Thirty years ago I wrote a story for my newspaper about the construction of a “Peace Pagoda” in Grafton, N.Y., twenty miles northeast of Albany. The building was the inspiration of a Japanese-born Buddhist nun. The staff photographer who accompanied me was a Korean War veteran, a gifted but rather crusty fellow. (I once witnessed an argument he had with another Marine Corps veteran of that war about the proper operation of a flamethrower.) As we reached the entrance to the temple we were asked to remove our shoes before entering – a gesture of respect, I assumed. The photographer threw a tantrum and refused to take off his shoes. He hollered and stomped, and we left with only exterior shots of the building.
I remembered that rather embarrassing event while reading the Fifth Book, Chapter VI, of Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors (1646):
“That the custom of feasting upon beds was in use among the Hebrews, many deduce from Ezekiel. Thou sattest upon a stately bed, and a table prepared before it. The custom of Discalceation or putting off their shoes at meals, is conceived to confirm the same; as by that means keeping their beds clean; and therefore they had a peculiar charge to eat the Passover with their shoes on; which Injunction were needless, if they used not to put them off.”
Discalceation: “The act of pulling off the shoes,” according to Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. He quotes Browne’s passage. The OED gets a little more specific: “The action of taking off the shoes, esp. as a token of reverence or humility.” The Dictionary doesn’t cite Browne but adds this footnote: “In later use chiefly with reference to rituals associated with Freemasonry.” Forget that. Discalceation is a straight borrow from Latin but sounds at once fancy and formal, and deliciously exotic. It might be the name of a chemical reaction. I read Browne for precisely such unexpected little packages of linguistic joy. He coined hundreds of words. To Browne we owe narwhal, ossuary and patois. In Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James writes:
“Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682) is one of those minor English prose writers whose reputations are always rediscovered in times of crisis, because they had a gift for rhythm that forecast the language of the future, and it is in times of crisis that the English language is most easily seen to be a treasure house of humanism.”