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Sir Thomas Browne and the Oxford English Dictionary

In celebration of Book Lover’s Day, we asked four of our dictionary editors to tell us about their favourite writers. Each of the writers featured is in the top 1000 cited sources in the Oxford English Dictionary. If you subscribe to the OED Online (many UK libraries offer free access if you provide your library card number), it’s well worth spending some time exploring the list.

Few authors cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are responsible for as many unusual words as the seventeenth century physician, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). Browne’s erudite enquiries into science and religion are notable for their wit, their fascination with the natural world, and their attraction to the esoteric, and all of these characteristics are evident in his vocabulary.

Appropriately for the person who first talked of classical latin, Browne’s neologisms are mostly scholarly derivations from Latin. They are often minutely, scientifically precise, but have a quality of baroque humour and curiosity which prevents them being merely pedantic ink-horn terms. Many originate through his efforts as, in one of his own terms, a zodiographer: a person who writes about or describes animals.

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica – an encyclopaedic exploration of received wisdom which refutes such vulgar errors as the belief that elephants don’t have any joints, or that children, without instruction, would grow up naturally speaking Hebrew – Browne describes a snail not as a boneless creature, but an exosseous one.

He writes not of the flight of birds, but of their acts of volitation. Not the twittering of cicadas, but their fritiniency; not the booming call of bitterns, but their ‘mugient noyse’. Nightingales aren’t melodious, but canorous; earwigs aren’t wingless, but impennous. He invents peculiarly specific adjectives such as tauricornous (‘having horns like those of a bull’) and anatiferous:

Producing ducks or geese; i.e. producing barnacles, formerly supposed to grow on trees, and dropping off into the water below, to turn to ‘Tree-geese’ (Pennant II. 238), whence also the trivial name of the Barnacle Lepas anatifera.

1646 Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica 133 Anatiferous trees, whose corruption breaks forth into Bernacles.

Many of Browne’s coinages are more generally useful than this, and some have proved essential – most famously electricity and medical – but also indigenous, ferocious, migrant, coma, anomalous, prairie, ascetic, carnivorous, and ambidextrous, among others.

It is a mark of his skill as a wordsmith that Browne appears at No. 70 in the OED’s list of top cited sources, above Shelley, George Eliot, Ruskin, and many other better-known and more widely-read authors. In the list of sources responsible for the first evidence of a word, he ranks among the great at an impressive No. 25, with 788.

Next time you’re engaged in pistillation (pounding with a pestle) in the kitchen – perhaps while preparing something cenatory (relating or pertaining to dinner or supper) – or in balneation (bathing) in the bathroom, or in everyday moration (a delay, a tarrying), you can thank Sir Thomas Browne that you have the exact word you need. Even if you didn’t know you needed it.