Sunday, 11 December 2011

New words, 1670s

Sir Thomas Browne, that extraordinary writer who lived from 1605 to 1682, is credited with being the first documented user of 800 words in the OED.  He largely achieves this distinction by inventing words through the process of jamming together short words or parts of words from English or other languages.  It is a process usually thought of as involving Greek and Latin, as in the word ‘television’ from tele, the Greek for ‘far’, and the Latin word for ‘seeing’; but the German fernsehapparat works in much the same way – ‘far see apparatus’.   Browne is credited with the first documentation of ‘mistle thrush’, though this probably was just because he happened to be the first person to have put it down in a surviving text (mistle thrushes were so called because they eat mistletoe, or at least can be seen easily when they are doing so).

Thomas Munks wrote of his style of writing: ‘His style is indeed a tissue of many languages – a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art and drawn by violence into the service of another.  He …  was not content to express in many words that idea for which any language could supply a single term.  … He has many  forcible expressions, which he would never have found but by venturing to the utmost verge of propriety; and flights which would never have been reached, but by one who had very little fear of the shame of falling’.  So, in a lexical sense, not afraid to invent words ‘heedlessly’, a term for which he is the first credited user.

A lot of Browne’s first uses have survived and become core English words: additionally, ambidextrous, approximate, botanist, carnivorous, causation, circumference, coma, compensate, complicated, disruption, electricity, equable, ferocious, gradually, hallucination, inconsistent, narwhal, perspire, selection, therapeutic, ulterior, vertically, and the phrase ‘above one’s station’.  But maybe more exciting are the ones that we don’t hear so often: avolation (flying away), glandulosity (a gland-like formation), latirostrous (having a broad beak), and opodeldoc (a medical plaster).  Thus a latirostrous mistle thrush suffering a ferocious complicated glandulosity might be spared hallucinations (or additionally even a coma) by the application of a therapeutic opodeldoc, with the causation of its avolation.  

The majority (just) of these get past spellcheck.

1 comment:


Others include callipygous/callypygian, meaning beautiful buttocks, also individuality, suicide, pathology, antediluvian etc. etc. A complete listed has yet to be made. More importantly is WHY he coined so many words, not just because a philologist but because the newly-emerging scientific revolution needed new words to define its discoveries.