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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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Fossil poetry
It is obvious that this project, with its assumption that words, like fossils, could be fully described by tracking their diachronic, evolutionary progress (Coleridge and Sweet above), was based on a paradigm drawn in particular from contemporary developments in the natural sciences. Murray's study of the history of dictionaries, from which many of the quotations above are taken, is called The Evolution of English Lexicography, and the comparison between historical philology and geology was commonplace at the time.

This is what Trench, whose two lectures on dictionaries in 1857 were to initiate the OED, had written about language in 1851:
You know how the geologist is able from the different strata and deposits, primary, secondary, or tertiary...to conclude the successive physical changes through which a region has passed....Now with such a composite language as the English before us, we may carry on moral and historical researches precisely analogous to his. Here too are strata and deposits, not of gravel and chalk, sandstone and limestone, but of Celtic, Latin, Saxon, Danish, Norman... (Trench 1851: 68-9)
As Dennis Taylor points out in a study of these remarks and their relationship to the poetry and thought of Hardy (a writer captivated by dictionaries and by the OED in particular), such ideas are widely echoed. Compare for example the American linguist and lexicographer William Dwight Whitney, writing in 1867 in a collection of lectures on language many times reprinted:
Once more, a noteworthy and often-remarked similarity exists between the facts and methods of geology and those of linguistic study....The remains of ancient speech are like strata deposited in bygone ages, telling of the forms of life then existing...while words are as rolled pebbles, relics of yet more ancient formations, or as fossils, whose grade indicates the progress of organic life... (Taylor 1993: 282, quoting from Language and the Study of Language (New York: Scribner, 1867), pp. 47-8)
Similar observations were made years later, in reference to the OED itself, though this time invoking archaeology rather than geology. 'If indeed we wish to trace the history of different periods and study their innovations and ideas,' a journalist wrote of the Dictionary in The Times in 1915,
we can find these dated with curious accuracy by the appearance of the new words in which they are embodied. For just as the archæologist, when he excavates the site of some ancient city, finds the various forms of its civilization arranged in chronological strata, so we find evidences of each past generation and its activities in the superimposed strata of our vocabulary.[1]
Many of these remarks relate to the study of individual words, and to the narratives that unfold when their etymology is investigated. Trench writes that 'language is the amber in which a thousand precious words have been safely embedded and preserved', and meditates on the poet R. W. Emerson's notion of 'fossil poetry': 'just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life...are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would otherwise have been theirs,- so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves' (Trench 1851: 4-5, in a passage quoted by OED s.v. fossil 2. a.; an idea partially echoed by W. H. Auden, who thought 'the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology, the study of language in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves', and whose own poetry witnesses his fascination with both geology and dictionaries).[2]

These views also register the effect of exploring language through the literature of the past. As Trench says, 'There are few who would not readily acknowledge that mainly in worthy books are preserved and hoarded the treasures of wisdom and knowledge which the world has accumulated; and that chiefly by aid of these [books] they are handed down from one generation to another' (Trench 1851: 1). The OED, by storing up this wisdom in quotations accessible through its alphabeticized structure, acts as a treasure house for future generations (role 1 of quotations; cf. C. Richardson: Treasure, and Treasure-house, under Literary issues in our section on Sources: literary authors).

See also The World and the Book.

[1] Quoted in The Periodical, 143 (1928), 31.
[2] Inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry, University of Oxford, 1956, reprinted in The Dyer's Hand (London: Faber & Faber), p. 35. For the original context of Emerson's remark, see his essay on 'The Poet' on the American Transcendentalism Web: 'The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.'
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