Mammoth day in language history

On this day 210 years ago today, President Thomas Jefferson helped transform a small rhetorical barb into a “mammoth” part of our language. He did so on the floor of the U. S. Senate when he and the assembled crowd devoured an enormous loaf of bread which onlookers termed the “Mammoth Loaf.”

The use of the word “mammoth” was a play on the fact that Jefferson had financially supported a recent archeological dig in which a wooly mammoth was unearthed. In his day, Jefferson was known as much for his promotion of science and education as for his political presence. His Federalist opponents thought his involvement in science was distracting and unimportant.

Jefferson was also renown for his work in the cause of religious tolerance. In 1802, a group of Baptist women from Massachusetts sent Jefferson a 1,200 pound block of cheese to recognize his work in this area. The women claimed that the cheese was emblematic of the United States’ superior natural resources and potential to outstrip all of Europe’s agricultural production. The Federalists took to calling the ladies’ gift the “Mammoth Cheese.”

On that late March day in the Senate, the Mammoth Loaf was carted in — as was a substantial hunk of the remaining cheese. Apparently, a significant amount of beer was also present. Jefferson took out his pocket knife and made the inaugural cut into the loaf. By all accounts the affair then took the turn that most beer-soaked events inevitably do.

The eating of the Mammoth Loaf is less important as a culinary milestone than it is for its linguistic heft. The American public was fascinated by the excavation of the wooly mammoth. The large loaf of bread and big block of cheese set off widespread use of the word “mammoth.” Storekeepers and merchants of all stripe began selling “mammoth” items. What the Federalists hoped would become a poisoned moniker instead became a widespread cultural meme.

The process by which words go from limited use by a few people to broad application is the topic of an emerging field called memetic theory (or meme theory). The word meme (rhymes with “cream”) comes form the same Greek root as does “memory.” It is regarded by many linguists in the way genes might be thought of in biology.

Memes are basic units of cultural transmission. One person teaches another a new word. That second person teaches to another, and so on. In this view memes spread in the same way that genetic material or diseases spread. This latter analogy (to disease) often leads to a discussion of memes using the terminology of epidemiology — the study of how diseases spread.

The transmission of memes can have either profoundly positive or devastatingly negative consequences — they can also become arguably inconsequential. In the positive, one generation might teach the next valuable survival skills — Don’t eat the bright red “dragon berries.” They’ll kill you.

On the negative, they can become touchstones for fanaticism. The Reverend Jim Jones and the People’s Temple followers developed a self-reinforcing cycle of idea exchange that ultimately led to the mass suicide we all remember.

Of course, memes, like other transmissible quantities can die off over time. For instance, who still uses the 1920s slang term “bearcat” to describe a comely woman? Few, we’d wager.

If you’re old enough, you might recall driving to Little Rock on what was then Highway 65. While it’s still there in a reimagined form, Redfield’s Mammoth Orange drive-in was a popular rest stop along the way. A big, bright orange spherical structure where one could get a bite and a soda. You seldom hear “Mammoth Orange” anymore. Sadly, it seems we’ve traded for something more simple — the “Big Orange.” Mr. Jefferson would likely not approve.