A History of the World – Opening Notes
By Patrick F. Cannon
(In case you’re wondering – and why should you? – this is my 140th post for www.cannonnade.com. I started it about the time I finished my fifth book on Chicago architects and architecture. Before I got the contract for the first one, I had been tinkering with a history of the world. I put it aside after I started work on the book – all done by the way with my partner, the gifted photographer Jim Caulfield – but from time to time published the odd chapter in this space. To spend more time on our sixth book (I’m a glutton for punishment), I thought I would edit the finished chapters and publish them here in the correct sequence. So, for the next couple of months, prepare to be educated.)
A Note on “Recorded” History
There is a widely held misconception that so-called Recorded History began when Thomas Alva Edison used his newly-invented gramophone to record William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech. This is, of course, utter foolishness. After all, Edison was a Republican.
Like so many English words, “record” has many meanings. One can “record” the Concertebow Orchestra of Amsterdam playing John Williams’ theme from Star Wars and thus produce a “record.” One can also “record” ones travel expenses in a notebook for further manipulation and enrichment.
While all of the above may form part of recorded history, they are only a small part. While not presuming to be exhaustive, I would define recorded history as anything written down, drawn, painted, built, photographed, filmed, chiseled in stone or eliminated through the bowels. This last may surprise you, but only if you don’t watch the Discovery Channel. For archeologists not only dig up old pots and pans, but also examine ancient feces for evidence about what people like the Assyrians ate for lunch. It appears it was mostly goat and alfalfa.
One can also aspire to set a record. I recall with horror Will and Ariel Durant, who surely set a record with their six-million-word history, often foisted on new subscribers of the Book of the Month Club (also part of history now). It is my intention to set a different sort of record: for the shortest history of the world, but one that leaves nothing of importance out.
Another Note – What’s in a Name?
Some years ago, I was driving from Munich to Vienna. The day was fine and the road splendid. After traveling for some time, I thought I should soon see a sign heralding my imminent arrival. Nothing of the kind. Thinking perhaps that I had somehow gone astray, I pulled into a rest stop and sought information from the Information kiosk. I explained my dilemma to the attendant, who laughed heartily, as Austrians often do. When he caught his breath, he told me that Vienna was actually Wien in German (pronounced “Vine” to further confuse the unwary tourist). Why then do English speakers call it Vienna I asked? Warming to the subject, he said that the Italians called the city Vienna and that since the English seemed to prefer the Italians to the Austrians, they had taken to using the Italian word.
I was on the point of asking why the Italians thought it necessary to come up with their own name, but decided I might never actually get to Wien, so I decided to leave well enough alone. I heartily enjoyed my visit to Wien, but it has caused me problems ever since. When extolling the virtues of Wien to my friends, I am often greeted with blank stares. Wien? Never heard of it! After patiently explaining that it’s often called Vienna by English speakers, I often have the feeling that they think that perhaps I had too much wine in Wien.
What to call things is a serious problem for historians. The French call London “Londre”, the Italians “Londini.” On the other hand, the English spell Paris just like the French do, although they pronounce it with an “iss” instead of an “eee.” A Spaniard thinks he’s going to Nueva York instead of New York, but generally manages to get there anyway. One often wonders, of course, why there’s no Spanish word for “York.” Nueva Yorka has a music that Nueva York lacks.
Germany also presents problems. If you go there, you’ll discover that the locals call it Deutschland, which must mean “land of the Dutch.” I had always supposed that the Dutch lived in Holland, but perhaps I’m mistaken. It may just be that the Germans grabbed the name first, leaving the Dutch to settle for Holland, which must be a made up word. By the way, the French call Germany, Allemande, which makes no sense to anyone.
What one should name people is also a problem. Italians persist in calling Julius Caesar “Julio Cesare.” But the English seem perfectly content to leave Benito Mussolini as it is instead of changing it to “Benny Muscles.” I wondered if the Italians call Alfred the Great “Alfredo il Magnifico,” but didn’t bother to check.
To give another illustration, we call the saint who could charm the birds out of the trees, Francis. The Italians call him Santa Francesco and the Spanish San Fernando. You would think that we would call the famous valley in California the Saint Francis Valley instead of the San Fernando Valley, but we don’t.
And I’m sure many of your friends have told you that “I’m off to England for a vacation.” But aren’t they really going to the United Kingdom, or is it really Great Britain? If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, is it the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, but not Great Britain?
Since I have been unable to find any reasonable explanation for these and other paradoxes, I have decided to exercise my best judgment. In cases where I think the reader might be confused, I have tried my best to help him along.
(Next week – Chapter 1!)
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon