Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

HANDY-BOOK

OF

LITERARY CURIOSITIES.

A, the first letter of the alphabet in all languages which, like English, derive their alphabets directly or indirectly from the Phoenician. It corresponds to the aleph of the Phoenician and old Hebrew and the alpha of the Greek. Aleph means an ox, and the character is derived from the Egyptian hieratic symbol, in which the Phoenicians undoubtedly saw a rude resemblance to the horned head of an ox. As a symbol A denotes the first of an actual or possible series: thus, in music it is the name of the first note of the relative minor scale, the la of Italian, French, and Spanish musicians; and in the mnemonic words of logic it stands for the universal affirmative proposition,—e.g., all men are mortal; while I stands for the particular affirmative (some men are mortal), E for the universal negative (no men are mortal), and O for the particular negative (some men are not mortal). It is sometimes contended that these symbols were of Greek origin ; but the weight of authority makes them date from the thirteenth century, and it is not unlikely that they may have been taken from the Latin Afflrmo, I affirm, and nEgO, I deny. In the Greek form, a, alpha, this use of the letter as the first of a series is even more common. Thus, " I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord" (Rev. i. 8). "The a acid is converted by heat into the /J acid" (Watt's Junvnes's Chemistry). The letter A standing by itself, especially as a word, was formerly spelt in oral recitations A per se a,—that is, A standing by itself makes the word a, and this oral phrase committed to writing was gradually corrupted to A per C, Apersey, Apersie, and frequently used as a synonym for first, chief, most excellent,—e.g., "The floure and A per se of Troie and Grece" (henkyson: Testament of Cresseide, 1475).

Al, popular slang, meaning first-rate, excellent, is borrowed from the ratings used in Lloyd's Register of Shipping. The higher classes of vessels are styled A, and the figure 1 following the class letter shows that the equipment is complete and efficient. Hence " I am A 1" means " I'm all right," and to say of another that " he or she is A 1" is to pay one of the highest compliments in the slang repertoire. Thus, Shirley Brooks in "The Guardian Knot" makes one of his characters say, "She is A 1; in fact, the aye-wunnest girl I ever saw." Curiously enough, the French have a similar commendatory expression, "He is marked with an A" (" C'est un homme marque a PA"), the money coined in Paris being formerly stamped with an A.

A outrance (not h Pmitrance), a French expression, meaning much the same as the English phrase "to the bitter end," originally applied to a contest between two antagonists who were each determined to conquer or to die, but now more often used in the sense of "to excess," "to the utmost extent," and applied to any custom, habit, or fashion which is carried to an extravagant excess.

Ab ovo (literally, " from the egg," hence, from the beginning), an old Roman phrase, generally with allusion to the custom of beginning a meal with eggs, in this case forming the first part of the phrase ab ovo tuque ad mala, from the egg to the apples, i.e., from beginning to end ; but sometimes the allusion is to the poet mentioned by Horace ("Ais Poetica," 147) who began the history of the Trojan war with the story of the egg from which Helen was fabled to have been born. Horace contrasts him unfavorably with Homer, who plunged at once into the midst of things, or in medias res.

Abacot, a spurious word which by a remarkable series of blunders has gained a foothold in the dictionaries. It is usually defined as "a cap of state, wrought up into the shape of two crowns, worn formerly by English kings." Neither word nor thing has any real existence. In Hall's " Chronicles" the word bieoeket (Old Fr. bicoquet, a sort of peaked cap or head-dress) happened to be misprinted abocochet. Other writers copied the error. Then Holinshed improved the new word to abocoeke, and Abraham Fleming to abacot, and so it spun merrily along, a sort of rolling stone of philology, shaping itself by continual attrition into something as different in sense as in sound from its first original, until Spehnan landed the prize in his " Glossarium," giving it the definition quoted above. So through Bailey, Ash, and Todd it has been handed down to our time,—a standing exemplar of the solidarity of dictionaries, and of the ponderous indolence with which philologers repeat without examining the errors of their predecessors. Nay, the error has been amusingly accentuated by calling in the aid of a sister art that has provided a rough wood-cut of the mythical abacot, which in its turn has been servilely reproduced.

Abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit, a potent Latin phrase which loses all its virility in any possible English rendition (e.g., He has fled, retreated, escaped, broken forth). It was used by Cicero at the beginning of his second oration against Catiline to express by the piling up of synonymous words the abrupt manner of the conspirator's escape from Rome.

Abolitionist, in American politics, specifically a member of the antislavery party, which dates from 1829, when a handful of enthusiasts rallied around the stalwart figure of William Lloyd Garrison in a fierce crusade against slave-owners as criminals. In 1831, Garrison founded the first Abolitionist paper, The Liberator. In 1832 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Boston, and in 1833 the growth of abolition sentiment led to the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, with Beriah Green as its president and John G. VVhittier as one of the secretaries. In 1840 the Abolitionists divided into two wings, one favoring abolition through constitutional amendment, the other, with Wendell Phillips as its chief spokesman, denouncing the constitution as a bulwark of slavery. Anti-slavery sentiment grew faster than the party which claimed to be its exponent. Before the war no large number of citizens, even in the North, were avowed Abolitionists, though after the war a majority of Northerners proudly insisted that they had always been Abolitionists. And in truth they could point back to the fact that Abolitionist was * term of contempt which the Democrats usually applied to all Republicans, and which the men of the South applied indiscriminately to all Northerners who were not Democrats. The word itself, even, in connection with slave-emancipation, was not a new one. In England and all her colonies it had been familiarly applied to the anti-slavery agitators led by Wilberforce, and had been accepted by them. Thus, T. Clarksou says, "Many looked upon the Abolitionists as monsters" (" Slave Trade," ii. 212,1790). In America also the term had been in use to denote the opponents of slavery who began an intermittent protest even before the Revolution; but as a party name it belongs distinctively to the movement of which Garrison was the first apostle.

Abracadabra, a cabalistic word used in incantations, and supposed to possess mystic powers of healing, especially when written in this triangular shape:

ABRACADABRA
ABRACADABR
ABRACADAB
ABRACADA
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
A B
A

The paper on which this was written was to be folded so as to conceal the writing, stitched with white thread, and worn around the neck. It was a sovereign remedy for fever and ague. Possibly the virtue lay in the syllables Abra, which are twice repeated, and which are composed of the first letters of the Hebrew words signifying Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,—Ab, Ben, Rauch Acadosh. The earliest known occurrence of the word is in a poem of the second century, " Praecepta de Medicina," by Q. Serenus Sammonicus. It is now often used in the general sense of a spell, or pretended conjuring, jargon, or gibberish.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. This line occurs in Thomas Haynes Bayly's song " Isle of Beauty." There is proverbial authority for this as well as for the contrary statement that absence kills love. But written literature is usually on Bayly's side. Charles Hopkins in his lines "To C. C." says,—

I find that absence still increases love.

Howel in his "Familiar Letters" (i. I, No. 6) asserts, " Distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it." Frederick W. Thomas, in a short poem, "Absence Conquers Love," boldly traverses the titular statement: 'Tis said that absence conquers love,

But, oh, believe it not 1
I've tried, alas 1 its power to prove,
But thou art not forgot.

Desdemona, in Othello, i. 2, says, " I dote upon his very absence." Charles Lamb, in his "Dissertation on Roast Pig," punningly suggests a method by which the absent may keep their memory green: "Presents, I often say, endear absents." Bussy-Rabutin shows how both statements may be reconciled:

L'absence est a l'amour ce qu'est au feu le vent:
11 eteint le petit, il allume le grand.

La Rochefoucauld says, "Friends agree best at a distance;" but this was a popular proverb before his day, and a similar moral is presented in the French adages, "To preserve friendship, a wall must be put between," and "A little absence does much good ;" the German, " Love your neighbor, but do not pull down the hedge;" the Spanish, "Go to your brother's house, but not every day ;" and the Scotch, "They are aye glide that are far awa." But proverbs would not be proverbs if they did not contradict one another. The last quoted is directly traversed by the French, "The absent are always in the wrong," and " Absent, none without fault; present, none without excuse." And every language furnishes examples to support this : e.g., the Greek, "Friends living far away are no friends ;" the Latin, " He that is absent will not be the heir;" the Spanish, " Absence is Jove's foe: far from the eyes, far from the heart," and "The dead and the absent have no friends."

Absolute Wisdom. A sobriquet given to Sir Matthew Wood, a stanch supporter of Queen Caroline in 1821, who, having been reproached for giving foolish advice to that unhappy queen, diffidently admitted that his conduct might not be "absolute wisdom," and was unmercifully chaffed in consequence by the wags of the period. He was made a baronet by Queen Victoria shortly after her accession, in acknowledgment, it was said, for pecuniary aid given to her father, the Duke of Kent, when greatly embarrassed.

Accident of an accident, a phrase first used by Lord Thurlow. During a debate on Lord Sandwich's administration of Greenwich Hospital, the Duke of Grafton taunted Thurlow, then Lord Chancellor, on his humble origin. Thurlow rose from the woolsack, and, advancing towards the duke, declared he was amazed at his grace's speech. "The noble duke," he cried, in a burst of oratorical scorn, "cannot" look before him, behind him, and on either side of him without seeing some noble peer who owes his seat in this House to his successful exertions in the profession to which I belong. Does he not feel that it is as honorable to owe it to these as to being the accident of an accident f"

Across lots, in colloquial American, a short cut, as of one who leaves the ublic highway to find a nearer way across private property. The phrase as acquired especial prominence through Brigham Young's historic threat, "We'll send them [the Gentiles] to hell across lots."

Acrostic (Gr. axpoerixif, wtpo, prefix, and traitor, row, order, line), a once favorite lorin of literary legerdemain. In its simplest and most usual form it consists of a copy of verses whose initial letters taken in order spell a word, a proper name, or a sentence. The following specimen is by Charles Lamb:

Go, little poem, and present

Respectful terms of compliment,

A Gentle Lady bids thee speak;

Courteous is She, though Thou be weak.

Evoke from Heav'n, as thick as Manna,

Joy after joy on Gkacb Joanna.

On Fomham's glebe and pasture land

A blessing pray. Long, long may stand.

Not touch"d by time, the Rectory blithe.

No grudging churl dispute his tithe.

At Easter be the offerings due

With cheerful spirit paid. Each pew

In decent order fill'd. No noise

Loud intervene to drown the voice.

Learning or wisdom, of the Teacher.

Impressive be the Sacred Preacher,

And strict his notes on Holy Page.

May young and old from age to age

Salute and still point out the " Good Man's Parsonage."

Here the initial letters form the name Grace Joanna Williams. But many fantastic variations have been introduced. Sometimes the initials read

« AnteriorContinuar »