William Cowper’s is not an exotic vocabulary. In keeping with the modesty of his subjects – a sofa, a hare, shrubbery – his language is rather narrow, tending toward the Latinate and with few archaisms, words in dialect or those drawn from eighteenth-century science. His poems call for less annotation than those by many of his contemporaries. This makes sense, considering that he also wrote hymns to be sung by people not always highly educated. So I was surprised, while reading The Task (1784) again, to come upon an unfamiliar word: oscitancy. Cowper is railing against the decline in morals, “a dissolution of all bonds,” a time when “bars and bolts / Grew rusty by disuse.” He blames “fashion, dissipation, taverns, stews,” and asks:
“Now, blame we most the nurslings or the nurse?
The children, crook’d, and twisted, and deform’d,
Through want of care; or her, whose winking eye
And slumb’ring oscitancy mars the brood?
The nurse no doubt. Regardless of her charge,
She needs herself correction; needs to learn,
That it is dang’rous sporting with the world,
With things so sacred as a nation’s trust.”
The context was no help but the OED clears things up: “drowsiness as evidenced by yawning; dullness; indolence, negligence, inattention.” For the verb oscitate, the OED quotes Dr. Johnson’s definition of “to yawn” in his Dictionary: “to gape; to oscitate.” The search uncovered another surprise: Cowper is the 33rd most frequently cited source in the OED, with 5,938 quotations, about 0.17 percent of the total. That puts him ahead of Alexander Pope at 43rd, Daniel Defoe at 44th, and most surprisingly, Dr. Johnson at 45th, but far behind the Times of London in first place with 40,617 citations, Shakespeare in second with 33,075 and Walter Scott in third with 17,111. Among the other books I’m reading is You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia (Bloomsbury, 2016) by Jack Lynch, the Johnson, eighteenth-century and history of language scholar at Rutgers. Every page comes with at least one small explosion of delight. In a chapter titled “Reading the Dictionary,” Lynch recounts an anecdote about Robert Browning and the primary editor of the OED, James A.H. Murray (1837-1915):
“When the young Robert Browning `was definitely to adopt literature as his profession,’ wrote a nineteenth-century biographer [Mrs. Sutherland Orr, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, 1891], `he qualified himself for it by reading and digesting the whole of Johnson’s Dictionary.’ Later he told James Murray that he planned to do the same with the Oxford English Dictionary—but Browning died not long after A was published.”