Victorian Vocabulary

I recently finished reading “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: The Firsthand Experiences of a British Woman in Outback Japan in 1878” (see my review). In addition to inspiring my awe at her fortitude and adventuresome spirit, Isabella Bird also taught me a few words and phrases:

  • carbolic acid: The author requested and received permission to visit a newly constructed modern hospital, after which she wrote approvingly of the use of “carbolic acid” as a disinfectant during surgery. It is now known as phenol and no longer used for this purpose (apparently prolonged use irritates the skin), being given up in favor of aseptic techniques.
  • conning their lessons: A phrase she used to describe school children studying in the evening. While the modern meaning of “con” refers to deception, an archaic meaning was “to learn by heart.”
  • coolie: An “unskilled native laborer”. Ms. Bird uses this to refer to the men pulling her kuruma (wheeled cart), apparently without any sense of insult implied.
  • cryptomeria: A conifer (known as ‘sugi’ in Japanese) that appears all over Japan, particularly around temples and shrines (she reports a 40-mile avenue of these trees approaching the shrine at Nikko — I’ll have to look for it myself when I visit!). The sound of the word itself appeals to me. ‘Crypto’, of course, means ‘hidden’ (Latin), but interestingly the other part of the word is from Greek ‘meros’ and means ‘part’, so named because the seeds are hidden by scales.
  • Dollond: This is apparently an example of referring to an item by its brand name (like kleenex, band-aid, xerox, etc.). She wrote, “After I was mounted I was on the point of removing my Dollond from the case, which hung on the saddle horn, when a regular stampede occurred, old and young running as fast as they possibly could, children being knocked down in the haste of their elders. Ito [her guide] said that they thought I was taking out a pistol to frighten them, and I made him explain what the object really was, for they are a gentle, harmless people, whom one would not annoy without sincere regret.” She did not, of course, bother to explain to us what it was, as we must already know. Some googling suggests that she was referring to a small telescope or spyglass manufactured by Dollond.
  • freshet: This word makes me think of fountains, but apparently it instead refers to a river flood caused by melting snow or rain. These appear frequently in this book, often when the author must ford the flooded streams or is stuck in one hamlet or another due to impassible fords, washed-out bridges, etc.
  • plenishings: Another word for furniture or furnishings in a house.
  • stretcher: Today, this word has strong invalid connotations, but the author used it to refer to the cot she brought with her in an (unsuccessful) attempt to avoid the rampant fleas (she found that laying out waxed paper around her cot improved its effectiveness significantly).

1 Comment
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  1. Elizabeth said,

    April 18, 2008 at 8:32 am

    (Learned something new!)

    After our conversation about trade names that have become generic, I got curious and went back over my old law school Trademarks class materials. Although many commentators seem to embrace the ugly made-up verb “genericize” (sounds like a boring aerobics class to me), most courts seem to prefer “become generic” to describe the process of brand names entering into common usage. I’ve seen these brand-nouns called “proprietary eponyms” as well, which sounds poetic but is legalese to the hilt.

    Interestingly, this site seems to have made a project of collecting “genericized” (feel the burn!) brands: http://www.prairienet.org/~rkrause/brands.html

    I didn’t see Dollond. :)

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