30 November, 2008


In 1789, Noah Webster, still 39 years away from his seismic dictionary, published his Dissertations on the English Language, sort of a linguistic manifesto, at least in part, for the new nation. It advocates radical spelling reform, only a small part of which would actually be adopted by young Americans struggling for their own identity; of the advantages of reform proposed by Webster, this is perhaps the most amusing:
Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.
The Dissertations are dedicated to Benjamin Franklin—'Late President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania', though not, at least for another year, Late—out of respect for his 'common sense' and for his industry in the collection of 'facts'. Furthermore, Webster progresses to include as an appendix a 1768 letter by Franklin on the subject of spelling reform. On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work. (Franklin's prose is not always so 'plain and elegantly neat' as Webster thinks. On occasion he strives after the style of his German contemporaries:
The general use of the French language has likewise a very advantageous effect on the profits of the bookselling branch of commerce, it being well known, that the more copies can be sold that are struck off from one composition of types, the profits increase in a much greater proportion than they do in making a greater number of pieces in any other kind of manufacture.)
He deplores the verbing of nouns: notice, advocate and progress all incur his censure as verbs. (Richard Bailey, in his 1996 book on Nineteenth-Century English, notes that progress had been standard as a verb in older English, but revived around this period in America, and subsequently seen as an Americanism. On verbing nouns in general, contrast this, from Thomas Gunter Browne's exquisite Hermes Unmasked (1795):
I suppose even that any object of any kind, or any word, may serve to make any part of speech of any sort.—Oh! that I had known this when I was a boy at Westminster!—Birds, beasts, and fishes will make excellent verbs, without the least alteration in sound or spelling.—A pig, a peer, or a pismire, will make as good a verb as the sublimest thing in nature.—The wooden post which stands before us, and which is usually the emblem of stability, will make a verb expressive of great celerity.)
Franklin further laments the loss in printing of capitalised common nouns, as well as the long s, about which, with a rather inappropriate analogy, he remarks:
Certainly the omitting this prominent letter makes a line appear more even, but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring of all men's noses might smooth and level their faces, but would render their physiognomies less distinguishable.
But of most linguistic interest is Franklin's remarks on the word improved.
When I left New-England in the year 1723, this word had never been used among us, as far as I know, but in the sense of ameliorated, or made better, except once in a very old book of Dr. Mather's entitled "Remarkable Providences." As that man wrote a very obscure hand, I remember that when I read that word in his book, used instead of the word employed, I conjectured that it was an error of the printer, who had mistaken a short l in the writing for an r, and a y with too short a tail for a v, whereby employed was converted into improved; but when I returned to Boston in 1733, I found this change had obtained favour, and was then become common; for I met with it often in perusing the newspapers, where it frequently made an appearance rather ridiculous. Such, for instance, as the advertisement of a country house to be sold, which had been many years improved as a tavern; and in the character of a deceased country gentleman, that he had been, for more than thirty years, improved as a justice of the peace.
Thus Mather: 'the Ministers of God have been improved in the Recording and Declaring the works of the Lord', and 'her Tongue was improved by a Daemon to express things which she her self knew nothing of'. Mather's work appeared in 1684; the OED finds this improved, both of persons and of places, in William Hubbard's 1677 Narrative of the Indian Wars in New England. Of a place: 'Near some River. . . whose Streams are principally improved for the driving of Saw-mills.' And of a person: 'Such of the Women as were gifted at knitting and sewing, were improved to make Stockings and Garments.'

In both cases, the OED quotes an 1865 Bostonian edition of the work (volume 2), number 4 of Woodward's Historical Series. This edition corresponds closely to the 1677 first edition, printed in London. (Another 1677 edition was printed in Boston, but this omits the section containing the two above quotations.) But intermediary editions offer a surprise. In an 1803 edition, printed not in Boston but in the idyllic Stockbridge, MA, we notice that improved, in the second quotation, has been emended to employed. Plenty of improveds still remain, but none both a) of a person, and b) interchangeable with employed. For instance, of a place, we still have 'Other places adjoining were soon after seized and improved for trading and fishing'. But of persons we have only:
yet seeing they themselves, as the westward Indians have so ill improved that which they had before
their labour was well improved, and followed with good success at the last
Here the sense is more clearly 'capitalised on': the positive connotation is stronger. In the case of the sewing women, improved has a different shade: 'put to work', rather than 'capitalised on'. In this instance, perhaps thought the 1803 editor, conceivably—one would love to imagine—under the influence of a Franklin, improved was a Bostonism too far. At any rate, the 1828 Webster dutifully lists 'Used; occupied; as improved land' as the third sense of improved.

16 November, 2008

The Place's Name

Dullest of days, most brutally grey and dark and overcast. The rain relents, and then lents again. I take the opportunity for a walk in north London, to Highbury, to find, if I can, or even if not, the home of a childhood friend—long past, say twenty years—the interior of which I remember with apparent exactness, down to the sculpture on the kitchen table, of a carton pouring milk into a bowl: real bowl, real carton, disc and frozen column of milk in plaster. I remembered it to be near a park or green; I remembered the green to be immense, and rather fantastical. But when I arrived in Highbury Fields, I discovered the green to be rather small, though admittedly picturesque in its autumnal finery. The disappointment of age: a tableau.

It was still raining when I found the house, or what might have been, and so I continued my interrogation of the area. Highbury, it seems, is a place of architecture beset by vegetation. A dull block in the private enclave of Aberdeen Park, just to the east, is vandalised by a rather aggressive and brightly-fledged gang of creepers:

A nearby wall, meanwhile, has been shamelessly defaced by some reckless local greenfinger, tired of small canvases:

Just across the street from here is one Baalbec Road, the sudden apparition of whose name is so extraordinary to me that I am compelled to reproduce the signage as documentary evidence:

The street itself is very fine, a series of variations in terracotta and brick, each a slight shade different from the last, nothing supercelestial, but beautifully proportioned. 'Here is a raucous Cockney answer to the Georgian good manners of the [Highbury] Fields,' writes Simon Jenkins: 'an 1880s essay in what a firm chisel could do with red bricks, terracotta and a builder's pattern book. The small houses are covered in carved leaves, swags, dentils, every conceivable stylistic gimmick.' I can enjoy the description of a street as an 'essay': let us literarify our built environment, and let us do it without blue plaques. Jenkins adds, inexplicably: 'This is the London which tourists will want to see in a hundred years' time.'

The terracotta stone in the centre of this wall bears the letters 'AD', to match another bearing the date, 1889. But look at the stone: is its monogram not almost the same as that forming the signature of Albrecht Dürer?

The street is fine, but what of the name? Baalbec? The ancient city of Syria, now Lebanon, was built over centuries under the Roman yoke, and long considered the great ruin of the Near East—so great, in fact, that it was reputed to have been built by Solomon himself. After all, I Kings 9.17-18 tells us, 'Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether, / And Baalath, and Tadmor in the wilderness, in the land'. Tadmor, we know, is Palmyra, which was usually twinned with Baalbek—and the name was, for some, too close to Baalath for chance. (Even as late as 1964 we find the identification accepted, by Ruth Nagle Watkins in an article on Baalbek for Art Journal.) Furthermore, Solomon invoked demons to lift and arrange the cyclopaean stones used in the city's temples. Thus in the 1425 History of Timur by Sharafuddin Ali Yazdi, we read:
This town is very famous, as well for the beauty of the walls, as for the height of its buildings; and it is believed to have been built by Solomon's order, by daemons and genii, over whom he had an absolute command.
This sort of folklore was soon common currency among the explorers of later centuries. When John Ray visited in the late seventeenth century, he described the same huge stones as Sharafuddin, noting one in particular that measured 66 feet long (28 cubits in the History). Daniel Fenning, who, in his New System of Geography (1778), calls Baalbek 'the boldest plan that appears to have been ever attempted in architecture', notes also that 'All the inhabitants of this country, both Christians, Jews, and Mahometans, confidently maintain, that both Balbec and Palmyra were built by Solomon.' A slightly later article in The Britannic Magazine labels the site ruins 'some of the most beautiful and best preserved of any in Asia', and remarks:
By what means could the ancients remove these enormous masses? This is doubtless a problem in mechanics difficult to resolve. The inhabitants of Balbec, however, have a very easy manner of explaining it, by supposing these edifices to have been constructed by djenoun, or genii, who obeyed the orders of King Solomon; adding, that the motives of such immense works was to conceal in subterraneous caverns vast treasures, which still remain there.
In good Enlightenment fashion, the moral is spelled out:
All tradition relative to high antiquity is as false among the Orientals as the Europeans. With them, as with us, facts which happened even 100 years before, when not preserved in writing, are altered, mutilated, or forgotten.
But a more modern use of the name, European rather than Oriental, even though preserved in writing, is shrouded in as great a mystery. It was chosen by Proust to designate an important location in his Recherche, contracted a little for delicate Parisian tastes, as Balbec. Most modern scholars, if not all, identify this with Proust's own beloved Cabourg, on the Normandy coast, although not too far from the resort, just east of Le Havre, is a town called Bolbec. Indeed, in an anonymous English novel of 1796, entitled Elvira; or, the World as it Goes, we find a reference or two to 'Balbec' near Le Havre:
I'm going to leave you in suspense about that head dress. Anyway, Proust's Balbec is just too spicy a comfit for the slavering critics waiting to get their teeth into the myriads of words in the Recherche. Let us listen to some plaintive and poignant voices. Here's David Ellison:
What is this strange split city of Balbec? What happens if we, like the young Marcel, pronounce its syllables and allow them to resonate with associations? Balbec sounds a lot like BAALBEK, the ancient city, now in Lebanon, whose name derives from the god Baal, the Phoenician sun god. The congruence of names is so obvious as to be blinding.
And here's Allan Pasco (truncatedly):
Proust's 'Balbec' comprises several of the interlocking patterns of allusive support. The homonymous Persian city, now in Lebanon, was named after the false god Baal, mentioned in the Bible, and thus joins the two biblical cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, found along the protagonist's way. Brichot, the author's pedantic professor who corrects many of the Curé de Combray's false etymologies, points out that –bec means stream in the Norman dialect. Brichot is not sure about Bal-. He suggests it is a corruption of 'Dalbec'. Proust may have chosen the first syllable of Balbec because of a belief that the Baal of the Persian city Baalbek meant 'sun'. It is also possible that he was aware that Bel- in many French place names derives from the Celtic sun god Belenus. His love of puns attests to an interest in the phonic texture. With this in mind, it is difficult to ignore the associations of the French word bal ('dancing, youth, mating,') and of the ornithological bec ('beak').
The phrasing is remarkable: 'What happens if we pronounce its syllables?', 'it is difficult to ignore the associations of—'. Let's just kick back and muck about with words. After all, Proust did. Is this any different from the practices of mediaevals, who identified Baalbek with Baalath? In a somewhat embarrassed footnote, Pasco winds up ransacking a bunch of dusty German philological lexicons, and tracing bal- to PIE *bhel ('white, shining'), which he can then affix to Albertine, whose name clearly derives from Latin albus, 'white'. (He even quotes the delightful kook Harold Bayley, whose linguistic speculations we last encountered here, also in Islington, and not too far from Baalbec Road.)

Best of all, though, is Marie-Magdeleine Chirol's L'Imaginaire de la Ruine. Nobody can do spiel like the French. After discussing a few references to antiquities in an early description of Balbec from Recherche ('De Balbec surtout, où déjà des hôtels se construisent, superposés au sol antique et charmant qu'ils n'alterènt pas, quel délice d'excursionner à deux pas dans ces régions primitives et si belles!'), she concludes:
One last sign points towards a Norman Balbec that is reminiscent of the ancient Baalbek: the presence 'of hotels' (in the modern sense) which, in an ancient context, may seem displaced, even anachronistic. However, if one should replace hotel with 'Temple-Palais' or with 'palais'—terms which the narrator uses to evoke the Grand-Hotel at Balbec—the desired spatio-temporal link seems to be re-established. The substitution would appear reasonable since, after all, when the narrator talks of the hotel at Balbec, he is surely always referring to the Grand-Hotel.
Here is a voice pleading for acceptance, especially in that last sentence. In all these works is the same exegesis of the world we find among the mediaevals, only made secular, and transferred to a world of words only. The study of literature is, as we have long known, the last refuge of the theologian.


But what about Baalbec Road? Why Baalbec? Perhaps in lieu of asking, 'Why was the road called Baalbec?', we might ask, 'What has it done to deserve the name?' Or even, What do we see in the road, and in its environs, that we should not see if it had a different name? Would it smell as sweet?

Baalbek itself, once magnificent, was taken over by nature, and became a ruin. Highbury, as we have seen, is also under threat from its flora, real, painted or carved in terracotta. The name itself becomes that bit more pregnant. Perhaps that is what Jenkins meant about the tourists of a hundred years hence. Before the creation of the road in 1889, London had a single nod to the Baalbek of antiquity. This was in the Temple of the Sun at Kew Gardens, built in 1761, in a Corinthian style inspired by the ornate columns of the ruinated Syrian city. Eighteenth-century letters and notices are full of proud and admiring references to this elegant structure, which has none of the sublimity of the original, preserving only a few flourishes and proportions. In 1916, a tree fell on the temple and it was demolished, not even leaving a ruin. For shame! Still, we have the ruins of Baalbec Road, Highbury. If they are not ruins yet, they contain all the omens of such. The city is like the mind: it never forgets. My old friend's kitchen, with its ridiculous sculpture, is still with me, perhaps altered and mutilated, but not forgotten. I did not want to mention the splendid effusion of autumn in Highbury Fields.

Update: Language Hat on H. W. Bailey, not to be confused with Harold Bayley.

11 November, 2008

Wine and Water

When one cup in fell confusion
Wine with water blends, the fusion,
Call it by what name you will,
Is no blessing, nor deserveth
Any praise, but rather serveth
For the emblem of all ill.

Wine perceives the water present,
And with pain exclaims, "What peasant
Dared to mingle thee with me?
Rise, go forth, get out, and leave me!
In the same place, here to grieve me,
Thou hast no just claim to be.

— 'Denudata veritate', from the Carmina Burana, tr. Symonds.
The American next to me is in transcribing formulae for posset and gooseberry wine from a Middle English receiptboke. I go to the enquiries counter for some pointless request. As I wait, a young gentleman receives his book from Special Collections. It comes in a little packet, and when he pulls it out, I can see that it is smaller than his thumbnail. The look on his face, somewhere between surprise and annoyance, is priceless. He tries, momentarily, to read it, but is briskly defeated, and returns it to the counter. Curious, I order it myself. It turns out to be an 1896 Salmin edition of Galileo's Letter to Cristina (1615), 15 x 9 mm.

(The nice man on the desk says he has personally researched the book. Galileo wrote it so small, he informs me, to avoid the watchful eyes of the Inquisition; I hesitate to point out that this edition was printed almost three centuries after its words were penned, when the Inquisition had become a story with which to scare young Protestant boys into good behaviour.)

Galileo's letter is a plea for religious toleration of experimental science:
I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­ experiences and necessary demonstrations. . . It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.
If you stop and think about this, it is a little odd. The Bible, so as to make itself better understood, says things which are not literally true. But how can false things be well understood? Galileo's idea, which had in certain circles become a commonplace by 1700, was that the Bible fudged its physics (and metaphysics) so as not distract the foolish ancient rabble from their worship of God. But Nature acts without condescension, and so never lies.


Galileo, no doubt, would have pursed his lips at Cana—the classic miracle. Nature cannot transgress her laws: water cannot become wine. Perhaps, if he had been feeling scholastic, he might have suggested that the water merely took on the accidents of the wine, without changing its substance; a hundred years later he might have found some scientific approximation for the miracle, and trumpeted it up as a rational explanation. But here, for now, he would say that it mattered little about water and wine: the Bible simply wants us to know that Christ is the Lord our Saviour.

At any rate, Galileo could work apparent miracles with water and wine himself. In his 1638 Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche he describes an experiment, which runs, in Thomas Weston's elegant 1730 translation:
If I fill a round Crystal Bottle [palla di cristallo, ie. a crystal globe] with Water, whose Mouth is no bigger than that of a Straw, and after this turn its Mouth downwards, yet will not the Water, altho' very heavy and prone to descend in Air, nor the Air, as much disposed on the other Hand, as being very light, to ascend thro' the Water; yet will they not, I say, agree, that that should descend, issuing out of the Mouth, and this ascend, entering in at the same; but both keep their Places, and yield not to each other. But on the contrary, if I apply to the Mouth of this Bottle a little Vessel of Red Wine, which is insensibly less heavy than Water, we shall see it in an Instant gently to ascend by red Streams thro' the Water; and on the contrary, the Water, with the same Slowness, to descend thro' the Wine, without ever mixing with each other, till at length the Bottle will be full of Wine, and all the Water will sink to the Bottom of the Vessel that's underneath.
This is what Salviati, standing in for Galileo, claims to be happening in his thought-experiment:

The wine, instead of mixing with the water as we should expect, changes places with it, each liquid remaining pure. This passage has caused a certain stir in the scholarly literature. Alexander Koyré, the great historian of science, best known for his work on cosmology, considered the story as a reliance on untested thought-experiments gone too far: 'Galileo. . . had never made the experiment; but, having heard of it, reconstructed it in his imagination, accepting the complete and essential incompatibility of water with wine as an indubitable fact'. So much for casting off authority and beginning afresh from sense experience! Koyré, however, does not name a source.

As Koyré one-upped the empiricist Galileo, so James MacLachlan one-upped the rationalist Koyré in turn, and actually performed the experiment in time for a cheeky 1973 note in Isis.
In the late summer of 1971 I filled an after-shave bottle with water and inverted it over a goblet of red wine. A piece of drinking straw sealed in the mouth of the bottle dipped beneath the surface of the wine. For more than an hour I watched in fascination as a perfectly clear layer of water formed at the bottom of the goblet and became deeper and deeper! As Galileo had described, a thin red streamer wafted up through the water in the bottle and occupied a progressively redder and larger region at the top of the bottle. A light shining through the goblet made possible the detection of a streamer of water descending through the wine to form the layer at the bottom. After about two hours the bottle above had become a quite uniform red, and the layer of red left at the top of the goblet began to descend, ultimately making the liquid in the goblet a uniform pink.
So for MacLachlan, the wine and water do ultimately mix, but not before acting roughly as Galileo had said they would. Galileo, he is sure, actually witnessed the experiment, and so was able to describe its results with some precision. But, as it took Antonio Beltrán 25 years to point out, again in Isis (1998), the fact that the experiment can be done does not mean that Galileo actually performed it, and it is just as possible that, as Koyré had suggested, Galileo merely used a well-known example. Beltrán's evidence? The only similar experiment he can find is in Ambroise Paré's Des monstres et prodiges (1573):
The experience of two glass vessels called a wine-raiser, in which device, by placing the vessel filled with water on top of another filled with wine, it can be clearly seen how the wine rises through the water and the water descends through the wine, without their mixing, although they move through the same narrow pipe.
And just so Beltrán didn't go thinking he'd one-upped MacLachlan in turn, the editors of Isis allowed MacLachlan to blow Beltrán an amused raspberry in a note following the latter's article. MacLachlan thinks it pretty unlikely that 'a medical student in Pisa (being indoctrinated from Galenic treatises) would have read a French surgical work', although he does not at all deny the probability that Galileo's experiment was unoriginal. Both Beltrán and MacLachlan, in fact, miss a much more likely source for Galileo: Francis Bacon's 1627 compendium of experiments, Sylva Sylvarum, which contains, very near the start, an even stranger proposition:
Take a Glasse with a Belly and a long Nebb [spout]; fill the Belly (in part) with Water: Take also another Glasse, whereinto put Claret Wine and Water mingled; Reverse the first Glasse, with the Belly upwards, Stopping the Nebb with your fingar; Then dipp the Mouth of it within the Second Glasse, and remove your Fingar: Continue it in that posture for a time; And it will unmingle the Wine from the Water: The Wine ascending and setling in the topp of the upper Glasse; And the Water descending and setling in the bottome of the lower Glasse. The passage is apparent to the Eye; For you shall see the Wine, as it were, in a small veine, rising through the Water.
Here the wine not only slides up past the water without mixing, but actually further unmixes itself! Bacon states clearly that the experiment doesn't work the other way around, or with coloured water, and concludes from this that 'this Separation of Water and Wine appeareth to be made by Weight; for it must be of Bodies of unequall Weight, or ells it worketh not; And the Heavier Body must ever be in the upper Glasse.' And then he moves swiftly on.


Bacon, the better mage, really could turn water into wine, his own sort of miracle. Both he and Galileo described a Nature that seemed so marvelous, even as they insisted it was not. And so as to accommodate the occult secrets of hydromechanics to the understanding of every man, both wrote in the common tongue, and spoke in vivid parables, which they called 'experiments'.