From the Wild West to Yorkshireisms: Charlotte Brontë’s words
21st April is the birthday of Charlotte Brontë, the eldest of the Brontë sisters, and older sibling to the painter Bramwell Brontë. An uncommonly original writer, it’s only to be expected that some of her finely turned phrases have made their way into the English language. She is listed as an example in well over a thousand Oxford English Dictionary entries, for words ranging from “daguerrotype” to “victuallage”, and “palliative” to “lozenged”. And she provides first example for some excellent words, such as the beguiling “irrealizable”, signifying something that cannot properly be made real (we’d more likely say “unrealizable” today), and “spanieless”, for – what else? – a female spaniel. She even adds, after the appearance of “spanieless” in her novel Villette, a polite aside to the reader: “if one may coin a word”.
It might be her novel Jane Eyre that we read most today, but it is Brontë’s 1849 novel Shirley that offers some of the most some surprising contributions to the English language. For instance, it provides the earliest example in the OED of the phrase “wild west”, to mean “the western part of the U.S. during its lawless frontier period”. When Shirley conjures up the image of “homeless hunters” in “the loneliest western wilds”, the reply comes: “What suggested the wild West to your mind, Miss Keeldar?”. This is extraordinary, but so too, in its way, is another contribution from Shirley: the noun “spring clean”, a cleaning of the house from top to bottom. Brontë’s is the earliest example, though she does not seem to be coining this particular phrase – she fences it off behind ironical quotation marks, and writes critically of the concept: “if you know what a ‘spring clean’ is – very execrable and inhuman”. Shirley thus has made unique and influential contributions to both the lawlessness of the frontier and the orderliness of the domestic space. But not content with these, the book offers a final gift to posterity: its title. “Shirley” was, before the novel, generally a man’s name; astonishingly, Brontë set the trend for its modern use as predominantly a woman’s name. This is even a device in the plot; she writes of Shirley that “her parents, who had wished to have a son, finding that, after eight years of marriage, Providence had granted them only a daughter, bestowed on her the same masculine family cognomen they would have bestowed on a boy”.
Shirley’s words aside, Charlotte Brontë has a more particular area of influence on the dictionary: she is a prolific borrower of French words. This is largely thanks to her own experience of the French language: in 1842, when Charlotte was in her mid-twenties, Charlotte and Emily, accompanied by their father, moved to Brussels. The sisters taught English in exchange for a boarding school education. Though their initial stay in Belgium was cut short due to the death of their aunt, Charlotte returned alone, and there found the inspiration for her first foray into novel writing, The Professor. In particular, Charlotte’s desire for a married man, her teacher Constantin Héger, would leave a lasting and profound mark on her writings. Something of her enthusiasm for the country is ventriloquised through The Professor’s hero, William Crimsworth: “Belgium! name unromantic and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a sound, in my heart an echo such as no other assemblage of syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium!”. Though The Professor wasn’t published until much later in her life, she rewrote many parts of it into the more successful Villette, whose name is shared with the fictional Belgian town in which the novel takes place.
Accordingly, Brontë’s novels overflow with French words and phrases, many of which have since entered the English language. She gives first example to “maîtresse femme”, a domineering woman; “nuit blanche”, a sleepless night; “ouvrière”, a female member of the working classes; and “étang”, a shallow coastal pool of water. Characters indulge in pickled cabbage known as “choucroute” or take their medicine as “dragées”, sweets with drugs at their centres. In Shirley Brontë gives a sense of the lightness of the colouring of snow with the word “reflets” – and adds a characterful footnote that explains her predilection for imported words: “Find me an English word as good, reader, and I will gladly dispense with the French word. Reflections won’t do”. She has a fine line of words for youngsters and for females, such as young and inexperienced “blanc-becs”, or the “fillette”, Adèle, whom Jane Eyre is brought in to teach (similarly, Brontë coins the English diminutive “daughterling”). All of these imported words have their first evidence in her works, and all have found purchase within English. Most extraordinary of all might be the word “timbre” which Brontë uses, again in Shirley, as a description of the human voice. “Timbre” in this sense, as “the character of musical or vocal sound distinct from its pitch and intensity” existed in French before Shirley, but Brontë once again brings it across the channel for the first time – though the OED does note that her use of it is as a nonce word, one only coined for a single use; it is delivered by a Belgian who sprinkles his sentences with French.
Charlotte Brontë’s words bespeak a writer who learnt about her own language by mastering another, and the readiness with which she brings in to her works foreign phrases is suggestive of her originality – sometimes, as she says in her footnote, even the full range of the English language is not enough to express her thoughts or observations. But despite her imports, she is rightly remembered as a spirit of the Yorkshire moors, and we can look at a final few words that are testament to this part of her character. She was an astute observer of Yorkshireisms – and, in fact, Shirley is listed as the first example of the word “Yorkshireism” itself. She observes the Yorkshire dialect and the colloquialisms of the counties in her prose, and these occasionally appear in the dictionary. Shirley gives us “dahn”, as in “it was ‘Raight dahn warm for Febewerry’”. And, perhaps most fitting for a writer who brought so many foreign words to English, Brontë also gave us “Furriner”: “Hem! Sir, I would beg to allude that as a furriner, coming from a distant coast, another quarter and hemisphere of this globe, thrown, as I may say, a perfect outcast on these shores – the cliffs of Albion – you have not that understanding of huz and wer ways”.