A few glorious, golden fall days are certainly enjoyable, but are also a harbinger of winter. As the French Poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in 1869, “Nothing is as tedious as the limping days/ When snowdrifts yearly cover all the ways,/ And ennui, sour fruit of in curious gloom,/ Assumes control of fate’s immortal loom.” That’s unless you have a diverting book handy, of course. The ennui that comes with waiting for construction traffic and interminable queues can be forestalled by keeping a paperback copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898 edition, handy. Brewer’s inevitably provides an intellectual romp, as one odd fact, person, or event leads to others.
A recent perusal led to a brief description of how John Fell, the Bishop of Oxford who was the University’s overlord and a real martinet, expelled a student named Tom Brown for some unnamed offense, but Fell said he’d overlook it if Brown could translate a Latin passage by the Roman poet Martial: “Non amo te, Sabide, nec possum dicere quare. Hoc tantum possum dicere: non amo te.” Brown, who went on to become a “low-life” satirist, replied, “I do not love thee Dr. Fell. The reason why I cannot tell; But this I know and know full well: I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.” Further research revealed the passages are the same except for Brown substituting “Dr. Fell” for “Sabide.” Brown’s expulsion was waived, but he never graduated.
Dr. Fell, a prodigy, did. He entered Oxford University at age 11 in 1637 where he was fast-tracked, quickly obtaining his undergraduate and master’s degrees. He fought for Charles I during the British Civil War, which led to him being kicked out of Oxford by Cromwell’s victorious, and Church of England hating, Roundheads following the king’s beheading. That radicalized Fell, and when Charles II resumed the throne, “He was the most zealous man of his time for the Church of England, and none that I yet know of did go beyond him in the performance of the rules belonging thereunto,” as Anthony Wood, a contemporary historian, put it. He also ran a strict ship at his university, getting rid of pesky Puritan scholars, tightening the administration, and making sure his finger was in every pie, especially the Oxford University Press, which he established.
Brewer’s is a fat book, and, when my finger slipped from the “F” section, I encountered “Iliad in a Nutshell,” which was about a condensed version of Homer’s classic, but in terms of space, not abbreviation. “Pliny tells us that Cicero asserts that the whole Iliad was written on a piece of parchment which might be put into a nutshell.” Brewer added that “Charles Toppan, of New York, engraved on a plate one-eighth of an inch square 12,000 letters. The Iliad contains 501,930 letters, and would therefore occupy 42 such plates engraved on both sides. Huet has proved by experiment that a parchment 27 by 21 centimetres would contain the entire Iliad, and such a parchment would go into a common-sized nut; but Mr. Toppan’s engraving would get the whole Iliad into half that size.”
Reading Brewer’s description of a person called “Occasion” (whom the poet Spencer described in “Faerie Queene,” as “A famous old hag, quite bald behind. Sir Guyon seized her by the forelock and threw her to the ground. Still she railed and reviled, till Sir Guyon gagged her with an iron lock; she then began to use her hands, but Sir Guyon bound them behind her.”) led to a very cryptic mention of “Occam’s Razor”: “Entia non sunt multiplicanda” (‘entities are not to be multiplied’). With this axiom Occam dissected every question as with a razor.” This, too, inspired a quick researching that showed that Occam actually spelled his name “Ockham,” the village he came from. Otherwise little’s known about Ockham the man. He spoke Middle English but wrote in Latin, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, who said “Ockham was a major force of change at the end of the Middle Ages. He was a courageous man with an uncommonly sharp mind. His philosophy was radical in his day and continues to provide insight into current philosophical debates.”
Boy howdy, those philosophers do enjoy debates, but “The principle of simplicity is the central theme of Ockham’s approach … Ockham uses the razor to eliminate unnecessary hypotheses.” This upset the Catholic Church, but what got Ockham, a Franciscan friar, in hot ecclesiastical water was being a “fideist” who believed that belief in God is a matter of faith rather than knowledge. He was summoned from studying theology at Oxford to defend himself before the papal court in Avignon. Four years of house arrest in Avignon, a haven of debauchery and corruption, convinced Ockham to join three other friars who escaped by stealing horses and fleeing to the court of Louis IV of Bavaria, who hated the current pope for his own reasons. Ockham was excommunicated and, although his philosophical work continued unabated, he never completed his studies. That why Ockham had the nicknames, “the Venerable Inceptor” (an inceptor is a student on the verge of obtaining a degree) and “the More Than Subtle Doctor”
since he was considered to have surpassed the thinking of the Franciscan philosopher John Duns Scotus, whose fans called “the Subtle Doctor.”
Words at the top of dictionary pages to indicate the first and last definitions are known as “headwords” or “guidewords” Seeing “puff-ball” at the top of a Brewer’s page drew my eye, since I’d recently mowed a bunch of them, and I learned that besides being a “sort of fungus,” it stems from “pulker-fist,” the Saxon word for “toadstool,” which was corrupted into “pulk-fist,” then “puck or pouk ball.” On a nearby page was a listing of “Public-House Signs.” “Pub” is a shortening of “public -house,” and many had colorful, mangled names. “The Goat in Golden Boots,” for example, is “A corruption of the Dutch ‘Goed in der Gouden Boots’ (the god Mercury in his golden sandals), and “The Man Laden with Mischief” had a sign is painted by Hogarth that “represents a man carrying a woman and a good many other creatures on his back.”
The “Dog and Duck” advertised that “the sport so called could be seen there. A duck was put into water, and a dog set to hunt it; the fun was to see the duck diving and the dog following it under water.” The “Salutation and Cat” sign showed an angel saluting the Virgin Mary, and the Cat” meant that one could play tipcat there. The “cat” in question was a 4-inch long dowel tapered at both ends that was placed on the ground and smacked on one end with a bat, a 2-3-footlong stick. This causes the “cat” to rise and the batter tries to hit it. If the batter misses three times or another player catches the stick, his turn is over. Some versions involved running to bases on a large circle until an opposing player hits him with the stick.
And beside the public house signs section was “Publicans of the New Testament”: the provincial underlings of the Magister or master collector who resided at Rome. The taxes were farmed by a contractor called the Manceps; this Manceps divided his contract into different societies: each society had a Magister, under whom were a number of underlings called Publicaʹni or servants of the state.” This reminded me of the distinction between those guys and public librarians, who are servants of the people and agree with Gustave Flaubert: “Isn’t ‘not to be bored’ one of the principal goals of life?”