Discover the Origins of Words in the 'Mysteries of Vernacular' Animated Series


Using paper cutouts and stop-motion animation, the delightful and informative Mysteries of Vernacular series brings the pages of antique books to life to tell the stories of everyday words. "Assassin," "clue," and "pants" have more exotic roots than one might expect. For example, "assassin" traces back to the Arabic term for "hash user." What's the connection? Check out the episode below to find out. The series' creator, Jessica Oreck, plans to create 26 videos -- one for each letter of the alphabet. She describes her creative process and the work that goes into making each short in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: What was the genesis of this project?

Jessica Oreck: I usually make feature-length documentaries that take several years to complete, so I wanted to work on a project that would give me some sort of instant gratification. I wanted to use my hands for something other than typing or holding a camera. All of my projects – large and small – are intended to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer. With my feature-length films, I’ve been focusing on challenging audience members to reexamine their understandings of the natural world. But I am attracted to any idea that gets people to look at something they think they know and see it as if for the first time.

I have a number of projects like this one lurking in the wings of my brain, but Mysteries of Vernacular was something I could do almost completely on my own – in my pajamas, in between production trips, and when I burned out on editing.

How did you develop the visual style of these pieces?

I’ve had this idea in my head for a long time, so it is hard to remember exactly how it came about. When I came up with the idea a few years ago, I knew the basics – that the book would be its own character, and that it would sort of come alive to tell these tales – but the styling of the book really took shape as I was building the first episode, Clue.

What goes into the production of one of these videos?

It’s a long process – choosing the word, researching, writing, researching the research, editing, and storyboarding. I make a lot of terrible looking storyboards before I begin building each book. Representational drawing isn’t my strong suit. Sometimes it takes a while before I find the right book. There are a lot of things I’m looking for when I select a book for the series, and also for each particular episode. I always feel a pang of guilt when I make my first mark on those lovely, clean pages – part of me feels quite bad about defiling something I love so much. But the books I use are all books I’ve found on the sidewalk or in the dollar bin, books that have been forgotten and discarded. I have to appease myself with the thought that I am giving them new life.

Building the book is the longest stage of the process. First, I age the covers and all of the pages individually. I then plan out how the actions will happen across the length of the book and I do a lot of feckless counting to figure out the timing of the episode, but the best part is just diving in. The book itself never comes out like my storyboards (thank goodness!), and the accidents almost always lend themselves to new ideas. When the book is as built as it can be before the camera starts rolling, I lock myself in my tiny office, draw the blinds, and start animating.

To me, the voice of Graham James really makes the episodes come alive. He lends the project its authority. We recorded the first episode in a bathroom in Helsinki with my field recorder. It wasn’t until I decided to create 26 episodes – one for each letter of the alphabet – that I asked Graham to go to a real studio and make some professional recordings. In terms of the music, that first episode originally had a great little Richard Bone piece in there. Though I loved the tone it set, it was a horrendous rip off a scratchy vinyl, so my friend Nathan Akin was kind enough to make the “remix” version for the series.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than these elements, but they are the basics.

What's next for you?

I have a lot of the alphabet left to cover, so Mysteries of Vernacular is still a large portion of my plate. I also just finished my second feature documentary, Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys, about a family of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. I am looking to premiere the film in 2013 along with its online interactive companion, The Aatsinki Season.

On top of those two projects, I am in postproduction on another feature called The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, which is an animation/documentary hybrid about the forests and fairytales of Eastern Europe. Finally (and because apparently I don’t believe in having any down time), I am working on another short series that’s a bit like Mysteries of Vernacular but is based in science instead of etymology. It’s another idea that’s been floating around in my head for years – I figured it would be best to get it out into the world so I can make a bit of room. I have so many things I want to do, but time and money are always an issue.

For more work by Jessica Oreck, visit

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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