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Ex. “The whole library[that of Christina Queen of Sweden] is contained in an immense gallery, 214 feet long, and 48 feet broad.”—Dr. Brewster.
It requires but little reflection to perceive the absurdity of speaking of an immeasurable or boundless room of two hundred and fourteen feet long.
“Ignorance of the signification of words, which is want of understanding, disposeth men to take on trust, not only the truth they know not, but the errors, and which is more, the nonsense of them they trust ; for neither error nor sense can, without a perfect understanding of words, be detected.”—Hobbs. Leviathan, Chap. II.
59. Language consists of words, employed by common consent, as signs of thought.
The primitive meaning of the word language, is the utterance of the human voice as directed by the tongue. The name of this chief instrument of speech has been adopted among most nations to signify language itself.
60. In a philosophic exposition of speech, the same words must be attended to in three distinct points of view.
1. Their literal, original, and strict meaning.
2. The general acceptation which they acquire by fashion and use.
3. Their different import by different relations to other words, or their manner of signification.
Thus the verb do signifies to act or practise; but in the familiar question, “How do you do?” the uniform understanding is, what is the state of your health ; though the literal meaning is, how do you act, behave or conduct yourself.
The same idea is conveyed in the French question, “Comment vous portez vous?” how do you carry yourself. In Spanish, “Como lo va 2° how do you go; answering to the Saxon expression still prevalent in many places, how fare you ?, from the old verb faran, to travel or go.
The short familiar phrase in Latin was, “Quid agis?” what are you doing.
When a man is under the temporary delirium of a fever, we say in English, “he is out of his head.” To express the same idea, the French say, “he is out of himself;” or otherwise, “Il a perdu sa tete ;” “He has lost his head ;” not meaning that the man's head is cut off, but that his senses are disordered.
So if it is said that a person is in a situation of particular difficulty, and at a loss for expedients, the common English phrase is, he does not know which way to turn himself. The Frenchman says, from habit and with great seriousness, “Il ne sait sur quel pied de danser;” he does not know which foot to dance on. There is also, in most languages, a great number of figurative expressions, which grow into characteristic idioms, and give a turn to the general current of thought ; as the expressions of joy, “To have a light heart,” “To beat the ground with a light foot ;” but the consideration of this subject will be reserved to an other part of this work.
61. An other principle of language, of considerable importance to the philosophic investigator, is the transitive meaning of words. This gradual change takes place in numerous instances, and from various causes, most commonly a change of the circumstances or opinions which led to the first application.
The words rogue and villain, according to their original use, implied merely a person of humble or vile condition, without associating any idea of dishonesty. The men bearing these disgraceful names were feudal dependants, who might be very well meaning men, and exceedingly faithful to their lords. The present meaning of the words, has grown up, in Europe, by imperceptible degrees, from the incidental idea, that a low condition in life is attended with greater infamy than bad character. On the other hand, slave originally implied a person of bad moral principles, and not one in bondage.
Leghorn bonnets were so named from the place where they were made ; but the name has acquired a farther meaning, descriptive of the kind of manufacture. A silk bonnet, made in that city would not be a Leghorn bonnet under the established meaning of the phrase; and the time may arrive when this article may be as little restricted to a specific locality as Morocco leather.
62. Words also take various shades of meaning, depending on their combination. These meanings are to be learned only by practice. A white house is a house painted white on the outside. A black horse is one whose coat of hair is of that color ; but red lead is the oxid of that metal prepared by a particular process in a reverberatory furnace. If a man, under a contract to deliver red lead, should bring forward leaden bars coated with red paint, it would be a low trick, which the common sense and the moral feeling of the whole community would condemn; yet this article would literally correspond with the white house. The word sell was formerly used in the same sense in which we at present employ the verb to
give. It signified to bestow, without implying any equivalent return, and occurs in the form of the Lord's prayer, as written by Alfred, Bishop of Durham, about the beginning of the tenth century. “Our loof, most needful, sell us to day.”
63. Words are also frequently changed by iromical use. Wiseacre, as first used, signified in sober earnest, a sage philosopher; as appears in the examination before King Edward the Sixth, quoted in the annotations of Mr. Locke, as “faithfullye copyed, by John Leylande, Antiquarius, by the commaunde of his Highnesse.”
“Peter Gower, a Grecian, journeyedde for Kunnynge yn Egypte, and yn Syria, and yn everyche londe whereas the Venetians hadde plauntedde maconrye, wynnynge entrance, he lerned muche, and retournedde and woned yn Grecia Magna, wachsyne and becommynge a myghtie wy eacre and gratelyche renowed, &c.”.
In plain modern English, Pythagoras travelled for knowledge in Egypt, Syria, and every land where the Phemicians had established masonry; obtaining entrance, he learned much, and returned and dwelt in Grecia Magma, becoming an eminent savan, and greatly renowned. The term wiseacre has been employed in levity and irony, till it is hardly admissible in dignified style, and when used in lighter compositions, signifies a man wise only in his own conceit. Dunce is from Duns Scotus, a man highly famed for learning in his time; and the name Solomon would long ago have become the most expressive word in the language to signify a downright blockhead, if the sacred volume had not fixed the meaning of the word, beyond the power of change.
This course of illustration might be greatly extended; but in all which is here said, it is not so much the design to proceed to minute detail, as to advance general principles which may serve, in some degree, as a guide to those who are inclined to pursue a farther course of investigation.
64. The meaning and application of words are also changed by a great variety of accidental circumstances and associations. Many instances of ignorance, servility, and caprice might be given in this department of speech. A single example will illustrate the gradual transition in the meaning of words, and the observing scholar may increase the number at his pleasure. Among the numerous saints, male and female, formerly worshipped in England, was Saint Bride, which is a contraction of Bridget; Latin, Brigitta. A church in London is called St. Bride. This name was formerly applied to a well near Fleet Ditch. Near St. Bride's well, a palace was built by king Henry VIII. and called Bridewell Palace. This edifice was subsequently transferred to the corporation of London, and converted into a house of correction, for which the term Bridewell has become the general appellative word.
65. Language, in reference to the means employed for its transmission, is divided into two kinds, spoken and written. Spoken language consists of distinct vocal sounds, modulated and arranged by progressive usage. Written language is the representation of those sounds, by visible characters, variously combined. A broader definition may be given to speech, as including all possible signs, by which one being makes known his ideas or sensations to an other;