Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Some of Byrd's words...

William Byrd II of Westover
Borges once observed, "A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” 
     Sometimes, if dialogues between texts written long ago and 21st-century readers are to succeed, they need editorial assistance. This may mean providing cultural and historical contexts as part of the editorial apparatus, and it may mean paying attention to particular words.  As I transcribed and annotated the extant manuscripts of William Byrd's Dividing Line narratives, I found both of these endeavours challenging and fascinating. But there is not always room in a book for everything that can be said, and I find (as the volume nears the publication date) that I have more to say, especially about a few words Byrd employed.
     William Byrd II, in the History of the Dividing Line (his account
of the 1728 survey to chart the Virginia-North Carolina border), produced a detailed narrative of the expedition, featuring a history of the colonies, descriptions of the flora, fauna, topography, natural resources, indigenous people, and much more. Indeed, he wrote (and rewrote) much of the Dividing Line in his library over the next
Byrd's bookplate
seventeen years, adding more and more layers of interesting material. He was initiating a dialogue (as Borges would say) with his intended readers in the London literary marketplace. Byrd was evidently something of a logophile, choosing his words carefully, and in revision replacing terms with better, more interesting ones. The Oxford English Dictionary cites at least one of Byrd's words as the earliest instance of a particular usage. However, he also introduced a few words whose history is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. In what follows I discuss a few examples of Byrd's curious vocabulary, encountered as I prepared a new edition of the two Dividing Line histories.


The river is in most Places fifty or sixty Yards wide, without spreading much wider at the Mouth. ’Tis remarkable it was never known to ebb and flow, till the year 1713, when a violent Storm open’d a new Inlet about 5 miles south of the old one; since which convulsion the Old Inlet is almost choak’d up by the Shifting of the Sand, and grows both narrower and shoaller every day. This term appears to be a conflation of the familiar word shoal--"a place where the water is of little depth; a shallow; sand-bank or bar" (OED)--with shallow, common enough in maritime writings. But the comparative shoaller, as Byrd uses it, has escaped the attention of the OED. But other instances do exist, especially in maritime works:Between Buttoness and Abernay, the Passage is narrow, about three quarters of a mile over, as is said before, and 6, 7. Fathom in the midle of the Chanel, but up from that it turns broader, and the Water somewhat shoaler, the length of Tents-muirness.
--John Adair, The Description of the Sea-Coast and Islands of Scotland... (Edinburgh, 1703), p. 15.
Towards Cape Hatteras, are several Shoalings or Banks a great distance off, having 10 or 12 fathom white Sand, and sometimes coarse, and within 18 or 20 fathom more dirtish or oazey blackish Sand, and then again shoaler, with sandy Ground at 10, 9, 8, 7 fathom.
--"Directions for Virginia and Mary-Land," The English Pilot. The Fourth Book, Describing the West-India Navigation, from Hudson's Bay to the River Amazones   (London: Printed for Thomas Page and Milliam Mount, 1729), p. 23.But we had not sailed above a League farther before our Water grew shoaler again, and we anchored in 6 Fathom hard sand.
--A Collection of Voyages. In Four Volumes. Containing I. Captain William Dampier's Voyages Round the World... (3rd ed., London: John and James Knapton, 1729), III, 90.

 Parliament Man

The Curiosity of beholding so new and withal so sweet a Method of Encamping, brought one of the Senators of N. Carolina to make us a Midnight Visit. But he was so very clamorous in his Commendations of it, that the Centinel, not seeing his Quality either thro’ his habit or Behaviour, had like to have treated him roughly. After excusing the Unseasonableness of his Visit, and letting us know he was a Parliament Man, he swore he was so taken with our Lodging, that he would set Fire to his House as soon as he got Home, and teach his Wife and Children to lie, like us in the open Field The phrase originally simply denoted a member of the British Parliament, and later, by extension, a member of any other legislature; the OED actually cites Byrd for this second definition. In context, however, the term is emphatically satirical, referring to this "Senator" as a politician completely devoid of gravitas. The origin of Byrd's usage lies in Tory characterizations of Whigs as unrepentant heirs of the regicidal parliamentary era. For Byrd, the appellation “Parliament Man” was a term of abuse implying the inappropriate rise to power of vulgar, unqualified men, and so it becomes part of his satirical depiction of Carolinian government. 

Mill Swamp

This day the Surveyors proceeded with the Line no more than 1 Mile and 15 Chains, being Interrupted by a Mill Swamp, thro’ which they made no difficulty of wading, in order to make their work more exact.The term mill swamp is not listed among the compound forms of swamp in the OED. It apparently indicates soggy terrain resulting from the overflow from the stream dammed to provide water power for a flour mill; it also appears in colonial surveying documents and place-names.

Pride (of the Beaver)

The certain way to catch these sagacious Animals is thus, squeeze all the Juice out of the large Pride of the Beaver, and 6 Drops out of the small Pride. Powder the inward Bark of Sassafras, and mix it with this Juice, then bait therewith a Steel Trap, and they will eagerly come to it, and be taken.Byrd's term for the testicles, “cods,” or scent sacs, the source of castoreum, is not registered in the OED.

to prime (a game animal)

We only prim’d the Deer, being unwilling to be encumber’d with their whole Carcasses. The rest we consign’d to the Wolves, which in Return serenaded us great Part of the NightThe prime cuts of animals butchered for meat are those “of the best or highest quality.” In context, Byrd’s use of a verbal formation (not recorded in the OED) may be taken to mean selecting only the best cuts of meat and leaving the rest.

Half Jack-Boots a Help to bear Fatigue I us’d to chew a Root of Ginseng as I walk’t along. This kept up my Spirits, and made me trip away as nimbly in my half Jack-Boots as younger men cou’d do in their Shoes.The OED defines a jack-boot as a “large strong boot the top of which came above the knee, serving as defensive armour for the leg, worn by cavalry soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries.” No definition of the half jack boot appears. Presumably it was a stout riding boot the top of which did not reach above the knee.


The Horse Flies are not only a great Grievance for Horses, but likewise to those that ride them; These little Vixons confine themselves chiefly to the Woods, and are most in moist Places..The term vixen originally denoted a female fox, and then an ill-tempered, quarrelsome woman, though the use of the word to indicate peevishness or difficulty of character was not always gendered in the early eighteenth century. However, the OED lists no usage such as Byrd’s, denoting a general nuisance of indeterminate gender, such as the horsefly.


They make their Wives rise out of their [warm] Beds, early in the Morning at the same time that they lye and snore, till the Sun has run one third of his Course, and dispers’t all the unwholesome Damps. Then after Stretching and Yawning for half an Hour, they light their Pipes, and under the Protection of a Cloud of Smoak venture out into the open Air; tho’ if it happen to be never so little cold, they quickly return Shivering into the chimney corner. When the Weather is mild, they stand leaning with both their Arms upon the cornfield fence, and gravely consider whether they and best go – and take a small Heat at the Hough: but generally find reasons to put it off till another time.Reporting the laziness of frontier men, Byrd disparaged their reluctance to do agricultural chores. To "take a small Heat at the Hough" is to undertake a brief effort at weeding with a hoe. Byrd, who was an avid gardener and who had a number of gardening books in his collection, would have been familiar with this spelling of the familiar gardening tool. The OED does not give hough its own entry, merely listing it as an alternate spelling for hoe. Though at first I thought it was an idiosyncratic spelling, it turns out that Byrd was not alone:

Hough or Haugh, is an instrument well known to Gard'ners, and most Country people, as likewise the action of using it. 
--Jean de La Quintine, The Compleat Gard'ner, tr. John Evelyn (London: Matthew Gilliflower and James Partridge, 1693).

--George London, The Retir'd Gard'ner (London, 1706), I, 255.  See also Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America...  (London, 1698), p. 212; Antoine-Joseph D├ęzallier d'Argenville, The Theory and Practice of Gardening (London, 1712), p. 44; John Mortimer, The Art of Husbandry (London, 1712), II, 229; Edward Bysshe, The British Parnassus (London,  1714), I, xxiv [where, in Bysshe's rhyming dictionary, hough is listed as rhyming with ow, bow, crow, &c.]; Richard Bradley, The Gentleman and Gardeners Kalendar (London, 1718), pp. 21, &c.; Richard Bradley, New Improvements of Planting and Gardening, Both Philosophical and Practical (London, 1718), pp, 126 &c.; John Laurence, Gardening Improv'd (London, 1718), p. 179; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, for the Month of April (London, 1721-22), pp. 100 &c,; John Reid, The Gard'ners Kalendar, Directing What is to be done every Month (Edinburgh, 1721), p. 44; Stephen Switzer, The Practical Fruit-Gardener (London, 1724), pp. 210, 218; Noel Chomel, Dictionaire Oeconomique: Or, The Family Dictionary (London, 1725): "a necessary Instrument for the Gardiner"; Richard Bradley, The Country Gentleman and Farmer's Monthly Director (London, 1726), passim; Richard Bradley, A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening, Containing a New System of Vegetation (London, 1726), passim; Benjamin Townsend, The Complete Seedsman (London, 1726), pp. 7, &c.; and so forth.
P.S. My new edition of The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, will be published on November 1, 2013, by the University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture. For further details see the UNCP listing. 
And the book is available from Amazon
Quotation from Jorge Luis Borges, "Nota sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw" (1951).