Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"I have nothing of new to direct you in"

Imagine scholarship without the OED (if you can). Now that the power of the computer has been integrated so consummately with that dictionary’s vast resource, just what a resource it has become.

A feature of the online OED which I find irresistible is the search facility for ‘first cited author’ and ‘quotation author’. My last posting was a Charles Cotton poem, in which he is amused (I take it, because he knows that ‘chambre’ means bedroom) by the term ‘valet-de-chambre’, which sounds nicely naughty to him.

The first recorded use of ‘valet-de-chambre’ in English is in a letter from Charles I to Henrietta Maria (so it was quite a new term for Cotton). This set me off looking at Charles’ other potential contributions to the language. The readers who compiled quotations for the OED tended to spot rare words, and also to be drawn, Dr. Johnson-like, to striking quotations. But whoever read Charles I, did so attentively (and without any obvious bias towards noble utterances written by or reported from the King).

Charles had a French wife, and so certain words not recorded prior to his usage may well be very early or even actual first usages. There’s that ‘valet-de-chambre’, and his idiom ‘nothing of new’ is one that the editors suggest may stem from French usage. He adds a new usage to the surprisingly early loan word ‘vogue’ with the idiom, ‘in vogue’. ‘Apostil’ (to annotate or write marginal notes to) failed as a loan word, but is a very characteristic type of usage, for of all kings, Charles was involved (to say the least…) in politics. New political applications of words, fresh military ones, and a vocabulary for the scrutiny of documents (and the characterisation of them) all feature prominently:

A ‘cabalist’ (one who cabals), ‘engage’, ‘anti-monarchical’, ‘agitate’, ‘round-dealing’, ‘misunderstanding’, ‘illiberal’, ‘distractions’ are all entries with developed senses not recorded before Charles’s usage. For military words, ‘home-defence’, ‘enquarter’, and ‘forage’, and from Charles studying documents and attempting to characterise positions taken, words like ‘absolute’, ‘demonstrably’, ‘unconfutable’, ‘counsellable’, ‘paraphrase’, and ‘hyperbolic’ have significant quotations, illustrative of the word’s semantic development, from Charles.

The King’s characteristic usages are recorded: ‘malignant’ meaning ‘sympathetic to the Parliamentarian cause’ seems to have been habitual. His complaint about “The malignant Party which have … begot this Misunderstanding between us and our good subjects” has ‘malignant’ in new sense 1 c and ‘misunderstanding’ in new sense 2 together in one utterance. Charles, a man with a developed aesthetic sense seems (probably) to have regularly used ‘unhandsome’ to deplore something he disapproved of (“his unhansom quitting the Castell and forte of Bristol”). That he is first recorded user of ‘picture-drawing’, in a personal reference for Mytens, seems very appropriate (“Wee, having experience of the facultie and Skill of Daniel Mittens in the Art of Picture draweing…” – and doesn’t this sound exactly the note of a kiss-off reference, Charles having found Van Dyke?)

I didn’t really see Shakespearean usages crop up in this great reader of plays, but sensed that you might have a basis for claiming that Charles had spent a lot of time listening to John Donne, from whom he might have picked up ‘pre-pardon’ and ‘refractariness’.

My doctored hagiographic portrait has one of Charles’ locutions, as picked up by the dictionary. But it isn’t ‘periclitation’ that was the new word there (it seems to have had some circulation among these classically-educated men of the 17th century for ‘nearness to danger’), but ‘necessitate’ as a verb which is the potential new usage.

Rather beguilingly, I had to search for Charles’s quotations as both ‘Charles I’ and ‘Chas I’, for the dictionary was compiled in an earlier age, and without electronically introduced internal consistency (as the search guides point out).

With his tendency to stutter, Charles I is not associated with any great moments of eloquence or outbursts, and his words may well have undergone loyal working-over. But the situation he found himself in seems to have made him a more varied linguistic performer than one might have expected from a king more famous for iconic than verbal self-projection.

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