29 January, 2009

On Neologism, Part One

The Scottish physician Thomas Short, at the end of a parenthesis on diseases, in the middle of a long footnote, extending over several pages through a discussion of chalybeate waters, from his 1734 Natural, Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, writes with a twinkle:
The Causes we assign for these Diseases, we have borrowed from the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphicks, as the incoercible Flatus, culinary Digestion, Evestrum vitae, Peroledi, Archeus, Gas, Blas, Deulock, &c. which we discourse of as distinct intelligent Beings in the human Body. These are things beyond the Ken of the present Age.—
It is a rare moment of linguistic fantasia in an otherwise unremarkable text: a series of lexical gobbets from the natural science of Paracelsus and Van Helmont, via his immediate source, William Simpson's Hydrologia Chymica (1669). Of all these charming arcanisms, only one has made it into popular currency, almost invisible in the cloud surrounding it here: gas. Of the others, only one, blas, has survived at all—revived a month ago, for instance, in the languagey sectors of the internet—thanks to a freak citation in the OED, handily cross-referenced in the etymology awarded its more famous twin: 'Van H. also invented the term BLAS'; although the OED's entry for blas rather bizarrely pairs it with an unrelated bit of Middle English dialect (sense 1), offering for sense 2 only, 'Van Helmont's term for a supposed ‘flatus’ or influence of the stars, producing changes of weather.' The OED clearly assumes no readers will come to blas except by way of gas: for while the latter entry clarifies which Van Helmont, the former does not. All the citations for blas, the phantom word, are Helmontian, except the last, a reference to Whitney's seminal Life and Growth of Language (1875). This is cited without quotation; but for you, reader:
Of the out-and-out invention of new words, language in the course of its recorded history. . . presents only rare examples. Sometimes, however, a case occurs like that of gas, already noticed as having been devised by an ancient chemist, as artificial appellation for a condition of existence of matter which had not before been so distinctly apprehended as to seem to require a name. Along with it, he proposed blas for that property of the heavenly bodies whereby they regulate the changes of time: this, however, was too purely fanciful to recommend itself to general use, and it dropped out of sight and was forgotten, while the other came to honor.
The full text of Life and Growth is online, although one word seems to have puzzled the OCR: that word, of course, being blas, which it renders Mas. So the OED defines blas as an influence of the stars on the weather, and Whitney, the old American windbag, defines it as an astral property that regulates time.
Stellae sunt nobis in signa, tempora, dies, & annos. Ergo patrant temporum mutationes, tempestates, atque vicissitudines. Quorsum opus habent duplici motu, locali scilicet, & alterativo. Utrumque autem, novo nomine Blas significo. . . Blas motivum stellarum, est virtus pulsiva, ratione itineris, per loca et secundum aspectus.

The stars for us are as signs, tempora, days and years. Therefore they effect the changes, tempestates and vicissitudes of the tempora. For this they require a double motion, that is locomotive and alterative. Both, however, I signify with the new name 'Blas'. . . Blas, the movement of the stars, is a propulsive power, by reason of their journey through places and according to their aspects.
The problem comes in the definitions of tempus and tempestas, which can mean time, season, occasion and weather. Either way, the Helmontian stars play a role in the astrological mechanism of the universe, which was wholly within the regular laws of natural science. Now the interesting question is: why has the OED preserved blas? Sure, it makes a nice rhyming twin with gas, and, as in Whitney, the two nicely illustrate the divergent possibilities of two initial bedfellows, a lexical version of Hawking radiation. That was the Liberman angle: 'it's too bad that 18th-century chemists couldn't find any real substance to which the reference of blas could be transferred, as the reference of gas was'.

But blas has no real substance as an English word: it exists in the penumbra of the lexicon, teasing us as a little jewel of potential meaning, but never so well-defined (time or weather? 'Both I signify. . .'), and never, more importantly, a true element in the inter-referential web of the vocabulary. It has no interaction with its fellows, except gas. It was only ever a parody of a word.

See, if not blas, why not peroledi or peroledes? For this is another Helmontism:
Habet ergo aer suos, non minus quam terra, fundos, quos Adepti vocant Peroledos. Invisibile itaque Gas, variis aeris stratis hospitatur, si aquae sua sint barathra, suae voragines, suae portae sunt in Peroledis, quas periti Cataractas Coeli, & valvas dixere.

Therefore the air, no less than the earth, has its own grounds, which the adepts call 'Peroledi'. Thus the invisible Gas is a guest in the various layers of the air, if the waters have their abysses, their chasms, so its own gates are in the Peroledi, which the experts call the sluices and folding-doors of heaven.
Oh, you want it in period English? It's only Margaret Cavendish, the second most famous English writeress of the seventeenth century, in a Philosophical Letter:
But rather then your Author [Van Helmont] will consent to the transchanging of Water into Air, he will feign several grounds, soils or pavements in the Air, which he calls Peroledes, and so many Flood-gates and Folding-dores, and make the Planets their Key-keepers; which are pretty Fancies, but not able to prove any thing in Natural Philosophy.
Is it purely in deference to the cute historical narrative of gas and blas that the OED likes blas and not peroledes? And why is it so much less generous to Van Helmont than to Paracelsus, who is awarded several neologisms in the dictionary? (In addition to the uncontroversial gnome and nostoc, Paracelsus gets archeus too, with a wholly unsatisfactory etymology section.) What are the criteria for formal recognition in the lexicon? What does it take to be a word?

[Part Two here.]


John Cowan said...

FWIU, it's a matter of editorial judgment what words go in and what don't. Peth-winds probably isn't going to make it, even though it's in Kingsley's The Water-Babies, along with a very interesting sense of bloke, viz. 'ninny'.

Languagehat said...

I believe the OED has gotten pickier about what they include over the years; at first they were putting in every single word they found in one of their authors. That may have to do with why blas, in the letter B, made it in; if it had been "vlas," it might not have.

Phanero Noemikon said...









There is an interesting belief
that chaos and order are somehow
at odds, and that man knows enough about the universe to assume he can make a meaning at all, much less that he can possible declare in all earnest that somehow there is some fundamental difference in what results from 'chaos' versus 'order'. It is perhaps only the traditional jester who has seen through this ridiculous differand,
and noted it for the pompostif apperiftussle it actudates..

words are made of light
and lines
and there is a far older geometry
of strings
that nature made
before these dingalings
got to laying out their spaghetti
and ruck the bugbores
in a chayne somehow

'more logical' 'more learned'

than hyle's
own self..


bibble fratters

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, of course it's a matter of editorial judgement what ends up in the OED. The question is, what is the basis of that judgement?

I think I must have learnt a lot of words from The Water Babies, that most magisterially Rabelaisian of books, including 'eft', I should think, and certainly 'subanhypaposupernal'. I note also that Kingsley imported "cocqcigrues" from Gargantua and Pantagruel, rather than using Urquhart's "cocklicranes", which, by the way, is in the OED.