Ephemeral Assays – The Word

This is the first column in an ongoing examination of the wonderful world of ephemera. In the beginning was the word, which Aristotle and the Greeks defined as “lasting only for a day.” In early English, it first crops up at the end of the fourteenth century (like so many other good things) in the following sentence: “Effimera, one dayes feuer [fever] is as it were the heete of one daye.” It was also applied to a very wide variety of short-lived insects and plants. For example, “An ephemeron, hovering over a pool for its one April day of life.” In modern entomology, the genus Ephemeridae is limited to a narrower group of May-flies and the like.

As for written ephemera, there are many references from the 1500s forward to records, diaries and journals which were considered rather transitory in nature. (“Ephemerides,” which belong to the genus of almanacs and are distinct from true ephemera, contained astronomical charts and tables.) Samuel Johnson, in his Rambler No. 145 (1751), refers to, “These papers of a day, the Ephemerae of learning.” Early in this century we find a reference to pamphlets, etc., “…that have been preserved by accident from the ephemeralness which was the common lot of hundreds of their fellows.”

Gradually, perhaps from its early association with sickness and bugs, the term took on pejorative connotations. “Unnotic’d, dull invective lyes, A mere Ephemeron it dyes, Or but provokes a jest.” “These base ephemeras, so born to die before the next revolving morn.” “When the due distinction had been drawn between the ephemeral and the lasting.” “Let him make good, not ephemerally…but definitely.” “The book-business, in America has been…reduced to a level of ephemeralness, news-value, and mere fact-finding past belief.”

Aside from the sudden 1980s corruption of “utopian,” no word has endured as much abuse as “ephemeral.” On the other hand, this helps to create the buyer’s market many purveyors of ephemera currently enjoy. In columns to come we will seek to elevate the term and to enlighten the masses. In my humid opinion, ephemera is the most interesting and most infinite category of collectible, a (we’re talking 1806 here) “Celestial Peacock…whose conscious plumes diffuse a herd of ephemerean dyes!”

We’ll close with an Englishman of 1650, who probably had a house full of fine priceless furniture and other items currently on top of the antiques food chain. “Methought, it was a strange opinion of our Aristotle to hold, that the least of those small insected ephemerans should be more noble than the sun, because it had a sensitive soul in it.”



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