Bruce was 69.
I remember calling my wife, sitting on the other side of that desk, though I have no recollection of what she said other than “I’m sorry”. I don’t remember eating; I can’t have eaten. But I remember walking, out of the building, and down the narrow roadway that led, it can’t be more than a hundred meters, to the Redpath Museum (the building right in the foreground of the Google photo). To this day I’m not really sure why I went there. I’ve never told anyone that I went there before. I never, ever went there, except for some talk or event, even though it was literally right there next to Leacock, even though it has an amazing anthropological collection. It was, however, a place where, on a Friday afternoon in December, I could reliably be sure to be alone, to just wander around for a bit, to collect my thoughts. Which was, I suppose, what I needed. I spent some time upstairs on the second floor, in the Egyptology collection. Bruce was one of the central linkages between anthropology and Egyptology, and for a semester I even tried to teach myself some Middle Egyptian. But mostly I went there because it was a place on campus that didn’t remind me of anything.
But my day wasn’t done.
You mostly don’t remember individual classes. I mean, you remember some of the students, and you remember the courses, maybe even the room you were in, that kind of thing. Perhaps a fleeting moment, a well-timed joke. But the individual class meetings, no, not as individual instances. But I remember that class, or at least the start of it, when I came back to Leacock that day. It was my seminar on writing systems, held in the windowless interior seminar room right across from his office — my office. I don’t know why I didn’t cancel. The topic for the day was ridiculous. It was supposed to be our fun, let off steam, talk about something silly, end-of-term class. Here’s the agenda from that day (totally bizarrely, all the URLs still work fifteen years later!):
Constructed Scripts: We will be looking at three scripts: the phonetic alphabet known as Shavian; the Klingon alphabet, and Tolkien’s Elvish (Tengwar) script. The readings are mostly online; for some of them, it’s really just best to look at the Internet, which is where nerds live (not that I would know anything about that!) Readings: Hibbitt, George W. 1964. Pshaw for Shaw’s British alphabet. American Speech 39(3): 213-216. (Also take a brief look at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/shavian.htm, so you will know what it looks like); Attached Adobe Acrobat file: Klingon.pdf (2 pages); Web sites on Tengwar (Tolkien’s invented Elvish alphabet): http://ring-lord.tripod.com/tengwar/index.htm, http://at.mansbjorkman.net/tengwar.htm
And so I had to pretend to be, well, not ok, but to at least finish off the class, for my eight or so seminar students that day. I told them what had happened — the word hadn’t officially gone out, but of course it would, soon enough — and it’s not like I was in any real shape to do serious seminar work. And so here I was, explaining to a bunch of kids, 19 and 20 years old, that this man, the greatest scholar and one of the finest humans I ever knew, was gone, and to try to convey the monumentality of it all, when seriously, they probably just wanted to go home and work on their term papers which were due the next week. And then, I guess maybe we talked about Klingon? That, I don’t recall.
* * *
I stayed in that office, his office, through the spring and summer. The job fell to me — although I don’t think I would have let anyone else have it — of cataloging his library, of undoing thirty years of the habit of putting correspondence from authors in their own books on his shelves, so that it could all go to the McGill Archives. Helping redistribute books and journals to Bruce’s friends, family, and colleagues, the high school at Kanesatake First Nation, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, McGill’s own library, the McGill book sale. I still have dozens of his old reprints from the huge piles that were stacked in the office, including some underappreciated classic Bruce pieces that I still assign to students (Trigger 1975, 1976, 1981, 2003). I also have some real rarities and bizarro stuff sent from others (image above), not that Bruce believed the weirder of these things at all. Taking care of weird ephemera such as good old Tutankhamun and the Bruce Trigger Memorial Axe. In the end I don’t think much was just discarded.
I stayed at McGill another year after that, but in another office. That was ok. 724 wasn’t his anymore anyway, and I certainly had no claim on such a massive empty space. My office the next year was a bright, spacious corner office up on the eighth floor, shared with a full professor who wasn’t around much. And then from there, in 2008, I was off to my current office at Wayne State, which has its own weird ephemera that someone might go through someday. But this isn’t about me and my places.
I still bounce ideas off Bruce from time to time, fifteen years later. I think the Bruce in my head isn’t nearly as clever as I sometimes need him to be, but that’s all right; it does the job.
Chrisomalis, Stephen and Andre Costopoulos. “Bruce Trigger: citizen scholar.” In Human Expeditions: Inspired by Bruce Trigger, Stephen Chrisomalis and Andre Costopoulos, eds., pp. xiii-xx. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.