Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Innocuous Desuetude

I love the title of this post. It's meaning points to a state of disuse or inactivity, certainly appropriate given my recent absence here!

We had a town-wide yard sale over the holiday weekend. I didn't offer anything for sale, but did my bit by purchasing two boxes of old books from my neighbor up the street. Included were three volumes of an eleven-volume set of James D. Richardson's "A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents." Published in 1910 by the Bureau of National Literature and Art, individual volumes are available for as little as $3.45 so it is not a particularly rare find.

One of the three volumes is the index, itself a very useful 834 page dictionary of political figures and events, which includes maps illustrating the extent of the United States during the administrations of the various presidents from Washington through Roosevelt. From perusing this volume I learned the marvelous phrase made popular in a speech by President Cleveland: "innocuous desuetude."

In trying to get a better handle on the phrase, I came upon an interesting article by William Safire published in the New York Times on October 4, 1987 titled On Language; The Penumbra of Desuetude. The lovely old photograph of the Smithsonian is from volume ten, the last page of which is numbered 7809!

Actually, I really like the sound of "Penumbra of Desuetude" in the Safire subtitle. It just brought to mind a great book that I read in library school, James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks about collective nouns. A penumbra of desuetude could also be something one might find in an Edward Gorey drawing, no?

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