Page images

real lack of ideas which their barbarous and mottled dialect strives to hide.” He then adds that the principal reason why well-educated women write and converse in a purer style than well-educated men, is “because they have not formed their tastes according to those ancient classical standards, which, admirable as they are in themselves, should never be introduced into the state of society unfitted for them." To nearly the same effect is the declaration of the most acute judge of style, Thomas De Quincey, who says that if you would read our noble language in its native beauty, picturesque form, idiomatic propriety, racy in its phraseology, delicate yet sinewy in its composition, you must steal the mail-bags, and break open the women's letters. On the other hand, who has forgotten what havoc Bentley made when he laid his classic hand on “Paradise Lost?” What prose style, always excepting that of the Areopagitica, is worse for imitation than that of Milton, with its long, involved, half-rhythmical periods, dragging, like a wounded snake, their slow length along?" Yet Bentley and Milton, whose minds were imbued, saturated with Greek literature through and through, were probably the profoundest classical scholars that England could boast."

The foregoing argument so cogently stated by Mathews, and so ably supported by the authorities cited, ought to give encouragement to the masses who must depend upon general reading for all their education beyond what is afforded in the public schools.

Another reason why a thorough knowledge of Latin and Greek is not so beneficial to the English scholar as might naturally be expected, is the fact that but few such English words have retained the full significance indicated by their etymology. A few have been exalted; many have been degraded, and nearly all have been modified or restricted until the etymology of a word throws but little light on its present usage in a general way, and none on the shades of meaning which all writers must recognize in order to give their style precision. 31 32

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

5,429 woh ke ape ci time the meaning of a word ration, intii arter some centuries it becomes 51.6 167 1,60 este si what it once was. To disinter these cid theith (110 Í het ailuvium and triát cf ages, affcrris as mai pleasure 1, fie ingiist as to disinter a fossil dces to the gost,

Ali azart knowierige, of the changes ci signification which wetris hale, undergone is not merely a scurce of pleasure; it 15 alevlutely indispensable to the full understanding of old authori, T:119 for example, Miiton and Thompson use " hurrent" and "horrid" for bristling, e. g.

" With dangling ice all horrid.”

Milton speaks of a savage” (meaning woody, silvo) hill, and of " amiable" (meaning lovely) fruit. Again, in the well known lines of the “ Allegro” where Milton says, among the cheerful sights of rural morn,

" And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the vale," —


the words " telling his tale” do not mean that he is romancing or making love to the milkmaid, but that he is counting his sheep as they pass the hawthorn, – a natural and familiar

a occupation of shepherds on a summer's morning. The primary meaning of “tale” is to count or number, as in the German “ zählen.” It is thus used in the Book of Exodus, which states that the Israelites were compelled to deliver their tale of brick. In the English tale and in the French conte the secondary meaning has supplanted the first, though we still speak of “keeping tally” of “untold gold," and say, “ here is the sum twice-told." (Note also the word "teller," a bank clerk.)

“It has been said that one of the arts of a great poet or prose writer who wishes to add emphasis to his style, to bring out all the latent forces of his native tongue, will often consist in reconnecting a word with its original derivation, in not suffering it to forget itself and its father's house, though it would. This Milton does with signal effect, and so frequently that we must often interpret his words rather by their classical meanings than by their English use. Thus in

Paradise Lost,” when Satan speaks of his having been pursued by “ Heaven's afflicting thunder," the poet uses the word “afflicting" in its original and primary sense of striking down bodily.

Mystery is derived from “mu," the imitation of closing of the lips. Courage is

good heart.” Anecdote, from the Greek (not), (out), and (given), meant once a fact not given out or published; now it means a short, amusing story.

The instant an anecdote is published, it belies its title; it is no longer an anecdote. Allowance was formerly used to denote praise or approval; as when Shakespeare says, in “Troilus and Gessida,"

"A stirring dwarf we do allowance give
Before a sleeping giant."


To prevent, which now means to hinder or obstruct, signified in its Latin etymology. to anticipate, to get the start of, to go before, and is thus used in the Old Testament. (“I prevented the dawning of the morning.” Ps. 119.) Girl once designated a young person of either sex. Widow was applied to men as well as women. Astonished literally means thunderstruck. as its derivation from “attonare” shows. Holland, in his translation of Livy, speaks of a knave who threw some heavy stones upon a certain king, whereof the one smote the king upon the head, the other astonished his shoulder." Sagacious once meant quick-smelling, as in the line

“The hound sagacious of the tainted prey."

Rascal according to Verstegan, primarily meant an “illfavored, lean, and worthless deer." Thus Shakespeare

“Horns! the noblest deer hath them as large as the rascal."

Afterwards it denoted the common people, the plebs, as distinguished from the populus. A naturalist was once a person who rejected revealed truth, and believed only in natural religion. He is now an investigator of nature and her laws, and often a believer in Christianity. Blackguards were formerly the scullions, turnspits, and other meaner retainers in a great household, who, when a change was made from one residence to another accompanied and took care of the pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils, by which they were smutted. Webster, in his play of “ The White Devil,” speaks of a “lousy knave that within these twenty years rode with the black guard in the Duke's carriage, among spits and dripping pans."

Bombast, now swelling talk, inflated diction without substance, was originally cotton padding. It is derived from the Low Latin, bombar, cotton. Chemist once meant the same as alchemist. Polite originally meant polished. Cudworth speaks of “polite bodies, as looking-glasses.” Tidy, which now means neat, well arranged, is derived from the old English word “tide,” meaning time, as in eventide. Tidy (German zeitig) is timely, seasonable. As things in right time are apt to be in the right place, the transition in the meaning of the word is a natural one. * * * Thing primarily meant discourse, then solemn discussion, council, court of justice, etc. the husting was originally the house-thing, or domestic court.

"Coquets were once male as well as female. Usury which now means excessive interest, once meant the taking

interest. A tobacconist was formerly a smoker, not a seller, of tobacco. Corpse, now a body from which the breath of life has departed, once denoted the living body also; as in Surrey.

"A valiant Corpse, where force and beauty met."

of any

[ocr errors]

Incomprehensible has undergone a striking change of meaning within the last three centuries. In the Athanasian creed the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are spoken of as immense. In translating the creed from the Latin in which it was first penned, the word immensus was rendered "incomprehensible” a word which at that time was not limited to its present sense, that is, inconceivable, or beyond or above our understanding, but meant "not comprehended within any limits,” and answered to the original expression and notion of immensity.

“ The word Coincide was primarily a mathematical term, as the coincidence of points and lines in geometry. The word was soon applied figuratively to identity of opinion, but, according to Prof. Marsh, was not fully popularized, at least in America, till 1826. On the Fourth of July of that year, the semi-centennial jubilee of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the author of that manifesto, and John Adams, its principal champion on the floor of Congress, both also ex-Presidents, died; and this fact was noticed all over the world, and especially in the United States, as a remarkable coincidence. The death of ex-President Monroe, also on the Fourth of July, five years after, gave increased currency to the word.

“ Another striking characteristic of words is their tendency to contract in form and degenerate in meaning; sometimes they are ennobled and purified in signification; but more frequently they deteriorate, and from an honorable fall into a dishonorable meaning. Humility, with the Greeks, meant

« PreviousContinue »