From ampullosity to sky-sign: Robert Browning’s lexical creations
When exploring an author’s first examples of words in the Oxford English Dictionary, the results can be quite surprising for a number of reasons. Some of the most well-known authors are listed relatively few times, and yield only a very small handful of words. Others might unexpectedly offer up a good deal more. But, in the case of Robert Browning, we find a veritable goldmine of first examples.
Browning, who was born on the 7th of May, 1812, was a precocious youth and an insatiable reader for all of his life, and he was well versed in classical languages and literature. He was also, as his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry notes, something of a compulsive show-off. It might be this exhibitionistic streak that led Browning, as an adult poet, to be just as wildly inventive with words as he was; indeed, the dictionary offers 121 words for which Browning gives the earliest example.
Where to begin? Some of Browning’s more playful first examples include the verbs ‘cartooning’ and ‘polking’, for drawing a cartoon and dancing a polka, respectively. He offers us the diminutive verb ‘dartle’, after ‘dart’, in the line ‘My star that dartles the red and the blue’. He speaks of an unspoilt spot on the Normandy coast as a ‘hitherto un-Murrayed bathing-place’, in reference to Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers, very much the ‘Rough Guides’ of the Victorian period. And who would have bet that the first instance of the term ‘cheese-ball’ in published English belongs to Browning? He gives us this excellent term, for what is probably mozzarella, in The Englishman in Italy (Browning and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, spent long periods of his life in Italy due mainly to her ill health):
Nay, taste, while awake,
This half of a curd-white smooth cheese-ball
That peels, flake by flake,
Like an onion, each smoother and whiter
Browning also has a smart line of adjectives and adverbs formed through the addition of the prefix ‘a-’ to nouns and verbs. ‘A-’ words are hard to easily classify (there are six separate entries for the prefix in the OED), but in Browning’s usage it’s always to describe something or some things in a continual state of action or activity. Hence things don’t just effervesce in Browning, but they are set ‘afizz’; dogs are ‘ahunt’, the sun is ‘a-shine’, lights are ‘a-sparkle’, and branches in the wind are set ‘a-shiver’. In the late collection Dramatic Idyls he offers this fine line, inspired by botany, in which he advises again false optimism: ‘Nip these foolish fronds of hope a-sprout’. In saying so, he coins ‘a-sprout’.
Beyond the simple addition of the prefix ‘a-’, though, and the playful coinages outlined above, some of Browning’s more impressive inventions are rooted in his mastery of Greek and Latin. He gives us ‘ampullosity’, a word that seems to describe itself – it means swollen or pretentious language, or bombast. This he develops from the Medieval Latin word ‘ampullos’, meaning turgid or inflated. Similarly, he takes the Latin ‘febricitare’ and develops it into febricity – the state of being feverish. He gives us ‘ombrifuge’ as a word for a shelter from the rain, drawn from the same Greek component that gives us ‘umbrella’. Amusingly, in a translation of Aeschylus written late in his life, Browning translates a Greek term as ‘wrap-around’, and gives us the first example of the word for ‘A garment that is thrown or wrapped round the body’; it is a word lineage that begins with Browning and currently ends with the Harrods Christmas catalogue of 1973. In a similar vein, Browning also provides first example for ‘perforcedly’, meaning necessarily, ‘stabilify’, to make a thing stable, ‘strepitant’, to make a great noise, and ‘stibadium’ for a circular couch. For my money, the most beautiful of this class words is his adjective ‘porporate’ – to be dressed all in purple.
In addition to the many, many words for which Browning earns first example, there are a handful of those rarest of accolades: words for which only Browning is listed. He gives us, for instance, in the late poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, ‘falsish’:
A falsish false, for truth’s inside the same,
And truth that’s only half true, falsish truth.
Likewise, his word ‘gadge’ is listed as a pseudo-archaicism, a word intended to look sound like it describes an old torture implement, when it is in fact brand new: ‘The dead back-weight of the beheading axe! The glowing trip-hook, thumb-screws and the gadge!’. And sometimes, when a word has two examples given in the OED, it is still only Browning’s. He uses the word ‘garnishry’, meaning adornment, in 1835 in a description of celestial brilliance: ‘Saw in the stars mere garnishry of heaven’. But he uses the same word again in 1868 to describe a lacklustre dinner: ‘A meal all meat… no garnishry’. From heaven to a plate of meat, Browning’s lexical inventiveness knows no bounds.
The above examples only begin to scrape the surface of Browning’s distinctive relationship with words, and the marks he left on the English language. However, his words give us a clear sense of how he thought as a poet. We can hear in many of them a mind grappling with the complexities of poetic metre, and he was a strictly metrical writer all his life. The word ‘experienceless’, coined for his translation of Aeschylus and meaning ‘inexperience’ or, perhaps, ‘innocence’, carries in itself five syllables – a weighty word that occupies half an ordinary line of Browning’s verse on its own. Again in the translation of Aeschylus we get the following lines:
and who, coiled so, died distraught
Rather than make submission, loose one limb
Love-wards, at lambency of honeyed tongue
These densely poetic lines contain the coined ‘love-wards’, which both continues the alliterative movement of the passage (loose, limb, love-, lamb-), but also mirrors the falling rhythm of the word ‘Rather’, above it; ‘Love-wards’ and ‘Rather’ both move from a stressed syllable to an unstressed one, reversing the flow of Browning’s usual iambic pentameter, and giving a sense of deathly descent. Elsewhere, when Browning writes of a man who would ‘personate Saint George / For a mock Princess in undragoned days’, we must assumed he preferred the rhythm of ‘undragoned’ to ‘dragonless’. Finally, there is ‘sky-sign’, a term Browning uses to express his sense that the sky itself can symbolically and meaningfully move before our eyes. Browning was, following his hero Shelley, a confirmed atheist, but he was also a visionary who believed that the universal and the infinite could be glimpsed through the shifting shapes of the finite. When we think of Browning looking to the sky, expecting to there read signs of infinity, we must think of his own writings, overflowing as they are with strikingly unusual words and meanings, as an echo of the way that he saw the world.