As I recall I think we both kind of liked it
September 9, 2021 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Ever heard of the Tiffany Problem? It refers to the issue of historical reality confounding our expectations. Tiffany was a real medieval name (a variant of Theophania). It shows up at least as early as 12th century Britain and France, but try naming your fictional medieval character Tiffany and watch readers stumble on the perceived anachronism. Youtuber CGP Grey went on a research adventure to try and figure out how the name got from the Byzantine empire over to English and when the first "Tiffany" used that spelling. He also shares a (much longer) warning about the perils of getting too deep into the details in the research process.

The term "Tiffany Problem" seems to have been coined by Jo Walton. It has been mentioned on MetaFilter a couple times before. See also: "Reality is Unrealistic."

I'm sympathetic to CGPGrey losing his mind over the dating of the Tiffany poem, because I have spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to figure out if Terry Pratchett knew Tiffany was a legit medieval name when he proved that every writing rule has an exception and gave it to Tiffany Aching.
posted by Wretch729 (30 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I'm reminded of this every time I see someone in an improbable pose and think about how hard it would be to draw. It's fairly easy to depict a straightforward pose, but it takes a talented artist to draw a gymnast mid-routine or even just a person standing at an odd foreshortened angle and be able to sell it as realistic. Something unexpected but real can seem more unbelievable than something common but unrealistic in a lot of different artistic media.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:30 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

I had watched the original "Tiffany" video, and found it delightful. The behind-the-scenes second video, about the research process and it's pitfalls was less delightful, but equally interesting. What the hell library is that that Grey is using? There was a used bookstore here in Omaha, the Antiquarium, now defunct, that was just about that cramped and poorly organized, but even that managed to keep the story fully, albeit dimly, lit.
posted by Ipsifendus at 2:45 PM on September 9

Kind of reminds of how when Final Fantasy VI was localized to English in the process they changed a character's name from Tina to Terra to make it more fantasy-oriented. The name "Tina" for a half-human magic-user who escaped enslavement from a totalitarian empire just doesn't feel right for a lot of English readers, I guess.
posted by Green With You at 2:58 PM on September 9 [5 favorites]

GCP Grey is always pretty good. I saw the warning video earlier today and was waiting for somebody to post it. It's a wild ride into deep researching for a YouTube video.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:59 PM on September 9

Man, I thought this was going to be a Deep Blue Something post, I feel cheated.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:30 PM on September 9 [16 favorites]

Eyebrows, since I think we're alone now, I think I can reveal that I thought this post might be referring to something else as well.
posted by LionIndex at 3:41 PM on September 9 [28 favorites]

Tiffany of Arc doesn’t have quite the same zing, though.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:02 PM on September 9 [4 favorites]

"At StaleyBridge Wakes in 1850, a vendor of gingerbread as a result of some petty dispute was deliberately kicked to death by an angry mob."

'Let us assume it is very nearly true that those volumes contained all the facts about it that were known or could be known it never occurred to me to inquire by accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts out of all the myriad facts that must have been known to somebody had survived to become the facts of History I suspect that even today one of the fascinations of ancient and medieval history is that it gives us the illusion of having all the facts at our disposal within the manageable compass the nagging distinction between the facts of history and other facts about the past vanishes because the known facts are all the facts of History. As Bury said the records of ancient and medieval history are starred with lacunae.
posted by clavdivs at 4:07 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

If we remain on the 'truss of trust,' the name Tiffany was popularized by Breakfast at Tiffany's which comes from Henry Tiffin's surname becoming Tiffany sometime between 1603 and 1629. And I buy that's happening in the context of Tiffany occurring as a medieval name derived from Theophania, etc., that Henry Tiffany's name could be a reference to Epiphany or earlier people named Tiffany (or no kind of reference--the video's theory is the spelling changed randomly), and that any modern Tiffany could be a reference to either that origin for Tiffany or Breakfast at Tiffany's or both.

But in the detail-oriented spirit of the videos, there's another possible connotation for the name Tiffany in the 1600s, because by then tiffany was also a common name for a fabric (see texts from 1611, 1620, 1634, 1646 for the particular poem, 1652, 1674, 1674, 1677, 1687, 1687, 1702 by Susanna Centlivre, etc., etc.). The etymology for the fabric name is evidently speculative--like, probably related to Theophania/Epiphany too, but maybe not. Anyhow, it's another thing whoever decided to write Henry Tiffin's name differently could have heard in it (if they heard anything in it at all).
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:11 PM on September 9 [13 favorites]

Hm, I was just looking around on that site with the etymology for tiffany (the fabric), and it turns out to have some details about numerous medieval Tiffanys in England--very googleable:

1190: "their coheirs, probably descended from their sisters, included c. 1190 Fulk son of Tiffany by Tibbald, and Henry son of Henry"
< 1199: "Tiffany, another sister of Niel the chamberlain, married Tibbald son of Fulk (d. c. 1199)"
reign of Henry III (1207-1272): "they hold the fee of Malvesin de Hersi and Theffania his wife"
~1269: "The Morwic family retained their holdings at Pickwell and Leesthorpe until the death of Hugh of Morwic, a descendant of the earlier Hugh, in or before 1269. (fn. 36) Those lands which had not been subinfeudated to John of Sproxton were held in demesne. (fn. 37) On Hugh's death these lands were divided between his three daughters: Sybil, wife first of Roger de Lumley and afterwards of Laurence St. Maur; Tiffany, wife of John de Bulmer; and Beatrice, wife of John Rossell. (fn. 38) Beatrice died without issue, and her property seems to have been divided between her sisters. In 1299 the Morwic lands there were held by Tiffany de Bulmer, Robert de Lumley, Sybil's son, and Robert de Waterville, who is not known to have had any connexion with the Morwic family. (fn. 39) The descent of this holding cannot be traced further."
1307: "By his will proved in 1307, Gilbert de Ayssindon, mercer, left the residue of his rents and tenements in London to his sisters Eleanor and Tiffany"
~1307: "Tiffany (Theophania) sis. of (fl. 1307-22, d. by 1330), mar. Adam BRAS & Reginald DE CONDUCTU"
1308: "Adam Bray and Tiffany his wife essoin themselves against Robert de Keleseye"
< 1323: "In 1323, Theobald, son and heir of Sibilla Herberd, daughter of Christina Brun, quitclaimed to Reginald de Conduit, junior, citizen and vintner, in half of the 4d. quit-rent, which he inherited after the deaths of Gilbert Brun and Walter Brun, by the will of Christina Brun; Reginald held the other half in right of his (late) wife Tiffany"
1399: "Tiffany, prioress of St. Mary of Chesthunt, Hertfordshire, complains that on the Thurs. before the date of the suing-out of her bill Henry Boseworth and Henry Derby disseised her of 40s. rent"
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:26 PM on September 9 [11 favorites]

1421: Ye Olde Deborahe Gibson emerges as Tiffany’s sworn enemy.
posted by dr_dank at 6:40 PM on September 9 [29 favorites]

Incidentally, since Tiffany (wife of Tibbald) seems to be a contemporary of Tephany (wife of Hugh, daughter of Mark del Twit) mentioned in the video, I'd guess that weakens the case that it was, specifically, Tephany's grandfather who brought the name home from the Crusades and introduced it into English.
posted by Wobbuffet at 6:50 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

I think we're alone now.
posted by bendy at 6:51 PM on September 9 [12 favorites]

You also don't expect it to be Richard Gere's middle name.
posted by The Half Language Plant at 7:07 PM on September 9 [8 favorites]

My major association for Tiffany is a rose. It doesn't seem like a shockingly modern name to me, but I might be weird.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 7:11 PM on September 9 [3 favorites]

What a great coinage. Wish I'd known it back in the day when I was willing to argue with online yahoos who "knew" everyone in Europe in the Middle Ages was lily white.
posted by mark k at 7:12 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

Well then, retroactive apologies to that Welsh girl, for thinking Myfanwy was pronounced as Tiffany-with-an-M.

No apologies for fictional former gymnast turned Queen's Assassin turned Royal Constable, Lady Tiphaine D'Ath.
posted by bartleby at 7:19 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

[Bendy] I think we're alone now.

I'm glad I wasn't the only one thinking it!
posted by greenhornet at 7:25 PM on September 9 [2 favorites]

Holly Golightly as assassin trained on floral poison by Buddy Ebsen with his hollow cufflinks....There doesn't seem to be anyone around

posted by clavdivs at 7:34 PM on September 9 [1 favorite]

I bet Tiffany the name is going to be sufficiently generically out-of-date to not sound not medieval to Young People before I’m old.

My saddest Tiffany-the-problem is the back scabbards now obligatory for hunky fantasy dudes. No poky-out swords belted at the hip, explained an armorer/consultant, they look silly to moderns.

Which means, literally no swashbuckling.
posted by clew at 8:25 PM on September 9 [1 favorite]

I loved this post and I think this is a more general problem, not just about history -- an analogous thing arises in a lot of domains, where our expectation of the thing is off enough that we think "faked" examples are more likely to be real than "real" ones. Mr Encyclopedia above has a great instance of this with poses. Off the top of my head, some others include:

1. People think that truly random sequences look less random than ones people make up to look random. e.g. a truly random sequence of coin flips usually has longer "stretches" of heads or tails than a human-generated one.

2. My partner, a painter, has pointed out that with landscapes if you use the actual colours it often looks unbelievable, and you have to make them more prototypical if you don't want your viewers to think you made a mistake.

3. As a scientist I do a lot of data visualisation and I've found that the best visualisations "smooth" the data somewhat (e.g., bin things in histograms, add jitter, etc) in part because if it's not smoothed, people have a real tendency to get stuck on outliers and either think they represent some kind of error in data collection or try to come up with stories explaining them when the truth is they are just outliers. (This is similar to #1, where people's model of the data generation process is usually smoother and less noisy than the actual one).

4. There are numerous anecdotes about my kids that I refrain from sharing (or share with trepidation) because I don't think they'd be believed -- not because my kids are so strange but because all kids are somewhat different from the "normative" view of a kid and I think the default among a lot of people when you hear a weird kid anecdote is to assume the parent is exaggerating.

5. Misinformation that fits with our biases is often much more believable than a complicated truth that doesn't. In fact, that's probably a major vector for why misinformation is transmitted so readily.
posted by sir jective at 9:13 PM on September 9 [23 favorites]

It eventually occurred to me to join CGP Grey in checking French sources ... and there are a lot, but it didn't take long to turn up Tiffanys in France pre-dating any Tiffanys in the video, e.g. Tiphaine de Briollay (born about 1095; Latin source, dated 1112; dissertation with more context that does connect her peripherally with the Crusades) and probably Theophania de Penthièvre (born about 1102; Wikipedia entry with context about her father and a citation I couldn't check). Along the way, I ran into a source from ~1139/1140 that just said like "apud Redonam die Theophaniæ" ("at Redon on Theophany," I think?) as a way of dating an official act, so I think the video really got things right at the start where it says Tiffanys were just named for the day they were born--the bigger question seems to be when did people in Western Europe start calling it Theophany. Incidentally, if anyone else ever tries this, I suspect this reference identifying a Tiphaine Boutier as the wife of Guillaume de Langan ca. 1066 is both a typo and wrong about her name: there's no gift recorded in 1066 and Étiennette / Stephana (ca. 1133) is probably her actual name.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:24 AM on September 10 [6 favorites]

Maybe Terry Pratchett chose the name 'Tiffany Aching' for better reasons than one first suspected...
posted by of strange foe at 6:26 AM on September 10 [1 favorite]

Did Pratchett's Nac Mac Feegle etymology "Land under Wave" come from anywhere but narrativium?
posted by clew at 9:59 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]

The second "down the rabbit hole of sources" vid in the OP reminded me of Stephen J Gould's essay about the physical size of Eohippus, an early horse-like fossil. Everybody knew that this creature was "the size of a fox terrier" and this statistic was widely repeated as part of a [the?] case-study of progressive evolution. Gould realised that he didn't know how big a fox-terrier was. That set him off to find the original use of this simile and found it in a throw away pamphlet by one of the big cheeses of 19thC palaeontology. Text-book writers found pamphlets (or other test-books, indeed) much easier to read than peer -reviewed scientific papers. It's Chapter 10 in his book Bully for Brontosaurus Summarized here. In any original research project, one has to accept some foundation of accepted facts and build something new on that; otherwise it's out to the forest to chop wood to make wheels.
posted by BobTheScientist at 11:13 AM on September 10

sir jective: My partner, a painter, has pointed out that with landscapes if you use the actual colours it often looks unbelievable, and you have to make them more prototypical if you don't want your viewers to think you made a mistake.

As a signwriter/decorator, I find that extremely easy to believe. I make fake marble; it comes down to recreating what people think of when they imagine marble, not recreating actual marble.
There are many kinds of marble that occur in the real world that should never be used as an example to base a marble imitation on... because no one will find them the least bit believable. They'd just look fake, no matter how realistic the imitation would be.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:44 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]

There's a version of this where a name that we know is old nevertheless pops out at us because it has stuck around/reappeared/is coincidentally the same as a name that is common now:

Your mythical Greek heroes: Achilles, Pericles, Theseus, Lycurgus... and Jason!

Your tribes of Israel: Zebulon, Naphtali, Ephraim... and Dan!

(this is written from a US-Angoyphone perspective and obviously ymwv significantly if you are Greek or Jewish/Israeli)
posted by sy at 1:52 PM on September 10 [3 favorites]

Lance is a common name now, although during medieval times people were also named Lance a lot.
posted by autopilot at 1:46 AM on September 11 [11 favorites]

bendy, behave!
posted by xigxag at 2:01 PM on September 11

I actually enjoyed the second video more than the first. It reminded me a bit of James Burke's Connections, albeit without any satisfying callback at the end.

What the hell library is that that Grey is using?

Someone on Reddit pegged it as the London Library. The Wikipedia article describes the classification system as "unique" and "idiosyncratic", and the pictures of the stacks in the article look pretty similar, so I'm inclined to believe it. I can only suppose that he was being facetious when he called it his "local library".
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:55 PM on September 13

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