Inventing the future – the earliest mention of the word ‘wordpress’?

Two ifs: if there was a search engine that filtered on the earliest mention of, and if we then looked up ‘WordPress’, we would find this, by James Joyce, from 1939:

A bone, a pebble, a ramskin; chip them, chap them, cut them up allways; leave them to terracook in the muttheringpot: and Gutenmorg with his cromagnom charter, tintingfast and great primer must once for omniboss step rubrickredd out of the wordpress else is there no virtue more in alcohoran. For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints.
(Finnegans Wake, 1939, p. 20, ll. 5–11, my emphasis)

Three things to be clear about:

1. I’m not saying the official WordPress history – that Christine Selleck (now Tremoulet) suggested the word to WP founder Matt Mullenweg – is wrong.  

2. I am also not suggesting Christine was turning over the pages of Finnegans Wake some time in March 2003. Maybe she was, but FW is probably the most unreadable masterpiece in world literature – apparently (in Dubuque, Iowa) even university English professors join reading groups to get through it. Respect to her if she was reading it; even more to her if she wasn’t, for inventing something so good and so right. In a world where Google used to be called Backrub and the iMac was going to be called Macman, it’s important there are people who can channel the wishes and expectations of the millions of the rest of us – and persuade the people who have power that they should listen.

3. James Joyce invented and used this word first. Of course he wasn’t talking about blogs, but isn’t great literature for all of us, for all time – including, in a way that would sound weird to try to explain, the future?

Joyce and Sylvia Beach in her English-language bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., in Paris. Sylvia Beach was the first and remarkably prescient publisher of Ulysses – copies imported to the UK on publication were burned for ‘obscenity’. Image by unknown photographer, presumably after the date of publication of Ulysses, i.e. after 1922. From http://ransomcenter.tumblr.com/page/2 – the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas, has the admirable aims of acquiring ‘original cultural material for the purposes of scholarship, education, and delight.’

But what does Joyce mean? The first bit down to ‘mutthering pot’ is a recipe for making parchment, for making numbering systems and language itself; the ‘muttheringpot’ has resonances of muttering (mutter = German for mother) and mothering. The embodied earthiness of language evolves (‘terracook[s]’ – cf. Italian terra cotta) – both out of primaeval sounds (muttering) and what we as infants hear from our mothers, our ‘mother tongue’.

The theme of evolution, both of humanity and language/media, is celebrated in ‘cromagnom’ (Cromagnon man; also a magnum of champagne?) and ‘Gutenmorg’ (Johannes Gutenberg), who is now synonymous with Good morning (German, guten morgen), a new dawn, Joyce suggests, in the cultural history of the West. Gutenberg’s ‘tintingfast’ (inkwell, from the German Tintenfass, but also printing press, already prefigurative of rapid twentieth-century colour printing) is associated with the principle of one law for all (‘… magnom charter’ ≈ the Magna Carta), bible printing (‘great primer’) and even monotheism (‘omniboss’) – though Joyce literally brings us back to earth with the step on to an omnibus.

The rubric (from Latin, ruber) is the red lettering in mediaeval religious texts, often liturgical instructions to the priest; Joyce thinks of red bricks. After ‘wordpress’ – remember Gutenberg converted a wine press into the printing press – Joyce riotously conjoins alcohol and the Muslim sacred text al-Koran (‘alcohoran’), throwing in a reference to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Act II scene 4, where the drunken but life-affirming Falstaff says to the innkeeper: ‘Give me a cup of sack, rogue. Is there no virtue extant?’

I don’t know who ‘the rapt one’ might be – an enraptured Sikh holy man wrapped in a turban, perhaps? His warning is that the heady brew (‘meed’) of ‘papyr’ culture (‘in prints’) is made of ‘hides’ (both ‘ramskins’/parchment and deliberate obfuscations of meaning by the author), ‘hints’ (clues we readers have to work out) and ‘misses’ – failures to communicate. Eugene Jolas records astonishing patience and enthusiasm for the extremely difficult task of typesetting FW; he tells us Joyce was mostly entertained by Jolas’s many typesetting errors (‘misses in prints’ ≈ misprints, always deliciously enjoyable here at Propagandum Towers) and would often keep them. Perhaps they were a quid pro quo for Joyce’s massive changes at page proof. ‘hides and hints and misses in prints’ is also a remarkably fine and good-tempered description of (respectively) authorial concealment, revelation and miscommunication.

Eugene Jolas was in a literary group/journal ‘transition’. This is their ‘Proclamation’ from 1929. Joyce was not a signatory, but was a contributor of material that was to become Finnegans Wake. Note #6: ‘The literary creator has the right to disintegrate the primal matter of words imposed on him by text-books and dictionaries.’

Pouring out of the ‘wordpress’ here is the red wine of Joycean intoxication with language, the profuse and effusive creation of a drunken but beautiful history of everything. No wonder the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, looking for a language to express a radically new conception, subatomic particles, found quark in there:

In 1963, when I assigned the name ‘quark’ to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been ‘kwork’. Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word ‘quark’ in the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ …
(M. Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995, p. 180)

In the publishing and design industries the US software house of the same name used the word in 1981 for its page makeup program. Like Quark XPress, WordPress can feel proud of its literary genealogy.

Coda

Joyce also invented the word collideorscope (FW, page 143, line 28). Marshall McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 75, and the source of my finding the wordpress quote above) suggests it means ‘the interplay … of all components of human technology as they extend our senses and shift their ratios in the social kaleidoscope of cultural clash’. In a different kind of technology and clash that extends our human capacity to conceive of the Singularity, the first nanoseconds of the universe and indeed of time itself, the Large Hadron Collider has made possible the experimental near-verification of the previously only theoretical Higgs boson. Is there somehow a convergence between Joyce’s philoprogenerative word-crunching and the LHC’s atom-smashing, both ultimately in search of deeper insight? Wouldn’t Joyce’s Collideorscope be a better name for it? Might somewhere in Finnegans Wake lie buried another invention of the future? As another literary inventor – William Blake – once said (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 15), ‘What now is proved was once only imagin’d.’

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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5 Responses to Inventing the future – the earliest mention of the word ‘wordpress’?

  1. Pingback: First recorded use of the word "wordpress" - Siobhan McKeown

  2. As you say, ‘so good and so right’: I’m sure I was drawn to WordPress partly by the name. It’s pleasantly grown-up.

    It strikes me there might well be pages in FW that nobody has ever read and if, in due course, it is found that they are found to contain words like ‘Skype’ and ‘Klout’, we’re know that you’re on to something here!

  3. Writing Jobs says:

    That was another excellent post today. You make it look so easy. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

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