Thomas Hardy’s lexical landscape
Thomas Hardy, born on 2nd June 1840, grew up in a modest cottage, built by his great-grandfather that overlooked the vast and open heathland of Dorset. It was this landscape that would enter into his imagined Wessex – the bucolic county that acts as the setting for many of his major novels and poems, and which earns Hardy a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘Wessex’: ‘The name of a kingdom in south-west England in Anglo-Saxon times, used by Thomas Hardy as the name of the county in which his stories are set (corresponding approximately to Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire)’. It is little surprise that Hardy’s other contributions to, and mentions in, the OED often relate to rural life and colloquial language.
Hardy features in examples for many other entries in the dictionary, amongst which is the excellent word ‘cidery’. Literally meaning ‘of the nature of, or resembling cider’, Hardy uses it in The Woodlanders to describe country air that is ‘heavy with a sweet cidery smell’. His great work Far From the Madding Crowd currently offers the first example for the exclamation ‘hoosh’ – a sound used to shoo or drive away animals: ‘Tending thrashing-machine and wimbling haybonds, and saying “Hoosh!” to the cocks and hens when they go upon your seeds’. Hardy is also listed twice for using the word ‘larry’ as a noun, as a dialect term signifying confused excitement; a character in the comedic work The Hand of Ethelberta exclaims: ‘My brain is all in a spin, wi’ being rafted up in such a larry!’. He also appears as earliest example for the excellent noun ‘miss-mark’ – someone who is a failure or disappointment, and perennially seems to ‘miss the mark’.
The meaning behind Hardy’s distinctive use of words is not always completely clear. For instance, he is twice quoted in examples for the verb form of ‘mumbudget’ (and a third dictionary example of the word is from a 1909 Daily Chronicle article about Hardy). He writes: ‘you were quite sure he’d never come mumbudgeting to see ye’, and ‘Now, don’t come mumbudgeting so close again’. The noun ‘mumbudget’ means to stay silent, as in the ‘mum’ of ‘keeping mum’. But does Hardy therefore mean ‘to approach something silently’ when he writes about ‘mumbudgeting’? The OED offers a speculative definition from the English Dialect Dictionary: ‘to come clandestinely, secretly’. ‘Mumbudgeting’ might mean sneaking up on someone, but the dictionary notes that it might, perhaps, also mean ‘to fuss; to bustle’. A problem with dialect words from the past is that we can’t always be sure, even given the context of the novels.
Hardy is also listed as an early example for ‘off-licence’, denoting a licence held by an establishment that permits the sale of alcohol to be taken away for consumption (the phrase now tends to be used to indicate the establishment itself, and not its licence). Indeed, it is in Tess of the D’Urbervilles that Hardy writes of ‘Rolliver’s Inn’, which ‘could only boast an off-license; […] nobody could legally drink on the premises’; the novel was published in 1891, in the early years of alcohol licensing in the United Kingdom.
Hardy’s poems also reveal his talent for invention and his use of dialect voices. His Wessex Poems provide first example for the unusual noun ‘tardle’, which Hardy uses as a replacement for ‘tangle’:
While her great gallied eyes, through her hair hanging loose,
Sheened as stars through a tardle o’ trees.
‘Tardle’ defamiliarizes the scene, and offers a stranger feel to the image than would a ‘tangle o’ trees’. But it also aids an internal rhyme, between ‘star’ and ‘tar-’. It is a word that seems apt to describe the lines themselves – they are thickly knotted with alliterative movements and rushing stress patterns, such as the girl’s ‘great gallied eyes’ (‘Gallied’ meaning frightened). The Wessex Poems also provide a colourful example for the word ‘grintern’, meaning a compartment in a granary – it might not be the most useful word for many of us today, but it brings our attention to a particularly arresting example of Hardy’s countrified poetic voice:
Ye mid zell my favourite heifer, ye
mid let the charlock grow,
Foul the grinterns, give up thrift.
Hardy’s poetic prose
The quotations of Hardy’s found in the dictionary often underscore the poetic and rhythmic quality of his work, and this is the case even when he is ostensibly writing in prose. For instance, for the term ‘backalong’ – meaning to turn back or return in the direction just taken – the OED offers this line from the novel Well-Beloved: ‘And when, on my way backalong, I saw you waiting hereabout again, I slipped over the wall’. Well-tuned ears might already have noticed that there is a fairly regular iambic metre here, and that it could easily be three tetrametric (eight syllable, four feet) lines of poetry:
And when, on my way backalong,
I saw you waiting hereabout
again, I slipped over the wall.
Hardy did not mean for his prose to fall into exact poetic lines, of course, and the passage above continues for several sentences in the novel; however, it does illustrate the inherent rhythm of his words, brought about through the use of simple language and the occasional invented word. The metrical potential of the phrase ‘back-along’ wasn’t missed by Robert Frost, whose poetry features in a later example of it in the dictionary, in a use similar to Hardy’s; Frost describes as house as ‘A good old-timer dating back along’. There is music, too, in Hardy’s phrase ‘bumpity-bump’, currently attributed to Far From the Madding Crowd, as a childlike way of reproducing a heartbeat: ‘It makes my heart go quite bumpity-bump!’. Once again, isolating this quotation makes it appear more like a line of poetry than prose.
Across this work, then, from prose to poetry, we find a relationship with words and language that speaks of a relationship with a place; Hardy moved from Dorset to London at the age of 22, but his mastery and manipulation of language helped him to reproduce a sense of the landscape, the locations, and the people of his youth.