Historically, 4/20 means one thing above all: observing, as one does, the anniversary of the first pasteurization test, named after Louis Pasteur, whose invention in 1862 improved food safety by eliminating pathogens and extending shelf life. 4/20 is also the 119th anniversary of Marie and Pierre Curie’s Nobel-winning work on radioactivity, and it’s the day, in 2008, when Danica Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race.
Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton would be 113 today, and it’s the 516th anniversary of something graver—the banishing of Jews by Philibert of Luxembourg at the instigation of a bishop. It’s also the day when the historic verdict in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial is expected. 4/20 means many things to many readers, a reminder to expand, not cement, our intuitive understanding of calendar and culture. Your banner day, your dominant chord, and your frame of reference and salience lead only so far.
But on 4/20, another pattern emerges: In language lies history. Eponyms like “pasteurization” get stripped of capitalization through culture: “petri dish,” named after Julius Richard Petri; “saxophone,” Adolphe Sax; “diesel,” Rudolf Diesel; “mausoleum,” Mausolus; “nicotine,” the French ambassador to Portugal Jean Nicot, all associations faded by familiarity and living in use. As Lawrence Weschler once wrote, “Wasn’t it Pound, I think, who said, ‘Culture is what happens when we begin to forget sources’—maybe not, maybe it was somebody else.”
Pound, or Weschler—maybe it was somebody else—was right to a degree but wrong in a deeper political sense. Culture is what gets elided, erased, or transmuted, not made, when we (“we”?) begin to forget sources.
But in the spirit it’s meant, it’s wisdom. You don’t need to know Nicot to mark yesterday’s nicotine news: The Biden administration is considering making tobacco companies reduce nicotine levels in all US-sold cigarettes so they’re no longer addictive, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Maloney. I’ll believe it when I see it, or see it when I believe it.