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The Scrivener: Some Curiosities

Curiosity may have killed the proverbial cat, but it keeps wordsmiths alive and well, as master scrivener Brian Barratt proves so entertainingly.

For further mental gymnastics do please visit Brian’s Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas

Forty years ago, one of my colleagues in a missionary bookshop had a small collection of what he called ‘curious books’. Exactly what kind of books he collected is best left to the imagination. Let’s just say that they were the type of publications one might find under the counter in some dingy little antiquarian bookshop in a lane off Charing Cross Road, London. Our employers would not have been amused.

Using the word in a wider sense, there are several curious books in my library. One is a fascsimile of ‘Secrets of Art and Nature’ published in 1660. It is ‘The Summe and Substance of Naturall Philosophy Methodically Digested’ by John Wecker, Dr. in Physick. Here are some curious words I’ve found in it:

§ The Antients called this first cause God. The old spelling makes sense when you realise that the word comes from Latin ante-, before. This spelling is still used in Freemasonry.

§ ...that the naughty humour may be purged forth... Naughty originally meant bad, evil. It did not take on the softer meaning of badly behaved until the 17th century. A humour was a bodily fluid. There were four types: blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy or black bile. Purging a naughty humour is not censoring a rude joke, but removing an evil bodily fluid. The meaning of humour widened to include all kinds of moods, and eventually included amusement and jocularity.

§ ...the beginnings and of the Climats upon each half of the Globe. We use climate as a term for the weather in a particular area or country. However, in the first (1771) edition of Encyclopædia Britannica it is defined as ‘A space upon the surface of the terrestrial globe, contained within two parallels, and so far distant from each other, that the longest day in one differs half an hour from the longest day in the other parallel’. In other words, it meant a region.

§ ...and he set a Wheel upon the Axeltree. From about the 14th century, an axeltre or ax-tree was a beam, rod or bar upon which a wheel or wheels turned. A ‘tree’ was not necessarily a living plant. It could also mean a piece of wood. Axle is related to axis, denoting the point upon which something turns.

§ ...this shews that distemper happens contrary to the course of Nature. The previous sentences gives us a clue: Likewise if it Thunder in Winter, and Lighten much, this shews that the Tempests will follow, and Whirlwinds, and great inundations. Distemper is one of many words derived from Latin temperare, mingle. It could imply an upsetting or reversal in condition of anything from the bodily humours and the health of dogs to the weather. Yes, the same word meaning a type of paint also involves the idea of mixing.

Curiosity might have killed the proverbial cat, but it keeps wordsmiths alive and well. Let’s all maintain and enjoy our natural curiosity about words!

Copyright © 2003, 2007 Brian Barratt


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