Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 22 March 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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I've just been reading with pleasure a facsimile of a little book called Orbis Sensualium Pictus, or Visible World, by Johannes Amos Comenius, as published in London in 1672. Dear old Comenius (1592-1670), a Bohemian by origin, sought a universal sharing of knowledge, hoping that 'scarecrows may be taken away out of wisdoms Gardens'. His picture book, first published in 1658, with its captions in Latin and native tongues, would, he thought, 'entice witty Children to it, that they may not conceit a torment to be in the School, but dainty-fare'.

Poor Comenius had the misfortune to get caught up in the Swedish-Polish war, suffering the destruction of his books and manuscripts in 1656. His Visible World survived him, and contains the caption 'The heavens rotate around the earth, which stands in the centre' acquired the qualification 'as earlier men believed. At present it is thought that the earth moves around the sun.'

This little engraving goes with 'Deformes & Monstrosi'. There is something for everyone here. The text explains that

...monstrous and deformed people are those which differ in the body from the ordinary shape; as are the huge Gyant (1, immanis Gigas) and the little Dwarf (2, nanus Pumilio); One with two bodies (3, Bicorpor); One with two heads (4, Biceps), and such like Monsters. Among these are reckoned, The jolt-headed (5, Capito); The great-Nosed (6, Naso); The blubber-lipped (7, Labeo); The blub-cheeked (8, Bucco); The goggle-eyed (9, Strabo); The wry-necked (10, Obstipus); The great-throated (11, Strumosus); The crump-backed (12, Gibbosus); The crump-footed (13, Loripes); The steeple-crowned (15 Cilo); add to these: the bald-pated (14 Calvastrum).

It is of interest that the specific English translations (provided by a London schoolmaster, Charles Hoole) are all obsolete today, except perhaps for goggle-eyed. Even great is supplanted by big, and jolt-headed, so the dictionary tells me, is only used figuratively, although I have never heard anyone use it even in that way.

No doubt Peter Jones and the lads have better ways of teaching us Latin, but when I was a girl Comenius would have been welcome.