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All the Big Words You'll Learn from Joanna Newsom's New Album 'Divers'

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Photo: Annabel Mehran

Back in August, I wrote a breathless post reporting the news that, after five long years, Joanna Newsom would be releasing new music. Divers finally hit stores on Friday, but I'm not going to review it. Plenty of people already have, and quite honestly, my take on it would go something like this: "Omg, you guys! Omgomgomg."

So, instead, I'm going to do something useful: compile a Newsomian glossary of all the big words and historical terms you'll glean from this album and later use to seem smart in front of your friends!

The statue that inspired Shelley's sonnet. Photo: Wiki Commons
The statue that inspired Shelley's sonnet. Photo: Wiki Commons

Ozymandian: a reference to Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias," which essentially boils down to "we're all going to die and be forgotten."

Sapokanikan: the name of a Lenape village that was located where Greenwich Village stands today.

Florry Walker: the name of a woman Australian Impressionist Arthur Streeton had an unrequited thing for. Restorers found her name etched beneath Spring, one of his pastoral paintings. And that's not the only cool thing about the artwork;  it was shot through with bullets 14 times during a rowdy party.


Tobias and the Angel: a painting from the 1500s linked to Titian. It  was widely derided by the art world and its authenticity was questioned. After passing through many hands of unimpressed owners like Tsar Nicholas I, it ended up in a London garage where it weathered the Blitz. Many years later, X-rays revealed Titian's actual work, a portrait of a woman and her child hidden underneath the much-maligned top layer, which turned out to have been painted by one of Titian's pupils.

Photo: Hidden Masterpieces
Photo: Hidden Masterpieces

Patch of Grass: In "Sapokanikan," Joanna sings "Beneath a patch of grass, her bones the old Dutch master hid." She's referring to the painted-over portrait of a peasant woman scientists discovered beneath van Gogh's Patch of Grass.

Arion: the immortal horse and child (it's complicated) of Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility.

Rharian: a field located in Eleusis, Greece, which was believed to be where the first plot of grain was grown.

Photo: Wiki Commons
Photo: Wiki Commons

Nightjar: a type of nocturnal bird that is known for its camouflage, the "boom" sound that accompanies its diving, and its torpor (a sort of hibernation to withstand low temperatures and lack of food). Newsom likens their hiding amongst dead leaves and laying eggs in the ground to soldiers trying to stay hidden from the enemy and burying land mines. They used to be called goatsuckers because an ancient myth alleged that nightjars suckled from nanny goats, leading to a lack of milk and blindness.

Hotdogging: to show off; to perform stunts or tricks.

Potter's field: a burial place for unknown or indigent people. Newsom uses the term to describe Washington Square Park, which sits on top of an estimated 20,000 bodies.

Major Mitchel in his pilot gear around 1918. Photo: Wiki Commons
Major Mitchel in his pilot gear around 1918. Photo: Wiki Commons

John Purroy Mitchel: the 95th mayor of New York from 1914 to 1917, he was the second youngest to serve and became known as “The Boy Mayor of New York.” After losing a bid for reelection, he joined the Army and died after falling out of a plane due to an unfastened seatbelt during a training exercise.

Simulacreage: a portmanteau of “simulacra” and “acreage.” According to The New Yorker, it's "a coinage previously unknown to Google."

Chabot: In "Waltz of the 101st Lightborn," Joanna sings, "I had a dream that I walked in the garden of Chabot, and those telescope ruins." She's referencing the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California. The observatory's namesake Anthony Chabot worked in mining in Nevada City, California — Joanna's hometown — and invented the first hydraulic mining tool.

Tamanend negotiating with William Penn. Photo: Wiki Commons
Tamanend negotiating with William Penn. Photo: Wiki Commons

King Tamanend: a 17th century chief of a Lenni-Lenape tribe, best known for his peaceful negotiations with William Penn and other English settlers in Pennsylvania. Called "the affable" and a "Patron Saint of America."

debride: the removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound.

amora obscura: a pun on camera obscura, a predecessor to the modern camera which means "dark room" in Latin. She swaps out "room" for "love." Camera Obscura was the original Russian title of Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark. Newsom told NPR that his work has been a huge influence on her writing.

Divers is out now. Buy it!

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