Culture changes even faster than technology

Morganatic Times

Last week was the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. A century ago, that event triggered WWI, and the front page of the Washington Times told the news. As you can see from the picture, the sub-sub-headline was:

“Fires Several Shots, All of Which Lodged in Vital Parts, and Francis Ferdinand of Austria and Sophie Chotek, His Morganatic Wife, Were Found to Have Been Killed Instantly.”

Now I have a History Major at UBC, love obscure words, and was a contestant on Jeopardy!


But I still had to go look up what ‘morganatic’ meant. (Wikipedia: “a morganatic marriage is a marriage between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. Now rare, it is also known as a left-handed marriage because in the wedding ceremony the groom traditionally held his bride’s right hand with his left hand instead of his right.”)

This word, which is so obscure and little-known today that only Conrad Black would use it in a newspaper column, was put in a headline of a mass-market daily only 100 years ago! I would guess that the editors of the Times in 1914 assumed that 70-90% of their readers would know what morganatic meant. Today, I would be surprised if 1% of readers did.

The news of the assassination would have been transmitted by commercial wireline telegraph service: a technology that isn’t in use anywhere in the world today. But people still know what a telegraph is, and maybe even know a few scraps of Morse code. The front page would have been read by kerosene lamps in many homes. They aren’t as common today, but many Canadian cottages still have a few in case of power failures. The story was written on manual typewriters, and my kids know what those are, recognise them, and can even buy a conversion kit for a USB connected typewriter keyboard!


In contrast, although there are still 26 active sovereign monarchies in the world in 2014, the idea that a marriage between a commoner and a royal required a special term (and legal structure) has become culturally inconceivable: I might even use the word ‘extinct.’

Equally, I would predict that the changes over the next century caused by technology will not always prove to be more complete than those caused by culture, by attitudes, or by human psychology.



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