Readers in these times

« previous post | next post »

It's common these days to lament the decline of civility caused by various forms of internet discourse. But for an eloquently uncivil condemnation of incivility, it's hard to beat the introduction ("To the Reader") of the 1598 edition of John Florio's Italian dictionary A Worlde of Wordes:

I knowe not how I may again adventure an Epistle to the Reader, so are the times or, readers in these times, most part sicke of the sullens, and peevish in their sicknes, and conceited in their peevishnes. So should I fear the fire who have felt the flame so lately, and flìe from the sea, that have yet a vow to pay for escaping my last ship wracke. […] But before I recount unto thee (gentle reader) the purpose of my new voyage: give me leave a little to please my selfe, and refresh thee with the discourse of my olde danger. Which because in some respect it is a common danger, the discoverie thereof may happily profit other men, as much as it please my selfe. And here might I begin with those notable Pirates on this our paper-sea, those sea-dogs, or lande-Critickes, monsters of men, if not beastes rather than men; whose teeth are Canibals, their toongs adder-forkes, their lips aspes-poyson, their eies basiliskes, their breath the breath of a grave, their wordes the swordes of Turkes, that strive which shall dive deepest into a Christian lying bound before them. But for these barking and biting dogs, they are as well knowne as Scylla and Charybdis.

There is another sort of leering curs, that rather snarle then bite, whereof I coulde instance in one, who lighting upon a good sonnet of a gentlemans, a friend of mine, that loved better to be a poet, than to be counted so, called the auctor a rymer, notwithstanding he had more skill in good Poetrie, then my slie gentleman seemed to have in good manners or humanitie. But my quarrell is to a tooth-lesse dog that hateth where he cannot hurt, and would faine bite, when he hath no teeth.

And so on.

I was led to this document by following an argument about Maryland's sexist motto, Fatti maschiii parole femine. This was translated in the 17th century (when it was adopted by the Calvert family) as "Deeds are Men, Words are Women", with the obvious implication that real men get out there and do stuff, instead of just blathering on as women do. In 1993, in response to protests, Edward Papenfuse (then Maryland's "state archivist and commissioner of land patents") suggested instead the de-gendered translation "Strong in Deeds, Gentle in Words".

His argument included a passage from the "Epistle Dedicatorie" to Florio's 1598 dictionary. Here's an enlarged version, in the original spelling:

Some perhaps will except against the sexe, and not allowe it for a male-broode, sithens as our Italians saie, Le perole sono femine, & i fatti sono maschii, Wordes they are women, and deeds they are men. But let such know that Detti and fatti, wordes and deeds with me are all of one gender.  And though they were commonly Feminine, why might not I by strong imagination (which Phisicions give so much power unto) alter their sexe? Or at least by such heaven-pearcing devotion as transformed Iphis, according to that description of the Poet.

Et ogni memro suo piu forte e sciolto
Sente, e volge alla madre il motto e 'l lume,
Come vero fanciullo esser si vede
Iphi va con parole alme, e devote
Al tempio con la madre, e la nutrice,
e paga il voto, e 'l suo miracol dice.

Then earst, and that indeed she was a boy,
Towards hir mother eies and wordes at length
She turnes, and at the temple with meeke joy
He and his nurse and mother utter how
The case fell out, and so he paide his vow.

And so his strength, his stature, and his masculine vigor (I would, naie I could say vertue) makes me assure his sexe, and according to his sexe provide so autentical testimonies. Laie then your blisse-full handes on his head (right Honorable) and witnes that he by me devoted to your Honors, forsakes my private cell, all retired conceites, and selfe-respects to serve you in the worlde, the world in you; and beleeves in your Honors goodnes, in proportion as as his service shall be of moment and effectuall; […] Heerein (right Honorable) beare with the fondnes of his mother, my Mistresse Muse, who seeing hir female Arescusa turn'd to a pleasing male Arescon (as Plinie tels of one) beg'd (as some mothers use) that to the fathers name she might prefixe a name befitting the childes nature. So cald she him, A worlde of wordes: since as the Univers containes all things, digested in best equipaged order, embellisht with innumerable ornaments by the universall creator.

This is a poor argument for Papenfuse's case. Florio's point is that his dictionary, though made up of words and therefore feminine by nature, has by "heaven-pearcing devotion" become masculine, and thereby acquired "masculine vigor (I would, naie I coulde saie vertue)", so as to be worthy of his patron's blessing.

In any event, Florio's voyage into controversy seems to be continuing.



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 8:36 am

    I see there was an intermediate step. According to this article, the Maryland legislature changed the official translation in 1979 to "Manly deeds, womanly words." That's what this non-speaker of Italian had naively thought it meant.

    I hope Maryland encourages gentle deeds and strong words when they're appropriate.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 8:38 am

    My link doesn't seem to work. The article is at

  3. Andrew Usher said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 9:38 am

    Well, maybe I'm dense, but why does there need to be an 'official translation' at all? The words aren't even the state's; they predate it, and were adopted as a whole with other symbols. If they are in another language for whatever reason, let them remain so.

    However – the ellipsis of grammatical words in the Italian makes it technically ambiguous, of course. But that is common in 'mottoes', and there is only one sensible meaning as such; I would paraphrase it as 'To do is manly; to only speak, womanly' – which is not entirely irrelevant to the present.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  4. Jonathan said,

    August 18, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

    I know it's not the point of this post, but thank you for introducing me to the word "sithens" (or "sithence"). The interesting thing is that the Wiktionary citation for "sithence" is from the same John Florio. It makes me wonder if Florio was trying to make "sithence" a thing and his friend kept telling him "Stop trying to make sithence happen!".

  5. F said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 4:20 am

    Why the odd spelling "maschiii"?

  6. Rodger C said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 6:45 am

    Yeah, why not "maschj"?

  7. Ellen K. said,

    August 19, 2019 @ 8:58 am

    Why the odd spelling "maschiii"?

    A typo for "maschii" (just two i's, versus 3), it appears. The correct double i I can't explain.

    [(myl) Blame it on the &^%$#@! Apple butterfly (buggerfly?) keyboard. Mine is now routinely doubling most instances of 'o' and 'i', which I sometimes but not always see and fix. It's better than my earlier macbook, which decided (while I was traveling) not to produce the letter 'e' any more. But it's not good. I don't think I'll ever buy another Apple product.]

  8. D.O. said,

    August 21, 2019 @ 1:55 am

    You should definitely buy apple strudel from time to time.

RSS feed for comments on this post