November 30, 2010

Words of the Month - Plain, Honest Witcraft

        Remember the Inkhorn Controversy and how writers and speakers of English were irrationally exuberant about all those wonderful new words they were inventing?  Well, it should come as no surprise that some people began to think things had gotten a little too chaotic in our native tongue.  The reaction took two forms.  One was a Nativist movement, in which scholars made up news words derived from English roots instead of borrowing from ancient and European languages.  And secondly, when the Enlightenment arrived in its bright glow of logic, scholars employed all its new arguments in their attempts to make English rational, ruled, and altogether more like the perfection of Latin.  It was time to lay down the law on the crazy English language.
The raven seems a sober bird, well-suited to represent
the manly strong English language.  (Or did Poe spoil
that image by making the raven into a fulsom and
luscious metaphor?)
        "Right," you say, "And how did that work out for them?"  But you already know the answer: language-watchers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries couldn't tame English any more than anyone else ever has.  But some of their attempts were pretty amusing.
        We'll start with Ralph Lever in 1573, who railed against Inkhorn terms in the midst of the Controversy.  Among the words he chose to use instead were:
    naysay - negation
    yeasay - affirmation
    witcraft - logic  [If this word had caught on just think how many logicians might have been burned at the stake due to careless reading!]
    saywhat - conclusion
        In 1671 controversial theologian Samuel Parker proposed, "Had we but an Act of Parliament to abridge Preachers the use of fulsom and luscious Metaphors, it might perhaps be an effectual Cure of all our present Distempers."  An act of Parliament against metaphor?  Now that's a logical idea!
        Nathaniel Fairfax was a physician and philosopher who talked his walk.  When he published his grand metaphysical opus A Treatise of the Bulk and Selvedge of the World in 1674 he made a point of using his own English-ish coinings instead of all those foreign inkhorn terms.  He argued that "however our smoother tongued Neighbours may put in a claim for those bewitcheries of speech that flow from Gloss and Chimingness; yet I verily believe that there is no tongue under heaven, that goes beyond our English for speaking manly strong and full."  He thought speakers of English should "fetch back some of our own words, that have been justled out in wrong that worse from elsewhere might be hoisted in."  And so he himself did.  Among his more fabulous words:
    allfillingness - immensity
    thingsomeness - reality
    metesome - measurable
    biggen - increase
    bulksomeness – volume or mass
    cleavesomness – divisibility
    meteings – dimensions
    roomthiness – extension in space
    talecraft – arithmetic
And my favorites:
    brain-break – enigma, paradox
    unthroughfaresom - impenetrable
        In his 1776 grammar The Philosophy of Rhetoric, George Campbell proposed another interesting idea to bring some logic to our vocabulary:
     enough/enow - (on an analogy with less/fewer)
        enough should mean degree only, enow was the corresponding word regarding number
        Most of these words sound pretty silly, but don't think that English can't make perfectly successful new words from its own roots.  After all, we have forewords as well as prefaces and handbooks as well as manuals.  This chapter in the history of English, like all the others, just served to add to the depth and richness of our language.

[Picture: Raven, wood block print with chine collé, by AEGN, 2000.]

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for another fine post. I immediately began to think of the Colbert Report and the popularization of one of his usages -- truthiness. He was not just talking about truthfulness, but the effort by some, mostly politicians, to reconfigure truth, to make us think that what isn't is. Hence the existence of WMDs in Iraq and the reality of John Kerry's war record fell victim to the Bush administration and the Swift Boat campaign.

    In fact Colbert didn't invent the word, despite the fact that truthiness won American Dialect Society's Word of the Year in 2005 -- they later corrected their error to say Colbert popularized it. It is actually in the OED.

    So keep up the good work dissecting out language. It is fun.

    The Aging Wordsmith

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  2. "Talecraft" for arithmetic? As one who struggled with arithmetic I can understand the "craft" part--i.e. a craft I never quite mastered. But "tale"? Suggesting that it is fantasy? Well, I'd subscribe to that implication for the theoretical math proposed by astronomers and others of their ilk, perhaps.

    Thanks for informing and entertaining us with these explorations into etymology (hardly an Anglo-Saxon word).

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  3. I assume that the "tale" in talecraft was related to "tally" meaning to count.

    And I'm guessing that as long as people have been speaking they've been manipulating language, so why should they stop now?

    Thanks for the comments!

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