Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wordiness and mysticism
The American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, born on the 25th May, 1803, certainly made an impression on the English language. As the founder of the philosophical movement Transcendentalism, Emerson accordingly makes philosophical contributions to the dictionary. Transcendentalism is a kind of American take on British Romanticism, in part inspired by Emerson’s youthful voyage to England to meet the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and it centres around the return to nature, the belief that all people and things are inherently good, and the belief in one great spirit that animates all things in the universe. To describe the latter idea, Emerson coined the term ‘Over-soul’, the soul which transcends all other souls. He writes about ‘metachemistry’, which, like ‘metaphysics’, is a supposed science of the invisible and intangible aspects of the world. He also talks of ‘externizing’ and the ‘externization’ of thoughts; Emerson believed that ideas could commingle with the structures of reality outside our heads. He is also cited in the Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest use of the term ‘Sub-mind’, a kind of theory of the subconscious as well as the inferior parts of thinking.
But Emerson also provides first example for some very commonplace nouns. Though there are earlier examples of out there that are not yet catalogued in the dictionary — an ongoing process of revision — Emerson’s essay ‘On Beauty’ is currently first example of the word ‘shoe-box’. He’s even using it as an example of the duplicity of meaning, writing: ‘Every word has a double, treble, or centuple use and meaning […] I cry you mercy, good shoe-box! I did not know you were a jewel-case’. Emerson seems to want us to think of our minds, too, as humble containers that could yet house precious jewels. Another word that Emerson also gives first example to — though he will one day no doubt lose this accolade as the entry is revised — is ‘meathook’ (less innocuous than it sounds, as he was talking about the grisly deaths of Christian martyrs), as well as ‘nomadism’, which he uses both to refer to travelling peoples as well as ‘intellectual’ nomadism — wandering thoughts. He gives us the earliest published example of ‘jumprope’ in the OED, the common American word for a skipping rope, as well as the term ‘war-lord’, in this excellent potted history of the English aristocracy: ‘Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics, and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord’.
Emerson was as renowned for his poetry and essays as he was for his philosophical thought, and we find in the OED evidence of his literary legacy. It is easy to admire, for example, the following description of the powers of poetry: ‘This power which the poet exerts… to magnify the small, to micrify the great’. Emerson here coins the word ‘micrify’, which is not a word we are likely to use to today (the dictionary lists it as obsolete and rare), but it’s a pleasing use of language nevertheless; it at once balances the image of small becoming large with large becoming small, and it builds a neat rhetorical echo between ‘magnify’ and ‘micrify’. I am similarly taken by the first published occasion of ‘naturel’ in the OED, a borrowing from French used to refer to an innate characteristic in someone; Emerson writes of ‘the contumacious sharptongued energy of English naturel’. Contumacious, stubbornly perverse, and sharptongued, bitter of speech. It’s an extraordinarily well wrought sentence, and one that would be more at home in poetry than prose.
There are many other words of interest for which the OED’s evidence suggests Emerson is the first user. He has ‘Mephistophelism’, to describe underhand behaviour that can be likened to Mephistopheles, the devil-figure featured in the ‘Faust’ legend. He’s also listed alongside words that relate to specific places, like ‘Americanizing’ and even ‘Birminghamize’ (referring, surprisingly, to Birmingham in England, and not Alabama). One of my favourites of his words is the now-rare ‘pleniloquence’. It means over-speaking or speaking too much (compare it to ‘eloquence’, speaking well, or ‘grandiloquence’, speaking in a high-flown manner).
Emerson was a hugely prolific writer, and he was also regularly invited to speak at public events. He was once, for instance, invited to speak to graduates of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Divinity College in 1838; his speech was so openly critical of the Christian church and organized religion that he was subsequently branded an ‘infidel’ and an ‘atheist’ and was banned from speaking there again. The Christian newspapers at the time attacked the ‘wordiness and mysticism’ of his speech; you have to wonder if Emerson, retreating home after the furore that followed his address, might have thought to himself ‘me and my big mouth’ — or else, ‘me and my darned pleniloquence’.