Of the many older books on my dorm room bookshelf (including some older texts and local histories), one always seems to catch the eye of my visitors. Bound in a hard blue cover, Tom Burnam’s 1975 book The Dictionary of Misinformation debunks many of the myths and legends surrounding famous proverbs and sayings. From the meaning of “assault and battery” to the true origins of SOS, Burnam’s book offers many explanations for the world’s most misused and misunderstood sayings.
It is, in many ways, similar to modern websites such as UrbanDictionary and Know Your Meme, which are themselves cultural knowledge databases. Just like many of the entries in UrbanDictionary, Burnam’s entries are often clarified by background in the culture and history of time in which they were written. In this way, Burnam’s book is a cultural artifact in its own right.
Here’s an example: Burnam’s first entry under the letter “I” is the quote from Gherman Titov, “I Am Eagle!” For Millennials, this phrase most likely holds no significant meaning. In fact, the large majority of Millennials probably could not identify who Titov is and why he is so important. However, to those who were alive during the Space Race between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republic, this phrase likely conjures images of Soviet space technology. In 1961, eight years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Titov, a Soviet cosmonaut, was the second man to enter space, and the first to spend more than a day in orbit. The phrase “I Am Eagle,” proclaimed by Titov during his orbit, struck many Americans with fear, dreading the possibility that the Soviets might one day have sole control of the final frontier.
Burnam sets the record straight with Titov’s quotation: the cosmonaut was simply identifying himself and his aircraft, the Eagle. The fact that Burnam includes this entry speaks volumes to the culture of the era in which he published his book: the United States was still in stiff competition with the Soviets for political influence and control, and the Space Race was still very much a part of international politics. What may be striking to those that lived during the Cold War is that the phrase “I Am Eagle” is not commonly recognized by Millennials. It may be more surprising that, while “I Am Eagle” is not defined by sites such as UrbanDictionary, the Space-Age phrase “The Eagle has landed” has six different UrbanDictionary definitions.
As an aspiring archivist and historian, the cultural context needed to comprehend some of Burnam’s entries is quite fascinating, at it shows just how different American culture is now as compared to 40 years ago. This of course raises the question of how sites like UrbanDictionary, with their entries for terms such as “glasshole,” “twerk,” and “hipster,” will be interpreted by our posterity. What is clear, however, is that sites like Know Your Meme and UrbanDictionary will be wealthy sources of cultural knowledge and context for future researchers, giving a glimpse into today’s society, its history, and its values.
What are your views on today’s cultural artifacts and our interpretation of the past? How do you think we will be seen and interpreted by future generations?