Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Eighteenth Century Lexicon

I have decided to compile a dictionary. It is a dictionary with a difference: one that defines the way words have changed from the eighteenth century England of Jonathan Swift to this one of ours in the twenty-first century.

The meaning of words seems to have changed quite subtly over the last three hundred years. For instance in the eighteenth century a man might 'receive an intelligence' which in today's parlance, means that he has simply been 'told' something that interests him. The word 'intelligence' now has spying and intellectual connotations, which it didn't seem to necessarily have back then.

Then there are words that have fallen out of use altogether: such as 'wherein' (meaning 'in which') and 'beeves' (the plural of beef) and 'bigness' (size).

Another interesting thing I have discovered is that when reporting direct speech the words between the speech marks are not direct quotes from the person speaking (as in 'I would like you to come with me,' said the king.) but remains reported, as in: the king said, 'he would like me to come with him.' I keep wondering if I have that right, but I think I have.

I am also coming across words that must have been in vogue during Swift's time. This morning I came across the term 'Hapsburg Lip' which I discovered was a genetic mutation caused by inbreeding. At the time Jonathan Swift was writing his book Charles II was on the throne in Spain. He was the end of the Hapsburg line, and according to this Wikipedia article his Hapsburg Lip was only part of his problems. ....

It is a singular story, and I confess that I have been mindful of it over the entirety of this day.


Blogger Stephen Page said...


Wed Dec 07, 04:29:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks for visiting, Stephen.

Wed Dec 07, 08:12:00 am  
Anonymous Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Clare,
thanks for this. I love hearing about the history of words. I think it can suggest so much about the society we live/lived in. I came across 'juggernaut' a while back, while reading a first edition of RL Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and was surprised to see it there, thinking it was a modern word. I looked it up and discovered that "in colloquial English usage a juggernaut is a literal or metaphorical force regarded as mercilessly destructive and unstoppable. Originating in ca. 1850, the term is a metaphorical reference to the Hindu Ratha Yatra temple car which was apocryphally reputed to crush devotees under its wheels."
Anyway, I digress. Good luck with the dictionary, I'd love it if you were to actually compile one :)

Fri Dec 09, 11:57:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Hi Marianne - thanks for visiting!

That's so interesting about 'juggernaut'- I'd have thought it a modern word too, and such an interesting origin. It makes me like it more.

I'm up to 350 words/phrases on the dictionary. I don't think it will be of much use to anyone, but I'm finding it a really good education. I'm hoping it will help widen my vocabulary.

Sat Dec 10, 06:09:00 am  

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