46. Pages 320-340 II
From the Da's to the De's
After faithfully discharging my duty in the previous essay, by going through the "list," I want to pause for a while on several words or concepts that the "Da's"-"De's" bring. Rather than going strictly alphabetically, I will arrange things by topic. Let's start with an individual word.
Dactylology is defined briefly in the Collegiate as "finger spelling." The OED has it almost identically: "‘Finger-speech’; the art of ‘speaking’ or communicating ideas by signs made with the fingers, as in the deaf-and-dumb alphabet." I don't think "deaf-and-dumb" is politically correct anymore--probably better to say "sign language" or something like that. The unabridged is helpful in that it gives the "one-hand alphabet" in pictures. Maybe I will learn it before too much time passes--it doesn't look too difficult. But dactylology was historically known as chirology or cheirology. Chir is the Greek word for "hand," while daktula means "finger."*
[I discovered a delightful cluster of words in the OED around dactyliography. A daktylios, in Greek, was a finger ring, so the words combining with daktylio are things done to the finger ring. Dactyliology is the study of finger rings, while a dactylioglyph is an engraver of gems for finger rings. I suppose if Ronald Reagan, the actor, had been in the jewelry business he might have wanted to win one for the "glypher." Moving on...]
Going back to 1650 we have the following quotation: "Cheirology, or dactylology..is interpretation by the transient motions of the fingers." Then, in a memorable usage from 1885, "They pressed hands at parting..not for the ordinary dactylology of lovers, but in sign of the treaty of amity." The OED says that chirology/chirologist is now obsolete, but there is an interesting phrase from the mid-19th century, where someone wrote "cheirologically speaking..." Isn't that like asking a deaf person to be a sounding board?
But I couldn't resist letting my eye fall on dactylography, a near neighbor of dactylology. Dactylography is "the scientific study of finger prints as a means of identification." Then it points us to signalment as a synonym. Signalment is a "description by peculiar, appropriate or characteristid marks; specif: the systematic description of a person for purposes of identification. Then it directs us to Bertillon system, which is in the Collegiate, which was the "pre-fingerprint" method of identifying people, though bodily measurements, photographs and ideintifying bodily marks." I wonder when fingerprinting came in whether the die-hard Bertillonians objected to it as unscientific, inexact, fraught with errors, etc., or meekly went along with the new technology because of its obvious superiority. Was fingerprinting in comparison to the Bertillon system like cars in comparison to horses, DVDs in comparison to VHS, or simply like a new type face replacing the old?
We could range far afield in our "hand" words, such as chirography (handwriting), chirocracy (rule by the "strong hand") or chiromachy (a hand-to-hand fight), but let's end with chirognomy: the art or science (take your pick) of estimating character by the inspection of the hand. Putting lots of "chir" words together at once, we have a book title from 1885, "A Manual of Cheirosophy; being a Complete Practical Handbook of the Twin Sciences of Cheriognomy and Cheiromancy." Oh, by the way, chiromancy/cheiromancy is divination by means of the hand. Well, let our fingers do the walking back to the Da's.
I have restrained myself admirably, I think, from filling these pages with obsolete or even useful legal terms. Now I can hold myself back no longer. I will pass over cy pres, which is a term used in trusts & estates law to describe a doctrine used by courts to rewrite a will when the express meaning of the terms of a bequest is illegal or immoral (such as giving a grant to a university as long as it doesn't admit women to its student body). But, I said I was going to pass over that. So, let's get to two terms: dead-hand and danegeld. Danegeld has a complex and murky history, and it seems to have originated before the Normal Conquest of 1066. A fourteenth century authority refers to it as a pre-conquest "tallagium datum Danis, " a "tallage (tax) given to the Danes," though the Domesday Book of 1086 only mentions danegeld as something to be paid, without reference to who gets it. In addition, other ancient authorities describe it as a land-tax levied after the Conquest or a tax for the upkeep of armies. Suffice it to say that danegeld was something paid to keep the Danes at bay--either by paying them off or by raising an army. Later it became an internal tax. Fun.
I don't suppose that anyone really needs to learn to spell "dead- hand," though the French word behind it, mortmain, is in the Collegiate. In brief, the word "dead-hand" was a term of derogation and referred to the common medieval practice of willing one's lands to the church. Since the church then would never die or marry or get divorced, the feudal incidents, as they were called, would never have to be paid on the land again, and the land would be taken out of circulation. Thus, it would fall under the "dead hand" of the church. The 1279 Statute of Mortmain attempted to remedy this problem by severely curtailing the amount of land that could be bequeathed to the church. Yet, the way the statute worked was not to prohibit the practice but to make sure that if it was done it could only be done by a royal license. Of course, there would be a fee to obtain the royal license... A Puritan preacher from 1612 railed against the practice of giving land to the church--"What liberal revenues..were then put into Mortmain, the dead-hand of the [Catholic] Church!"
With all this emphasis on law and the somber world assumed by law, I think we need a little lightness now. The next essay proposes to give that.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long