Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The lovely alphabet

Eric Ormsby at the Sun on the first English dictionary, published by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 and newly introduced by John Simpson:
Some of his entries are surprising. "Sacriledge" is defined as "church robbing, the stealing of holy things," rather than as "profanation." Is there a sly gibe here at his ecclesiastical overlords? Other entries mystify. He includes "boate," glossed simply as "ship," and yet this old English word can hardly have been obscure. Latinate words are given a literal sense, which was standard practice in Elizabethan England. "Preposterous" is glossed not as "absurd" but as "disorder, forward, topsiteruie, setting the cart before the horse, as we use to say," and this reflects the word's original meaning. There are some lovely lost words, such as "gibbocitie" ("crookedness") or "gargarise" ("to wash the mouth") and some delightful old spellings, as in "gnible" ("to bite").

This is a gnarled, rude, fierce old dictionary and utterly without "calliditie" ("craftiness, or deceit"). It may not provide much "clavicordes" ("mirth") and it certainly "maffles" ("stammers"), but it also "inchaunts"("bewitches"). It shows the raw stuff out of which Shakespeare and Cawdrey's other contemporaries of genius fashioned their more sublime flights. In his Puritan soul, Cawdrey would have considered these mere "blatterings" ("vaine babblings"), but his rough alphabet formed the bedrock on which they rode.
Anyone who likes dictionaries and has never seenthe episode of Blackadder featuring Johnson's dictionary, by the way, has a treat in store--I find it so funny that every time I've watched it I am literally weeping with laughter...

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