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Hannah Crawforth, Etymology and the Invention of English in Early Modern Literature
by Catherine Nicholson

Crawforth, Hannah. Etymology and the Invention of English in Early Modern Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. xi + 228 pages. ISBN: 978-1107041769. $68.00 cloth.

The word “etymology” has an interesting past life of its own. It made its way into Anglo Saxon via Latin as a name for one branch of the grammarian’s study of linguistic form: the late fifteenth-century Court of Sapience depicts Lady Grammar in the company of Dames Orthography, Etymology, Syntax and Prosody. But the word’s Greek origins—from etymon [true] and logos [word]—hint at an arcane prophetic power: the capacity to excavate an occulted reality from the sedimentation of history and human error, restoring words to a prelapsarian clarity and density of meaning. As Hannah Crawforth shows in her thought-provoking book Etymology and the Invention of English in Early Modern Literature, the antiquarian study of the linguistic past thus afforded Renaissance writers “not only a means of expressing thought, but also—more importantly—a way of thinking” (7). Etymology was both descriptive and prescriptive in the period, analytical, poetical, and even polemical. Tracing the backward course of language was a basic strategy of logical and rhetorical “invention”—a word, Crawforth reminds us, signifying creative imagination as well as historical or textual discovery (2-3)—and a powerful mechanism for joining the lexical past to a desired cultural, political, or religious future.

What early modern English writers discovered through etymological research was often uncertain or contradictory: versions of the phrase “some say” are the hallmark of etymological inquiry in the period. To some extent, this didn’t matter. As Crawforth acknowledges, few of the writers she discusses—Spenser, Jonson, Donne, Milton, and a host of contemporary scholars and theorists—were proponents of a strict linguistic naturalism, such as that espoused by Plato’s Cratylus. They were pragmatists by nature if not in name, and the tangled roots of the vernacular itself primed them to recognize the role of historical accident and cultural contingency in linking words and ideas. Multiple, competing lexical genealogies might well be allowed to share space in an argument (or a poem), and even an avowedly spurious etymology could be valued for its aptness. Etymology was a figure of speech as well as a logical tool, and witty association was part of the game.

Nonetheless, etymology had major stakes, especially, as Crawforth emphasizes in her Introduction, in the rhetoric of Protestant reformers, whose efforts rested on the twin pillars of scriptural interpretation and doctrinal primitivism. The desire to read secular antique literature in its original sense—and to imitate its effects in the vernacular—played a role, as well, but classicism is not a motive to which Crawforth devotes much attention. Depending on the writer or text in question, her focus on theological concerns can seem either illuminating or blinkered: it works extremely well as a lens for reading the ecclesiastical satire of The Shepheards Calender and the visionary wordplay of Book One of The Faerie Queene (Chapter One), but feels a bit narrow applied to Jonson’s masques, which Crawforth labors to interpret as crypto-Catholic (Chapter Two). Crawforth’s reading of The Shepheards Calender credibly and usefully links E. K.’s etymologizing glosses to the investigations into Anglo-Saxon conducted by the members of Archbishop Matthew Parker’s circle, while the connection she claims between Jonson’s “etymological moments” and the “recusant philology” of Richard Verstegan remains rather more tenuous (64). Nevertheless, even when the argument’s framing seems forced or askew, the instances Crawforth considers offer ample reward for reading: her focus on Jonson’s densely coded character names, for example, yields a subtle account of the tension in his work between spectacle and veiled insinuation—between the immediacy of the theatrical event and the slow dawn of a “deeper, enduring” readerly comprehension (93).

Chapter Three, on Donne’s sermons, is a highlight of the book, for here the competing motives of early modern etymology—the instinct to revel in the colors and shadows of linguistic use, and the yearning to restore words to their divine transparency—prove unexpectedly compatible. By patiently tracking Donne’s movements between English, Latin, and Hebrew, Crawforth shows how potentially hazardous gaps between tongues become metaphors of preaching and pastoring in an age of ecclesiastical schism. The difficulties of translation served Donne as arguments for constancy and stability within the English Church: for a tolerant acceptance of the differences that invariably accrue between words and within the community of believers. In a particularly astute reading of Donne’s sermons at the Inns of Court, Crawforth shows that the figure of the pearl—the pearl of great price; the pearl cast before swine—allows Donne to imagine meaning accreting to language through time, in “many shels, many crusts, many films, many coats” (qtd. 130-1), so that the fine gradations of intent and understanding that separate author from reader, or preacher from auditor, can be appreciated rather than deplored. This is a reading that ascribes to Donne’s evident pleasure in words not the guilty conscience of the reformed poet but the reverential delight of a believer in a God whose “name [is] compounded and complicated of many names” (qtd. 142). 

The book’s final chapter, on Milton, is perhaps too ambitious: simply accounting for the manifold uses to which the poet puts etymology in Paradise Lost could be the work of a monograph, and Crawforth attempts to survey Milton’s entire oeuvre, prose included. The examples she puts forward are suggestive, if inevitably partial. Milton takes a skeptical view of the previous century’s faith in etymological excavation as a method of spiritual or ecclesiastical renewal—“New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large,” after all (qtd. 147)—and his own wordplay has an ironic edge: it’s only the fallen characters in Paradise Lost who believe in the determining power of names. Crawforth imbues this fact with an elegiac melancholy—Miltonic etymology, she writes, “charts the deviation between ideal linguistic forms and those of our fallen world” (177)—but Milton seems to find it funny, too, as if all etymologies were finally comprehended in the punning association of Babel and babble. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this study is the way it exposes both the serious and the jokey character of etymology in early modern English writing: does E. K. mean it when he insists—wrongheadedly—on the goatish origins of Spenser’s “aeglogues”? Crawforth focuses for understandable reasons on persuading us that etymology mattered deeply to English writers, but her findings suggest that it also fed a steady stream of rhetorical and poetic play.

Catherine Nicholson
Yale University



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Cite as:

Catherine Nicholson , "Hannah Crawforth, Etymology and the Invention of English in Early Modern Literature," Spenser Review 45.2.37 (Fall 2015). Accessed June 17th, 2019.
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