Thursday, January 10, 2008

Old Curiosity...

Thomas Morley
"not for anie curiositie"
(London: Peter Short, 1597)

As a kid, I used to deliver the weekly newspaper Grit around my little hometown, and I suppose that I was obsessive, but I tried to reach every house in my attempt to makes sales.

My meanderings in search of customers took me off the main paths, whereby I discovered houses where I expected to find none, so I sold that paper to some pretty disreputable-looking folks, week after week, but I never felt threatened, not even by the drunks who came to anticipate my weekly arrival and always managed to scrounge up the spare change required for a copy.

I suppose that both I and the newspaper were a curiosity, even to my drunken customers.

Speaking of curiosity, Grit had a tiny section titled "Curioddities" -- though I'm unsure now of the spelling. It offered a little grabbag of odd things to arouse one's curiosity (hence that portmanteau word "curioddities"), such as two-headed calves, headless yet death-defying chickens, or cats that looked like Hitler.

Curious and odd.

An older meaning of "curiosity" would fittingly label such things, for the Oxford English Dictionary gives as its eleventh definition this meaning: "the quality of being curious or interesting from novelty or strangeness." My OED traces this meaning to 1597:
"Morley Introd. Mus. 105 This I thought good to shew you, not for anie curiositie which is in it, but [etc.]. (OED, Compact Edition, 1971, Volume 1, page 1265b).
The source cited here would be Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London: Peter Short, 1597), which states more fully:
And this I thought good to shewe you, not for anie curiositie which is in it, but for the easinesse and commoditie which it hath, because it is better then to pricke so as to make one sit fiue or sixe houres beating his braines, to finde out the following part. (Morley Introd. Mus. 105)
The English now strikes us as obscure ("pricke"?), but Mr. Morley wrote it to be plain and easy. Indeed, he immediately goes on to complain:
But such hath beene our manner in manie other thinges heretofore, to doe things blindlie, and to trouble the wittes of practisioners: whereas by the contrarie, straungers haue put all their care how to make things plaine and easilie vnderstood, but of this inough. (Morley Introd. Mus. 105)
Morley wishes to emulate those foreigners (i.e., "straungers") and make his writing "plaine and easilie vnderstood." As for what Morley "thought good to shewe" us, I take it from the context to his words that he is referring to a piece of music that he has provided in the text, for the online source that I've located gives the illustration that I've posted above (and I believe that Morley is referring to the part conveniently labeled "Morley, Introduction, 105," but readers more musically educated may correct me).

Morley therefore assures us that he has provided the illustration for its easiness and usefulness (i.e., "easinesse and commoditie") rather than for any curiosity (i.e., "anie curiositie").

Although documentable only as far back as the 16th century, Morley's use of the word "curiositie" relects the Medieval distrust of curiosity as that turn of the mind that leads one astray from what one should properly be attentive to.

I've previously blogged rather earnestly on this Medieval view, but today's post is offered merely as a curiosity.

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At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can this be coincidence?

You write, "The English now strikes us as obscure ("pricke"?),"

Just this morning on my local campus I overheard someone (who was pointing toward me) utter pretty much how I would expect this spelling to sound. I took it to be an honorific and so turned down the volumn of my hearing aids, I didn't wish to appear prideful, especially if a greater number of students were as vocal in their admiration.

But I did find it obscure. Did I take it right?


At 11:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Take it right? I don't know, JK, for that depends on the context, but if you made your interlocutor "sit fiue or sixe houres beating his braines," then that good fellow's use of the honorific ought to be clear enough to need no explaining, thank goodness.

Jeffery Hodges

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