Judging by tone and word choice, who might have written the following sentence? “But the epitaphs were trim, and sprag, and patent, and pleased the survivors of Thames-Ditton above the old mumpsimus of `Afflictions Sore.’” Right: Charles Lamb. And the recipient of his letter written Oct. 19, 1810? William Wordsworth, a saturnine soul who had recently published “Essays upon Epitaphs,” to which Lamb is responding. Lamb tells him of an epitaph writer whose beat is the graveyard at Ditton-upon-Thames:
“This sweet Swan of Thames has so artfully diversified his strains and his rhymes, that the same thought never occurs twice; more justly, perhaps, as no thought ever occurs at all, there was a physical impossibility that the same thought should recur.”
One wonders what Wordsworth made of this, but what interests me is the rare word in Lamb’s sentence. No, not mumpsimus, a word famous for being rare and thus no longer rare. I mean that blank monosyllable sprag, five letters bereft of meaning. The OED defines it as “smart, clever,” and cites Lamb’s usage. Before him, it showed up in Merry Wives of Windsor, where Sir Hugh Evans speaks of William Page to Mistress Page
“He is a good sprag memory.” In 1830, Walter Scott uses it in a letter. The Dictionary adds that the word is probably a mispronunciation of sprack, an adjective I didn’t know that means “brisk, active; alert, smart; in good health and spirits.”
What’s remarkable is that sprag packs four other meanings, plus their mutations: 1.) “a slip; a twig or spray,” used by Isaac Newton in 1676. 2.) “a lively young fellow,” “a young salmon,” “a young cod.” 3.) “a prop used to support the coal or roof during the working of a seam” and “a stout piece of wood used to check the revolution of a wheel (or roller), usually by inserting it between two of the spokes.” 4.) “to prop up or sustain (esp. coal in a mine) with a sprag or sprags,” “to check or stop (a wheel) by inserting a sprag” and “to accost truculently. Austral. slang.” That last is a gem, a word I hope Les Murray has found a place for in one of his poems.