So, Just What is Ephemera?
A few months ago at Ephemera 21, the Ephemera Societys
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 Brysons
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 themoften without
having the faintest idea what they really describe or signify."
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
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 Ephemerideshis 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
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