Saturday, July 14, 2018

'He Is in Love with Words'

“A troop of these ignorant Doradoes.”

And who are these Doradoes who are so ignorant? Sir Thomas Browne had neither El Dorado nor Doritos in mind. The word appears in a marvelous passage in Part II, Section 1 of Religio Medici (1642), in which he expresses a tolerance and humility uncharacteristic of his age and ours, a quality he calls the “Vertue of Charity”:

“I am of a constitution so generall, that it consorts, and sympathizeth with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather Idio-syncrasie, in dyet, humour, ayre, any thing; I wonder not at the French, for their dishes of frogges, snailes, and toadstooles, nor at the Jewes for Locusts and Grasse-hoppers, but being amongst them, make them my common viands; and I finde they agree with my stomach as well as theirs; I could digest a Sallad gathered in a Church-yard, as well as in a Garden.”

Like any sensible man, the one exception to Browne’s generosity of spirit is his fear and detestation of crowds, “that great enemy of reason, vertue and religion, the multitude, that numerous piece of monstrosity, which taken asunder seeme men, and the reasonable creatures of God; but confused together, make but one great beast, & a monstrosity more prodigious than Hydra.” Whether at a rock concert or a political rally, mobs are unpredictable, loud, smelly and incapable of thought. They react to stimuli like fire ants on a baby. A few lines later comes the passage cited above. Dorado, the OED tells us, is rooted in the Spanish, French, Italian and Latin for “gold.” It can refer to a fish or a southern constellation, “also called Xiphias or the Sword-fish.” Browne’s usage is cited, though labeled “figurative”: “a rich man. Obsolete.” A shame. The most recent citation dates from 1868.

Browne works words the way a sculptor works clay. The language was still young malleable. Among writers most often cited by the OED, Browne ranks seventieth. He is cited 788 times for the first appearance of words in English. On the same day I encountered Doradoes in Browne I was reading an essay Anthony Hecht published in the Fall 2001 issue of The Sewanee Review, in which he says of Richard Wilbur:

“. . . it is not enough to say that he is in love with the visible world. He is in love with words, which, given a moment’s thought, are also encoded. The lover of words seeks for their hidden worth, their forgotten meanings, their playfulness, trickiness, the way they can make us say more than we intended or than we knew we meant or than we knew we knew. ‘Words,’ says the music and literary critic Charles Rosen, ‘will not sit still. They change their meanings, shift from praise to blame, revise their associations.’ They are as evasive as the world they endeavor to describe, so that both the world of language and the visible world, to the thoughtful mind, are fugitive and unstable.”

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