Dot Wordsworth

Is it exotic to vibrate?


‘Think yourself lucky,’ said my husband when I told him about poor John Stuart Mill’s mother, who had nine children by a man strongly in favour of birth control and who brought up his children ‘in the absence of love and in the presence of fear’.

Parenthetically, I have only just discovered that the Mill family name had been Milne, changed to sound less Scottish. Gladstone’s name in his youth was Gladstones. Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, only changed his name from Wesley at the age of 29. Why are so many great men pseudonymous?

Anyway, the bad-tempered James Mill used to stay with Jeremy Bentham from 1814 to 1818 at the stupendous Forde Abbey, Somerset, where they worked in a room hung with great tapestries made from Raphael cartoons now in the V&A. For exercise, Bentham walked in the 80ft cloister-conservatory. This he called vibrating.

It was not such outlandish terminology as it now seems, for vibrate could mean ‘oscillate’, like a pendulum. In the 17th century it also meant, following its Latin origin, ‘shake, brandish’, as with a sword. The Bard might have been called Vibratespear.

Though archaic heralds still speak of a sword brandished by a lion as vibrant, we’re accustomed to vibration being the rapid tremor of sound. Only in 1993 did the Oxford English Dictionary catch up with a newer meaning of vibrant that suggested ‘vitality or the exotic’, something ‘teeming, exuberant, flourishing’.

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