Friday, November 2, 2012

Etymological Novelties

The people of the Regency were people of words, much more than we of the current day are. I think that we, despite our literacy rates and our love of reading, are very much people of pictures.

A picture is worth a thousand words, the cliche goes. But in the Regency pictures were harder to come by than in our present day. Images, photos, graphics, paintings surround us all, every day, at school, work, and leisure. In the Regency one could, if wealthy, collect and admire paintings. One could stand before the print shop window and enjoy the prints displayed, and even purchase one, funds permitting. Magazines and journals at the beginning of the 19th century carried few pictures, almost none in 1800, and three or four per issue by 1815. Books of engravings became increasingly available throughout the Regency, but it was words that entertained for the most part.

Regency folk enjoyed their words. In July of 1812, the Repository of Arts, Mr. Ackermann's popular journal, published an item--part of an on-going series--titled Etymological Novelties. The words listed are purported to be defined, with their history and evolution delineated, but the explanations are jests, clever convolutions of meaning and message. Some approach logic, some are what we might call 'lame', and some are witty by the standards of any age. Here are some examples:

Extravagance, originally extra-vagrants, from its adding so much to the community of beggars.

Marvellous. Wonders were originally said to be marble-ous, because they made folks stare and roll their eyes about.

Ironical, from ire on I call, as persons using that figure of rhetoric which is termed irony, certainly incur the danger of exciting the ire of those who are the objects of it.

Gazette, a species of newspaper containing information which people are always extremely eager to gaze at.

Maid. This is a playful contradiction--maid before marriage, no longer maid when married, and yet made when well married.

Some of the 'etymological' comments are pointed commentaries on current conditions and politics:

Poor-laws. This appellation was given as a reproof to the legislature of an enlightened country, on account of the defectiveness of a certain part of its laws, in contradistinction to the justice and wisdom of the rest of the code of jurisprudence. The continuance of such a system is a reproach to those whom Providence has placed above wretchedness and poverty. Poor laws, indeed!

Justice, a quality eminently displayed by the Greeks, Romans, and others, where the virtues of the camp superseded all feeling, where fathers adjudged their children to death, owning no relations but those which bound them to their country, and banishing from their hearts every spark of mercy; when they were considered to be neither better nor worse than just ice.
The Regency fascination with words is displayed in many books that were published during the period.

The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785, demonstrates the humour and facility with language that even the very poor revealed. Of course, a great deal of the wit of the book comes from its author, Captain Francis Grose, but the originators of the slang readily show their facility with words. Pierce Egan's edition of the Dictionary includes his own ready wit and scurrilous definitions. His other books affirm his skill with the written word.

The Miseries of Human Life written by James Beresford in 1805 is another example of the Regency delight in words. In describing the afflictions of the daily round upon sensitive souls, Beresford illustrated a dexterity with language that Regency readers highly approved. Walter Scott himself praised its "wit, ... humour and perfect originality."

In reading Regency periodicals, I am sometimes taken aback by the density of the text, the unrelieved torrent of words. I long for pictures, and indeed, I break up my own torrent of words--my blog--with illustrations. The people of the Regency looked for the words first, and enjoyed the pictures if and when they could be found.

'Til next time,



Anne Gallagher said...

Fascinating column this week, Lesley-Ane. It's funny when I write in the strong verbiage of the 1800's, my readers complain they can't understand my words! Yet they like that I've taken the "flavor" of the time and sprinkled it in, but they can't understand it. Hah!

Perhaps I should illustrate some of my work.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

I can totally relate to what you're saying, Anne! It is the language that has such a vital part in making the work sound authentic. When I'm reading I like to look up words I don't know. If we write in current vernacular then we are writing contemporaries in long dresses! Hopefully our work is discovered by the readers who love the language, and readers willing to learn.