Where angels fear to tread: Alexander Pope’s coinages
Born on 21 May, 1688, Alexander Pope remains one of the best-known poets of the Augustan age of English literature. He was an active member of the eighteenth-century ‘Republic of Letters’, writing and publishing an abundance of poems, essays, works of criticism, and translations. He also left behind a good deal of expressions that will be familiar to us now, though we might not always realise they originated in Pope’s work. From his Essay on Criticism (which, despite the name, is a poem and not what we’d call an essay), we get such memorable phrases as ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’, and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ – the latter being helped into popularity by the title of Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread. Part of the reason his turns of phrase have proved so easy to remember might be that he often wrote in the punishingly strict form of heroic couplets, as in these famous lines from the Essay on Criticism:
A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Pope’s argument here – that only knowing a little about something might be worse than not knowing anything at all – speaks to us today, with our concern over ‘echo chambers’ in modern political discussion. However, Pope’s contributions to language can be traced more deeply still than the level of common expressions, and a quick tour of his mentions in the Oxford English Dictionary reveals much about the man behind the words.
Some of the more surprising words for which Pope gives first example are ones we take for granted today. It is curious, for instance, that Pope’s name sits alongside ‘flirtation’ – not in the modern sense of the act of flirting, but as a ‘quick, sprightly’ motion or gesture. He also provides first example to the very common word ‘dependable’ when he writes of ‘dependable friendships’ in a letter. He gives us the verb ‘madden’, to make angry or more angry, and the adjective ‘arduous’, for ‘Lofty, steep, difficult to climb’. He gives us the adjectival phrase ‘ill-fated’ to speak of something destined for an unpleasant end, and the adjective form of ‘titillate’, which was still relatively young as a verb in Pope’s time. And the Essay on Man of 1734 contains the earliest example of ‘self-satisfied’, still in common usage today (Pope would be so pleased with himself if he knew).
Plenty of Pope’s first examples also befit an eighteenth-century man of letters. Amongst the writerly words he gives us is the rather wonderful ‘bookful’, which has since been used to described a book’s worth of knowledge, but was actually used by Pope to refer to a ‘bookful’ mind – as in, filled with learning acquired from reading (either way, it’s an excellent system of measurement). Pope provides first example for the word ‘writative’, to talk about the compulsion to write, in this pleasing aphorism: ‘an increase of years makes men more talkative but less writative’. Pope also coined the adjective form of ‘essaying’ for his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, which, though it relates to the sense of the word ‘to try, to attempt’, may well have also registered as a writer’s pun to Pope’s readers – especially as Pope wrote of an ‘essaying hand’. Pope is also responsible for the verb form of the word ‘parody’, writing in a letter: ‘I have translated, or rather parodied, a poem of Horace’. It is in relation to parody that he also introduces a more esoteric term to the dictionary: ‘Heroi-Comical’. A straightforward fusion of the categories of the heroic and the comic, it is term Pope uses in the subtitle of The Rape of the Locke as a description of the poem’s apparently trivial theme. The title of his satirical work The Dunciad has also earned its place in the dictionary, as a description of ‘the world or commonwealth of dunces’.
Pope’s words often offer us snatches of information or insights into his own personality and attitudes. Pope’s inclusions in the dictionary seem to speak to his attitude towards Queen Anne’s rule (somewhat unpleasantly, he coins ‘gynocracy’), his own education (he has first use of ‘self-taught’), and his own lifestyle (he is the first English user of the French ‘solitaire’, a loner or recluse). First examples such as ‘liqueur’ and ‘compotator’ – meaning a companion with whom you imbibe alcohol – also reveal a man who liked a boozy drink. He has first use of the word ‘toupee’, which he uses, in The Dunciad, in the image of a ‘dunce’ in ‘Toupee or Gown’. However, although Pope is often thought of as having conservative values, the OED also records a more progressive and surprising streak in his worldview.
It is not a commonly known fact that Pope was an early advocate of a vegetarian diet (though the word ‘vegetarian’ itself would not be familiar to Pope, as it doesn’t appear in the dictionary until 1842). He wrote an article for Richard Steele’s Guardian magazine in 1713 entitled ‘Against Barbarity to Animals’, in which he argued against man’s right to mistreat ‘the lower rank of beings’. Unsurprising, then, that we find him coin words like ‘carnivoracity’, a neat portmanteau of ‘carnivore’ and ‘voracity’, and meaning an appetite or greediness for meat. And, in his Satires of Horace of 1734, Pope also gives first example of the word ‘barbecue’ as an adjective (writing about ‘barbecu’d’ hog’s flesh). These words are a fitting tribute to a writer who was appalled by meat-eating, and who wrote: “Lobsters roasted alive, pigs whipt to death, fowls sew’d up, are testimonies of our outrageous luxury”.