Fossil poetry

We’ve already seen that this project, with its assumption that words, like fossils, could be fully described by tracking their diachronic, evolutionary progress, was closely akin to contemporary developments in the natural sciences (19th-century scientific method). Murray’s study of the history of dictionaries (a lecture delivered in Oxford in 1900) was called ‘The Evolution of English Lexicography’, and the comparison between historical philology and geology was commonplace at the time.

This is what Trench, whose two lectures on dictionaries in 1857 initiated the OED, had written about language in 1851:

You know how the geologist is able from the different strata and deposits, primary, secondary, or tertiary…to conclude the successive physical changes through which a region has passed….Now with such a composite language as the English before us, we may carry on moral and historical researches precisely analogous to his. Here too are strata and deposits, not of gravel and chalk, sandstone and limestone, but of Celtic, Latin, Saxon, Danish, Norman… (Trench 1851: 68-9)

Limestone rock in Yorkshire Dales. Source: BBC

As Dennis Taylor points out in a study of these remarks and their relationship to the poetry and thought of Thomas Hardy (a writer captivated by dictionaries and by the OED in particular), such ideas are widely echoed. Compare for example the American linguist and lexicographer William Dwight Whitney, writing in 1867 in a collection of lectures on language many times reprinted:

Once more, a noteworthy and often-remarked similarity exists between the facts and methods of geology and those of linguistic study….The remains of ancient speech are like strata deposited in bygone ages, telling of the forms of life then existing…while words are as rolled pebbles, relics of yet more ancient formations, or as fossils, whose grade indicates the progress of organic life…

Taylor 1993: 282, quoting from Language and the Study of Language (New York: Scribner, 1867): 47-8

Similar observations were made years later, in reference to the OED itself, though this time invoking archaeology rather than geology. ‘If indeed we wish to trace the history of different periods and study their innovations and ideas,’ a journalist wrote of the Dictionary in The Times in 1915,

we can find these dated with curious accuracy by the appearance of the new words in which they are embodied. For just as the archæologist, when he excavates the site of some ancient city, finds the various forms of its civilization arranged in chronological strata, so we find evidences of each past generation and its activities in the superimposed strata of our vocabulary.

Quoted from The Periodical (1928): 31
Ants in amber. Source: Wikipedia (Netherlands)

Many of these remarks relate to the study of individual words, and to the narratives that unfold when their etymology is investigated. Trench writes that ‘language is the amber in which a thousand precious words have been safely embedded and preserved’, and meditates on the poet R. W. Emerson’s notion of ‘fossil poetry’:

just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life…are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would otherwise have been theirs,- so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves’

Trench 1851: 4-5

Emerson himself had written, in his essay ‘The Poet’,

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

Quoted from The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson [accessed 10 August 2019]

Emerson’s dictum was later (1897) reproduced by OED as an illustrative quotation for fossil and also referenced under that for characterization (1889). In the interim, the idea had been echoed by Max Müller, Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford and adviser to OED: ‘every word, if carefully examined, will turn out to be itself a petrified poem’ (Müller 1888: x).

Further reverberations can easily be found, for example in the writing of W. H. Auden, whose own poetry bears witness to his lifelong fascination with geology, etymology, language and dictionaries, and who thought ‘the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology, the study of language in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, as it were, little lyrics about themselves’ (Auden 1963: 35).

See our pages on Auden in the EOED section on Writers and Dictionaries, which further discusses some of the material above.

Coral pebble found in the UK. Source: UK fossils network

Last updated on 24 September 2019