My name is Patrick Feaster, and the Griffonage-Dot-Com blog is a place I’ve set up to discuss and share some of my ongoing explorations in historical media, documents, inscriptions, et cetera. In some cases, the emphasis will be on educing them (i.e., making them sensorily accessible), often in ways not envisioned by their creators—for example, by converting phonautograms or telegrams into sound, or by presenting stereoviews as animations. In other cases, my emphasis will be on interpreting and understanding them. Much of the time, I’ll be examining objects in my own personal collection; in fact, unless I state otherwise, you can assume that I own any photographs or phonograms or ephemera I describe and discuss. My broad purpose here will be to take historical media that may at first seem impenetrable or mysterious and attempt to make them meaningful and interesting.
The word “griffonage” appears in dictionaries of the English language (at least the big ones), but it’s also obscure enough to feature regularly in books and on websites as a kind of lexical novelty—a word it’s assumed readers won’t initially know, and so will find interesting as a decorative addition to their vocabularies. It’s generally defined as careless or illegible handwriting, and that’s one of the meanings I mean to invoke here. The materials I’ll be examining are typically challenging to decipher, so “illegible handwriting” is either a good metaphor for them or, in some cases, literally true of them.
If we dig deeper into the history of the word, however, we find some additional connotations that likewise resonate with my goals for this blog. It’s clear that it originated in French as a nominalized form of the verb griffonner, “to scrawl,” and was borrowed into English in the eighteenth century before the modern French spelling griffonnage—with two Ns—drove out the earlier spelling with one N. But it starts to get tricky when we try to pin down the source of the verb griffonner. Some authorities (e.g., here) derive it from griffe—a word of Germanic origin that initially meant anything used for “gripping,” but that was borrowed into French with the more specific meaning of a claw or talon. According to this view, griffe plus the verbal suffix –onner yielded griffonner, meaning “to claw,” or to scratch as with a claw, and hence to scribble or scrawl.
However, the earliest documented usage of the verb griffonner instead suggests a connection with the griffon (griffin, gryphon) as a mythical creature, a mix of lion and eagle. Nicolas de Cholières refers in the first of his Matinées (1585) to “les peines et fatigues de ceux qui harpient à griffonner l’or”; the best translation of this I can manage is “the efforts and exertions of those who ‘harpy’ to ‘griffon’ gold.” The verb harpier, meaning to take or steal, is derived from harpie or harpy, the mythical winged food-snatching creature, and the juxtaposition of this unusual word with the equally unusual griffonner points to a conscious poetic effort to verbalize the names of mythical winged beings. Flavius Philostratus had stated in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana: “As to the gold which the griffins dig up, there are rocks which are spotted with drops of gold as with sparks, which this creature can quarry because of the strength of its beak [rhamphos].” Griffins were thus understood to quarry gold with their beaks, rather than with their talons or griffes, and that was presumably the image Cholières meant to evoke. Griffonage in this sense would have referred to the quarrying of scattered flecks of gold from the rock in which they’re embedded.
Only later did the verb griffonner come to be applied to the act of writing, and the earliest instances I’ve seen associate it specifically with official, bureaucratic writing. Thus, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux writes in his tenth Satire (1694), on the subject of marriage: “Et déjà le notaire a, d’un style énergique, / Griffonné de ton joug l’instrument authentique,” i.e., “And already the notary has, in an energetic style, / ‘griffoned’ the authentic instrument of your yoke.” Clément Marot (1496-1544) had previously used the noun griffon to refer pejoratively to a town clerk who wrote poorly, and that usage presumably gave rise in turn to the verb griffonner in the sense of writing poorly in a bureaucratic context, perhaps as a griffin could be imagined to write with its beak or claws.
But it gets even more complicated. Scholarly editions gloss Marot’s noun griffon as greffier (town clerk), a word associated in turn with greffe, which now means the office where a greffier works, but which had originally meant a stylus for writing in wax (from Latin graphium). Perhaps Marot was exploiting the similarity between the words greffe, griffe, and griffon for comic effect, likening the writing of an inept clerk to the clawing of a mythical eagle-lion. But there are also hints of a closer connection between griffonage and greffe. One book claims that the word greffier in the phrase greffier dog is simply a “shortened” form of the word griffon in the sense of a breed of dog, even though these two terms seem to have referred historically to two different breeds. We occasionally encounter the variant spelling greffonage for griffonage—“mon greffonage écrit à la hate [sic, hâte]”; “Sie haben mehr zu tun als mein greffonage zu lesen”—although these two examples come from transcribed correspondence, so they may themselves be artifacts of griffonage, with the scrawled word “griffonage” having been mistaken for “greffonage.” The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives the etymology of griffonage as “F, fr. MF grifouner to scribble (fr. griffon stylus, fr. griffe claw) + -age,” but the Dictionnaire du Moyen Français—a seemingly definitive source for Middle French vocabulary—doesn’t have any entry for grifouner or for griffon (or any variant thereof) meaning a stylus. Although grifouner is modern Gaumais for griffonner, I suspect grifouner in the online Merriam-Webster etymology may have resulted from OCR misreading the first N in grifonner as a U, a mistake that turns up numerous times in the Google Books corpus. Maybe sloppy OCR counts as a kind of griffonage in itself. But I digress.
The bottom line is that if we try to trace the history of the word griffonage, we find a tangled etymological web in which the following three elements are confusingly interwoven:
- griffe: a “gripper,” and hence a claw or talon
- griffon: a mythical eagle-lion known for digging flecks of gold out of rocks
- greffe / graphium: a stylus for writing in wax
For many years, my home on the Internet has been phonozoic.net, but that had become problematic by the start of 2014 for two reasons. First, my interests had begun to extend beyond sound media, particularly into early photography, and I wanted a domain name that wasn’t specifically sound-centered. Second, I’d also registered phonozoic.com some years ago, but with a predatory registrar who wanted something like $50 to let me move it to another registrar (where I could actually do something with it). I’d allowed my registration to lapse in protest, assuming nobody else would want it—and then the domain got snatched up by some mysterious Japanese interest. So I wanted to find some new domain name that would reflect my interest in deciphering, educing, and interpreting old media of various kinds. Alas, every promising combination of “media” with other words seemed to be taken at the dot-com level, no matter how obscure. So I turned to the auspicously-named thesaurus.com for ideas, seeking synonyms for “media,” “writing,” and so forth, which is where I ran across the word griffonage. I’d never encountered it before, but its rich mix of denotative and connotative meanings seemed perfect for what I wanted to do—whether digging up nuggets of gold out of the dross or deciphering semi-legible traces scratched with a stylus.
So I did a domain name search on griffonage.com. Taken—drat the luck! But when I plugged the name into my browser, up popped a page that indicated the domain was parked at GoDaddy, and that it was currently available for purchase for $8. In fact, it was a “Buy Now (closeout)” sale; the domain had expired on December 9, 2013, and it had apparently been sitting around ever since, offered at ever-decreasing prices. So I bought it on January 16, 2014, along with one year’s registration. Griffonage.com was mine! As I began to investigate the prior history of the domain name, it became clear that it had been in the hands of domainers—speculators in attractive domain names—for many years, and had never been put to any “real” use, making it an appropriately blank slate for my purposes.
There are, however, some other “griffonages” worth acknowledging:
- Griffonage Studios in Tucson, Arizona, “offers creative forums, exhibition opportunities, writing and publishing services, marketing consultation and customized support for a broad array of businesses, artistic endeavors and academic institutions of all sizes and disciplines.”
- Griffonage Boutique, the Etsy shop of Sister Bridget Corfield of Los Lunas, New Mexico: “Here you will find items hand made, consecrated, spiritually guided jewelry and prayer beads.” As of January 2014, the shop has twenty-nine items available for purchase, mostly rosaries. I’m not a connoisseur, but they look like very fine rosaries.
- Griffonage Ltd. are recruitment consultants in Basingstoke, Hampshire, United Kingdom.
- Griffonage “is an Uppercase Handwritten font with a Chalk/Pencil/Crayon feel. Great for headings, it makes a statement with its rough handwritten scrawl style.”
- Gambrinous with Griffonage is a blog maintained by Erik Rubright.
- [Pages of a] Griffonage is the poetry blog of Greeshma Ramesh.
- Griffonnage.com (with two Ns) redirects to 3Drips, the portfolio of 3D artist Charline Bernt.
- Atelier Griffonnage (again with two Ns) is a French graphic design company.