When conceiving of my project, I knew I wanted to understand how 18th and 19th century New Englanders thought about disability. To get a grasp on their thinking, I have been running word searches through Early American Newspapers. This is a database that allows someone to, you guessed it, search digital copies of newspapers published in early America. I had been tracking the word disabled between 1692 and 1840. But, todayI thought if I read one more article about a disabled ship I was going to scream. So, I picked a new word. I know that New Englanders from my period would use the word “crippled” to describe the loss of a limb, so I ran the present tense “cripple” through the database. The choice of the present tense was simply from my knowledge of the database’s search engine. The search feature will pick up the past tense if the present tense is entered as a term, although it will not necessarily alway pick up the present tense if the past tense is entered.
The first few entries were what I thought they should be. The newspaper articles described people whom we might today describe as disabled. I carefully added these articles into my highly sophisticated Excel spreadsheet. Then I found some advertisements for a ship whose name had “cripple” in it. I thought “oh great more ships” since I ran this search to avoid articles about ships. Then something strange happened. I found an article that was selling land. Ordinarily, I might think this was a false hit, but sure enough the word “cripple” appeared in the advertisement. It was used to describe an area of the land that might be turned into meadowland. As in it has some “cripple for meadow.”
Now I often will describe the past as a foreign country. Although I live in New England in 2013, 18th century New England is as familiar to me as Italy. I use Italy because I studied abroad there and have some understanding of the culture, as I have some understanding of colonial New England because I have studied it a lot. Still, there are things about Italy that confuse me just as I am often baffled by colonial America. Therefore, when I first saw “cripple” in reference to a meadow, I assumed it was a weird reference I did not understand. I did not think much of it, but it kept popping up “cripple for meadow.” So I flew to the Oxford English Dictionary online. Turns out that in the United States cripple can mean “a dense thicket of swampy or low-lying ground.” Who knew? Now I do and you do.
I must make a confession here. I was not studying early New England today; I was studying colonial America in general. I wanted to get a sense of how the colonies used terms and how that compared or contrasted with how New Englanders used terms. The word “cripple” to describe land appears to have been used exclusively in the Pennsylvania Gazette out of Philadelphia. I use appears since I have not completed my research on the word yet. New England papers used “cripple” as a descriptor of a person. New York papers tended to advertise “cripple curing oils,” which should be fun to learn more about later. I am left with the question: is “cripple” to describe land a regional term as it appears to be? I will investigate this further. Now I am just excited to learn a new meaning for a word.
Tomorrow I will once again troll Early American Newspapers. Maybe I’ll get back to “disabled” and see how many more ships were labeled “disabled.” (People were too.) If I find any more new definitions for words, I will let you know.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. If you are interested in why meadows were important for early American farmers see Brian Donahue’s A Great Meadow.