Terry Doyle writes …
In Book I of his Novum organum, Francis Bacon discussed four Idols, or false images of the mind, which he viewed as impediments to scientific reasoning. Of these he considered Idols of the Marketplace, by which he meant the confusion between scientific and common usage of words, to be the most troublesome (see Aphorisms LIX, LX, XLIII).
An attempt to overcome this Idol can be seen in an appendix to the 1681 English language edition of Thomas Willis’s The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves (as well as in two other 1681 editions of Willis’s work printed for T. Dring et al., Five Treatises and Dr Willis’s Practice of Physick). They were all translated from the Latin by ‘S P Esq’, who styles himself ‘student of physick’. This is Samuel Pordage (1633–1691) a literary figure with a poetical bent who was lampooned in Dryden’s Absalom and Architophel as ‘Lame Mephibosheth’.
The appendix is entitled ‘A table . . . for the benefit of meer English Readers . . . of words derived from the Latin and Greek , usual among Scholars, yet not frequently known of the vulgar’.
The content is interesting on several counts. Firstly, it shows medical words familiar and unfamiliar to an educated mid-seventeenth-century non specialist. Secondly, it demonstrates the difficulty inherent in translating medical concepts from the Latin and Greek into an English language which was still rapidly adding new technical words to its stock. Thirdly it shows many words of a semi-technical nature, which the seventeenth-century reader would probably recognize but which have lapsed into desuetude.
It is questionable whether Willis actually read the appendix (at least he did not proof read it carefully) for there are several obvious errors; such as ‘sternothyroeidal muscle – reaches from the sternon to the Os Pubis’ [the muscle is actually in the neck]. Some are mysterious; as ‘tabes dorsalis’ [modern day syphilitic myelopathy] is described as ‘mourning of the Chine.’ We can recognize the beginnings of the modern word ‘alkali’ in ‘Sal-alcali – salt of ashes made of the herb Kali, but used also for the salt of other herbs burnt to ashes and so extracted’. This was the standard way of making alkalis at the time.
It is a shame that some of the words have disappeared like; ‘Lethiferous – deadly’; ‘Torrified- parched’; ‘Farciments – stuffings’; ‘Fungitive – prickling’; or ‘Aculeation – made sharp’. Others words are perhaps better forgotten like; ‘Demersed – drowned’; ‘Depauperated – made poor or wasted’; ‘Depuration – a cleansing or making pure’.
Some definitions were clearly difficult for Pordage – like; ‘Mediastinum – the thin membrane that divides the middle belly or the Breast, from the Throat to the Midriff, into two bosoms or hollows’ and ‘Conarium – A Kernel sticking to the outside of the Brain in the form of a Pine-apple’ [probably referring to the pineal gland]. Others are quite straight forward; ‘anus’- fundament or Arse-hole [with a capital A]. ‘Archeus – the chief operator’ is there, indicating the influence of van Helmont, while ‘Trachea – the Weasand or Wind pipe, the sharp artery’ encompasses the then current Old English name Weasand, while ‘the sharp artery’ echoes the Greek αερ τηρεω (air, I carry) and τραχυς (rough).
My ongoing project is to identify more precisely which words in Willis’s Latin text gave difficulty in translation and the provenance of the archaic English words in OED. If you can help I would be keen to hear from you.