Words, Words, Words

To gain an understanding of how rapidly — and how very slowly — the world moves, I know of no more effective pastime than the reading of dictionaries. I mean secondhand dictionaries that are antiquated and out of date. My own secondhand dictionary I acquired last week in a bookshop for the unextravagant expenditure of a dime, and I am frank to say that I have been reading it almost continuously ever since, to the detriment of what some people would perhaps consider my more important tasks. It is a thickish octavo, bound in what was once a costly marbled calf, and is entitled A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, with the subheading: ‘To Which Are Prefixed Rules to Be Observed by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland, & London, for Avoiding Their Respective Peculiarities.’

The compiler of my dictionary was Mr. John Walker, — that same John Walker whose Rhyming Dictionary has in a century aided the construction of uncountable reams of bad poetry, — and my edition, printed by Collins and Hannav at 230 Pearl Street, New York, in 1823, is ‘revised, enlarged,’ and presumably brought right up to the minute.

John Walker was, of course, an Englishman, and he was also an indomitable and frosty controversialist. That, I think, is one of the chief charms of his composition. The writing of dictionaries has, alas, deteriorated nowadays into a prosy chore. Lexicographers no longer write disparaging footnotes about one another in their dictionaries, or lend color and piquance to their definitions by the occasional judicious injection of a little withering invective. Mr. Walker was better-tempered than some, but he fills his pages, for all that, with small digs at his confrères. In the matter of the word ‘yellow,’ he becomes definitely peevish toward Dr. Kenrick, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Perry, who, he says, aver that the word should be pronounced ‘yallow.’ He winds up a petulant paragraph or two by remarking, ‘I am very much deceived if that pronunciation does not border closely on the vulgar.’

We should agree with him in that to-day, no doubt, but his views on certain other words are, as I remarked earlier, somewhat startling. He is very much exercised over ‘wound,’ the noun. To pronounce it ‘ woond ’ — which he finds the populace doggedly doing — is anathema to him. That pronunciation, he says, ‘is a capricious novelty,’ and adds that it is ‘fantastical, and must be entirely abolished.’ Could he listen to the speech of 1936, he would, I suppose, be moved to anger and despair to note how ill his advice has been received.

One might have guessed, from the toplofty reference to the Irish on his title-page, that Mr. Walker was a proud and unyielding Anglophile, but it comes as something of a shock, all the same, to find him insisting that the only allowable pronunciation for the word ‘sous’ (‘a small French coin’) is ‘souse.’ Elsewhere among the s’s he becomes annoyed at the ‘corrupt pronunciation’ of the word ‘sewer,’ which, he tells the reader, should be pronounced ‘shore.’ With those quibblers who endeavor to make a distinction in pronunciation between ‘satire’ and ‘satyr’ he has no patience; both words, he says flatly, should be pronounced ‘say-tire,’ and he writes no less than five paragraphs of Latin allusions to prove it, while denouncing the odious Messrs. Nares, Elphinstone, and Buchanan for trying to persuade the public otherwise.

On page 433 he rebukes in no uncertain terms those know-nothing laymen who have attempted to make ‘raisin’ sound the way it is spelled. It should sound exactly like ‘reason,’ he says, and points out that in Henry the Fourth Shakespeare makes a pun with the two words. ‘This pun very evidently shows that these words were pronounced exactly alike in Shakespeare’s time, and that Mr. Sheridan’s pronunciation of this word, as if written “rays’n,” is not only contrary to good usage, but, what many would think a greater offense, destructive of the wit of Shakespeare!’

It is somehow very pleasant to note that one hundred and thirteen years ago ‘the vulgar’ were having trouble with exactly the same words that plague them to-day, and — as Mr. Walker points out with a wince — were saying ‘rense ’ for ‘rinse,’ and ‘ostridge’ for ‘ostrich,’ and clinging tenaciously to ‘mischeevious’ and ‘incomparable’ and ‘hunderd.’ There are fine old traditions, it appears, even for mispronunciations.

And then it is agreeable, too, to note that most of the words about the pronunciation of which people argue heatedly to-day were being similarly argued about — and with no more definite conclusions — in 1823. Shall we pronounce it ‘vase,’ as spelled, or shall we pronounce it ‘vahz’? Even John Walker, who lacked nothing in positiveness, would not venture to decide. Shall it be ‘resin’ or shall it be ‘rozz’n’? Shall the a be short in ‘patronize,’ or would ‘paytronize’ be preferable?

There is much for which to be grateful to Mr. Walker. He had the hardihood, for instance, to give a place in his dictionary to ‘swindle’ and ‘statistic,’ and to ‘isolated’ and ‘manoeuvre,’ while admitting that these queer words had never before appeared in any dictionary. Also, he made an exhaustively complete listing of words prefixed by ‘un,’ even going so far as to set down (but not attempt to define) a word ‘unperspirable.’ Best of all, perhaps, he showed a fine scorn of hyphens, believing that a compound word should be written quite as solidly and compactly as any other. Thus his pages gladden the eyes with such whopping phrase words as ‘trueloversknot’ and ‘manylanguaged’ and ‘superexcrescence.’

It is by this practice that he achieves what I think is the most Icelandic-looking word I have ever seen in an English dictionary. This word is ‘skimmilk.’