The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2001

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Orsamus Turner, Please


Robert G. Koch

Time to confess an innocent (well, perhaps, careless) deception that I've foisted on listeners to these historical vignettes. Off and on since 1988, I've cited two bedrock books of our history: PIONEER HISTORY OF THE HOLLAND PURCHASE OF WESTERN NEW YORK: Embracing Some Account of the Ancient Remains; A Brief History of Our Immediate Predecessors, the Confederated Iroquois… A Synopsis of Colonial History… the Border Wars of the Revolution…and a History of Pioneer Settlement; Reminiscences of the War of 1812, the Origin, Progress and Completion of the Erie Canal, etc., etc., etc. (Actually, I've somewhat shortened the title.) And the second classic: HISTORY OF THE PIONEER SETTLEMENT OF PHELPS AND GORHAM'S PURCHASE, AND MORRIS' RESERVE (and again, much more, including histories of ten counties in whole or part).

The two books were published in Buffalo, 1850, and Rochester, 1851, respectively, by "O. Turner." I've gratefully acknowledged the authorship of "Orasmus" Turner, only to discover recently, from, Jim Brunner, the Geneseo book dealer who republished the HOLLAND PURCHASE book in 1974, that "O. Turner"-and he never signed himself otherwise in these volumes- was not "Orasmus" but "Orsamus" Turner. Checking bibliographies, from which I must have first acquired the name, I found that I had mistakenly inverted the sa as as. However, checking my dictionaries of given names I found no Orsamus, or Orasmus, for that matter, which I probably also shaped to my memory's ear for Erasmus, as in Erasmus Darwin, for example. That left me wondering about the origins of Orsamus.

Here's the kicker: my reconstruction of its root meaning took me from Old English back thru the Germanic suffix "ors," which can be traced back to ancient Greek, and means, quite simply, "buttocks" or "backside." But what about the "mus"? Well, again, it's pretty plain: from Old English, to Germanic, to Latin and Greek, and even to Sanskrit, it has continued to mean "mouse" and, of course, that mouse under the skin, "muscle." So, Orsamus Turner? Well, was it "mouse buttocks" or "muscular backside." In either case, it seems clear to me why Turner rendered it simply as "O." Thought you ought to know.

© 2000, Robert Koch
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