‘How many words will you use today, first used by Thomas Browne in the 17th century?’ asked a trailer on Twitter for Radio 4’s In Our Time. A tweeter called Adam B replied that, of the examples given, ambidextrous, carnivorous and medical could all be found before Browne. He added: ‘I love Browne, will be listening.’ So do I, and I enjoyed the programme.
But I agree that it is no use looking in the Oxford English Dictionary and concluding that words first cited from any author were coined by him. In the dictionary, 4,156 quotations are taken from Browne, 60 per cent from Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), his longest book and I think the most fun. Of these, 771 provide the first evidence of a word and 1,575 the first evidence of a particular meaning.
The lexicographers found words in Browne because they looked. But when Browne coined words, how did he expect anyone to understand them? Partly by using synonymous doublets: ‘the Lion, a fierce and ferocious Animal’; ‘Therapeutick or curative Physick’; ‘Lachrymatories, or Tear-bottles’.
Many of his new or scarcely used words come from Latin. He took gypsum directly from Latin, as he did belemnites, the fossils. Biped is torn from the Latin bipes, bipedem. Asphaltick is from the Greek asphaltos, used in English since the days of Sir John Mandeville’s imaginary travels in the 14th century. Milton took up Asphaltick 24 years later in Paradise Lost.
What’s striking is not the hundreds of obscure words Browne uses, but how many are now in ordinary use: approximate, aquiline (‘an hooked or Aquiline nose’), cadaverous, causation, coexistence, disruption (meaning ‘bursting asunder’), elevator (though as an ‘ascending chamber’ it came in only in 1853).
He is the OED’s first source for flammability and for inflamabilities. He is the first cited for follicle, hallucination, illustrative, participating, ruminating, selection, transgressive, undulation, variegation, vitreous. For me, the Latin quotations in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy clog the prose, but Browne’s ludic and playful neologisms enrich his.