More evidence of sperm-squeezing

Looking again at “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Melville’s chapter about the practice of squeezing spermaceti, I noticed that Melville adds a telling bit of linguistic detail. Among the names that he gives for sperm whale detritus is slobgollion, “an appellation original with the whalemen.” He defines it as “an ineffably oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting. I hold it to be the wondrously thin, ruptured membrances of the case, coalescing.”

It occurred to me that if sperm-squeezing was a real practice, then slobgollion must have been a real word, as well as an unusual one—and that with Google it’s now very easy to gather information about unusual words. A quick consultation with the OED proved inconclusive—though I did win a round of OED bingo—that is, when I looked up slobgollion, I found no more than the Melville passage I was trying to verify. Somewhat more helpfully, William Clark Russell’s 1883 Sailor’s Dictionary defines the word as a “whaleman’s term for an oozy, stringy substance found in sperm oil.” Clark Russell’s dictionary is so much later than Melville’s, though, that it’s possible he was just borrowing from Melville.

A more intriguing find was a report by Robert Clarke, “Open Boat Whaling in the Azores: The History and Present Methods of a Relic Industry,” Discovery Reports Issued by the National Institute of Oceanography, vol. 26 (1954): 283-356. Clarke visited the Azores in the summer of 1949 to study the natives’ continued practice of open-boat whaling. “The methods employed,” Clarke writes, “are a survival of that old-time whaling generally believed to have quite vanished from the seas, . . . learned from American whalers in the nineteenth century” and including not only the chase but also “the ‘cutting in’ of the whales and . . . the ‘trying out’ of their blubber in iron pots on the shore.”

Describing a heat purification system for oil and blubber at Negrito, on the isle of Terceira, Clarke writes:

The try-house stands nearby on somewhat higher ground, before a cemented space where two stone blubber tanks are excavated. Within the try-house there is a battery of four pots which are used for blubber only. The spermaceti from the case and junk is boiled out separately in an adjoining open-air try-works whose two pots are made not from cast iron but from riveted sheets of wrought iron. Spermaceti needs a lower temperature for trying out than blubber, and I have been told, rather obscurely, that this explains the use of sheet iron pots. At several Azores stations the case and junk are tried out indiscriminately with the blubber, so that the cooked spermaceti or ‘head oil’ is not kept separate. But where this separation is carried out, I understand that it is still customary, as in the whaleship days, to ‘squeeze sperm’ before putting the head matter into the pots. Squeezing sperm means plunging the hands into a tub of the semi-liquid spermaceti and there squeezing them together, so as to remove ‘slobgollion’, the fine strings and tatters of membrane which are suspended in the spermaceti and which would tend to char in the pots and somewhat affect the quality of the head oil.

So was sperm-squeezing real? I’m still not sure. The very word slobgollion, not being Portuguese, is probably one that Clarke brought with him to the Azores, borrowed from his reading of Melville. Also, the telltale phrase “I understand” seems to indicate that Clarke did not witness the practice himself. Still, he was told by someone he trusted that it did take place. Note that Clarke’s understanding of the purpose of sperm squeezing is not Melville’s but the one William M. Davis gave in Nimrod of the Sea (1874).

Muzzle wipes and table manners

I just finished The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, a brilliant new book by my neighbor and friend Christine Kenneally. It surveys the research from the half dozen sciences that go into the new field of language evolution, and profiles the rather large-size personalities who have led the debates in the field, which are sometimes acrimonious. I think my favorite moment is when Christine notes that when humans acquired language, they also acquired foreknowledge of their mortality. “Talk about spandrels,” she quips.

As is my wont, I found myself making obscure connections to literary classics of an earlier era. One theme of the book is how scientists have made breakthroughs in imagining the evolution of language by breaking language down into the skills, behaviors, and capacities that make it possible. Gesture, for example, may well have preceded vocalization, when humans and proto-humans first began to communicate, and apes alive today sometimes gesture in ways that are easy for humans to interpret. Christine describes a baboon gesture known as the muzzle wipe that the primatologist Janette Wallis caught on video and showed to colleagues at a conference not long ago:

The gesture rarely lasts longer than a few seconds, so it is not easy to see, yet once Wallis told the audience what to look for, the muzzle wipe was clearly evident. Nervous baboons could be seen constantly putting their hands to their faces in difficult situations. She noted that monkeys make a similar move and that a chimpanzee will often put its wrist to its forehead in similar contexts. . . . Humans do put their hand to their face when nervous, and indeed, as she pointed out, psychiatrists and law enforcement officials often interpret a hand-to-face gesture as evidence of uncertainty or even deception.

For her clincher, Wallis showed a video of George H. W. Bush at a press conference, answering a question about his son’s drunk-driving arrest while scratching his nose. A different example came to my mind. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, the psychiatrist Dick Diver makes a peculiar boast one evening in the Riviera, while dining with a circle of leisure-class expatriates:

They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose—Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with. Things looked black for them—not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face. . . . The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.

I think I was a teenager when I first read Tender Is the Night, so the passage at once created for me a new opportunity for self-consciousness and embarrassment in public. I wondered if some day I would meet people who casually measure one another’s repose by tracking how often they touch their faces. I haven’t, but then, I rarely dine in Fitzgeraldian circles. Or with baboons, for that matter.