Are you a Spenserian?

Colin Burrow

  • Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities by James Turner
    Princeton, 550 pp, £24.95, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 691 14564 8

All logophiles have their weaknesses. Mine is technical vocabulary drawn from handcrafts, especially if those words have an obscure or Germanic origin. Who could resist noggin – an abbreviation of nogging board, which carpenters now use to refer to a transverse piece of timber hidden behind a wall surface into which you can affix screws to support shelves? Where two planes of a board intersect at right angles there is a sharp arris, which careful craftsmen will plane down into a chamfer (the origins of these terms are French, ‘arête’ and ‘chanfrein’ respectively) to prevent cutting the fingers that will be drawn irresistibly to its crisp edge. The arris is not, of course, to be confused with an arras or embroidered hanging, through which the unfortunate Polonius gets it in the neck: that derives from the French town of Arras, which was from the later Middle Ages famous for its tapestries. My favourite bit of Hamlet is where the Player in his speech about Hecuba comes over all craftsmanly and urges the gods to attack the goddess Fortune and ‘Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,/And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven.’ Fellies are the curved sections of wood which make up the rim of a wheel (Old English felg), while the nave (cognate with Sanskrit nābhi or ‘navel’) is the central section into which the spokes and axle fit from different axes.

This kind of technolalia turns me on. Using a word like technolalia (‘technobabble’) gives an additional transgressive thrill because it’s not in the OED, and so offers the hope that I might have made it up – though, alas, I discover that William Gibson, father of cyberpunk, used it to describe an addiction to technology. Ah well, my usage is etymologically purer because it preserves the sense of the Greek root -laliá, meaning ‘chatter’. Shakespeare was a playwright, a word forged with contemptuous intent by Ben Jonson in 1605 by analogy with ‘wheelwright’, and a wordsmith or logodaedalus (to use another of Jonson’s coinages). He could make words and make things with words. He could smash Fortune’s wheel into its constituent lexical components. These processes are exciting.

Logophilia (said in the OED to date only from the 1980s) is an innocent recreational vice. But if someone were to reverse the same two Greek roots (logos, ‘word’, and philia, ‘love’) and call me a philologist I would feel uncomfortable. Philology, according to the OED, was first used in English by John Skelton in the 1520s of ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretative and critical aspects of literature’. The earliest usages of the word philologist in the 17th century are often qualified by an adjective of praise – ‘great’ or ‘learned’ – or by a suggestion that the philologist has an excess of discriminatory power (that he can be ‘nice’, in the sense of ‘over-precise’). Philology was indeed to become exceptionally nice in this refined sense. By the 1830s people were calling each other ‘mere philologists’. By the later 20th century someone who styled himself a philologist (it’s a distinctly blokeish role) would be an austere kind of a person. He might be an expert in tenth-century monastic cartularies whose chief expertise lay in Tibetan languages, about which he knew all that could be known and for which he would have long lost any enthusiasm. Anyone who wondered where the philia in his -ology had gone would discover the answer when they witnessed the sadistic gleam in his eye as he denounced someone else as an ignorant ass. In professional environments his misanthropy would be declared by sardonic resistance to change, particularly if it meant the softening of things that he believed should be ‘hard’. When I was younger a philologist was the kind of person who insisted at departmental meetings that compulsory elements should remain in the curriculum, and who did so with a zeal that was inversely proportionate to the popularity of those elements among undergraduates. Usually it was Anglo-Saxon, but any skill that required large-scale acts of memorisation and grammatical categorisation would do. He would snort at the word ‘postcolonial’ and regard novels as things chaps read on trains.

I exaggerate, but philologists have been caricatured more or less since they were invented. Seneca was one of the first Latin authors to use the word ‘philologus’. In his Moral Epistles, written in the 60s ad, he describes the ways different kinds of people read: ‘When Cicero’s book On the State is opened by a philologist, a scholar, or a follower of philosophy, each man pursues his investigation in his own way. The philosopher wonders that so much could have been said therein against justice. The philologist takes up the same book and comments on the text.’ Seneca sees the philologist as a humble pedant who misses the point of reading, which should be a moral activity:

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