Bill Long 11/6/05
As I was writing my essays on lists of "Young Evangelicals" or "Legal Realists," I began to think about the word "list" and the many ways that it could be used. I already knew of it as a noun and a verb suggesting the process or result of enrolling things, but I also knew it as a ship that tilts, a place where one enters into combat ("into the lists") and a poetic way to tell someone to shut up and pay attention ("list, my son"). Thus, in my wanderings through life I decided it might be good to spend a few hours with "list" to see the ways that English uses it. Here is my report from the lists.
Easing In on an Unusual Meaning
Somehow the first meaning I came across had nothing to do with any of these. I think it relates to my fascination with pillars for some reason, but, in any case, the word list or listel caught my attention. As is often the case, I noted a potential contradiction, so here goes. A listel, in architecture, is defined as a list or fillet. Reading the usages provided by the OED yields the following: from 1598: "The upper rule, called listello" and, more to the point, a 1664 quotation which says: "Those very small Listellos or Annulets under the Echinus of the Doric Capitel, by the Italians call'd Gradetti, Degrees." By the 19th century, when everything became defined, a dictionary could define it: "a small flat face is called a fillet or listel.
Once we know that the Echinus is the tapered round molded top of the Doric column, between the fluted pillar and the abacus--the abacus is the square piece of rock on which the superstructure of the temple rests--we know what a list is. It is a sort of small band just below the Echinus and above the "break" in the pillar. The "break" in a Doric pillar is called the hypotrachelion. The band, or list, above it can also be called a listello, fillet or annulet. It is under the echinus, which can also be called the ovolo (because of its rounded or egg-shaped nature). Can't you see why people get confused?
Ah, but the confusion resides also in the fact that the OED definition for "list" includes also the following architectural definition: "A small square molding or ring encircling the foot of the column, between the torus below and the shaft above. Whoops. Now we are at the bottom of the column. As early as 1735 we have a dictionary defintion: "List..a Fillet or flat Ring that ornaments the Bottoms of Columns immediately above the Torus." But then, the 1812 dictionary, quoted above, says "the list or spiral line of the volute runs along the face of the abacus." And, the abacus is on the top of a column. Let's just put this to rest really quickly, primarily because no one really uses this term in this sense anyway, by citing the analogy to the word apophyge. As that essay shows, classical scholars could talk about a "superior" and "inferior" apophyge. Thus, even though I don't have specific permission to do this, I will say here and now, that there is a superior and inferior list or listel in Greek pillars. So, that is a lot of work of one meaning--and a meaning we don't use much anymore, isn't it? Let's continue.
List as Border or Material
A well-attested, but obsolete (thus speaketh the OED) meaning of list is a border, edging or strip. From 1591 we have: "In the very farthest part and list of Europe bordering upon Asia." Or, from theology, Hooker says: "They have thought it better to let them [the books of the Apocrypha] stand as a list or marginal border unto the olde Testament." This is a nice visual image: the Apocrypha is not "between" the Testaments, which is the way the 19th and 20th centuries looked at it, but is at the list of the OT. And then, from a late 17th century commentary on Exodus, Bishop Simon Patrick could write about the tabernacle in Ex. 25: "A Border or List of Gold went round at the Top of it."
At the same time as the meaning of list as a general border was developing, we have list in the more technical sense as an edge or border of fabric. As the OED has it: "the selvage,* border, or edge of a cloth, usually of different material from the body of the cloth."
[*A selvage is "the edge on either side of a woven or flat-knitted fabric so finished so as to prevent ravelling."]
From a statute in the times of Henry VIII: "All maner of white brode wollen clothes with crumpil listes, otherwise called bastardes." Oops, that last word makes me take the slightest detour. Definition 5 of the word "bastard" has "A kind of cloth,? of inferior or mixed quality, or unusual make or size." The word is obsolete, but the two attestations are the Henry VIII statute and one earlier, from 1483, under Richard III: "Woolen Cloths called Bastards." Someday I, or someone, will have to try to explain that one!
But we ought to pause a little during our foray into statutes relating to lists or borders of fabric, for a 1677 quotation has: "The List or Border here being known to be more worth than the whole Cloth." Now we are getting somewhere. Statutes talk about lists possibly because they were more valuable than the rest of the cloth; they kept the cloth from tearing, and they possibly gave the fabric some aesthetic appeal. From 1700: "Woollen-Cloaths that were not two Ells within the Lists, according to King Richard's [1st] late Assize or Statute." Now, this takes us down the "Ell" path, doens't it? An Ell is a unit of measure, approximately 45 inches, according to the OED. Its use is obsolete, but at one time there was a proverbial phrase "give him an inch and he'll take an ell," meaning that undue advantage will be taken of a slight concession. For example, from 1643 is the quotation: "That gave but a Yard, they took an Ell." Or, suitably in a treatise on the Christian life, "Have a care of taking an ell, when you have but an inch allowed you."
I see we need another essay on list, though the wandering we do along the way is precious indeed.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long