Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2186:
LOST BEAUTIES

by John H. Lienhard

Today, language slips away from us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Charles MacKay called his 1874 dictionary of archaic words Lost Beauties of the English Language. He meant to bring back into currency, words that'd fallen from favor -- like reck, meaning to take heed or care. Reckless survives, while its root is forgotten. Then there's the word ugsome, now replaced with our word ugly -- or simply ugh!

Rindle

MacKay's pedantic introduction, with its three-page paragraphs, is clear enough on the nature of language evolution, but MacKay is also nostalgic. He finishes with a quotation: "A nation whose language becomes rude and barbarous must be on the brink of barbarism in regard to everything else." Well, maybe he confuses the subtleties expressible in language with language itself.

By the way, many of his archaic words seem to've come back into use -- like gruesome, raid, stowaway, or reek. But at the end of MacKay's treatise, his publisher includes a 48-page catalog of other books. And here we see what was going on around MacKay. Among the hundreds of books listed there are works of Dickens, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and many more. A new fast-press technology was having its way with the world of letters.

The impact of this book-flood is dramatized by an exhibit in New York's Morgan Library about Victorian bestsellers in the mid-to-late-19th-century. Charles Dickens started out with print runs of only a thousand. By the time MacKay's book came out, some of Dickens' novels had reached sales of almost a million.

And not even Dickens could compete with Uncle Tom's Cabin. England and America bought a half-million copies in its first year. This new printing flood would not be slowed. The Penny Dreadfuls followed -- lurid stories for young boys sold in serialized booklets for a penny each. When a competitor cut the cost of his booklets in half, A. A. Milne dubbed them ha'penny dreadfullers. There were also Shilling Shockers and, of course, our American Dime Novels.

So we watch Charles MacKay standing like Hans at the Dike, trying to plug holes with his fingers. He wants to bring back Chaucerian words like mickle for great and holt for a patch of forest. Some of his words linger in odd ways: ingle for a fireplace survives in a brand of wine, Inglenook. The word weed for a woman's clothes lingers in the Victorian expression, widow's weeds.

The great irony, of course, lies in that catalog at the end of the book. In with works of Poe, Rabelais, and Shelley, one can, for the same six-shilling price as MacKay's book, get one on magic tricks. One shilling buys a tract exposing race-track scams. (By the way, MacKay tried to resurrect the word trant, which once meant a scam.)

So I wonder how MacKay would've seen our world today. You and I can read Dickens online. We can also find chilling present-day forms of the Penny Dreadful. And, with this Internet onslaught, our language naturally mutates, once again, right under our fingers.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


C. MacKay, Lost Beauties of the English Language. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1874), reprinted (London: Bibliophile Books, 1987). ). My thanks to Andrew Lienhard for this book.

For more on the fast press revolution, see: J. H. Lienhard, How Invention Begins, Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006): Chapter 12. Episodes 1998 and 2157.

For more on the Morgan Library exhibit, see: http://www.morganlibrary.org/exhibitions/victorian.asp

This article tells about penny dreadfuls: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penny_dreadful


Typical catalog entry

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.