There’s a dim corner in our memory reserved for words one has never used and cannot remember having heard or seen in print, and yet we know their meaning. They tend to be antiquated, in my experience, and useful, if at all, only when deployed comically or by Alexander Theroux. How did I know the meaning of pelf, a word that sounds like a sound effect? I found it again in Act I, Scene 2 of Timon of Athens, spoken by the churlish Apemantus:
“Immortal gods, I crave no pelf;
I pray for no man but myself . . .”
Think of Apemantus as an Athenian Don Rickles. I haven’t read Timon in a decade or more, and spent most of this reading waiting for the speech by Timon (Act IV, Scene 3) plundered by Nabokov for the title of his greatest novel:
“The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun . . .”
Dr. Johnson cites Apemantus’ speech in his Dictionary and gives a no-nonsense definition: “money; riches.” The word must be attractive to poets because of the easy rhyme with self. In Johnson’s entry, Shakespeare gives us “pelf”/”self”; Spenser, “elf”/”thyself”/”pelf”; Swift, “pelf”/“himself.” Only Dryden mixes it up, with “pelf”/”shelf,” and Sidney leaves it unrhymed.
The OED gives an array of nuance in usage that surprised me. In use from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century and now judged “Obs.” is “stolen goods; booty, spoil.” Next, from the same era and also “Obs.”: “property, material possessions; objects of value.” For the latter the OED gives another Shakespeare citation, from Pericles: “All perishen of man of pelfe, Ne ought escapend but himselfe.”Next comes the “chiefly depreciative” usage we know: “Money, riches (esp. viewed as a corrupting influence); lucre.” Other (clichéd) synonyms might be “ill-gotten gains” or “swag.” Citations range from the sixteenth century to 1993.
English words mutate metaphorically. Next is “a worthless person, a good-for-nothing,” in Yorkshire, and “junk, trash, rubbish; frippery,” also “Obs.”, but around long enough to be used by Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Which to her gestes she shewes, withall her pelfe.” And the next usage, “dust; fluff,” is “now Eng. regional (south-west).
Finally, there is “refuse, detritus; (Brit. regional) spec. plant refuse, weeds,” a long way from stolen goods. The surprise citation is from Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares (1971), a collection of poems I haven’t looked at in forty-five years: “A piece of flesh gives off smoke in the field—carrion, caput mortuum, orts, pelf, fenks, sordes, gurry dumped from hospital trashcans.”
As a bonus, the OED gives us three compounds: pelf-licker, pelf-loving and pelf-spurning – a miniature taxonomy of human types.