Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

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