15 years on: a reminiscence of Bruce Trigger, in place

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:

Stephen Leacock Building, McGill University, with Redpath Museum, front centre, and Avenue des Pins (behind)
Stephen Leacock Building, McGill University, with Redpath Museum, front centre, and Avenue des Pins (behind)

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. 

* * *

Six rare items from the stacks in Leacock 724, sent to Trigger. From top left:
"New Analytical Archaeological Perspectives" by "Lewis D.L. Binclarke", 1971
"Proto-Indo-European-Beothuk" by D.A. Barnett
"Neolithic Evidence of Old and New World Connections" by Faye Cooper-Cole
Catastrophist Geology, vol 2-1, June 1977
"Seven Cosmological Paradigms: Animal, Ladder, River, Cloud, Machine, Book, and System of Systems" by Mario Bunge
"Stray Number Systems", 1946, signed by Floyd Lounsbury
Six rare items from the stacks in Leacock 724, sent to Trigger. From top left: “New Analytical Archaeological Perspectives” by “Lewis D.L. Binclarke”, 1971; “Proto-Indo-European-Beothuk” by D.A. Barnett; “Neolithic Evidence of Old and New World Connections” by Faye Cooper-Cole; Catastrophist Geology, vol 2-1, June 1977; “Seven Cosmological Paradigms: Animal, Ladder, River, Cloud, Machine, Book, and System of Systems” by Mario Bunge; “Stray Number Systems”, 1946, signed by Floyd Lounsbury

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. 

Further Reading

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.

Trigger, Bruce G. “Brecht and ethnohistory.” Ethnohistory (1975): 51-56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/481280

Trigger, Bruce G. “Inequality and communication in early civilizations.” Anthropologica (1976): 27-52. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25604955

Trigger, Bruce G. “Akhenaten and Durkheim.” Sup. BIFAO 81 (1981): 165-184.

Trigger, Bruce G. “All people are [not] good.” Anthropologica (2003): 39-44. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25606110

Trigger, Bruce G. “Comments at the launch of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger“. Arch Notes (Nov/Dec 2006): 7-8. https://www.ontarioarchaeology.org/Resources/ArchNotes/anns11-6.pdf

Re-quinquemation in the news

Thirteen years ago today, back at the dawn of Glossographia, I wrote Five paragraphs on the pentathlon in which I coined the word quinquemation, referring to the elimination of exactly one-fifth of something, an innovation for which I remain desperately under-recognized. The context was the combination of shooting and running into a single event (the excitingly named Laser Run!) in the modern pentathlon, in an act of gross numerical impropriety. But, of course, the analogy is with decimation, the scourge of etymological purists and grammar grouches who insist that it must only mean the destruction of one-tenth of something, rather than (as commonly now) its utter or total destruction. This draws on the misguided principle that a word ought to mean what it means (whatever that means) against the inevitable tide of semantic shift.

And yet! Here we are in 2021 and once again, the modern pentathlon is once again being quinquemated. Now, the discipline of riding is being eliminated after serious problems at the Tokyo Olympics, most notably when a coach punched a horse. Or rather, I suppose it is now a re-quinquemation, leading to the question of whether the new pentathlon will have five events, or four, or three. But it also looks like the UIPM, which governs the sport, is going to try to find a replacement, so the numerical conundrum may be resolved.


In any case, I hereby reassert my right to be recognized as the coiner of quinquemation, a nonce-word that we might have thought would never have another use but has proven its utility once again. You heard it here first … again.

The Language of Numbers

Tomorrow night (Wed. Nov 10, 6:30pm EST) the Planet Word museum in Washington, DC will be hosting an online interview and Q&A with me, entitled “The Language of Numbers”. There’s still time to sign up at the link to preregister for the free Zoom event where I’ll be answering questions about linguistics, number systems, and my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History. Sign up soon – registrations will close shortly. Hope to see folks there!


For realsies, all in from the get-go: Lexiculture 2021

Once again, I am having my undergraduates in my intermediate linguistic anthro class at Wayne State pick from a curated list of fun, interesting, socially relevant, or just plain wacky words for their original research papers this term. The Lexiculture project teaches a dollop of research methods, a touch of discourse analysis, a dab of corpus linguistics, and a soupcon of linguistic anthropology as the student-researchers investigate the sociocultural context and relevance of a single English word.

Earlier this year I edited 62 student papers written from 2013-2020 into an open-access ebook, The Lexiculture Papers: English Words and Culture. Check it out – I’m exceptionally proud of this collection of student scholarship.

And for those interested, here’s the list my students are choosing from this year:

all indingusmake-or-breaksellout
all outdjentman caveshoo-in
AmerindiandoggoneMohammedanshout out
amp updruthersmoronslider
backpedalfast forwardnext-levelsnuck
brain trusthalfsiesoftenswitcheroo
business endhardwiredpeoplingtardy
buzzkillhas-beenphase outthunk
call dibshookupporridgetouchless
car phoneInformation Superhighwaypsychobabbleunmentionables
card-carryingjailbaitrandoupside the head
centricjazz handsrealsiesupsize
challengedjinxrealtimewhole nother
columbusedlavenderrunner-upyea big

Any favourites you’d really like to see picked this year?

The Serpentine Cipher, deciphered

All right, if you follow me over on Twitter, you’ll have seen, over the past few weeks, a puzzle I presented there (with hints and historical digressions) that ended with the successful decipherment of what I can now tell you is called the Serpentine Cipher – this particular word is just the word SERPENTINE. And you will certainly see that each sign certainly is serpentine-looking:

This text is super short and decipherment is certainly a challenge without hints and without some additional information. It starts with the numerical notation used by Johann Joachim Becher in his 1661 Character pro notitia linguarum universali. This was, as the Latin name suggests, one of many 17th century ‘universal language’ schemes, meant to encode concepts rather than words tied to any specific language. Becher’s system used a different number for each of 10,000 concepts, distinguished with lines and dots around a frame:

Becher’s notation wasn’t completely original to him, though. It’s a variant of the Cistercian numerals described in David King’s magisterial 2001 book, Ciphers of the Monks. The system became better known in 2020 via the Numberphile Youtube channel:

King’s book shows how this local development, in parallel to Indo-Arabic / Western ciphered-positional numerals (the digits 0-9), spread throughout European intellectual life into strange places, from volume markings on Belgian wine barrels to modern German nationalist runology. But among the more notable places you find this kind of numeration is in various ciphers, universal language schemes, and other sorts of semi-cryptic efforts to encode language in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although we now know, very firmly, that the Cistercian numerals were a medieval European invention, they were often described as ‘Chaldean’ and/or assigned considerable antiquity / mysticism.

My own contribution to this reception literature was in a post here a few years ago, Cistercian number magic of the Boy Scouts, showing how it ended up in 20th century Scouting literature:

Anyway, the Serpentine Cipher isn’t based on any of that, but is taken directly from Becher. But you can’t just use Becher’s universal cipher at this point, because a ‘universal language’ of 10,000 individual concepts is pretty damn useless. Instead, to solve it, you needed to convert the five glyphs to numbers, and then those to specific pairs of letters – so that five glyphs produces a plaintext of ten letters.

So if you got that far, you found that the five glyphs were five numerals written quasi-positionally, without a zero, in a mixture of base 5 and 10: 737, 3233, 473, 1633, and 473. The fact that the third and fifth glyphs are identical is important, but also potentially misleading. By the way, the reason you don’t need a zero is that the ‘place values’ aren’t linear, but oriented on the same frame, so you can simply leave one blank to indicate an empty space. It’s a kind of ‘orientational’ or ‘rotational’ zero-less place-value. The downside is that unlike a linear phrase it isn’t infinitely extendable.

Next, you needed to notice that each number is the product of exactly two prime factors. By the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, every number is the product of some unique set of prime factors. So there’s no ambiguity: 737 is *only* 11 x 67. And by chance, there are 25 primes below 100, so, borrowing Z = 101, we can associate each prime with a letter:

  • A = 2
  • B= 3
  • C = 5
  • D = 7
  • E = 11
  • F = 13
  • G = 17
  • H = 19
  • I = 23
  • J = 29
  • K = 31
  • L = 37
  • M = 41
  • N = 43
  • O = 47
  • P = 53
  • Q = 59
  • R = 61
  • S = 67
  • T = 71
  • U = 73
  • V = 79
  • W = 83
  • X = 89
  • Y = 97
  • Z = 101

Thus, each glyph can be treated as a product, and thus as a two letter sequence. 737 = 11 (E) x 67 (S), the 5th and 19th primes. (For words like PIZZA that would use the ZZ glyph (101 x 101 = 10201) you have some different options for that fifth place-value, but these are rare enough to ignore for now). Then all you have to do is ‘serpentine’ between the two letter-pair combinations for each number to figure out which pairs lead to the solution. Voila!:

An added bonus of using the word SERPENTINE is that it illustrates one of the key (mildly) confounding properties of the cipher, namely that an identical glyph (473) always has two readings, both of which occur in this one word.

Now, note that the only glyphs that will have even values are ones that use A=2, because the product of odd numbers is always odd. This would have provided a hint – if I’d given you a word with any As in it. (You can also use A=3 … Z=103 if you like, but there will be more products >10000 then.)

Really, once you see all those 11s, it’s not a bad guess that those 11s are Es – but of course, without knowing exactly what their position is, it makes deciphering such a short text tricky. But I don’t pretend that this would stand up to serious cryptanalysis as-is.

Finally, if you have a ‘straggler’ odd letter left out at the end of a word or phrase you can either multiply three letters into a product (though that gets unwieldy, e.g., WRY = 83 X 61 X 97 = 491,111) or just have a single number (a prime) at the end. Either one of these might tip you off as to a word boundary. Of course, you don’t have to stop at word boundaries, so you can SP LI TU PT HE WO RD SI NT OP AI RS LI KE TH IS.

Anyway, thanks to all who played along. I think this is a bunch of fun, doesn’t need much more than basic arithmetic, and provides a neat digression into the history of number systems and early modern cryptography. Paul Leyland was the first correct decipherer and is thus a winner of a copy of my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, which, while it is not really about ciphers at all, does have a lot of stuff relevant to number systems and early modern history.

Finally, this cipher is presented in memory of my dear friend Victor Henri Napoleon, who was one of the original decipherers of an early/experimental version of the Serpentine in 2017, and who passed away suddenly last week at the age of N (43). You will be missed, Vic!

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