Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Philological Trench

Richard Trench, poet

This week I am faced with the challenge of posting a blog at virtually the same moment that I am delivering a lecture in Richmond, Virginia.  From the technological point out view it should be managed easily enough, but under the circumstances my subject cannot be a topical one that comes to mind on Tuesday night.  So let me instead introduce you to a great book: Richard Chevenix Trench’s On the Study of Words (1851).

            Friends who view my library sometimes comment on the high proportion of old books to new, or note that even most of the “new” books I have, such as my growing collection of the Library of America, are the works of “old” authors.  Guilty as charged, but the library is not a monument to a medievalist’s scorn for modernity.  Some of my best friends were born in the twentieth century!  Four of my best grandchildren were born in the twenty-first!  But shelf-space is limited, and one’s lifetime short.  One has to prioritize.

            Inertia is the default tendency to stay put physically.  Parochialism is the default tendency to stay put culturally.  We all need a home base, and I am as inert and parochial as most people, and more so than many.  Yet I am bemused that so many friends who would not be content to limit their geographical, musical or culinary horizons to their native county so seldom read “old” books.

            I am not referring here to “the classics”, broadly understood.  Homer, Boethius, Dante, Shakespeare, Fielding, Tolstoy, James—such writers as these, along with their natural peers and the happy few who will join them in every generation, will I hope remain indispensable reading forever.  But for that very reason their books will continue to be available and easy of access in a profusion of editions, often cheap, not to mention free on-line and in general libraries.  In fact developments in printing technology and the growth of the electronic library have already rendered the truly unavailable out-of-print book a rarity; in the future it will be virtually non-existent. 

            The “old” books I have in mind are of a different sort.  If you are looking for a good pizza, you may find one three blocks away.  But you must know that the chances are good that there is a better one somewhere else in the state, and probably one better than that somewhere in the fifty states.  With today’s gas prices you cannot drive to Seattle for a pizza, but you can apply the principle to books.  On almost any subject you want to read about—or at least that I want to read about—the best books are more likely to have been written in the last two centuries than in the last two weeks.  In fact there are few categories to which the nice phrase golden oldie is more relevant than that of books.

Richard Chevenix Trench, prelate; he took on a little weight and an extra name
         Trench was an Anglican clergyman of the mid-nineteenth century.  He eventually became the Archbishop of Dublin in the Church of Ireland.  That was his day job, and his wonderful book On the Study of Words had its origins in lectures given to seminarians.  Trench believed that words were “the guardians of thoughts,” and that the English lexicon, properly understood from an historical perspective, was in itself a nearly complete syllabus of truths human and divine.  Some of his individual lectures were entitled “On the Poetry in Words,” “On the Morality in Words,” and “On the History in Words.”  No reader can stick a thumb into this philological pie without coming up with a succulent plumb.  Words that one has used all one's life—such as cheat, guinea, pagan, sham, tawdry, along with a thousand more—gain a new vivacity in Trench’s offhand remarks.  Who knew that ringleader was once a term of respect and a genuine compliment?   

            Trench was a pretty good poet.  He is sometimes called “a second-rate imitator of Wordsworth”, which is unfair, since he was a first-rate imitator.  (Indeed the words first-rate and second-rate deserve an essay by Trench.  Are silver medals admired only in Olympic competition?)  He wrote other fine books, and compiled a delightful Select glossary of English words used formerly in senses different from their present.  He was also a linguistic activist, and it is in this role that he should gain the everlasting admiration of every native speaker of the English language.

A lean, mean lexicographical machine 
For Trench was one of the movers and shakers behind the greatest lexicographical enterprise of the nineteenth century, the fabulous New English Dictionary (usually called the Oxford English Dictionary or simply the OED).  One of the historians of this enterprise is my friend and colleague Hans Aarsleff, whose great Study of Language in England, 1780-1860, having been published before most of my readers were born, is now approaching golden oldie status itself.

            Trench was too busy with his important ecclesiastical duties to serve as a principal editor of the dictionary he helped inspire.  That work was undertaken in successive generations principally by James Murray, Henry Bradley, and William Craigie, and continues today with electronic bells and whistles.  But when they start doing baseball cards for philologists, an early cardboard portrait of Archbishop Trench should be worth a pretty penny.  If you can’t account for the use of the word pretty there, look it up!
 James Murray at OEDHQ, early 20th century (the Honus Wagner card)