October 31, 2018

Words of the Month - By Thomas Browne

        Thomas Browne (England, 1605-1682) was another of those incredible polymath thinkers at a time when individuals still strove to study everything.  A writer for whom science, mysticism, nature, philosophy, reason, melancholy, and humor were inextricably entwined, Browne needed lots and lots of words to work with, and when he didn’t have the word he wanted at hand, he made up his own.  His original lexicon and the popularity of his work meant that many of those words he coined have stuck with the language, making Browne the now-little-known originator of a whole host of well-known words.  The OED credits him with first usage of 775 words, and first usage of a specific meaning of 1596 words.  You can reread this post on word-coining for some brief caveats about the OED and attributions of words, but any way you figure it, Browne’s word-smithing is impressive.  Among the words for which Browne gets credit are:
approximate (adj)
coexistence (also coexistancy, which obviously didn’t stick.  By the way, this was before the verb, making coexist a back-formation.)
compensate (back-formed by Brown from the existing word compensation)
computer (meaning “a person who computes,” of course)
electricity (meaning “the property of substances that make static electricity through friction.”  Browne was not yet referring to the force itself.)
medical (also medically)
migrant (adj.  Apparently migration was already in use, but migrate came later.)
precocious (precocity was just a few years earlier)
ulterior (meaning “coming later, future”)
        All but one of these words (prairie) first appeared in Browne’s most popular work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, also known as Vulgar Errors, which was a pioneering work in popular science and scientific journalism.  If you begin reading at the preface of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, within the first 6 pages you find the words reminiscential, colourishing, radicated, paradoxologie, manuduction, dilucidate, ampliate, and desiderated, which makes it easy to see how Browne managed to give us so many words: throw around enough and some are bound to stick.
        I’ve only just discovered Browne, and am enjoying his rational takes on various mythical creatures, so you’ll probably be hearing more about him from me in the future.

[Picture: Title page of first edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646 (Image from Abe Books).]

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