A wonderful NY Times story by Caroline H. Dworin describes the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company, its 80-year history and charmingly antiquated practices (“the hanging sign outside is now completely black, its letters faded off. It used to be attached to Putnam’s horse-drawn buggy, but having gotten rid of the actual buggy, Gregg says, the Monseeses used its sign for their store”). For a newspaper story, it’s damn well written:

The silent third floor hides a deep forest of ladders, ladders leaning against one another, stacked 10 feet deep along each wall and stretching high in the air. There are dozens upon dozens of ladders, so many that there should be a collective noun for such things: a timber of ladders, a bosque.
By the fourth floor, a stillness begins to settle, a cold, uncanny hush. A hand dragged across the stairwell’s plaster here comes up dirt-black. The floor is a sea of cardboard barrels filled with fixtures, some a half-century old: nuts, bolts, braces, casters. When struck by the little light that makes it through the filthy windows, the contents of the newest barrels shine gold, and mountains of brass-plated ladder bolts twinkle like the treasure of some mechanically bent pirate king.
The fifth floor remains most desolate. For a person left alone here, the stone-cold quiet becomes vaguely terrifying. An employee once confided that by the time he reaches the fifth floor, he sometimes feels he must stop at the top of the stairs and call out. He has never heard anyone answer; it’s really just the comfort of his own voice.

And (I know you were waiting for me to get around to this) it uses a word that presents some linguistic interest: “A ladder usually costs $1,000 to $2,000, and it takes 8 to 10 weeks to make. But to accommodate patrons’ rarer requests for African mahogany, anegre or zebrawood, the Monseeses have a different time scale. Anegre, for instance, is a ‘no time limit’ wood.” Naturally, I tried looking up anegre, but it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries. So I turned to Google, and got a lot of hits from wood sites on the order of “Anegre hardwoods, Anegre wood supplier, wholesale Anegre, importers, distributors, buyers.” But the fourth hit had the precious addition Aningeria superba, so I googled that and discovered common names are aningre and anigre, both of which get significantly more Google hits than anegre. My initial guess is that those are the earlier forms, and that anegre was created to avoid the possible unpleasantness associated with the -nig- form. But I’d love to hear from anyone who knows the history of this ligneous lexeme.


  1. John Emerson says:

    You are now the tenth hit.

  2. Third by the time I checked. Huh.

  3. The reporter might have transcribed the name from speech. What syllable is stressed? /ˈænɪɡɹe/? /əˈnɪɡɹe/? /ænɪɡˈɹe/? If the first or the third is stressed, then the reporter might have perceived /ɪ/ as /ə/ and sensibly wrote e instead.
    It’s my impression from talking with specialty wood consumers, like luthiers and carvers, that ligneolingual knowledge is transmitted almost entirely orally. Thus the multiplicity of names and spellings of names. The relatively low level of arboreal species knowledge compounds this, since wholesalers and woodworkers are less interested in the tree per se than they are in the various qualities of the wood.

  4. BTW, there’s a linguistic anthropological dissertation waiting there for anyone who wants it. I don’t think anyone has ever investigated how onomastic knowledge of wood and trees is transmitted in woodworking and wood handling communities.

  5. A ladder usually costs $1,000 to $2,000
    Is this am example of their charmingly antiquated practices you mention? I’m sure that last time I went to Home Depot ladders weren’t that expensive.

  6. John Emerson says:

    “Mr. Hat, I’m doing a report on the Aningeria superba, upon which you are the leading internet expert….”

  7. John Emerson says:

    “Mr. Hat, I’m doing a report on the Aningeria superba, upon which you are the leading internet expert….”

  8. I have nothing to add to the history of the ligneous lexeme, but it occurs to me that somebody could do a terrific book, profusely illustrated, on the surviving examples of one-of-a-kind extreme niche manufacturers like this. When they go out of business, it’s kind like language death — a set of sometimes ancient skills is lost forever.

  9. Bob Helling says:

    Interesting point Martin. I have a piece of stone sculpture by a Chicago artist whose name escapes me. My friends who owned the gallery that carried his work claimed that he was brought to England to teach them some special techniques in stone carving (having to do with raised letters, I think) that had apparently completely disappeared from that country. I was shocked at the time that this could happen at all and have never forgotten.
    Now I believe it is happening all the time and it makes me a bit sad when I think about it.

  10. When I have a house built around a library with handcrafted bookcases and hidden doors and liquor cabinets, I’ll be sure to get a $2k ladder (or €2k, I s’pose).

  11. John Emerson says:

    In Minneapolis awhile back an old-fashioned milliner retired after an accident. She was 80, and many of her customers were older than her — two of them who lived around here were 102-year-old twins. She had inherited the store from her mother and had sworn never to close it. At one time it had been the place to go to for quite a considerable area.
    The whole story was astonishing to me, because I’m 60 years old and it was mostly older women who wore those hats already back when I was young. But the, the twins were 15 years older than my mother and would have been 50 when I was 10, and they were alive until a couple of years ago.

  12. Arthur Crown says:

    John Emerson wrote, I’m 60 years old
    Funny thing, the internet, I’d pictured you as an exceptionally knowledgeable thirty-year-old. Don’t ask me why.

  13. J. Del Col says:

    “Anegre” isn’t a mistaken transcription. That’s the name the wood is sold under by a number of firms.
    The “thistle” seed sold to feed finches is also called “niger,” (it isn’t a thistle). But there is also a tradename for it, “Nyjer.” This may be an example of the PC phenomenon LH hints at, but I’m not so sure “anegre” is.
    We’d have to know how long the wood’s been sold under that name. Unfortunately, my college’s library is closed today so I can’t check it’s elderly copy of Constantine’s handbook on woods. (Constantine’s is a supplier of exotic woods, and they compiled what is still considered one of the best books on the subject.)

  14. J. Del Col says:

    Oops! That should, of course, be “…its elderly copy….”

  15. J. Del Col says:

    If Home Depot sold ladders made from exotic hardwoods, they’d be close to the prices these guys charge. Have you priced rosewood lumber lately? Or just good quality American walnut?
    I know a guy who has stockpiled a lot of exotic hardwood lumber. It must worth a couple hundred grand.
    In our library/office, we use a plastic stepstool from Rubbermaid.

  16. John Emerson says:

    JDC The best hardwood trees grow very slowly, so it’s not worth it for anyone to plant more. The natural sources are rapidly being depleted, so your friend’s hoard is a sure-fire investment. (I’m sure he knows this).

  17. A. Crown says:

    Not worth it for whom?

  18. John Emerson says:

    It’s not a good financial investment for anyone. You’d have to buy a land, plant the trees, and then wait a century or two while paying taxes in the land, tending the trees to the extent necessary and earning no income.
    A Chinese image of altruism is an old man planting trees.
    It might make sense in terms of a financially solvent landowning family able to plan many generations in advance, but even then political instability or despotism could destroy or confiscate 200 years of foresight.
    This kind of question is at the crux of the conflict between environmentalism and economics. Someone pointed out a long time ago that for economist 20 years is long term, and for environmentalists 100 years is short term. Hardwood forestry is a place where these two ways of thinking intersect.

  19. Crown, Arthur says:

    Put the economics on one side and think of your altruistic old Chinese man. One of the great joys of gardening (large or small scale) is planning how your garden is going to develop. It’s satisfying to see the results of course, but I think planting deciduous trees that will become enormous in our great-great-grandchildren’s lifetime is one of our responsibilities. Our ancestors did that for us. Sure, someone might dig our trees up, but on the other hand they might not.

  20. John Emerson says:

    M. Del Col’s friend’s investment will appreciate at an ever-increasing rate if you don’t ruin everything for him. What a cruel man you are!
    In all seriousness, I commend anyone who plants and tends slow-growing hardwoods. They are saints and heroes, but I doubt that they’ll ever be in important factor in the economy.

  21. J. Del Col says:

    My friend is an avid woodworker–he has a huge investment in equipment and has extraordinary skills.
    He sees his woodpile as raw material rather than as an investment. It will take him years to work through it. OTOH, he won’t have to pay ever-inflating prices with ever-depreciating dollars.
    I was going to ask him about anegre today, but a hard steady rain has washed out our 4th of July plans.

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