Thursday, April 02, 2015

`Each Other's Only Extraforaneous Comfort'

From the letter William Cowper wrote to the Rev. William Unwin, son of his friend Mary Unwin, on this date, April 2, in 1781: 

“Fine weather, and a variety of extra-foraneous occupations, (search Johnson's dictionary for that word, and if not found there, insert it—for it saves a deal of circumlocution, and is very lawfully compounded,) make it difficult, (excuse the length of a parenthesis, which I did not foresee the length of when I began it, and which may perhaps a little perplex the sense of what I am writing, though, as I seldom deal in that figure of speech, I have the less need to make an apology for doing it at present,) make it difficult (I say) for me to find opportunities for writing.” 

For a man frequently off his nut – multiple suicide attempts and spells in the asylum – Cowper could be remarkably playful and witty. The truly crazy seldom have a sense of humor. Its absence is a sort of field sobriety test for gauging lunacy (no need for a breathalyzer), and gives the lie to such euphemisms for the insane asylum as “laughing academy” and “ha-ha hotel.” Unwin would have to insert extra-foraneous in the dictionary, as Johnson mysteriously omitted it. From the Latin foris, “door,” it simply means outside or out-of-doors. Among his “extra-foraneous occupations,” Cowper goes on to mention gardening and taking walks. 

Cowper uses the word in another letter, written May 6, 1788, to his cousin, Lady Harriett Hesketh: “We live near to each other and while the Hall is empty are each other’s only extraforaneous comfort.” (The OED cites Cowper’s usages and only two others, the most recent dating from 1891.) Late in 1786, Cowper had moved from Olney to the nearby village of Weston Underwood, where he stayed as a guest of the Throckmorton family. The Throckmortons’ chaplain, William Gregson, aided the poet in his translation of Homer. The “we” in the passage just quoted refers to Cowper and Gregson. In the May 6 letter, Cowper thanks Lady Hesketh in advance for the “solander” she has promised to send him. Another word new to me: a solander is a box made in the form of a book for holding papers, maps, botanical specimens and other items. The word derives from the Swedish botanist Daniel Charles Solander (1733-1782). Cowper closes his letter: 

“When people are intimate, we say -- They are as great as two Inkle-weavers, on which expression I have to remark in the first place, that the word Great is here used in a sense, which the corresponding term has not, so far as I know, in any other language and secondly, that Inkle weavers contract intimacies with each other sooner than other people on account of their juxtaposition in weaving of Inkle. Hence it is, that Mr. Gregson and I emulate those happy weavers in the closeness of our connexion. We live near to each other, and while the Hall is empty are each other’s only extraforaneous comfort.”
Imagine trying to parse that passage for readers with a rough grasp of English, foreign or domestic. Inkle is “a kind of linen tape.” The OED defines inkle-weaver as, sensibly enough, “a weaver of inkle or linen tape,” then adds “whence the phrase as great (or thick) as inkle-weavers, extremely intimate.” We might say “as thick as thieves.” In 1738, Swift had used the expression in Polite Conversation: “Lord! Why she and you were as great as two inkle-weavers. I’ve seen her hug you, as the devil hugged the witch.”

No comments: