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Faction or Fiction

Hudson Cooper - Columnist
Posted 10/15/20

There are many ways to classify books. Some books are hard cover, others paperback. Some are fiction while those that provide facts and real information are labeled nonfiction. In any event they are …

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Faction or Fiction


There are many ways to classify books. Some books are hard cover, others paperback. Some are fiction while those that provide facts and real information are labeled nonfiction. In any event they are all assigned a code from the Dewey Decimal Classification System.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, books were randomly piled up on library shelves. The wildly popular Ah Shucks-How to Open Oysters was stacked next to Hortense Washington's autobiography My Unknown Life as the President's Sister. It was chaotic and impossible to find the book you wanted.

Frustrated people simply gave up reading and instead opted for drinking lots of hard apple cider and playing parlor games like The Simpleton. To play, one player is surrounded by everyone else in the room who begin to silently parody a trade such as outhouse scrubber or chicken plucker.

The fun starts when the player in the middle pretends to play a flute as he or she tries to guess what the others are pretending to do. Eventually someone brings in a barrel of hard cider and the boring game is thankfully over.

The chaotic, random storing of library books was cleared up by Melvil Dewey. As a young adult, and a consistent loser in The Simpleton, Dewey became maniacally fixated on spelling reform. He wanted to eliminate redundant letters in names and words.

He changed the spelling of his first name from Melville to Melvil and at one point changed his last name to Dui, which had he followed his own rules, should have been Dewy. Had his spelling reform movement been successful the second longest river in the country would be known as the Mighty Misp, negating its use for counting time in Hide and Seek.

So, using a series of numbers, decimal points and abbreviations, Melvil derived a system allowing librarians to sort the books in an orderly way, the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Readers could find a book they wanted quickly allowing them more time at home to nurse that jar of hard apple cider.

Speaking of books, why does nonfiction get slighted? Not to compete with Melvil's failed spelling reform movement, I think it is time the category nonfiction gets reformed. Allegedly, back in 1867 a librarian from Boston who thought that the only thing worth reading was fiction coined the category nonfiction to give it a negative connotation.

It is time books that rely on facts such as Doing the Perfect Sit-up, A Guide to Cooking Eggplant and Afghan Making Made Simple got a new name for their category. Let us lose the prefix non. I propose their new category should be called faction.

The word fiction is derived from the Latin fictus which means “to form”. So, a work of fiction emanates or is formed from the mind of the author. But it also has a darker meaning when it means to lie or stretch the truth. Why should works that emanate from facts and not made up by an author be dragged into that nefarious connotation.

By eliminating the prefix non, faction gets a fresh start. It is a fact that the word fact stands alone as a Latin root for many words in our language. Many of them such as manufacture or satisfaction have positive connotations.

When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards manufactured the song “Satisfaction” they created an artifact that has made many of us happy for decades. Stadium crowds at a Rolling Stones concert would not be whipped into a frenzy if Mick sang “I can't get no satisnonfiction”.

Fictus and factus are Latin roots of many words in our language. Latin is a language that is characterized as dead. To be labeled as dead, the language must no longer be used by a group of people. Latin rose to popularity when the Romans took over Italy and spread the use of it to Europe.

In Rome, the Latin language gained popularity when the renowned architect Marcus Vitruvius looked around at the parched citizenship and declared “tu scis quod terra necessitates, magis fontes!” Everyone agreed, the country needed more fountains.

Years later Marcus and his brothers built aqueducts to bring water to central Rome for all those fountains. He answered the question of how water can be transported when he proclaimed in Latin but translated to English here, “Why, aqueducts!” Thus, the Marcus Brothers became a big hit in Rome.

Centuries later Groucho and his siblings adapted the Marcus Brothers name and altered the aqueduct line to use in their popular 1929 movie The Cocoanuts in the “Why a Duck?” routine. They became a big hit too.

It is a matter of faction that the use of Latin came to an end when the Roman Empire ceased to exist. Previously dominated countries went back to their native language. Actually, Latin did not die but transformed itself to become part of the English, French, Spanish and Italian vocabulary.

Today, school children all over America do their part to keep it alive when they speak to each other in pig Latin. Thinking that pig Latin qualifies as a language is pure fiction. There are numerous books about Latin in the faction section of your library. And that's an act-fay!


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