Trivia from Tom Lehrer: "I spoke no Russian (and still speak none), and it was Munro Edmonson who taught me (phonetically) the Russian phrase I used in 'Lobachevsky' regarding going where even the Tsar goes on foot"*
It's clear from Edmonson's participation in the "Physical Revue" that he had a good sense of humor, and in fact humor formed the basis of some of his scholarly work. His Harvard Ph.D. thesis (1952) is titled "Los Manitos: Patterns of Humor in Relation to Cultural Values", and even up through his last paper (written in 1987) he continued work in this area, as shown by the paper "Notes on Laughter" [Anthropological Linguistics 29(1): 23-34] He grew up with "a family tradition of singing, particularly of the corridos of northern Mexico, which readily leant themselves to brotherly harmonizing".1
Known as "Ed" to his friends at Harvard and later Tulane, he was a master of many languages. He grew up in Nogales, Arizona, and was bilingual in English and Spanish. "In order to qualify for admission to Harvard, he had to learn Latin and Greek, which were not taught in Nogales schools. He was tutored in Latin by a neighbor and in Greek by a local photographer of Greek descent."2 While at Harvard, he studied French, German, and Russian!
His undergraduate major was in sociology, and he graduated in 1944 after three years, as part of a "wartime accelerated program".1 He immediately went into the navy, and served on the destroyer USS Purdy in the Pacific theatre, rising to the rank of Lieutenant, J.G. He returned to Harvard for graduate studies in social anthropology, and received his Ph.D. in 1952. In the fall of 1951, he joined the faculty of Tulane University, first as part of the newly established interdisciplinary Urban Life Research Institute, and eventually as a professor in the Department of Anthropology (once it was created), becoming its second chair in 1969. He continued at Tulane until his retirement in 1994.
In the 50s, he "became New Orleans's resident expert on Carnival and its relationship to the sociology of the city, and scarcely a year went by when he was not interviewed by the local newspaper in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, enlightening the citizens about the social significance of their activities."2 His early research interests also included race relations; in addition to publishing a book3 in this area, he was also active in efforts to desegregate New Orleans and Louisiana. After forays into a few other research areas, he returned to his love of languages. He tackled the language of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala, publishing first a dictionary (1965), then a grammar (1968), and finally a translation of the Popul Vuh, their literary masterpiece. Next, he turned to the language of the Maya of the Yucatan peninsula, first producing a dictionary, then translating their two most important books. One of his most important contributions came late in his career, when he used astronomy and a diffusion model to demystify Mayan and other Mesoamerican calendars, publishing a book4 in 1988. In retirement, he continued his interest in languages, this time Chinese, compiling his own dictionary.
He was president of the American Ethnological Society in 1966, and authored, edited, or translated at least ten books. (Click here to see a listing of his books available from Amazon.com.)
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Background image: Covers for Tom Lehrer's albums