I didn’t know what notions were. I wanted to. Then I got a notion about notions. I looked it up. I got a definition, but I began to obsess. The notion I found was not the notion I was looking for. I knew what one kind of a notion was, but there is yet another.
But why is a notion called a notion at all, either one that is? Or are they one word masquerading as two? Enter the Dictionary Detective, a virtual Hercules Poirot of words. Until having most of his life sucked out of him by cancer, his calling was to investigate and answer questions like mine for people who had a notion about such things as the definition of notion being simple. His answer: “Not.”
Some background. In a story that will appear in my 2018 targeted book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Notes from Brooklyn,” I tell of Mrs. Goldstein’s neighborhood notions store, which FYI was always called Mrs. Goldstein’s—period. In writing the piece I realized that I didn’t really know what a notion was. Or why it was. And so it began, this treasure hunt of definition.
Whether taking the electronic route or the old-fashioned one, if one is searching for a definition one goes to a dictionary. The first thing I learned was something I wasn’t looking to learn, namely that the first usable (read “reliable”) dictionary was written by the eminent man of letters Samuel Johnson in the mid-1750’s. The thought of how to even begin compiling a dictionary before there was even electricity no less computers, or even ball point pens/typewriters/carbon paper is mind-boggling.
If your next question in the game was to name “THE name” in modern–hang on to your seats for this one folks–lexicographers the answer would be John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford Dictionary. Truth be told my favorite dictionary was the Columbia Dictionary. It was about a half a foot thick, had a few thousands pages, weighed in at about 8 pounds, and gave origins as well as definitions, and sometimes several of those.
So still having no notion about notion’s multiple meanings, how the word(s) came to have them, and where they came from, I set about goofing around with Google. I was fascinated by what I found. For those of you who sew, or knit, or weave or crochet and need supplies you go to a “notions store” because you know that what you need is found in plenitude in such a store. But hold on, the thought or idea that popped into you head to go to the notions store at all was itself…. a notion. “I had a notion to go to the notions store to pick up a sewing needle with an extra large eye because I was thinking of sewing with thick yarn.”
Now we must shift into geo-politics. Once upon a time the Greeks ruled the world. Their empire was supplanted by the Romans. When all things Greek had to be translated into all things Latin, many Romans threw up their hands and muttered, “It’s all Greek to me!” To our point, came Cicero, who in trying to decipher the complexities of Greek when it came to expressing “idea or thought” in a speech he was giving, came up with the Latin concept of notio or nocere (from which we find the English word note).
Now hang again with me here. So having an idea became having a notion as in, “If this writer goes on too much longer with this idiocy, I have a notion to nail him in the kisser!” So we’ve added to the concept of an idea the expanded concept of having an idea expressed in an action.
For reasons unexplained, or as yet unfound, there came further expansion that a notion was not just an idea but a novel, bright, or unusual one. Shops, then, that sold novel, bright, or unusual items (like the above needle with the larger eye) hence became notions stores. Why they became particularized to the needle/fabric stores I know not, except to opine that when Mrs. Cicero went shopping around 20 BCE there weren’t a whole lot of stores that fit the bill. It fact there might not have been a whole lot of stores period and the bazaars of the day had stalls which, in today’s Flea Markets would be divided into multiple booths. Hence stores that sold hard to find, “bright idea stuff” (“who’d have thought this would fix that?” or “I have this bright idea, I’ll bet I can turn it into something usable with a gadget from Anthony’s in the bazaar”) became notions stores. The end–almost.
Before we end, a salute to Evan Morris, “The Word Detective” for his invaluable service in my being able to assemble today’s drivel. Mr. Morris, battling the scourge of cancer, lives in Millersville, Ohio reachable at PO Box 1, which probably means you’ll need, “The Geography Detective” to find out where that is. Google him. He has much to offer and is in great need of offerings from his readers. The end–nearly.
I have a notion that I’ve said enough, so with a final salute to the notions store of my youth, know that it is forever enshrined in my memory not as a notions store but just as “Mrs. Goldstein’s.”
Don’t forget to look for my book, “Mirth, Wind, and Ire”
or in your Kindle or Nook stores.