Some of you may know that as well this blog, I also have a Twitter account (@Prof_hedgehog), via which I occasionally share thoughts with the universe, but more regularly tweet about things that happened #OTD, including a Saint of the Day, and a Word of the Day. I get the words from Thomas Wright’s 1857 Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: Containing Words from the English Writers Previous to the Nineteenth Century Which Are No Longer in Use, or Are Not Used in the Same Sense; and Words Which Are Now Used Only in Provincial Dialects – and I need to point out immediately that Thomas Wright is not Joseph Wright.
The latter, born in 1855 in the village of Idle, near Bradford, had a fascinating life, reminiscent of his fellow philologist and lexicographer James Murray. Raised in poverty (including a period with his mother and siblings in the workhouse), he began his working life at the age of six, in charge of a donkey-cart at a nearby quarry. An autodidact who attended evening classes in languages and mathematics, he became a teacher, and in 1882, paid his way to Heidelberg, where he obtained a PhD in comparative linguistics.
Joseph Wright, eventually professor of comparative philology at the university of Oxford, is best known for his six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, based on a corpus of words initially collected by the English Dialect Society, (under the enthusiastic auspices of the great Professor W.W. Skeat, who I’ve just discovered used to live round the corner from me), but published at his own expense (no publisher would take the risk) in 1905.
This is a serious work of scholarship and remains an essential read (or look-up-in) for anyone interested in the more quirky aspects of the English language.
Thomas Wright (1810–77), however, is a slightly different matter. Born in modest circumstances, he was educated at King Edward Grammar School in Ludlow, where a wealthy local man, noticing his potential, obtained a sizar’s place for him at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was taught by William Whewell and – more significantly – befriended by John Mitchell Kemble (1807–57: nephew of John Philip, brother of Fanny), who eschewed the family tradition of acting, becoming a respected philologist and antiquarian.
Thomas Wright earned his living by writing and editing, for the Rolls Series among other academic enterprises. He was a friend of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, and of Charles Roach Smith, with whom he pursued archaeological interests. He published his dialect opus two years after Joseph Wright was born, but it, and much of his other work, was criticised by contemporaries, as well as by later scholars, as being hasty and slapdash After a fairly prosperous career, his end was tragic – he developed dementia, while his wife became almost blind, and though they were not in dire poverty, they could no longer look after themselves, or even find their way around their home …
Anyway, I use Thomas Wright’s not wholly reliable dialect dictionary because it is fun to dip into, because I like the way he gives the meaning of anything improper or obscene in Latin (thus helping to keep the wives, daughters and servants uncorrupted), and because he quite often quotes at length from his often obscure sources, mostly fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poems and plays that have not, shall we say, stood the test of time in quite the same way as Shakespeare or Donne … I usually choose nouns, because I like to illustrate the words, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I’m especially keen on the names of birds and plants.
Thus, a few weeks ago, I informed a waiting world that ‘elphamy’ is a dialect name for white bryony, Bryonia dioica. Soon afterwards, I was asked about the word’s etymology, and this, unfortunately, is where T. Wright is very rarely of use. He simply says that it is ‘North.’ and doesn’t give any examples of usage. I have therefore been spending a bit of time trying to find out earlier sources for the word, and indeed anything else about it.
Looking at modern databases is not much help, as they tend to quote the name without either source or further explanation (and there seems to be some confusion as to whether the ‘white bryony’ itself is in fact Bryonia dioica, as opposed to Linnaeus’ Bryonia alba). Horwood and Fitch’s New British Flora: British Wild Flowers in Their Haunts (vol. 3, 1919) has this:
which looks like a cut-and-paste job, with the repetition of the information about ‘Tetter Berry’? ‘Old Parkinson’ is of course John.
Going back into the nineteenth century, it does not appear in the first edition (volume 3, 1897) of the OED. However, Britten and Holland’s Dictionary of English Plant-Names (1886, and published by Trübner for the English Dialect Society) has two sources for the name: Thomas Wright and (surprise!!!) Halliwell-Phillipps (then still only Halliwell), in his 1847 Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words.
Unfortunately, Halliwell-Phillipps says no more than ‘North.’ too (I assume that Wright simply lifted the word from him).
Next, a look at H-P’s sources. He refers in his Preface to Robert Nares’ 1822 Glossary, Or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, etc. Which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors (of which H-P and Wright collaborated on later editions), but ‘elphamy’ doesn’t appear there. Nor is it in the 1839 edition of Francis Grose’s Glossary of provincial and local words used in England (first published in 1787), which contains a supplement by Samuel Pegge.
The great Sir J.E. Smith of course has both white and black bryony in The English Flora (volume 4, 1828), but understandably he does not record any vernacular names. His Preface to volume 1 is useful in giving his own sources, but equally understandably these are mostly Latin volumes concerned with botanical taxonomy rather than vernacular names:
I got quite excited at the prospect of the 1674 Collection of English Words by John Ray (the father of English botany), especially as it offers two lists, one of northern and the other of southern words, but no luck there either.
I’m beginning to wonder if H-P and/or Wright made the whole thing up … after all, the spelling with ‘ph’ is a bit odd. And there is a northern/Scottish word ‘Elphame’, Elfland. Bryony is a famous ingredient in witches’ brews, and the root is a substitute, in all sorts of bizarre ways, for mandrake – but I suspect this is an etymology too far. However, I also suspect that if one were somehow to retrace all of Halliwell-Phillipps’s extensive burrowings in manuscripts one might perhaps arrive at the source, and its roots too.