Tuesday, February 14, 2012

`A Man of Fire-New Words'

Fire-new: The word is new to me – fire-new, in fact – but I knew its meaning: “Fresh from the fire or furnace (obs.); hence, perfectly new, brand-new” (Oxford English Dictionary). In theory, this morning’s newspaper, a hot-from-the-oven pizza and a newborn baby are fire-new (and all commonly delivered). In the Guardian, Robert McCrum, the biographer of P.G. Wodehouse (who died on this date, St. Valentine’s Day, in 1975), describes Shakespeare as the word’s coiner. The OED confirms this by giving him the first citation, from Richard III. The speaker is Queen Margaret: “Your fire-new stampe of honour is scarse currant.”

Shakespeare also uses it in King Lear, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Twelfth Night. A web site mentioned by McCrum describes the word as “a metaphor taken from the art of the blacksmith,” though the OED has nothing to say in the matter. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable reports: “Originally applied to metals and things manufactured in metal which shine. Subsequently applied generally to things quite new.”  Surely fresh-baked bread and ceramics can be literally described as fire-new.

It’s a new word compounded of old, familiar words, a good thing to remember when reading Shakespeare. His vocabulary is vast (31,534 words, 14,376 used once) but not exclusively arcane or archaic. High school students traditionally make a fuss about his language, but Shakespeare routinely makes old words fire-new. On St. Valentine’s Day, of all days, consider Sonnet XXX, in which not a single word is obscure, even to twenty-first century readers:

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
 I summon up remembrance of things past,
 I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
 And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
 Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
 For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
 And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
 And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
 Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
 And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
 The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
 Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.”

Laura Demanski has described Keats’ “To Autumn” as “a perfect and magical piece of writing,” and the same can be said of Sonnet XXX. Shakespeare uses, of all things, legal imagery in the opening lines, which meld, unavoidably in English, with Proust. Scholars note the allusion to “Wisdom of Solomon” in the Old Testament Apocrypha: “For a double griefe came upon them, and a groaning for the remembrance of things past.” The sonnet is gem-studded, and all readily understood: “death’s dateless night,” “fore-bemoaned moan.” Of the poem’s 116 words, ninety-two are of one syllable. The antecedents to “losses” in the final line are “many a thing I sought,” “precious friends” and “many a vanished sight,” and all are “restor’d” and our “sorrows end.”

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Biron calls Armado “A man of fire-new words, fashion's own knight.”

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