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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

English Dictionaries

Title:     English Dictionaries
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

It has already, I believe, been said more than once in print that one condition of a good dictionary would be to exhibit the _history_ of each word; that is, to record the exact succession of its meanings. But the philosophic reason for this has not been given; which reason, by the way, settles a question often agitated, viz. whether the true meaning of a word be best ascertained from its etymology, or from its present use and acceptation. Mr. Coleridge says, 'the best explanation of a word is often that which is suggested by its derivation' (I give the substance of his words from memory). Others allege that we have nothing to do with the primitive meaning of the word; that the question is--what does it mean now? and they appeal, as the sole authority they acknowledge, to the received--

Usus, penes quem est jus et norma loquendi.

In what degree each party is right, may be judged from this consideration --that no word can ever deviate from its first meaning _per saltum_: each successive stage of meaning must always have been determined by that which preceded. And on this one law depends the whole philosophy of the case: for it thus appears that the original and primitive sense of the word will contain virtually all which can ever afterwards arise: as in the _evolution_-theory of generation, the whole series of births is represented as involved in the first parent. Now, if the evolution of successive meanings has gone on rightly, _i.e._ by simply lapsing through a series of close affinities, there can be no reason for recurring to the primitive meaning of the word: but, if it can be shown that the evolution has been faulty, _i.e._ that the chain of true affinities has ever been broken through ignorance, then we have a right to reform the word, and to appeal from the usage ill-instructed to a usage better- instructed. Whether we ought to exercise this right, will depend on a consideration which I will afterwards notice. Meantime I will first give a few instances of faulty evolution.

1. _Implicit_. This word is now used in a most ignorant way; and from its misuse it has come to be a word wholly useless: for it is now never coupled, I think, with any other substantive than these two--faith and confidence: a poor domain indeed to have sunk to from its original wide range of territory. Moreover, when we say, _implicit faith_, or _implicit confidence_, we do not thereby indicate any specific _kind_ of faith and confidence differing from other faith or other confidence: but it is a vague rhetorical word which expresses a great _degree_ of faith and confidence; a faith that is unquestioning, a confidence that is unlimited; _i.e._ in fact, a faith that _is_ a faith, a confidence that _is_ a confidence. Such a use of the word ought to be abandoned to women: doubtless, when sitting in a bower in the month of May, it is pleasant to hear from a lovely mouth--'I put implicit confidence in your honor:' but, though pretty and becoming to such a mouth, it is very unfitting to the mouth of a scholar: and I will be bold to affirm that no man, who had ever acquired a scholar's knowledge of the English language, has used the word in that lax and unmeaning way. The history of the word is this.-- _Implicit_ (from the Latin _implicitus_, involved in, folded up) was always used originally, and still is so by scholars, as the direct antithete of explicit (from the Latin _explicitus_, evolved, unfolded): and the use of both may be thus illustrated.

_Q._ 'Did Mr. A. ever say that he would marry Miss B.?'--_A._ 'No; not explicitly (_i.e._ in so many words); but he did implicitly--by showing great displeasure if she received attentions from any other man; by asking her repeatedly to select furniture for his house; by consulting her on his own plans of life.'

_Q._ 'Did Epicurus maintain any doctrines such as are here ascribed to him?'--_A._ 'Perhaps not explicitly, either in words or by any other mode of direct sanction: on the contrary, I believe he denied them-- and disclaimed them with vehemence: but he maintained them implicitly: for they are involved in other acknowledged doctrines of his, and may be deduced from them by the fairest and most irresistible logic.'

_Q._ 'Why did you complain of the man? Had he expressed any contempt for your opinion?'--_A._ 'Yes, he had: not explicit contempt, I admit; for he never opened his stupid mouth; but implicitly he expressed the utmost that he could: for, when I had spoken two hours against the old newspaper, and in favor of the new one, he went instantly and put his name down as a subscriber to the old one.'

_Q._ 'Did Mr.---- approve of that gentleman's conduct and way of life?'-- _A._ 'I don't know that I ever heard him speak about it: but he seemed to give it his implicit approbation by allowing both his sons to associate with him when the complaints ran highest against him.'

These instances may serve to illustrate the original use of the word; which use has been retained from the sixteenth century down to our own days by an uninterrupted chain of writers. In the eighteenth century this use was indeed nearly effaced but still in the first half of that century it was retained by Saunderson the Cambridge professor of mathematics (see his Algebra, &c.;), with three or four others, and in the latter half by a man to whom Saunderson had some resemblance in spring and elasticity of understanding, viz. by Edmund Burke. Since his day I know of no writers who have avoided the slang and unmeaning use of the word, excepting Messrs. Coleridge and Wordsworth; both of whom (but especially the last) have been remarkably attentive to the scholar-like [1] use of words, and to the history of their own language.

Thus much for the primitive use of the word _implicit_. Now, with regard to the history of its transition into its present use, it is briefly this; and it will appear at once, that it has arisen through ignorance. When it was objected to a papist that his church exacted an assent to a great body of traditions and doctrines to which it was impossible that the great majority could be qualified, either as respected time--or knowledge--or culture of the understanding, to give any reasonable assent,--the answer was: 'Yes; but that sort of assent is not required of a poor uneducated man; all that he has to do--is to believe in the church: he is to have faith in _her_ faith: by that act he adopts for his own whatsoever the church believes, though he may never have hoard of it even: his faith is implicit, _i.e._ involved and wrapped up in the faith of the church, which faith he firmly believes to be the true faith upon the conviction he has that the church is preserved from all possibility of erring by the spirit of God.' [2] Now, as this sort of believing by proxy or implicit belief (in which the belief was not _immediate_ in the thing proposed to the belief, but in the authority of another person who believed in that thing and thus _mediately_ in the thing itself) was constantly attacked by the learned assailants of popery,--it naturally happened that many unlearned readers of these protestant polemics caught at a phrase which was so much bandied between the two parties: the spirit of the context sufficiently explained to them that it was used by protestants as a term of reproach, and indicated a faith that was an erroneous faith by being too easy--too submissive--and too passive: but the particular mode of this erroneousness they seldom came to understand, as learned writers naturally employed the term without explanation, presuming it to be known to those whom they addressed. Hence these ignorant readers caught at the last _result_ of the phrase 'implicit faith' rightly, truly supposing it to imply a resigned and unquestioning faith; but they missed the whole immediate cause of meaning by which only the word 'implicit' could ever have been entitled to express that result.

I have allowed myself to say so much on this word 'implicit,' because the history of the mode by which its true meaning was lost applies almost to all other corrupted words--_mutatis mutandis_: and the amount of it may be collected into this formula,--that the _result_ of the word is apprehended and retained, but the _schematismus_ by which that result was ever reached is lost. This is the brief theory of all corruption of words. The word _schematismus_ I have unwillingly used, because no other expresses my meaning. So great and extensive a doctrine however lurks in this word, that I defer the explanation of it to a separate article. Meantime a passable sense of the word will occur to every body who reads Greek. I now go on to a few more instances of words that have forfeited their original meaning through the ignorance of those who used them.

'_Punctual._' This word is now confined to the meagre denoting of accuracy in respect to time--fidelity to the precise moment of an appointment. But originally it was just as often, and just as reasonably, applied to space as to time; 'I cannot punctually determine the origin of the Danube; but I know in general the district in which it rises, and that its fountain is near that of the Rhine.' Not only, however, was it applied to time and space, but it had a large and very elegant figurative use. Thus in the History of the Royal Society by Sprat (an author who was finical and nice in his use of words)--I remember a sentence to this effect: 'the Society gave punctual directions for the conducting of experiments;' _i.e._ directions which descended to the minutiae and lowest details. Again in the once popular romance of Parismus Prince of Bohemia--'She' (I forget who) 'made a punctual relation of the whole matter;' _i.e._ a relation which was perfectly circumstantial and true to the minutest features of the case.


[1] Among the most shocking of the unscholarlike barbarisms, now prevalent, I must notice the use of the word '_nice_' in an objective instead of a subjective sense: '_nice_' does not and cannot express a quality of the object, but merely a quality of the subject: yet we hear daily of 'a very nice letter'--'a nice young lady,' &c.;, meaning a letter or a young lady that it is pleasant to contemplate: but 'a nice young lady'--means a fastidious young lady; and 'a nice letter' ought to mean a letter that is very delicate in its rating and in the choice of its company.

[2] Thus Milton, who (in common with his contemporaries) always uses the word accurately, speaks of Ezekiel 'swallowing his implicit roll of knowledge'--_i.e._ coming to the knowledge of many truths not separately and in detail, but by the act of arriving at some one master truth which involved all the rest.--So again, if any man or government were to suppress a book, that man or government might justly be reproached as the implicit destroyer of all the wisdom and virtue that might have been the remote products of that book.

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Thomas De Quincey's essay: English Dictionaries