Most online transcription projects allow you to see or even review other people’s transcriptions, but Zooniverse projects (Operation War Diary, Ancient Lives, AnnoTate and Shakespeare’s World, to name a few) ask you to transcribe on your own. Rather than generating transcriptions and waiting for each one to be vetted by an expert, we try to harness what James Surowiecki calls ‘the wisdom of the crowd’—in this case multiple transcribers and their aggregated responses—to identify what is on a page without then doing a manual review of each page. If our small research team had the time to manually review every transcription, we would probably have the time to do it ourselves! But the dataset is much too large for that.
Multiple individuals’ responses are aggregated using two different algorithms. The first is a clustering algorithm, which uses the blue dots to identify where a line or word is, and the second is MAFFT alignment which is traditionally used for amino acid or nucleotide sequencing, and has been deployed by our friends over on Notes from Nature (see blog).
Aggregating multiple people’s responses minimizes the burden of transcription, as well as the burden of accuracy, on the individual. It’s unlikely that any two people, much less three, five or a dozen volunteers reading the same word or line will make exactly the same mistakes. But asking multiple people to do each page independently has its perils, as we have discovered on other projects: if a page is dense or the handwriting is hard to read, the average person will do a bit on the top third of the page, but often can’t complete the whole page because they don’t have the time or inclination (life happens!).
Many moons ago, when I was first thinking through how to make text transcription efficient in a system that relies upon multiple independent transcribers who can’t see one another’s work, it occurred to me that we could use a visual clue that a line or word had already been completed. Hence the grey dots that started to appear this month.
When you come across grey dots, this means that the section or line they are surrounding has been fully retired, but there may be more to do on a page. If you see a page where every line is encompassed by grey dots, this means you should click ‘I’m done’ and ‘yes, everything is transcribed’. Once three people have said a page is complete on the basis of having done the whole thing themselves or seeing the grey dots, the page will stop showing up in the transcription interface.
You may have noticed by now that there are a dearth of manuscripts by or about Shakespeare among the thousands of images in Shakespeare’s World. As far as we know, he does not make an appearance in any of the thousands of recipes or letters currently available for transcription (but please prove us wrong!). One letter to Shakespeare does in fact survive, from Richard Quiney in 1598, but the letter is at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and therefore does not appear in Shakespeare’s World.
That will change when we add the genres “miscellanies” (blank books filled with poems, notes, copies of letters, and just about anything worth writing down) and “commonplace books” (blank books with extracts arranged by theme or category) to the site later this year. If you are a close reader of the Bard, you will likely encounter extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and poems, copies of William Basse’s elegy on Shakespeare, and perhaps passages that scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library have not yet discovered. It will be exciting for Shakespeare enthusiasts to be able to read these references and allusions in the context of the manuscript volumes in which they appear, and to think further about how early modern readers digested their Shakespeare.
Until then, you can get your fill of Shakespeare at Shakespeare Documented, an online exhibition convened by the Folger Shakespeare Library, with contributions by over thirty institutions. Also, many of the actual manuscripts related to the famous literary figure are on display in the current exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Great Hall: Shakespeare, Life of an Icon.
Shakespeare Documented includes high-resolution images, descriptions, metadata, and in many cases, transcriptions, of approximately 500 references to William Shakespeare and his family in their lifetimes, as well as editions of, and references and allusions to, Shakespeare’s works, in his lifetime and in the years following his death in 1616. If we discover anything Shakespeare-related in Shakespeare’s World, we would be thrilled to add it to Shakespeare Documented, and are eager to see this new resource grow and evolve!
A few weeks ago volunteer @SarahtheEntwife posted her modernized recipe for caraway bunnes, followed by an image of the result!
It looks good, so I’ve decided to give it a go as well over this coming weekend. Would you like to try your hand at this recipe and share the results here on our blog or Talk? We’re always keen to try new things, and hear what you’re up to as well. Images of baked goods and other culinary delights are most welcome.
This recipe “To make mackroones or portugall farts”, not surprisingly, raised some eyebrows after it was spotted by @kodemonkey:
The mackroones are macaroons, and the spelling mackroon is already recorded by the OED for the 1600s and 1700s. The portugall farts appear to be the same thing as the “farts of Portugal” which the OED records for the sixteenth century as a specific culinary use of fart (in its usual, embarrassing meaning):
The parallel that French pet (also literally ‘fart’) is similarly used to denote a doughnut or similar air-filled treat suggests strongly that we are indeed looking at a humorous use of the familiar word, giving an insight into the different ideas of decorum – and indeed of what might or might not put someone off eating a pastry – of another age. In fact French dictionaries record (in medieval French spelling) pets d’Espaigne, literally ‘Spanish farts’, dating back as far as 1393. The keen eyes of the Zooniverse community have given us an important pointer for expanding the coverage of this item for OED and a stimulus to include this word soon in OED’s rolling revision programme. (The current version of fart in the dictionary dates back in essentials to 1895 – revising the OED is a Sisyphean task!)
It’s also worth highlighting a few of the less immediately arresting things coming out of Shakespeare’s World that nonetheless get lexicographers and linguists excited. @LWSmith’s blog post On Close Reading and Teamwork drew attention to fussy smalligs probably meaning ‘fuzzy smallage’, as originally spotted by @parsfan. As Laura points out, the spelling fussy for fuzzy isn’t yet in the OED. But looking again at Gervase Markham, OED’s current earliest source for fuzzy (spelt fuzzie) in the very early 1600s, shows that he also wrote about a soft fussie and vnwholsome mosse and about clay of a fussie temper (in contrast to stiffe blacke clay), all of which suggests that another close look at the early history of fuzzy is thoroughly merited. Again, Zooniverse researchers and volunteers have pointed the way for what will be important revision work for the OED.
Finally, @jules spotted the spelling receitpte in a recipe heading:
The word receipt was originally spelt with no p, spellings such as receit being common in early use. It comes ultimately from Latin recepta, but was borrowed into English via Anglo-Norman and Middle French, in which it had forms such as recette or (in Anglo-Norman) receite. From an early date spellings with a (silent) ‘etymological’ p are found in Anglo-Norman and Middle French and also in English, reflecting awareness of the word’s Latin origin. The hitherto unrecorded spelling receitpte spotted by @jules, with an additional t in front of the p, is really illuminating. This writer clearly knows that the word is written with a silent p. Perhaps receitpte is the result of getting so far in writing the word, remembering about the silent p, and leaving the first t as an uncorrected error. Or perhaps (I suspect more likely) this is a belt-and-braces way of signalling loudly and clearly “you spell this word with a p but pronounce it as though it just had a t”. It would be great to know whether any other –tpt– spellings are lurking in these manuscripts. Transcriptions on Shakespeare’s World, and especially lively discussions on Talk, are just the way we’re going to find that out.
The tale of Bunchfussy begins with @parsfan’s comment:
‘The second recipe is a guest appearance by another hand, perhaps Mrs Bunchfussy herself, who sounds like a refugee from a Dickens novel.’
That would be delightful! Unfortunately, as I spotted immediately, this was the Mrs Dunch who had been mentioned in several other recipes. But… what WAS that word immediately after her name? Team Bunchfussy’s quest to identify the word reveals a lot about the importance of close reading and teamwork.
Since I’ve started transcribing recipes online (first with EMROC and now with Shakespeare’s World), the way that I read them has changed. As a busy researcher, I ordinarily would have skipped over a mystery word like this one. In the interests of maximising research time and ploughing through lots of sources, I probably would decide that identifying the word was unimportant. There was already plenty of information: a name, an ailment, a list of ingredients. Missing this word out would not be a problem.
Transcribing online is different, though. The Shakespeare’s World system, which only presents one decontextualized page at a time, forces the transcriber to read closely. The handwriting can be difficult and, without an entire manuscript for reference, the only clues to decode an excerpt are on that page. Every letter, every mark, every word is important. And the transcriber is compelled to linger, focusing on the details and considering the possibilities.
Close reading is usually solitary, but on Shakespeare’s World, it often becomes collaborative. Perplexing examples are posted on Talk by transcribers where we puzzle over them together.
@mutabilitie joked that ‘it looks like “pissy” to me, but I suppose we can safely rule out that reading.’ Except… it did look rather like pissy.
The debate on the page initially focused on whether the first letter was a ‘p’ or an ‘f’, with contributors mustering evidence about letter shapes elsewhere in the recipe.* The general consensus was ‘f’. Perhaps it might be ‘firstly’ or ‘fully’ or even ‘fussy’? @S_Powell reported back that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), fussy would not have yet been in use. Then @elaineleong suggested ‘fissy’, but didn’t think it made much sense. She also suggested that we were all might be on the wrong track. What if the word belonged to the first recipe line rather than the title and attribution?
Indeed, what if it went with the word directly under it? Fussy smalligs. Fuzzy smallage!!! A quick check of the OED revealed that fuzzy was in use in the seventeenth century. And suddenly we had an answer. It may not have been Bunchfussy, but the second word was indeed fussy after all.
An individual researcher might have skipped over a seemingly unimportant word, but ‘fussy’ turned out to provide a surprising amount of information that would have otherwise been missed. The knowledge that fuzzy smallage rather than plain old smallage was included in the recipe is interesting in two ways. First, the fuzziness might indicate its particular stage of growth—perhaps when in flower. That might indicate the timing (late summer) for preparing the recipe. Alternatively, it might be specifying use of the leaves rather than the stalk. Either way, this was a clue that would have been left out of a quick read of the recipe. Second, ‘fussy’ has not yet been listed in the OED as a variant of ‘fuzzy’.
Close reading, perseverance, and teamwork are rewarding. In an age of perpetual busy-ness and fast reading on the web, that the internet can also bring opportunities for slowing down fills me with delight.
*In addition to those named above, thank you to @Hannebambel @Greensleeves @Cuboctahedron for their contributions, which included points of clarification and transcriptions.