W-MCP5-6.380 TO [DR.] CALVIN BROOKS from his friend Eugene Tappan
Apr 11 1860
To: [Dr.] Calvin Brooks McQuesten, Meriden, New Hampshire, [U.S.A]
From: East Marshfield, Massachusetts, [U.S.A.]
My Dear Friend,
I send you a piece which I have written for your paper. ("What's her name"?) Human Nature in the dictionary--a new subject for Meriden I believe. Next Friday (the next mail with us) I will send some scraps, puns, and perhaps that piece of poetry. I have spent many hours upon it without the first line. Come down in vacation if you can.
Human Nature & the Dictionary
You ask--"My favorite author" and do not laugh my friend, I point to the Dictionary. Some would have pointed you to the book of Nature, but my chosen book contains truths as wide-spread as brilliant as any, and (what is more to the purpose) they all refer to Man. Up stairs are two ancient folios--Thomas Ridgley's Body of Divinity: I have thought the Dictionary might well be termed: A body of Humanity. And home here is a large field for the study of human nature. Dear French has often quoted for us this passage--"By thy word, thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." Men are often judged by the expression of their features, or by the expression of their thoughts, but we need not go beyond the words themselves to discover the man.
Let us look at a few cases. Thus we detect Insincerity. According to the literal meaning of the word, those are insincere who put on a gloss. Men using words for a show and which they do not understand, are insincere. A man once began his prayer--a man who never dreamed of such a thing as Geometry--"Lord, we approximate into thy presence." And another one humbled himself thus--"Lord, we deign to approach." In Religion men all the world over trust too much to their teachers, and often take their words without taking the sense; but it is a great sin.
We detect in other persons, Carelessness. This class is widely separated from the last; for they showed a deal of care in putting on the gloss, but these show none at all. Thus my good friend prayed--"that his brother in the ministry might "beard the lion in his den," and that he might "flourish like a green bay tree," (which you know is said of the wicked). Another one complained at "the low and vital state of Religion in this place." If you wish to be referred to other examples of carelessness in words, I say passim here & then everywhere.
But one illustration more: We detect Pride in the use of words. How proud is the student of the significant terms in his cabalistic dialect, and how high this knowledge places him above the uninterested. Thus the Gipsy rejoices in his oriental tongue and desperados in their Robber lingo. All nations feel proud of their own language; and well they may, for it best expresses their ideas. The savage has few words and as few ideas. We have more ideas though not as many I hear as there are words in Webster's New Dictionary. The Quaker spirit is finely shown in their language. The pride of the common people constrains them to pervert many words before they can pass the consecrated life. Webster1 notices this trait under his definition of Asparagus. The common people, you know call it Sparagrass. They also say cowcumbers. Much of this proceeds from their desire to appropriate words, as the student delights to anglicize Latin words. This is just the way in which our puns are made. The farmer has as good a right to talk about "draining the moshes & cricks ["?] as the punster has to crack his jokes. Both feel pride in being independent.
How responsible we are for the use of our words.
[Note on envelope:] E.T. Pieces Ans. 27/4/60
1 Webster, Noah (1758-1843) Lexicographer, born in Hartford, CT. He studied at Yale University, and became a lawyer but preferred teaching. He achieved fame with the first part (later known as 'Webster's Spelling Book') of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783). Political articles and pamphlets, lecturing, and journalism occupied him until 1798, when he retired to literary life. He is best known for his work in lexicography, notably the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which was a major influence on US dictionary practice (CBE 981).