The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Hard hands and strange words

Until you get the hang of it, Henry Oxinden’s secretary hand is just plain difficult. Take a stab at this passage from p. 469 of his Miscellany (ca. 1642-1670), Folger MS V.b.110, extracted from a sermon delivered by Charles Herle at Winwick, Lancashire, in 1654. It is typical of the entire manuscript.

Henry Oxinden's lovely secretary hand. Folger MS V.b.110, p. 469.
Henry Oxinden’s lovely secretary hand. Folger MS V.b.110, p. 469.

What does it say? Our crack team of advanced paleographers transcribed Oxinden’s messy and abbreviated secretary hand as follows:

Certainly if there bee any thing glorious in the world it is
a minde that contemnes that glory. Diogenes had more
of the two, more of it by his contempt, then Alexander
by his command of it, even then when he commanded himselfe
to bee made a God. p.21.

When perusing early modern English manuscripts, it is tempting to skip the words that don’t make sense and focus on the ones that do. In the presence of copious content that is legible and interesting, why get stuck on a few words that probably aren’t that important anyway?

But what if they are important? We are facing many of these mystery words and graphs as part of the EMMO project, and are determined to figure out what they mean. And so we sit with them, mull them over, consult the Oxford English Dictionary, close our eyes, ask other transcribers to look at them, pronounce them out loud, search EEBO-TCP for other instances, continue transcribing in the hopes of finding a more legible version of the letter combination or word, search for contextual clues, and think on them some more until the letters fall into a shape that has meaning. It is worth the effort, as these are often the words that take us down unexplored paths and broaden our early modern vocabularies.

That’s happened more than a few times in the past week, during a one week advanced paleography workshop at the Folger. The 17 participants from all over the US and from as far away as Dublin and Oxford spent five and a half hours a day for five days transcribing and encoding some of the Folger’s most notoriously difficult hands, and then vetting each other’s transcriptions. 1 In a week’s time, they transcribed over 200 pages of Folger manuscripts, and proofread and approved over half of the pages that were transcribed. Below are a few of the hands, words, and phrases, that gave us pause. Clicking on the images and the call numbers will lead you to the full page view in Luna and the Hamnet record.

Two phrases from Folger MS V.a.103, a poetical miscellany and commonplace book (ca. 1620-65), illustrate a typical paleographical situation: the individual letters are fairly clear but we are still confused.

I can read the letters, but what is that word? Folger MS V.b.110, fol. 34v.
Gadzooks! I can read the letters, but what is that word? Folger MS V.b.110, fol. 34v.

The transcription:

Gods-oukes your eies are out
You will not bird I trow;
Alas goe home or else I thinke
The birds will laugh att you.

The OED lists the earliest usage of Godzooks as 1673 and Gadzooks as 1694, so we’ve found an earlier usage!

We also had fun with a caption to a poem, which seemed to read “Tytere tu boyes.”

Watch out for the Tytere tu boyes. Folger MS V.a.103, part 2, fol. 41v.
Watch out for those Tytere tu boyes. Folger MS V.a.103, part 2, fol. 41v.

After saying it over and over, trying to cajole the nonsensical phrase into something meaningful, Josh Eckhardt discovered that it was a reference to a marauding gang of drunken young gentlemen in the 1620s, who identified each other by wearing black bugles. 2

Folger MS X.d.177 is a small miscellany of jests and poems (ca. 1595), some of them very crude. Much discussion ensued over the third-to-last word in the second line of fol. 3v:

My hoogs are tired. Folger MS X.d.177, fol. 3v.
My hoogs are tired. Folger MS X.d.177, fol. 3v.

We settled on “hoogs,” even though we wanted it to be “legs.” Hoogs as in hocks or houghs, which are sort of like legs?

A drunkard in a dark night liing in the durti way
not being able to stand on his hoogs one comes
by chaunce that way thinking it hadd been
theeues and bidd him stand why sayth the other
let him stand that can for I cannot

We’ll leave you with a final mystery. The heading to the first leaf of X.d.177 is the one word that we never did figure out. Suggestions?

Mystery heading at the top of a page of jests and poems. Folger MS X.d.177, fol. 1r.
Mystery heading at the top of a page of jests and poems. Folger MS X.d.177, fol. 1r.


  1. Class participants were Claire Bourne, Julie Bowman, Sarah Case, Joshua Eckhardt, Daeyeong Kim, Victor Lenthe, Erika Lin, Ivan Lupic, Brid McGrath, Dianne Mitchell, Marcy North, Sarah Powell, Gerit Quealy, Emily Rendek, Dylan Ruediger, Callum Seddon, and Amy Tigner.
  2. Tityre tu are the first words of Virgil’s first Eclogue.


  • I would have thought the writing clearly says “Gillam”. This is a fairly common surname, and rather a boring ‘solution’ but I suspect it is rather like the names written at the side.
    Cliff Webb

    • It might be Gillam, but we were expecting it to be more like a commonplace heading, such as “Trifles,” which appears as a heading elsewhere in the pamphlet. The other names are written along the side in a different hand and are not related to the text, whereas this word seems more integrated, no?

  • Surnames are commonly derived from place-names. I cannot find an English village with the name ‘Gillam’ or ‘Gilham’ (say) but unless it is a version of ‘Guillaume’ or ‘William’, the name might be that of a hamlet or ‘lost village’. Would this make any sense in the context ?

  • Heather, I’m wondering if you could clarify what’s going on with that tear in the page. Zooming in on Luna, it looks like there is a rift above that descender, and that those first two strokes are actually attached to fol. 2r. Does it look to you like the page was originally folded over the top and that the tear is the result of the fold having been sloppily slit?

    • Hi Misha,
      Here’s an image of the next opening, which makes the situation a bit clearer: It looks like the two leaves got stuck together at the top for some reason, and the tear happened when they were pulled apart. The top part of the first letter on the first leaf is therefore stuck to the top of the blank second leaf.

      • Thanks, Heather! I think what threw me off was that the top edge of that dislocated fragment is so straight (and aligned with the top edge of fol. 2) that it struck me as a fold. One almost wonders whether the right-angled strokes on the separated fragment might rather be moved up and to the right, aligning them with the descender and the i’s dot, thereby creating an “F” shape—but that’s a stretch!

  • If you need a running start to decipher these manuscripts, many of them are included in the Folger Digital Image collection, LUNA Insights.

    Julie Ainsworth and her team in the Folger Photography and Digital Imaging Department have been doing amazing work with full-text captures:

  • Elisabeth Chaghafi offered a solution:
    for my money, that first letter is a q rather than a g (if you zoom in, the tail doesn’t seem to curve to the left at all, it’s basically just a vertical line). If the word is “qillam” rather than “gillam”, it could be a variant of “quillet, n3” in the OED: “A verbal nicety, a subtle distinction; a frivolous or evasive argument; a quibble.” (There’s probably a connection between that word and the nonsense date “Anno millimo quillimo trillimo”, though that one isn’t in the OED). Anyway, I think that heading might suit the context of the manuscript page quite well, because all the stories on it seem to involve verbal quibbles of some sort, no?

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