So I (Arlene) am known around the dept as the go-to woman for deciphering handwriting. Which is rather amusing when you consider my own cursive looks like it was done by a particularly uncoordinated third-grader. Which should be no surprise since that’s about the last time I wrote in cursive regularly–the year I was forced to learn how to do it. But I had a part-time job in my undergrad years working for Dr. Ron Hatzenbuehler of Idaho State University taking the 1900 Idaho census and encoding it for computer use. (way back when computer databases could only crunch numbers well, not words, and we were still working on dummy terminals to input the data into the mainframe. Yes, I am THAT old.) So due to months spent reading 1900 census schedules, and years since working with 1850s-1880s era court records as well as more contemporary ones, I’ve gotten quite good at looking at a handwritten document and figuring out what that word is. Truth be told, I usually don’t have to work on it, the word pretty much just pops out at me anymore. Which, around here, usually results in the help-requesting person uttering a shriek and saying “I can’t believe you figured that out!” It’s usually not a compliment, by the way, they’re actually irritated. (You know who you are.)
So it’s not that usual an occasion when I go seeking help.
But this one got me. I’m good at recognizing names and normal words. And by that, I mean words that might occur in a government document as opposed to a personal diary full of abbreviations, and like this one, code words and strike-throughs and so forth. I was reading along, transcribing this diary, when I ran across a word I simply could not recognize (note: the one I’m showing you is the 2nd occurrence of the word, the first I swear was not as readable.) And it was so unreadable that I actually was breaking it down into first principles and had Mariecris and Kevin Tripp arguing over it with me too. Okay, so the first letter is a tall letter (b, d, k, and so forth) but since the lump on it is after the tall line not before, that takes D out… And the third letter–or fourth?–drops below the main line which means it’s a g, j, y, z or whatever. (Forgive me. I’m sure graphologists out there are having fits at my lack of appropriate terms here. ) And context wasn’t helping. “If she weren’t my cousin I’d really like to [whatever]” well, you get the picture. Everything we were coming up with just sounded sordid. Okay, so context was helping: this was a nice young man who wouldn’t be using sordid terms–he certainly didn’t elsewhere in the diary–so it must mean something relatively innocent. I finally decided we were wasting too much time and did the brackets thing to indicate we hadn’t included a word, and moved on. And then a page or two later it showed up again (see above.) This time it was readable. Buz. In context for you in case you can’t read Fred’s handwriting: “She is the same Addie that she was when I used to buz her.” All right. We’re obviously talking about some variant of flirting, or courting, or just hanging around.
So Mariecris headed for the OED which is available online through the Consortium Library’s journals and databases links. And found a variety of definitions including the following: 2. a. fig. To flutter or hover (about, along, over (a)round). like a buzzing insect; to move about busily. Okay, so maybe a) Fred couldn’t spell which we already knew, and b) this was some sort of variant of it. But it at least made some sense. And I would have left it there, except that this second use of the word was immediately followed by him describing a party he’d attended. And he said, and I quote: “Had a boss time.” Boss? In 1880? Back to the OED to see if the etymology was there for when this was first used thus but no luck, no entry for this definition. So I headed downstairs to the Library Reference area and Daria Carle, a reference librarian here who thankfully finds me amusing, helped me find the slang dictionaries. And she pulled up the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume 1. Boss, used like it is here, is first documented in 1836 in the Dictionary of Americanisms. (Thanks Daria!) And since Buz wouldn’t be too many pages away in the Random House volume, I looked it up too. Okay, so Fickett really tended not to watch his spelling, it was Buzz. In this one it notes: 2.a. to chat with, esp. in a cajoling or flirtatious manner; (hence) to court. First documented in 1866.
Mystery solved. Good thing too, because over the course of the next two pages, Fickett used the word buz a lot. He even mentions getting “buzzed” by one particularly attentive and persistent young lady. But he was 23, and obviously going places. (All the way to Alaska from Maine in the next few years). So now I know. No doubt something else I can’t decipher–some odd bit of 1880s era slang–will crop up soon. And that’s good because I need to become really, really good with his handwriting. A couple of journals from now is the reason we’re trying to transcribe: Fred’s personal journal of Lt. Allen’s three man expedition to the Copper and Tanana Rivers in 1885. And that journal is going to be tough. Tiny, crabbed handwriting, pencil, obviously dunked in a little too much Copper and Tanana Rivers water, and very, very brittle and very, very, very faded. Which is why we’re transcribing. This is a very popular collection and that particular journal, the most popular of the bunch, is in bad enough shape that we’re going to have to consider closing it off to access soon. And since that’s an archivist’s nightmare, having materials that aren’t accessible, we need to offer an alternative. We’re working on scanning, but we might as well see if we can transcribe too. Since even the best scan isn’t going to help when not that many people out there can read this writing.
Anyway, we learned a new word usage today. And had the reminder–that we need every so often–that sometimes the slang words we think our generation invented are really very much older than we are. Go pick up a slang dictionary sometime–one that has the etymological tracings–and see. Or better yet, go pick up an old document and read. After all, why should archivists have all the fun?