The Dictionary Bromide

IT is a gain to our lighter literature that Mr. Gelett Burgess has republished his “Bromide and Sulphite” speculations with additional illustrations. It must not be overlooked, however, that at present, in the scientific discussion of the human brain, his is only a working hypothesis, and not established truth.

Most of his bromidioms are what were earlier called platitudes or truisms, —“undisputed things said in a solemn way,” though by no means by Katydids; but your Bromide by no means confines himself to them. He is much given to assertions that he knows others — Sulphites — will be wild enough to call in question, and rather wishes to be called in question, that he may reiterate his view, à la reine Anne, in the same words. The typical Bromidiom of this sort is, “I don’t like Thackeray; he gives one such a very bad view of human nature.”

One is not quite ready as yet to accept the absolute division of all mankind into Bromides and Sulphites. There are who might be either, and who have yet shown their Bromine or their Sulphurous Acid only on occasions. Mr. Burgess is kind enough to say that as these two sets clasp human nature in their opposed, yet meeting semi-circumferences, they overlap sometimes at the junction, and a Bromide appears as a Sulphite or vice versa. Bless the dear man! of course they do, and he himself, who evidently swells with Sulphide pride, treats us to an expression of opinion as purely Bromidic as any that he satirizes. His tastes lead him to prefer the Gothic architecture, art and spirit generally, to those of the Renaissance. The former are with him a glorious burst of Sulphitic originality; the latter a mere echo of Bromidian classicism and conventionality. His views may be represented by the dictum, “The Mediæval mind was free in its operations; the Renaissant was restrained.” Well, what of it ? Après ? What a truly Bromidian disposing, labeling, pigeon-holing of a subject. Does Freedom or Restraint throw everything into the rank of good or bad, higher or lower, spiritually attractive or repellent ? It is the great trouble of the Sulphites that they embrace unconventionality so closely that it becomes a conventionality with them, and they are absolutely ignorant — or say they are — that there are beauty and truth of the highest order whose essence is restraint.

The fact is, both Bromides and Sulphites owe much of their effect to the bases which enter into their composition. Bromide of potassium is blissfully soothing; but Bromide of silver, exposed to the sun, makes a dirty stain on paper, which men may manipulate into the spectres called photographs. One particular species I have in mind is probably Bromide of Lead; but we know it as the Dictionary Bromide. The Dictionary Bromide values information highly; indeed, to be well informed is his cachet; but the information must have been derived from some Lexicon, Vocabulary, or Word Book, or, with more caution. Encyclopædia. Most Bromides have one favorite book of this class to which they cling, as Islam to its Koran; a few more expansive ones are not averse to examine several on disputed points. But as a rule, such Bromides swear by “The Dictionary.”

Everything in “The Dictionary” is true; nothing out of it exists. Pronunciation, etymology, spelling, meaning, usage, are all settled forever by going to the big book, taken from the chair which elevated his child at dinner. To dispute any of its statements is heresy, or rather absurdity. It is vain to appeal to independent reading, research, study of original sources, even personal experience; if any of these things had developed any facts bearing on the question, they would be in “The Dictionary;” and not being there, they do not exist. It is equally useless to represent that these books must, from their very size, have omissions; that from their cost, they cannot be, except for some slight revision, in the hands of men of profound minds or wide knowledge, but that a lexicographer is pretty sure to be what Johnson defined him, “a harmless drudge; ” to point out that these writers copy one from another to an incredible amount; in short, that while a Dictionary may be for ordinary purposes a very useful book, it is impossible to look upon it as a finality, and that more than any other book, being in the most general use, it needs the most constant criticism. All this is to shake the foundations of the Bromide’s existence. There is just one answer for the Sulphite — or the plain scholar — to make, when the Dictionary is thrown at his head, — “Yes, I find the Dictionary a very interesting book to read, but I should never think of it as a final authority.”