What’s this all about, this so-called “Dabbler’s Abecedarium”?
Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of ducks: those like canvasbacks or scaup which dive deep in the water, and those called dabblers like mallards and teal, which tip themselves up to feed just below the surface:
In this blog we’ll be mostly dabbling, though allowing ourselves the occasional short dive, into Richard Huloet’s Abecedarium of Anglico-Latium. How long since you ran across the word Abecedarium? Been a while, has it? I first bumped into it a few weeks ago in Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon, which I recommend as a very fun read, a linquaphile’s delight. So what does this big, unwieldy word Abecedarium point toward? The O.E.D. (Oxford English Dictionary) defines an Abecedarium (or Abecedary) as “a table or book containing the alphabet, a primer, the first rudiments of anything.”
I hope you’ll join me in the coming weeks, months and who knows maybe even years as we dabble away in Huloet’s Abecedarium, first published in 1552 — a book almost certainly read by Shakespeare while a student at the King’s New School in Stratford.
In 1970 The Scolar Press of Menston, England came out with a facsimile of the 1552 edition of the Abecedarium. The frontispiece looks like this:
Here’s what Huloet and his engraver did with the first letter, the “A” of the
(You can see an excerpt from the “B’s” below.)
What you see when you open Huleot’s Abecedarium is a list of words or phrases in what is called “early modern English” followed by the Latin equivalent. The English doesn’t look at all modern, because it’s not. Chaucer’s English, called Middle English, dates to the 14th century. The language apparently changed quite a bit during the 15th and 16th centuries, into something pronounced, and written, much more like our modern English, so it’s called early modern. We’re talking Shakespeare’s language, and what remarkable use he made of it!
(Here’s a link to a fun little widget put up by the O.E.D exploring the difference between your English and Shakespeare’s.)
The wiki says the first English dictionary, the Tabell Alphabetical, was published in 1604, which Huloet beat by 52 years.
Why? you might ask.
Why dabble about in a book published in 1552 by some dead white guy no one knows hardly anything about who wrote in an odd sometimes indecipherable script, translating words or phrases from the English of his time into Latin?
Why not? I might ask. Why climb a mountain?
Well, because to some of us it’s interesting, challenging and fun. More importantly because any language, Latin, German or Eskimo, teaches us a lot about that culture. And dabbling into English as it was almost 500 years ago we can learn a lot about how things have changed over time in our own culture, or the culture we came from. So I’m offering up a twofer (as I understand it, originally a cigar at two for a nickel). Let’s try it out!
What do we call a guy (they usually were/are guys!) who drives a team of horses?
No, not a jockey. He/she rides the horse. The guy who drives a cart is called a carter. The former peanut-farmer president probably had one of these in his ancestry.
How many horses in a carter’s team?
Nine, like in baseball? Eleven, like in football?
Our word “team” doesn’t tell us because teams of horses have by and large galloped off over the horizon into the far-off past. But from our Abecedarium we learn that a “Carter that goeth wyth three horses in a cart” is a Trigarius, a Quadrigarius is a “Carter that goeth wyth foure horses in a cart,” while a Rhedarius is a “Carter that dryveth a cart with foure wheles.” Horse-carts were common and important to the Romans, so they had a more precise vocabulary for them.
This question of how many horses in a team is not trivial…actually it’s quadrivial. When James Joyce was asked if the word-play in Finnegan’s Wake wasn’t trivial he explained: Yes, trivial and quadrivial. The trivium in Latin is a crossroads of three roads, which came to refer also to the study of grammar, rhetoric or logic. The quadrivium – mathematics, music, geometry and astronomy — meanwhile made up the rest of the seven liberal arts in medieval universities So the question of how many horses in a team being a mathematical question it’s definitely quadrivial!
With nothing better to do I’ll posit one more quadrivial question: How long is a book? Could be 50 pages, could be 500 or even more. But to the Romans, according to Huloet, books were of three approximate sizes: Libellum being a “Boke of small volume,” a Codiculus a “Boke of meane volume,” and a Codex a “Boke of greate volume.”
Those of us who are amateur philologists or linguaphiles find this kind of thing fascinating. But don’t worry, it’s not contagious!
Now, what does all this have to do with Gaius Plinius Secundus, our reason for this blog and website, this Pliny the Elder? Well Latin was the language he spoke, so in the 57 or so years of his life he likely used many of the words we’ll be visiting, and that’s a way to get to know him better. And we’ve already learned something about his life and times — a time when speaking of a horse-cart one was expected to be precise. And yes we will occasionally, as dabblers do, turn to Pliny himself for his opinion on a particular word or subject.
So, enough for today, except to tease you with one more entry dabbled up from the Abecedarium –
where we can see that a Calluus comatus is a “Balde man with a bushe.” –
In his article Is Bald Beautiful? The Etymology of the Greek Kalos and Latin Caluus in the Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies A.A. Thompson Clarke — what a great name for a philologist — you wouldn’t expect to find him on an NBA team would you? — points out that caluus likely derives from the Indo-European root kel, meaning shining or beautiful. According to him yes caluus does mean bald, but can also apply to anything smooth, like the shell of a nut, a shiny worn rope, etc. The O.E.D. tells us that the related callous means hard-skinned – like a bald head, a callous on your finger, or an unfeeling person – but then also see callow, meaning bald or finely-haired, like the down on a young person’s skin, hence inexperienced or unfledged. The O.E.D. also tells us that the etymologically unrelated callow is a variant of calloo, the long-tailed diving duck, a winter visitor to Orkney and Shetland. That’s ducky, isn’t it, and see how with a little dabbling a word can lead us in divers ways…
The coma by the way buried in in Calluus comatus is Latin for hair, grass, foliage & for some reason wouldn’t we love to know, sunbeams. Comatus means long-haired. The common Latin term for beard is barba, so Calluus comatus seems a kind of idiom. Our word comet, by the way, comes from the Latin cometa, or long-haired star.
Pliny dabbles here and there about hair in his Natural History (links to the original Latin) but we’ll let that go for now, except for this, in Book XVI, chapter LXXV: “Tiberius item et in capillo tondendo servavit interlunia. M. Varro adversus defluvia praecipit observandum id a pleniluniis.”
Which Bostock & Riley, the 1859 edition I have translate as: “The Emperor Tiberius used also to observe the changes of the moon for cutting his hair. Marcus Varro has recommended that the hair should be cut at full moon only, if we would avoid baldness.”
Perhaps our poor balde man with the bushe hadn’t read his Pliny? Take that as an object lesson…
Here’s a link to the first English translation of the Natural History, by Philemon Holland, done in 1601 almost certainly read by Shakespeare.
What Pliny has to say about comets, which is quite a lot, we may get back to. Or maybe not. (Feel free to leave comments, but not comets, below…)
This first blog post, according to the Abecedarium, is a Tyrocinium, the “ffirst exercise or feate in any thyng,” from which I’m sure we get our word tyro.
Go right ahead, call me a tyromaniac. Sticks and stones…..!!!
If you haven’t already you can learn a bit more about this blog by clicking on the “About this blog” link on the first page.
So, til next time — Vale!
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN — QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, SUGGESTIONS?