Digital scholarship blog

06 May 2020

What did you call me?!

This guest blog post is by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager at the British Library.

The coronavirus lockdown is a good opportunity to carry out some of those house-keeping tasks that would never normally get done (and I do not mean re-grouting the bathroom). Anticipating that we would be sent home and knowing I would be limited in the work I could do at home, I asked IT to download all the name authorities in our archives and manuscripts cataloguing system (all 324,106 of them) into a spreadsheet that I would be able to work on at home.

Working through the names, looking for duplicate records, badly-formed names, and typos, my eye was caught by the variety of epithets that have been used over 267 years of manuscripts cataloguing.

For the uninitiated, an epithet is part of a name authority or index term, in the form of a short descriptive label, used to help distinguish people of the same name. Imagine you are writing a biography of a John Smith. You search the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for any relevant primary sources, only to find three entries for Smith, John, 1800-1870. How would you know which John Smith’s letters and diaries to call up for your research? (Humour me: let us assume our three Smiths all have the same vital dates, unlikely I know, and that the papers are not fully catalogued so the catalogue descriptions of the papers themselves cannot help you decide as they would normally).

Now imagine your catalogue search for John Smith turned up the following entries instead:

Smith, John, 1810-1880, baker

Smith, John, 1810-1880, butcher

Smith, John, 1810-1880, candlestick maker

Instantly, you can see which of the three John Smiths is relevant to your ground-breaking research into the history of candlestick making in the West Riding in the early Victorian era.

The epithet is one element of a well-formed index term and it tends to be a position in life (King of Jordan; Queen of Great Britain and Ireland), a former or alternative name (née Booth; pseudonym ‘Jane Duncan’), a career or occupation (soldier; writer), or a relationship to another person (husband of Rebecca West; son of Henry VII).

Scrolling through the spreadsheet, in amongst the soldiers, writers, composers, politicians, Earls of this, and Princesses of that, I stumbled across a fascinating array of epithets, some obvious, some less so.

There are plenty of examples of the perhaps slightly everyday, but important all the same: bricklayer; plumber; glazier; carpenter. As well as the trades common to us today, some of the trades used as epithets seem very much of their times: button-maker; coach and harness maker; dealer in fancy goods; butterman; copperplate printer; hackney coachman.

Those from the edges of law-abiding society loom large, with people described as burglar and prisoner (presumably the former led to his becoming the latter), convict, assassin, murderer, pickpocket, forger, felon, regicide, and rioter. There are even 50 pirate’s wives in the catalogue (but only seven pirates!). The victims of conflict and persecution also crop up, including prisoner of war, martyr, and galley slave, as well as, occasionally, their tormentors (inquisitor, head jailer, arms dealer).

Some of the epithets have a distinct air of mystery about them (codebreaker; conspirator; spy; alchemist; child prodigy; fugitive; renegade priest; hermit; recluse; mystic; secret agent; intercept operator; dream interpreter) whilst others exude a certain exoticism or loucheness: casino owner; dance band leader; acrobat; mesmerist; jazz poet; pearl fisher; showman; diamond tycoon; charioteer.

Many of the epithets relate to services provided to others. Where would the great and the good be without people to drive them around, manage their affairs, assist in their work, take their letters, make their tea, cook their food, and treat them when they fall ill. So, Marcel Proust’s chauffeur, Charlie Chaplin’s business manager, Gustav Holsts’s many amanuenses, Laurence Olivier’s secretary, Virginia Woolf’s charwoman, as well as her cook, and HG Wells’s physician all make appearances in the catalogue.

Then there are the epithets which are less than useful and do not really enlighten us about their subjects: appraiser (of what?); connoisseur (ditto); purple dyer (why only purple?); political adventurer; official. The less said about the usefulness, or otherwise, of epithets such as Mrs, widow, Mr Secretary, and Libyan the better.  Some fall into the ‘What is it?’ category: coastwaiter (and landwaiter, for that matter); pancratiast; paroemiographer; trouvère.*

Another interesting category contains epithets of people with more than one string to their bow. One’s mind boggles at the career path of the ‘music scribe and spy’, or the ‘inn-keeper, gunner, and writer on mathematics’; is awed by the variety of skills of the ‘composer and physician’; marvels at the multi-talented ‘army officer, footballer, and Conservative politician’; and wonders what occurred in someone’s life to earn them the epithet ‘coach-painter and would-be assassin’.

As we have discovered, an epithet can help identify individuals, thus making the reader’s life easier, but if all else fails, and it is not possible to say who someone is, you can always say who they are not. Hence one of our manuscripts cataloguing forbears leaving us with Barry, Garrett; not Garrett Barry of Lisgriffin, county Cork as an index term.

  • a type of Customs officer; ditto; a participant in a boxing or wrestling contest, esp. in ancient Greece; a writer or collector of proverbs; a medieval epic poet.

This guest blog post is by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager at the British Library.

 

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