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Trench on Words – A Review c.1928

Recently Brett Fishburne was going through some donated books and came across a copy of “Trench on Words”, which is already in the PG collection (text #6480), that had a newspaper review glued to the front.

The newspaper title from which the review was printed was not in the information that was glued to the front of the book. He believes that the newspaper was from Buffalo, New York and the review to have been written in 1928. Parts of the review were torn and lost, but thinks he was able to accurately fill in the words (placed in square brackets) that were missing. He believes with some certainty that this review did not come from the New York Times as he researched their archives thoroughly.

Trench on Words

How frequent and how apt is the comparison of words to coins! Words are no less the medium of exchange for ideas than is is currency the medium of exchange for commodities. The purpose of both is exchange, the fuction of both is circulation. Just as a country’s currency must be maintained in value, so must a nation’s vocabulary, its language, be preserved from debasement. There must be no shortage of currency; there must be no paucity of words. We exchange money for goods; we exchange words for ideas. Money represents goods; words represent ideas.

We take our currency for granted; we take our words for granted. How many of us could reproduce with any degree of accuracy, without the model before us, the design of a dollar bil, or of a pound note? Yet they are constantly passing through our hands. How many of us could, without investigation, explain the entire economic process whereby that bill or note has come into existence, and why it has the value for which it is accepted? yet we are supremely confident of its value.

So with words. We have a few hundred words which we are constantly using. Most of them have for us one meaning, or perhaps two. Yet a little study will reveal numerous other meanings for many of the words which we use most commonly. We can double our vocabulary without adding any new words, if only [we] learn the full meaning of the [word]s we already have. It is as if [we] had been shopping in a place [wher]e a dime has always bought two [appl]es; one day we take the trouble [to go] to market and behold, the dime [buys] four apples, just as good as the [oth]ers. Again, how little do we [kn]ow of the process by which these [w]ords in common use have come to [h]ave their present meanings! But a [l]ittle study will open up whole vistas [o]f history and of poetry in those [f]amiliar words. Whole vistas over [w]hich mere carelessness and lassi[t]ude have drawn a heavy veil!

All this has been said before, and never better said, to my knowledge than in that book which several generations of admirers have known familiarly as “Trench on Words.” This volume, my bookseller tells me, is out of print. There is no denying the fact that it is an old-fashioned book. It is in some repects a perfect monument to the now much ridiculed Victorian era. To the ultra-moderns, it will appear in many places to be “quaint.” Yet it is not too much to say, I think, that this is one of those books which will never be badly out of date. There is too much light in it for the darkness of oblivion ever to close around it.

It is now seventy-seven years [1928 being the year of the review] since Richard Chevenix Trench first published his attractive series of lectures: “On the Study of Words.” The book has gone through many editions, but is at present not so widely known as many of its staunch friends would have it. Its excellencies had grown somewhat dim in my memory when I recently pulled a well-worn copy down from a library shelf and, standing beside a marble column, turned casually a page or two. I sat down at a desk and scanned pages long ago familiar but which became fresh again as I read them. I glanced over the pages in which is set forth the wealth of historical meaning embodied in the words “frank” and “slave,” short words which seem, nevertheless, to carry with them the century-long struggles and eventual destinies of great races. I read a little about the meaning of proper names. “Naomi” I had forgotten as “pleasantness,” and “Margaret” had long ceased to mean for me “the pearl.” “Caprice” is often on my tongue, but without the vivid mental picture it should convey, of a goat jumping unexpectedly this way and that. I have stood in the shadow of the Himalayas without knowing that the word meant “the abode of snow.”

A daisy is obviously “the eye of the day,” if you know how to look at the word, or the flower; but it is by no means so obvious that the squirrel is so called because he is “wont to sit under the shadow of his own tail.” “Basilisk” always piqued my curiosity until Trench satisfied it. “Halcyon days” must always be more halcyon to those who know the beautiful Greek legend of the fourteen days’ calm while the bird was brooding over her nest. And what a word is “integrity” when used in the consciousness of its actual sense of “wholeness!”

How strange a degeneration the word “idiot” has experienced, since it meant to the Greeks merely a man in private, as compared to public, life. How significant that a “pagan” was at first merely a villager, because Christianity first took hold in the cities. What a wealth of meaning in the words “sacrament” and “atonement.” And how ironic that the name “Christian” should first have been applied to the followers of Jesus as a term of opprobrium by the frivolous Antiochenes, with their genius for nicknames.

So Trench goes on with his hundreds, perhaps thousands of words, making them take on new meaning, giving them both depth and freshness, revealing the power that lies in the use of them. The pages, turned at random, yield such an abundance of examples that it is impossible, for the present purpose, to call more than a few by way of illustration. Here and there is interjected a wise observation, such as this, that language is popular in its origin, that words begin with the people, and work their way upward to the scholars; they are not manufactured by the scholars and permitted to filter down to the people. This is one of the reasons for the abundance of vigorous meaning with which any language worthy of the name invariably teems.

A slave, upon having his ear drilled, or “thrilled,” became a “thrall.” The smith who gives his name to so many of our citizens derives his own from the resounding blows he “smites” upon his anvil. A “candidate” is such because in ancient Rome, those who desired election to the chief offices of state were accustomed to present themselves beforehand to the electorate wearing a white (Latin, candida) toga. And “rivals” were originally those who lived on the banks (Latin, ripae) of the same river, and were thus in an excellent position to disagree over water rights. Spanish explorers, when they found in the rivers of America a kind of crocodile, called it el legarto, “the lizard”; Englishmen swallowed the Spanish words whole and made them “alligator.”

How many of us, in describing anyone as insolent, realize that, so far as the root meaning of the word is concerned, we are merely characterizing him as “unusual”? How many of us distinguish between the two happy verbs “congratulate” and “felicitate”? How many of us can tell “opposites” from “contraries”? How many of us recognize “fancy” and “phantasy” as the same word, spelled differently?

Therefore, it behooves us to get wisdom in words. Happy is the man who has had the experience described by Trench when he writes: “His first discovery that words are living powers has been like the dropping of scales from his eyes, like the acquiring of another sense, or the introduction into a new world.”