Monday, June 06, 2011

`Ape All the Bricklayers that Babel Built'

Ignorance – an honest, incomplete ignorance – can be a beguiling virtue, especially in someone deeply knowledgeable. I used to think I wanted to know everything. At age twenty-four, I resolved to learn Chinese history, a notion quickly frittered away, and today I can’t keep the dynasties straight. Ignorance can be a comfort, a truth reconfirmed when, for three dollars, I bought a previously owned, almost-mint copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work that Defined the English Language, edited by Jack Lynch.

In his introduction, in a paragraph devoted to Johnson’s occasional lapses, Lynch notes the lexicographer’s “frank admissions of ignorance” and cites the definition of stammel:

“Of this word I know not the meaning.”

The echo of “stammer” is strong but misleading. Go here for a thorough definition that amounts to a rich digression into textiles and religious practice. In his note, Lynch reports the Oxford English Dictionary defines stammel as "A coarse woolen cloth" and "The shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed." Johnson cites a passage by his homophonic namesake, Ben Jonson, the source of which I’m unable to identify (more ignorance):

“Reedhood, the first that doth appear
In stammel: scarlet is too dear.”

Browsing through Lynch’s edition, I happened upon another example of Johnson’s refreshing ignorance, his entry for skilt:

“A word used by Cleaveland, of which I know not either the etymology or meaning.”

Lynch's note tells us skilt does not appear in the OED. “Cleaveland” is the poet John Cleveland (1613-1658), and Johnson cites this usage from his poem “Smectymnus, or the Club-Divines”:

“Smectymnus! ha! what art?
Syriack? Or Arabick? Or Welsh? What skilt?
Ape all the bricklayers that Babel built.”

About skilt I remain ignorant and find little enlightenment in the excerpt from Cleveland’s poem, which seems to have something to do with mutual ignorance and incomprehension. Lynch says "the editors of Cleveland's poetry" suggest skilt means "signify" and interpret "What skilt?" to mean "What does it matter?" I’m reminded of Guy Davenport’s insight into human psychology included in “Pergolesi’s Dog” (Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987): “We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we’re dead wrong.” There’s small solace in lines from Cleveland’s “Epitaph on the Earl of Strafford,” lifted ignorantly out of context:

“Riddles lie here, or in a word --
Here lies blood; and let it lie
Speechless still and never cry.”

1 comment:

Dave Lull said...

One of the quotations the OED provides under this meaning of stammel:

2. More fully stammel colour : the shade of red in which the cloth was commonly dyed. Also attrib. or as adj. (Sometimes vaguely = ‘red’.)In the 17th c. often spoken of as cheaper than ‘scarlet’.


1633 B. Jonson Love's Welcome at Welbeck (1640) 276 Red-hood the first that doth appeare In Stamel. Acc. Scarlet is too deare.