Martin Luther in the W&L Library


A new article in the Washington and Lee University website written by Tom Camden, the University Library’s Head of Special Collections and Archives, opens with these tantalizing words:

  • Four years ago, one of my first-year work-study students dropped by my office to ask if he could look at the Martin Luther pieces housed in the Special Collections vault. He had found them listed in the library catalog.
    Of course, I encouraged him to pull the items for viewing, with one caveat: He had to show them to me first, since I had not seen them and was not aware that Washington and Lee owned early Martin Luther items. What we discovered was nothing short of sensational.

Appearing the day before the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “95 Theses” earlier this week, Professor Camden’s Prelude to Reformation tells the fascinating story of W&L’s acquisition of four Luther works from the 16th century, an account in which the intellectual curiosity and generosity of recent graduate Joshua Duemler (’17)  are justly recognized.

More information about the University Library’s Special Collections is available @


Banned Books and Bill Cosby


This is Banned Books Week, during which the American Library Association shares its annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books, which the ALA admits is only a “snapshot of book challenges,” over 80% of which are never reported.

There is weirdness in every year’s list and 2016 was no exception.  As pointed out in the New York Times, one book was challenged this year not because of its content, but because of the behavior of its creator.  Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series got tarred by its association with its own author and this appears to be the first time any book was challenged solely because of who wrote it.


Histories of Athlete Protests


Nearly every day brings us news of events and personalities that surely must be unprecedented in American culture, but actually very little is completely new.    Certainly, the spectacle of athletes or others using public events to call attention to social or political issues can be startling, but such actions have a rich history in modern America.

Thanks to a University Library subscription, current Washington and Lee University students, faculty, and staff have online access to America: History and Life,  a database which focuses on the literature in history-related academic journals on North American history.   A search in that database on protests or demonstrations by athletes yields this list of over 50 journal articles and other sources detailing fascinating events dating back over 100 years.

Please note that next summer will mark the 50th anniversary of what is probably the most famous such protest, the “black power” salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.


[from the Washington Post ]

New Chicago Manual of Style


Surely, a college campus is one of the very few places in the world in which a new manual on writing style and usage (or is it use?) is a cause for rejoicing — or maybe outrage.

But here we are.

The University of Chicago Press just released the new 17th edition of its Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most venerable and respected guides to the use of the English language.  Or, as the publisher phrases it, ” It is the indispensable reference for writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers, informing the editorial canon with sound, definitive advice.”   But most students (and former students)  probably know it as one of those infamous guides, so beloved by their professors, to the formatting of research paper bibliographies, footnotes, and such.

The University Library now has a printed copy (on Reserve at the Information Desk) and W&L students, faculty, and staff also have online access through the library’s subscription to the official Chicago Manual of Style website, which contains the complete text of the new edition, plus lots of other authoritative guidance.   Links to the guide are available in the library catalog and various online course research guides.

Much of the discussion in the new edition is fascinating for any fan of the English language.   As Exhibit A, we offer the entry on the “Singular ‘They‘,” which includes a brief examination of the use of the word themself.   Enjoy.



Recumbent Lee Memorial


This past Sunday evening Washington and Lee University alumnus Colonel Ty Seidule (’84), professor and head of the history department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, delivered a fascinating and inspiring Constitution Day address entitled “Robert E. Lee and Me: Reflections on Confederate Memory by a W&L Graduate, Soldier and Scholar.”    His talk in Lee Chapel is now available via streaming video .

Professor Seidule’s address includes several references to historical memorials and he made the comment that any evaluation of a monument or memorial must emphasize the motivations of those who were responsible for creation of that monument.    Thus, anyone interested in the history of Lee Chapel, and specifically the recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee, might wish to consult an 80-pagepublication entitled “Ceremonies Connected with the Inauguration of the Mausoleum and the Unveiling of the Recumbent Figure of General Robert Edward Lee, at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va., June 28, 1883,”  available in printed form in the University Library’s Special Collections and online via the HathiTrust Digital Library.

W&L researchers also may read the New York Times coverage of the 1883 event via the Library’s subscription to the Historical New York Times database.

100 Years of OMG!


Tomorrow is an august day in the history of the English language.  (Although, really, isn’t every day?)

Tomorrow, 9 September 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the earliest documented example of a writer using the acronym OMG as a boiled-down version of the exclamation “Oh! My god!”   It most definitely predates the Internet.

How do we know this?  The OED tells us so.   The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which is available online to Washington and Lee students, faculty, and staff, points to a letter written by J. A. F. Fisher on 9 September 1917:

  • 1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78 I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!

You may read further to discover that the editors of the OED have found no other uses of the term in print for nearly 80 years — John Arbuthnot Fisher was ‘way ahead of his time.     You also may find Lord Fisher’s original quotation in his volume Memories, courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Popular Words in Dark Days


The current news of the day often inspires readers to consult their dictionaries to clarify the meaning of a “hot” word. Bigot, for instance.

One of the W&L University Library’s online dictionaries, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, maintains an ever-changing list of the words most looked-up in their database in recent hours and days.   The week following events in Charlottesville began with some of the likeliest suspects (below)…  but linguine?    (Please note that the “Past 24 hours” list changes daily, so linguine‘s day in the sun was very brief.)
Use the the link above to check out each day’s list.


Merriam-Webster Unabridged is one of three preeminent English-language dictionaries available online to W&L researchers, the others being the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English.   Each is available through the library catalog and various locations in our website, such as this research guide page.    You can get different perspectives on a word such as bigot by checking each of these renowned sources.


Not Our First Eclipse


You don’t have to be a science geek, much less an umbraphile,  to appreciate the rarity of a good solar eclipse.   Still, the hype surrounding the upcoming event might lead one to believe that this will be the Washington and Lee community’s first opportunity to experience a solar eclipse.  Not so.

Depending upon local sky conditions, observers in Virginia and elsewhere in the region on Thursday 30 May in 1984 were able to view an annular eclipse of the sun, with about 99% of the sun covered by the moon.  In fact, the area of greatest eclipse during the event was in eastern Virginia and the Richmond Times Dispatch provided significant coverage in its 31 May issue.   (Access to this issue is provided to current W&L students, faculty, and staff through the University Library’s  subscription.)    Broader coverage of the event in the southern U.S. was published in this New York Times article , which included the news that schoolchildren in Atlanta were kept indoors during the eclipse.   (Note: It is not customary for the New York Times to give away their archived content without requiring payment, but this story appears to be available online free-of-charge.)

On the W&L campus, the effects of the eclipse began to be noticeable during that year’s baccalaureate service, which was held in Evans Dining Hall in those days.   At least some folks can recall leaving the ceremonies and noting the dusk-like lighting and the peculiar effects of the increasing eclipse on shadows beneath trees on the University’s front lawn.

One interesting sidelight on the Richmond Times Dispatch coverage cited above:  An article near the bottom of the 31 May front page concerns Jeffrey Scott Gee, the first-ever W&L valedictorian to graduate with a GPA over 4.0.  Commencement took place the day after the solar eclipse.

One final note: Since the eclipse occurred at the very end of the school year, there was no article in the student newspaper Ring Tum Phi to offer any accounts.   However, there was a highly unusual issue of the Phi a few weeks later in July, one offering absolutely no coverage of atmospheric events, but with some other ground-shaking news.   (Online access provided by the University Library’s Digital Archive database of the Ring Tum Phi.)

Maybe this month’s eclipse also will portend some good news.   Fingers crossed.




Dunkirk And “Normal” Life


Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk, is making quite a splash as an unusually serious “summer movie.”   Many commentators, especially in the UK, are finding it useful to compare those events and that spirit to the contemporary Brexit controversy, as witnessed in this harvest from Google.

Washington and Lee researchers have the ability to look at contemporary accounts of Dunkirk through a number of resources, perhaps most importantly through the coverage of that preeminent British newspaper, The Times, via the University Library’s subscription to the Times Digital Archive.

Current W&L students, faculty, and staff may utilize the database’s “Browse by Date” option to examine individual issues of the newspaper from during the height of the 1940 Dunkirk crisis, 27 May – 5 June.   Of course, it also is possible to search for the word Dunkirk, but that is likely to miss quite a few germane articles, such as this one from 1 June 1940.

Despite the dramatic events happening just off the English Channel shore, a modern researcher cannot help but notice that other aspects of life in 1940 England are continuing as before.   For example, as one can read, in the midst of the Dunkirk fighting and rescue, over 30,000 were in attendance in London to see West Ham defeat Fulham 4-3 in a football/soccer match leading up what was billed as the “Football League War Cup Final.”

Other contemporary accounts from British and American newspapers are available to W&L researchers from the University Library’s Newspapers and Magazine Databases collection.   If you have questions, please feel free to contract Dick Grefe, Senior Reference Librarian.




Dictionary of American Regional English Online


Where is it “pop” and where is it “soda?”

To authoritatively answer this and other enduring questions, the Washington and Lee University Library recently acquired online access to what one scholar has referred to as “the greatest American lexicographical project of the latter 20th century,” the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE)

As the title implies, DARE focuses on that rich and raucous sub-set of English sometimes known as “American English.”   This digital product inherits and builds on the decades-long work which gave birth to the six-volume printed set, the first volume of which appeared in 1985 and which the W&L library owns in its entirety. DARE does not dare try to explain all known words in the English language and is not intended to be comprehensive in its coverage of English words used within the confines of the United States.   Its scope is much narrower, as stated in the Introduction to the original volume:

  • (1) Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is not used generally throughout the United States but only in part (or parts) of it, or by a particular social group, is to be included.
  • (2) Any word or phrase whose form or meaning is distinctively a folk usage (regardless of region) is to be included.

The research contained within DARE actually began in the 1880’s, with the founding of the American Dialect Society.   Most of the material, however, was gathered from 1965 to 1970 as fieldworkers (mostly University of Wisconsin graduate students) gathered about 2.5 million survey responses from communities across the U.S. Newer material is grist for the database, even as the publication struggles to cope with draconian budget cuts in the Wisconsin higher education system.    For more on the history of the project (to 2011), see this article from Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities (irony?).    More recent information on the precariousness of the project’s funding can be found in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Other media outlets, scholarly and otherwise, often mine DARE for stories, such as a piece from Mental Floss on colorful synonyms for the verb vomit.   (Yes, “ralph” is in the house.)   More scholarly uses abound, as in this article on Emily Dickinson, and Google Scholar can harvest boocoodles of applications.  And as the Wall Street Journal pointed out,   “DARE has even been used to solve crimes.  Roger Shuy, a retired forensic linguist, recounted the case of a child abduction in which the kidnapper left a note demanding ransom of $10,000, directing:  ‘Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip’ at the corner of two streets.   The kidnapper tried to disguise his education with “kan” (elsewhere spelling “precious” correctly), but “devil strip” is a term for the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the roadway, one used solely in a small area around Akron.  When law enforcement’s suspect list included just one educated man from Akron, the police got a confession.”

And if you like the sound of regional/local accents…  One delightful aspect of the 1965-1970 fieldwork was securing audio of over 1,300 people from communities across the country, each reading the same brief story, “Arthur the Rat.”   You can generate links to about 1,382 of these recordings by going to this site, clicking on  “Search the Collection” on the left side of the page, and then entering “arthur the rat” (including the quotation marks).     If you want to focus on a particular area, you can narrow the search, such as “Arthur the rat” AND Virginia.  (There is one item from a 72-year-old white male in Lexington, Virginia in 1968!)

 I could go on.

The DARE site is a multi-faceted research tool, with lots of fascinating content, but is hampered by a somewhat byzantine organization (perhaps leading to confusement) .   They are working on it.   The entire database is available to current W&L students, faculty, and staff from both on-campus and off-campus locations.   So, experiment and explore to your heart’s content — it may be the perfect thing to do on a hot summer day, as you listen to the chitterdiddles outside.   If you have questions, contact Senior Reference Librarian Dick Grefe.