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Thursday, 31 January 2013
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Lexicographical reservations
Instances of words used by creative writers and poets, although one of the main quotation sources for the OED (see Literature and the nation), are often difficult to define precisely and comprehensively. Such authors often use language in ways which are context-dependent on the one hand (responding to local requirements of rhyme, rhythm, imagery etc), and polysemous on the other (the reader is expected to summon to mind a wide range of possible connotations). The 'logical conflict' is identified by e.g. Auden and C. Day-Lewis and further remarked on by William Empson (see Connotation vs. denotation, under Literary issues).

A number of Murray's surviving letters are to writers, inquiring what precisely they had meant when they had used a particular word. The replies were not always helpful: answering a query about the meaning of thwarteous, a word he had used in his drama 'The Christian Captives' in 1886, Robert Bridges told Murray, 'As I remember nothing about this word I think it best to say nothing….As soon as I had finished [the play] I began something else, and have scarcely thought of it again. Whether I coined the word or found it I cannot say.'[1] George Eliot, on the other hand, explained that 'she had used the word adust in [her novel] Romola for dusty because it suited the rhythm of her prose' (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 300).

It is not surprising if Murray was sometimes sceptical of the value of such testimony. He complained to one of his sons that Robert Browning 'constantly used words without regard to their proper meaning', and 'added greatly to the difficulties of the Dictionary' (Browning had earlier told Murray 'that he found the Dictionary "most delightful" and intended to read every word of it'; K. M. E. Murray 1977: 235; cf. Fowler 1998).

Responding to an inquiry from a Miss Hastings about the meaning of the word voidee cup in a work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's ('Then he called for the Voidee-cup: And as we heard the twelfth hour strike, There by true lips and false lips alike Was the draught of trust drained up'), Murray told his correspondent, 'I see no trace of Rossetti’s phrase in English of any age, and I suppose he invented it himself.' After some guesses at how Rossetti might have arrived at the phrase, deriving it perhaps from Old French, he continued,
One must not take the language of poets too seriously. One cannot now ask Rossetti where he got it or how he coined it; but if I may infer from the results of appealing to other poets for explanation of their cruces, he would probably say 'I have really forgotten; I was under the impression that I had seen or heard it somewhere; can I have been under a misapprehension? what terrible people you dictionary fellows are, hunting us up about every word; you make life a burden.' That is the general sort of answer one gets, which means 'we write for amusement, & not to be studied as texts; if you will make school-texts of us, yours be the responsibility!' I believe Browning once answered a request for explanation of a passage, with 'I really do not know; ask the Browning Society!' I know he once confessed ignorance to me of the meaning of one of Mrs B’s lines.[2]
In fact he was wrong to impugn Rossetti in this way. Craigie included voidee in the Visor-Vywer fascicle of the OED, published five years after Murray’s death in 1920, and defined it as 'a collation consisting of wine accompanied by spices, comfits, or the like, partaken of before retiring to rest or the departure of guests…', illustrating the word with quotations from Chaucer up to the mid-seventeenth century, along with this very instance from Rossetti (1881) as an example of an 'attributive' use.

(Rossetti used the term in 'The King’s Tragedy: James I of Scots' (Rossetti 1881:129), and it is also found in William Morris's Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (Morris 1895: vol 2 p. 205), in both cases to refer to a ceremonial cup passed around at the end of a feast in a lord's hall).

Source: this page is based on Brewer 2007b: 195-6.

Murray Papers, 12 Jan 1912. Murray put thwarteous in OED nevertheless, having found a second quotation for it in addition to that of Bridges, and defined the word as 'perverse, contrary'.
[2] Murray Papers, 8 March 1901.
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