Thursday, June 08, 2017

`A Mixture of Heterogeneous Words'

Always keep handy specialized books for those times when you’re running late to the doctor’s office and can’t bother to trawl the shelves. Such volumes ought to defy systematic reading and invite the serendipitous dip. Lengthy narratives are discouraged, but Montaigne and Charles Lamb are suitable choices. Max Beerbohm called such books “dippable-into” (he was describing his own 1920 essay collection, And Even Now). Among the books on my on-the-fly shelf is Ancilla to Classical Reading (Columbia University Press, 1954) by Moses Hadas (1900-1966), the prolific classicist and translator (his Tacitus was the first I read). The book is organized encyclopedia-style, by topic and sub-topic.

In Chap. 6, “Scholarship,” Sec. VI, “The Renaissance,” Hadas discusses how the invention of printing facilitated the spread of humanism. He mentions the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) and his son Paulus (1512-1574), and writes, typically, in parentheses: “(It may be apposite to note that the motto on the Aldine device, festina lente [“speed up slowly”], was rendered by Thomas Browne as `Celerity contempered with cunctation.’)” Manutius adopted the stylized emblem of dolphin and anchor, a visual counterpart of festina lente, as his printer’s mark.

It’s the alliterative Browne tag that grabbed me. I didn’t know the meaning of “celerity” until seventh-grade Latin class: celeritās, “quickness, swiftness, haste.” More Latin with “contempered” (con-, “with,” and temperāre, “to temper”), meaning “temper[ed] by mixture with something of different character; to moderate, qualify.” “Cunctation” sounds perilously close to prurient, but its meaning is perfectly chaste: “the action of delaying; delay, tardy action [all definitions, OED].” Again, the root is Latin: cunctārī, “to delay.” In his Dictionary, Johnson adds “procrastination.”

Browne, an industrious coiner of new words (784, by scholarly estimate, most of them Latinate), was not the author of cunctation, as I assumed. The OED’s first citation, by Robert Parsons, dates from 1585. The next, from 1648, is found in a gather-ye-rosebuds couplet in Robert Herrick’s Hesperides: “Break off Delay, since we but read of one / That ever prosper’d by Cunctation.” After that, Carlyle gets two citations, the more recent dating from 1871.

Hadas, it turns out, slightly abbreviates the Browne reference, which can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica. He writes: “And thus also must that picture be taken of a Dolphin clasping an Anchor: that is, not really, as is by most conceived out of affection unto man, conveighing the Anchor unto the ground: but emblematically, according as Pierius hath expressed it, The swiftest animal conjoyned with that heavy body, implying that common moral, Festina lentè: and that celerity should always be contempered with cunctation.”

In his Life of Browne (1756), Dr. Johnson defends Browne’s rococo linguistic palette: “His style is, indeed, a tissue of many languages; a mixture of heterogeneous words, brought together from distant regions, with terms originally appropriated to one art, and drawn by violence into the service of another. He must, however, be confessed to have augmented our philosophical diction; and in defence of his uncommon words and expressions, we must consider, that he had uncommon sentiments, and was not content to express in many words that idea for which any language could supply a single term.”


Choderlos Laclos said...

Was pleased to realise that I knew the meaning of cunctation before you explained it. This was because, at school, in my Latin studies, I came across Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator - The Delayer who was a Roman General who deliberately delayed engagement to wear his enemy (often Hannibal) down. Verrucosus because of a wart on his lip.

mike zim said...

The Aldus Society here in Columbus has an animated version of the dolphin and anchor emblem: