Mary DeForest's Epic Adventure Led to the Latinometer -- a Classic Bullshit Detector
Mary DeForest loves Jane Austen. The 68-year-old academic has read each of the author's novels over 100 times. "I went to her tomb at Winchester Cathedral and burst into tears," she says. "I couldn't believe she was dead."
DeForest has spent much of her academic career defending Austen's legacy. "Austen was unpopular in the '60s because all of her characters got married, and people weren't supposed to get married," she says. "It was my guilty pleasure loving Austen. All my best friends hated Austen. They said she was demeaning to women."
So DeForest set out to prove her friends wrong. See also: Sixteen Years After His Death, Not-So-Famous Novelist John Williams Is Finding His Audience
Mary DeForest, literary detective, in her Denver home.
She determined that Austen was a secret classicist and analyzed the novelist's dialogue to show that Austen was not just mirroring, but lampooning her era's sexism and class conflict. Between 1775 and 1817 -- Austen's lifetime -- a woman who learned Greek and Latin was a social pariah, considered "a sexual freak," DeForest says. "She was a lesbian. She was incredibly promiscuous. She was sexually frigid and had other issues. Oh, yeah, and she was a terrible housekeeper. Therefore, for a woman to learn Greek and Latin was to really jeopardize ever getting married, because who wants to marry a sexual freak who can't keep a clean house? That was the dark side of the classical tradition."
But DeForest believed that Austen understood how gender and class shaped a person's vocabulary, and the speech patterns of her characters showed that the novelist had broken the code and infiltrated the male world. While the poor at the time relied on Germanic words, the upper class used words rooted in classical languages; in an Austen book, the character's class and sex determined the density of Latinate words they spoke. To prove her point, in 1988 DeForest started underlining each Latinate word in Mansfield Park. The chore proved tiresome. So a decade later, she and a collaborator created software to take over the job.
In creating her system, DeForest had to choose which words were in, which words were out, and how each word ranked on her pretentiousness scale. Words originating in Greek received 1.25 points; Latin words got 1; French words earned .25; German words netted zero. "I got rid of prepositions, conjunctions and modals," she remembers. "All obscene words and slang words are omitted. One day the word 'bitchiness' came through. I excluded it. I figured, I'm elderly. I'll play the crone card and exclude it." Other decisions were more difficult. "I had this big crisis about whether or not to exclude 'burrito' and 'tortilla,'" she admits. The words were Latinate in origin, but also Spanish and unpretentious. She left them out.
The program worked but was clunky -- so DeForest looked for a more efficient option. Last year she recruited a computer-science class at Regis University to turn her 120,000-word database into a website. One student took charge, and by the end of Christmas break, the project was done.
DeForest officially launched Latinometer.com in January, and after it was tweaked in May, it caught the attention of Forbes. Since then, thousands of users have entered everything from Harry Potter passages to fundraising letters to campaign pieces. "If you're going to have ideas, you've got to make it so people want to hear them," DeForest says. "Too often, language is used to exclude people instead of to joyously share ideas."
Mary DeForest loved reading even as a child.
Mary DeForest started thinking about etymology -- where words come from -- in college, when she read George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language."
"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details," Orwell wrote. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
Reading Orwell, DeForest realized that unclear language often cloaks agendas. But while her inspiration came from Orwell, her passion remains decoding the puzzles of language and literature. So the Latinometer became not just a means of exploring Jane Austen's secret life, but also a way to expose any writer's level of pretentiousness.
On Latinometer.com, a user enters a passage of text and clicks "Submit Query." The program will calculate how many of the words come from one of four languages: French, Latin, German or Greek. The more Germanic, the more grounded; the more Latin, Greek or French, the more fraudulent. And then the Latinometer ranks a writer's pretentiousness from 0 to 100 percent.
DeForest believes that the terse words and guttural sounds born of Germanic languages yield clear, direct speech. Words rooted in Latin, French and Greek muddy communication with needless prefixes and suffixes. Academics, lawyers and politicians often resort to words based in dead languages to sound smart and to cover up violence and ignorance with civilized talk.
Kids killed by bombs are referred to as "collateral damage." Rape becomes "nonconsensual sex." Death becomes "expiration."
When she first tested the Latinometer, she found that "the Unabomber and the Founding Fathers scored high," she says. "George Washington and Lincoln toned it down. Ernest Hemingway got a 17 percent."
After the Latinometer went public, some users complained that she was creating a database of their texts. They worried that she would pilfer their ideas, invade their privacy.
But the only part of any texts the program keeps are words that aren't already in the existing database. Every twenty minutes or so, DeForest checks the site for new, unidentified words to research and enter by hand. As a language detective, her first stop is at the Online Etymology Dictionary, which often has what she needs. If that fails, she looks up words in the Oxford English Dictionary. "Etymology is an old people's sport," she jokes.
Word origins delight her. The word "glamour" comes from "grammar," which was once considered mysterious and magical. The word "secretary" means "able to keep a secret." One of her favorite words is "fundamentalist." It has a relationship to the Old French word fondement, which translates to "anus."
"When people call themselves fundamentalists," she notes, "they are actually calling themselves assholes."
She has little tolerance for fundamentalists. She raised herself on Greek myths, aspires to be a theosophist -- and thinks of her life as an epic adventure.
Daniel and Harriet Margolies in 1944.
Mary DeForest's father, Daniel Margolies, was Jewish; her mother, Harriet, was Episcopalian. But when the two married, both renounced their religion -- which Harriet would regret in her later years.
Mary's father studied classics and law at Harvard University, and during World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services, the organization that eventually became the CIA. DeForest's mother studied law at Yale, where she was the first woman to receive a Sterling Fellowship -- but at the time, the legal world had little room for women.
Because of Daniel's work with the OSS, he was recruited to work as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials, the post-war investigation of Nazi officials. He arranged for Harriet to work on the team. By day, the lawyers sifted through boxes of documentation to build cases against Nazi leaders; by night, they conceived Mary.
Harriet wrote long letters to her mother documenting their work. "It's the fag end of the day," she said in one, "and I've been going over the record to try to find out whether a case has been made out against Julius Streicher, who is a frightful creature but who does not exactly fit under the terms of the Charter."
Streicher had been the publisher of Der Stürmer newspaper, whose title translates to "The Attacker." His writings accused Jews of ritual murder, white slavery and rape, and compared them to poisonous mushrooms. "It's simply horrible to read the excerpts from his various publications, all of which were violently and disgustingly anti-Semitic," Harriet wrote.
Both Daniel and Harriet wrote briefs for trial, but only Daniel could present them in court. When a broadcaster realized that a woman was working for the prosecution, he called her part of the "rising tide of Feminism [that] has flowed into the intellectual jobs."
The Nuremberg Trials were a grim high point in the couple's careers. Because of their work, Streicher was convicted of crimes against humanity. Then they returned to the United States to have their child, "in case I wanted to run for president, I guess," Mary says.
Streicher and nine others were hanged on October 16, 1946 -- just a month after Mary was born, the same year Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language."
In Washington, D.C., Daniel worked for the State Department. Harriet took a job as a lawyer but was paid as a legal secretary. Her $2.50-per-hour wage barely covered the expense of hiring a nanny for Mary and her brother. But Harriet lived to work, and so did her husband. "They were wonderful people, but I don't think they were good parents. They didn't talk to us much. They didn't hug us," Mary remembers. "My parents were these Nuremberg prosecutors stuck with these kids on the weekend."
As Daniel's career blossomed, Harriet felt increasingly stuck and sank into depression. "I remember her playing solitaire, and the sound of her shuffling the cards," Mary says. "She could have written a novel. The women's movement came too late for her. It was such a big deal that she was a Nuremberg prosecutor and a woman. She wanted to be respected for her abilities."
Sometimes Mary would play Scrabble with her mother, and they did crossword puzzles together. For every poem Mary memorized, her mother paid her a dime. "I still remember everything I learned as a kid," she says. "Memorization is a good thing, though it's fallen out of favor." And every year, she would eagerly await her favorite Christmas present: the next book in L. Frank Baum's Oz series.
Mary DeForest and Dorothy Gale had something in common: They yearned for adventure to sweep them away from the boredom of childhood.
When Mary was eleven, her father joined the Foreign Service and took his family to England. Harriet felt imprisoned by the role of a diplomat's wife and resented wasting her talents hosting parties and playing bridge. The children were sent to boarding school, where Mary had two options: study science or Greek. She enjoyed science; her father hated it. He took her aside, reminded her that she loved the great myths, and pointed out that he was a classics major at Harvard. She should follow in his footsteps, he said.
Studying classical languages, Mary practiced rote memorization. "My brain is a Mad Hatter's tea party," she explains. But all the mental exercise helped focus her mind and gave her the skills to do sophisticated math.
Socially, boarding school was a nightmare. Her peers ridiculed her. An administrator molested her. She retreated into adventures with Frodo Baggins, Mary Poppins and Dorothy. She enjoyed reading The Chronicles of Narnia until she felt bludgeoned by C.S. Lewis's overt Christian symbolism, and ditched Aslan for Homer's Odyssey. "When I was young and reckless, I was mad for Odysseus," she recalls. "You can walk anywhere in the world with Odysseus, and he will get out, but you won't.
"The Greek gods had a sense of humor," she adds. "Granted, they were sexist and they praised war. But they were like cats." (DeForest loves cats, and has since she first moved to England: "You're sitting there petting a cat, and then all of a sudden they scratch you. Why is there evil in the world? Just ask a cat." )
In 1960, the Foreign Service sent her father to the Congo, where a post-colonial political crisis had exploded. Patrice Lumumba, the country's first democratically elected leader, had built an alliance with the Soviet Union that the United States perceived as a threat. The CIA wanted him out. Mary visited her father there twice; she remembers him playing bridge with Lawrence Devlin -- the CIA official ordered by Dwight D. Eisenhower to assassinate Lumumba, she later learned. Devlin stalled, but participated in the CIA-backed coup that brought anti-Communist dictator Joseph Mobutu to power. She recalls dancing with Mobutu at a party: "I danced with a mass murderer."
A few years ago, when she read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, which takes place in the Congo and condemns Devlin, DeForest cringed. She still wonders how much her father had to do with Lumumba's ouster and Mobutu's tyrannical reign.
"I grew up thinking the U.S. was the good guy because of World War II," she explains. "I was making assumptions that the world was a place run by grownups. I was criminally naive." Now she says she recognizes the "Cyclopean nature under the veneer of civilization, where people are raging with selfishness and brutality."
At sixteen, Mary returned with her family to the United States. The following year she enrolled at Woodstock, an experimental high school in upstate New York, where she began working toward a career in Greek and Latin even as the value of a classical education was crumbling. It was the '60s, she points out: "Everybody was asking, 'Is it relevant?' about everything. Vatican II was the death knell for Latin."
At Woodstock, the teachers taught more than rote memorization; they demanded creative, critical thinking. In English, Mary read quickly and not always carefully. Greek and Latin forced her to slow down and think about each word's significance.
By this point, her lack of formal religious training bothered her. "I always felt I was missing out and not getting it," she remembers. "It makes you vulnerable." She made a friend who was Mormon, and "because I wasn't raised on religion, I had no antibodies and got converted to Mormonism," she says. "It was a six-week thing."
She soon returned to fiction, poetry and myth as her religion. "I always thought literature was like church, but it was fun," she recalls. Dead languages took on new life: "It's a lot like in psychology, how they have the primal scream. Going back to ancient languages is like going back to the source."
Mary DeForest in 1962.
From Woodstock, Mary moved on to Mount Holyoke College, where she was a classics major and says she "fell under the spell of Jean Pearson, a charismatic teacher rather like the Maggie Smith character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" -- a film about a passionate instructor who indoctrinates her students through emotional fervor. When Mount Holyoke fired Pearson, Mary graduated early and moved on to study classics at the University of Chicago, her teacher's alma matter. "The University of Chicago proved not to be Ms. Pearson's source of inspiration," she remembers, "so I dropped out in January and got jobs."
Jobs and political causes. Mary marched against the Vietnam War. Her father feared Communism was spreading and believed a U.S. intervention in Vietnam was necessary to preserve democracy; Mary battled with him about the war and her waning faith in the virtues of the United States.
She also took on one lover after another, two of whom were named Ronald. She nicknamed one Ronny and moved with him to Manhattan's Lower East Side, into an apartment where they shared a bathroom with other tenants. "I would turn on the light and all these roaches would be sucked into the walls," she recalls. "Then one day the cockroaches came at me, and I retreated."
One night she and Ronny were cuddled up on the couch watching The Tonight Show when they heard a knock. "Police, open up," a gruff voice yelled, saying that they were being busted for pot.
Demanding to see a warrant, she opened the door -- and was faced by one guy sporting a swastika tattoo and another brandishing a knife. They pushed Mary and Ron onto the couch and tied them up. "I knew I was going to die," Mary says now. And in a certain way, she was okay with that: She wanted to experience the insights and visions that Greek warriors had moments before death. "I was waiting for this epiphany, but all there was was Johnny Carson on the television," she remembers.
Soon they broke up, and Ronny moved to a commune in upstate New York. "Ronny was in the Navy. I guess he did a lot of speed," she says. "He got sick and started hearing voices. He was nuts. He got so involved in the voices. He went mad." In a fit of rage, he wandered onto the highway and threw himself in front of a car.
The other Ronald, whom she called Ron, was a teacher. "He was a teacher of pyschologically disturbed children -- one of those people who are so silent, you start caring what they think," she says. "I was looking for horrible experiences just to see if I could survive them."
Soon she realized that Ron was one of those experiences. She moved back to Chicago and finished her master's degree, despite the classics department's lack of creativity and irritating emphasis on translation. After graduation, she hitchhiked her way across Europe for six months, bicycling across Crete and visiting the temples of the gods. On her return to the States, she continued her epic adventures.
"I used to hitchhike," she remembers. "Nothing happened to me, but once I had a scary guy [who] had a truck full of pigs. They were snorting in the back of the truck. He kept looking at me out of the side of his eye, like, 'Does your father know where you are? Does anybody know where you are?' I thought sure as anything he was going to kill me and feed me to those pigs. Then we stopped off at a rest area, and I thanked him cordially and got out of the car. And that is why you should not hitchhike."
For years she worked odd jobs, saving money to travel. She describes herself as a siren: She would lure men and enchant them into long journeys. When each doomed relationship flopped, she moved on to other men. Most were artists -- but, swept up in romance with her, they quit creating.
One day she left Chicago with a boyfriend, determined to hitchhike to Alaska. They stopped in Denver and ended up breaking up. Mary took a job at a used bookstore. She met another man and persuaded him to join her on a bike trip to Prescott, Arizona, taking her cat along for the ride. For days at a time, the cat would wander off and the travelers would be stuck in gas-station parking lots, eating bologna sandwiches and waiting for the cat to return. That relationship was doomed, too.
In 1974, Mary met a handsome young artist, Bob, while doing market-research surveys for money. Six months later, they biked from Milan to Paris, falling in love along the way. Back in Colorado, Mary enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado. Looking for ideas for a dissertation, she studied with Charles Beye at the American School of Classical Studies. He was writing a book on Apollonius and gave a seminar on "The Argonautica," which tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts' journey to find the Golden Fleece.
Beye's teaching inspired Mary to write her dissertation, "Heroes in a Toy Boat," about the poem. She argued that the poem's narrative form was structured like Medea's eye and showed how the writing related to Woody Allen's self-reflexive cinema. But while she struggled to get her thoughts on paper, she was distracted by Bob's television habit. They fought about it constantly. To save their relationship, they took a bike trip from Germany to Greece through Yugoslavia -- and continued fighting the entire way. By the time they returned to the U.S., it was clear their romance was over, and they parted ways.
After graduate school, Mary moved to Omaha to teach at Creighton College. She took up with an alcoholic who told her he'd had a vasectomy when he hadn't. After learning she was pregnant, she had an abortion. When he found out, he smashed through the window of her apartment, stormed in and beat her. She played dead. Thinking he had choked the life out of her, he left. That was the end of that relationship. (Years later, she learned that another woman had shot and killed him during a fight in Denver.)
Her epic journey next took her to a tenure-track position in the classics department at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. The department chair didn't believe in the grading system, and students considered the major the easiest in the school. Drunk frat boys lumbered in and slept through classes. Mary and the department chair clashed. "I actually believe in people learning things. It was a bad scene," she recalls.
She spent the greater part of the '80s struggling to finish "Heroes in a Toy Boat" and write academic papers; she needed to publish to get tenure. "I always had a hard time writing," she says, adding that while that didn't come easy, the joy of scholarship did: "It was like playing on the playground. You have that whole playground to yourself." She explored how literature's past shapes the present -- and developed a theory that the present shapes the past as well: New authors influence the dead. Mary argued that Odysseus is Toad from The Wind in the Willows; Mary Poppins is the great mother goddess revamped. She published a one-page essay about Jane Austen. "Half of the page was a picture," she jokes. But pedantic classicists frowned at her ideas and sent her cutting rejection letters, which she saved.
For affirmation, she sent copies of her manuscripts to her critical heroes, including Northrop Frye, Robert Kellogg and Wolfgang Isser. Much to her surprise, she received responses -- and a few even praised her work.
In nearby Ithaca, she met the owner of the Blue Fox, a used bookstore, John, and they fell in love. He moved his shop to Clinton. He delighted in hiking, poetry and romance. The couple biked across Scotland together, admiring pagan relics. "He was a wonderful man," she says, even if he was prone to conspiracy theories -- which he shared with her father, irking Mary to no end.
As a gesture of reconciliation with her mother, who'd fallen ill and who had always wanted her to stop having affairs and settle down, she married John. The couple renounced their birth names and adopted DeForest.
For the last few years of her mother's life, Mary flew back and forth between central New York and Washington, D.C., doing her best to fulfill both her scholarly commitments and her daughterly duties. The travel exhausted her. She still recollects the smells, sights and sounds of her mother's nursing home with horror. In 1986, Harriet passed away.
When it came time for Hamilton to decide whether to grant Mary tenure, the one-page Jane Austen article was her only published work. The referees who decided her fate praised her unpublished writing and saw promise in her future, but criticized her weak publishing record. While one peer predicted that "she will become one of the foremost writers on classical literature in her generation," another academic described her work as "a wart on the tumorous body of Homeric scholarship."
"Where is the line between actual scholarship and total lunacy?" she asks. She was exploring that line at her own peril. For more than a decade, she had devoted herself to excellence in teaching and critical scholarship. Her students loved her, yet Hamilton denied her tenure. At the news, she stormed up the hill toward the college, shouting, "This whole place could vanish from the face of the earth!" Lighting struck a tree across the street.
It was time to move on. She became a "gypsy scholar," traveling from one university to the next, leaving John behind.
During her travels, she reunited with Bob, the boyfriend with whom she'd traveled to Yugoslavia. She told John, and they divorced; he later married Mary's best friend. Mary and Bob moved back to Denver. The two couples are still friendly today. "I don't like being estranged from people," Mary says. "When you know you've made somebody unhappy, it's hard to enjoy life."
Mary DeForest inside Jane Austin's home.
In Denver again, Mary and Bob embarked on quirky entrepreneurial adventures. They designed Pomegranate's African-American Wisdom Cards and wrote cryptographs. Media distribution company King Syndicate picked up their puzzles and distributed them to more than 800,000 people. Mary taught as an adjunct at the University of Colorado Denver.
In 1994, Brill Academic Publishers agreed to pick up "Heroes in a Toy Boat" on two conditions: She had to change the name to "Apollonius' Argonautica: A Callimachean Epic" and remove the comparisons between Woody Allen and Apollonius. She agreed. Despite the compromises, she was proud of her work: "People talk about books being children. I couldn't stop looking at it after it was published."
In 1995, her father had open-heart surgery, and during the procedure, plaque traveled from his heart to his brain. "He was one of the smartest people I ever knew, and all of a sudden, he was crazy," she remembers. "It was easy to be nice to him when he was a diplomat. It was not as easy to be nice to him when he was a raving lunatic." But, traveling often to D.C., she tried.
DeForest rarely looks back on her past with pride. She chastises herself for luring men away from their art and into ill-fated relationships. She laments her failure to secure tenure. But she's proud of how she cared for her dying parents. In the end, she was a good daughter.
After her father died, she fell into a depression that lasted months. Food lost its flavor; even books hardly held her attention. But eventually, she rediscovered words.
With money she'd inherited from her parents, in 2002 Mary and Bob purchased a modernist house in Mayfair from Freidann Parker and Lillian Covillo, co-founders of the Colorado Ballet. Parker died that summer; Mary would pick up Covillo at her retirement community and take her to the ballet. They talked literature, art, dance and life. Mary watched as her friend descended from local legend toward death.
Covillo and Parker's creative energy still inhabits the house. It's a comfortable space in which Mary can explore her love of literature and the hundreds of classical tomes that line the walls of the front room.
Mary still teaches as an adjunct at schools around the metro area and online. She tutors children, both in person and over the phone. Her classes include Latin and medical terminology."I get a high from teaching," she says. "Afterward, my mind is still whirling around, jabbering. I'm very kinetic. When I get excited, I stand on my toes. It's a lot of fun."
She sees herself as a good teacher but not a great one, like Charles Beye and Jean Pearson. Online reviews from her students suggest otherwise.
"Dr. DeForest is an amazing professor and an all around good person." "Best teacher I've ever had in any class ever." "Her enthusiasm for language fills the room and creates a great environment for learning. Getting an A in her class requires effort, but she gives you all the necessary tools to be successful."
DeForest also serves as a judge for the Colorado State Spelling Bee. Noting that students only knew words they'd memorized, she created StellarSpeller, an app that teaches contestants about etymology to help them spell unfamiliar words. She also invented MedWord Master, an app for students trying to learn medical jargon. And she perfected the Latinometer.
Unlike StellarSpeller and MedWord Master, the Latinometer is on a free site, and DeForest has no plans to charge users to access it. She wants to share her love of language and to help writers, editors, politicians and fundraisers along the way. She hopes future novelists consider using it, too.
The Latinometer is the quirky culmination of a lifelong obsession with language and literature, and a high point in her epic adventure. It is more practical and accessible than her academic prose. It's her "love letter to the universe," she says.
As she nears her seventies, Mary DeForest thinks as much about the past as she does about the future. "After your forties," she says, "you're living on borrowed time."
The risks she took during her youthful odysseys have given way to responsible, healthy living. "Old age is giving up things," she notes. "Giving up this. Giving up that." When her doctor told her she was on the cusp of developing type 2 diabetes, she quit sugar. Two years ago, she went into anaphylactic shock after a wasp stung her. While she was unconscious in the hospital, Bob persuaded the doctors to give her an emphysema test. When she woke up, they told her she had a small amount in her lungs. Until then, Bob said, she had "the world record on quitting smoking more than anyone else." But on the spot, she gave up cigarettes for good. When nicotine gum wrecked her oral health, she replaced the gum with nicotine patches. Then she dropped the patches, too.
She doesn't want health problems to keep her from enjoying her work as a literary detective, a lover of puzzles, a language snoop drawing connections between words and books and ideas and authors.
She still teaches. She still writes. She still aims to be published.
But she's also preparing for the end of her story.
One thing she learned from Jane Austen is that when couples marry, a novel is over. Last spring, she finally married Bob. She'd seen her mother and father die slow and painful deaths and doesn't want to go through that herself. "It's all about state-assisted suicide," she says. "That's why we got married. If I get Alzheimer's, he'll send me to Oregon for state-assisted suicide. I'm a party girl. I just want to have fun. I thought, 'Bobby can take care of me.'"
And when the time comes, she says, "I hope I'm remembered as the most underrated classicist of the twentieth century."
When she dies, she wants to go to "the coffee shop in the sky," where authors eat pastries, sip coffee and celebrate each other's work. Homer will lift his cup to Jane Austen for inspiring his Odyssey, Woody Allen and Apollonius will embrace, and the epic poet will praise Mary DeForest, whose scholarly works shaped his third-century B.C. epic poetry. "We're the ghosts peering over the pages, and then we vanish. In 200 years, I'll be proved to be right," she says. At long last, the connections between all stories and periods will be clear.
And if she's really lucky, someone will have immortalized her epic adventures in a novel...where they'll live on, happily ever after.
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