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ON THE DICTIONARY OF A NATION,
AS ILLUSTRATING NATIONAL CHARACTER AND HISTORY.
By J. BIRKBECK NEVINS, M.D. LOND., V.P.
One of the greatest difficulties experienced by a schoolboy, in his early attempts to use the Latin Dictionary, arises from the number of meanings attached to the same word—meanings which have often little apparent connection, and are sometimes contradictory of one another. Take, for example, the word “ Opus," and he finds, amongst other meaningsWork, Manufacture,
Expedient. Now, an intelligent reader, with some experience of life and language, will readily trace the connection between these several meanings; but the schoolboy does not possess the necessary knowledge, and often selects a meaning at random, or takes the first that presents itself. But besides the number of meanings for the same word in the same dictionary, there is another circumstance to be noticed, which will form the subject of the present paper — viz., the diversity of meanings for the same word in the dictionaries of different nations; a diversity which is not to be accounted for by the natural growth of one meaning out of another, as in the case of opus, adduced above, but which arises, in a curious and interesting manner, from the character of the people, and the history of the nation to which the dictionary belongs.
In the following remarks, I propose to illustrate this connection with reference to a few words in common use, and shew how much of national character and history may be learnt from opening, almost at random, any moderately good dictionary. I have confined myself to the four languages, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and English, because differences in their dictionaries are more marked and characteristic than in those of modern languages, and because the field proved to be so wide, when the attempt was made to include also, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, that I was compelled to limit it, or relinquish the work altogether.
The first word which brought this subject before my notice was the Greek for stranger:"
It appeared as if there must be something in the Greek character to account for these meanings, for there is no necessary connection between them; and this is indeed strongly brought out on turning to the Latin dictionary; for, so far from the stranger implying a host or a guest in that language, it implies an enemy-a person to be kicked out of doors as soon as may be; for
Hostis means primarily “A Stranger,"
and secondarily, “An Enemy, not a Guest.” On turning to the dictionary, to see if there is no less uncivil Latin word for stranger, we find Advena, which just expresses what its etymology implies, “One who has come,” “a stranger," "a foreigner," but nothing whatever beyond this. But the Latin for the adjective “strange” throws additional light upon the subject; for whilst the Greek for the word means also novel, wonderful, hospitable, kind to strangers, the Latin Alienus is translated in the dictionary
Foreign, none of our country or kin,
There is nothing here implying any necessary connection between being a stranger, and receiving hospitable entertainment.
I was therefore led to inquire whether the Roman character or history might furnish the clue to these various meanings in their language, whilst a different character amongst the Greeks might also account for the very different meanings which they attached to the same word. It soon became an object of interest to see whether the dictionaries of other nations agreed with either or neither of them; and, by the assistance of my friend Dr. Ginsburg, I have been enabled to compare the Hebrew lexicon with them; whilst I have also taken our own English dictionary, that we may see how far our national character is reflected in it likewise. In order that the points of resemblance and contrast may be most strikingly presented to the mind, the words from the four dictionaries will be placed in parallel columns.
STRANGER, AND ITS DERIVATIVES.
Greek. ξενος Stranger, Foreigner, Guest, Host.
to be treated as an enemy.
ship, but to be adjured. Substitute for “Sir," as a form
of address in America.
English verb: to alienate or estrange (never used in a good sense).
adjective: strange, odd, irregular, disagreeable.
If now we turn our attention to the character and institutions of these several nations, we shall find how curiously they correspond with the differences observed in their dictionaries. There is probably no sketch of Greek manners so graphic and familiar to us as St. Luke's description of the Athenians; "for all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to
hear some new thing.” Now to a person of this gossiping disposition, a stranger is a perfect godsend; for the old and twice-told tale will be new to him, and he will be welcomed as a hearer; or he will have his own story to relate, and will be equally welcome as a talker; and in one or other of these capacities he will be gladly received as a guest, whilst his entertainer becomes the host, as a natural result.
The stranger, the guest, and the host are thus naturally connected together, by the Greek love of hearing or telling some new thing. But yet further: the various Greek cities formed almost so many different nations, for they were almost constantly at war with each other, striving for the headship; and yet they were all so closely connected by the tie of a common language and ancestry, as to make them into one nation, when a danger from a Barbarian, that is a foreign foe, threatened to overwhelm any of them. They were therefore, in one sense, almost constantly strangers one to another; and yet, in another, they were united by such a family bond, that a Greek was welcome to a Greek, and the stranger was sure of finding himself a guest, with a willing host.
This mixed relationship caused a peculiar feature in the national institutions; for, in the various cities of Greece, there was a special functionary, called the Proxenos, whose duty it was to entertain the citizens coming from other Greek states; and the honour of holding this office was so eagerly desired, that Plutarch relates, that a contest upon the subject between Alcibiades and Nicias was the principal cause of the renewal of war between the Athenians and the Spartans, who had recently made a treaty of peace.
If, however, we turn from the Greek to the Roman, we find a marked contrast in the national history and the national character, which readily explains why the Roman regarded the stranger as an enemy, or at any rate as an alien and an intruder. The history of Rome is that of an individual city,
fighting its way from a very insignificant beginning, until it became the mistress of the known world: and although it experienced many reverses, and often had to submit to compromises with its opponents, still in the long run it retained the supremacy, and Rome was the heart, as well as the head, of the state. The citizen of Rome was therefore, as a rule, in the ascendant; and he naturally engrossed the honours and the advantages which flowed from her superior power. It is true that he had, from time to time, to admit others than native born Romans to these privileges, but this was only the price paid for some advantage to accrue to the Roman for so doing; and those who received the privileges valued themselves highly as being Roman citizens. With a great price obtained I this freedom,” “But I was free born,” is an illustration with which we are all familiar from our youth.
The Roman therefore, in his early contests for the mastery of Italy, learnt to look upon every stranger as a hostis — an enemy to be overcome; and at a later period, when his own supremacy was established, the stranger was still an alienus one who had no right to Roman privileges, and a disagreeable intruder if he made attempts to become possessed of them.
Our own dictionary indicates a character of exclusiveness like that of the Roman, rather than one of spontaneous hospitality like that of the Greek; although it is true that “guest" is one of the meanings which Johnson gives for
stranger.” But if we examine the quotations from standard writers by which he justifies his meanings, we find that, in the only authority which he adduces for the sense of the word, the stranger was known to be worth entertaining; and it is not clear that, although he was an angel, if he had come like the travellers in Parnell's “Hermit," he might not have