So, Just What is Ephemera?

A few months ago at Ephemera 21, the Ephemera Society’s annual conference and fair, someone came up to me in the parking lot where we were meeting and said that he had just been inside and saw all the excitement, but he wondered what it was all about. What was ephemera? I had just started reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, and remembered a sentence from it: "Every day we use countless words and expressions without thinking about them—often without having the faintest idea what they really describe or signify."

I thought I knew the definition of ephemera, paper ephemera actually, but began to wonder where the word had come from and how it had been used over the years. The most obvious and best source to find out is the Oxford English Dictionary, a multi-volume work that was first published in the 1800s and continues today with updates. The OED, as it is commonly referred to, did not let me down. It contains four lengthy columns over two pages with definitions of the word ephemera and related words, including ephemerid, ephemeris, ephemeron, and so forth.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the OED, it lists words, tells how to pronounce them, records where they originated, includes plural forms, refers to other definitions, and then includes many examples of where words were used and who used them in written form during the last several hundred years.

The word ephemera is derived from the medical world, relates to a form of writing, and has something to do with insects. Such noted people as American president Thomas Jefferson, travel writer and observer of society Harriet Martineau, Methodist leader John Wesley, English prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, scientist Charles Darwin, and even the Greek philosopher Aristotle have used it.

The classic definition of ephemera is something lasting for only a day. The OED cites someone named Trevisa who, in 1398, wrote: "effimera, one dayes feuer is as it were the heete of one daye." In 1624, someone named Hart concurred: "that feauer which we call Ephemera, not exceeding foure and twentie houres." Of ephemera, Newton observed in 1576: "the corruption of the Ayre is the cause of this grievous maladie or Ephemerall Ague."

The OED continues about ephemera: "In more extended application: that is in existence, power, favour, popularity, etc. for a short time only; short-lived; transitory."

An offshoot of the word is ephemeris, or in the plural ephemeredes. This is a calendar, diary, or journal; in short, a record of daily occurrences. A clergyman named Donne wrote in 1629 that "God sees their sins … and in his Ephemerides—his Journal, he writes them downe." In addition, ephemeris can refer to an almanac. With an astronomical theme, the OED defines it as "a table showing the predicted (rarely the observed) positions of a heavenly body for every day during a given period." Interesting enough, in its printed catalog of books, the British Museum has used the word Ephemerides as a general heading for Almanacs, Calendars, etc.

Another spin-off, ephemerid, refers to insects. Very simply it means "an insect belonging to the group Ephemeridae." An observer named Farrar referred to them in 1874: "the ephemerid that buzzes out its little hour in the summer noon."

What, then, is an ephemerist? Obviously, "one who uses or makes an ephemeris." Blount said in 1656 that an ephemerist is "one that registereth daily actions, or Nativities, with the help of an Ephemerides; a maker of an Ephemerides." I suppose it would be possible to say that an ephemerist records his observations of an ephemerid in his ephemeris.

With all of this in mind, it is easy to understand how Maurice Rickards, late head of the British ephemera society, came to define paper ephemera as "the minor transient documents of everyday life."

And then there is a word toward the end of the string in the OED having ephemera as its base: ephemeromorph. Not too attractive, in 1874, Bastian used it as a general word referring to the lowest forms of life "which cannot be assigned definitely to either the animal or vegetable kingdom." I trust that our parking lot friend does not think of ephemerists in this way.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

   © 2011 The Ephemera Society of America