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December 7, 2012 4:01 PM   Subscribe

Sir Thomas Urquhart was a Scottish writer most well known for translating Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel from its original French. He borrowed or invented a number of words in order to capture Rabelais' inventiveness, and his own writing.
In Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart we learn the delights of such words as biblotaph or Quomodocunquizing or Hypotyposis among many others.
Sir Thomas was also a veritable hero of slang.
posted by adamvasco (16 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Urquhart was a fantastic user and inventor of language - he arguably spent most of his life trying to rediscover Adamic language by inventing words that would be as close to Truth as possible. Unfortunately Urquhart mostly ended with impenetrable writings filled with inkhorn terms.

Sir Thomas Urquhart is the protagonist in Scottish author Alasdair Gray's fantastical short story, "Logopandocy" (from Unlikely Stories, Mostly). Gray uses Urquhart's quest for Adamic language to great effect as he shows him questing throughout the pages with language disintergrating before the reader's eyes.

I have always thought Sir Thomas a fascinating figure - one of those obscure, fantastic figures you only seems to come across the untamed part of 17th century literary history.
posted by kariebookish at 4:14 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Urquhart was also the hero of a comic novel from a few years ago about artificial languages and their proponents, titled A Handbook of Volapük, by Andrew Drummond.
posted by acb at 4:16 PM on December 7, 2012

Ooooooooooooh, acb. I just bought that novel the other day on a whim!
posted by kariebookish at 4:21 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia links to a great, detailed lecture on Urquhart's life and writing delivered at the University of Glasgow in 2004. It's a big MP4 file, and you can also stream it if you've got QuickTime. Languagehat covered it here a few years ago. I can also recommend the edition with the Heath Robinson illustrations that is mentioned in the comments there.
posted by Nomyte at 4:42 PM on December 7, 2012

Quomodocunquizing? You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:17 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

That Six Degrees of Sir Thomas blog is worth a subscription. Great find!
posted by immlass at 5:17 PM on December 7, 2012

For his (mostly) notional language Logopandecteision, which was to be based around some system of computing elementary units of meaning to arrive at more complex meanings, Urquhart made these promises: "not only can it generate distinct words for all possible meanings, but the words for stars will show you their exact position in the sky in degrees and minutes, the words for colors will show their exact mixture of light, shadow, and darkness, the names of individual soldiers will show their exact duty and rank." What a beautiful idea! Especially for the stars. (Also: " ... it produces the best prayers, the most elegant compliments, the pithiest proverbs, and the most 'emphatical' interjections.")
posted by finnb at 5:23 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Urquhart appears in a lot of Borges's essays. Borges liked him because his translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, while free, was such a good book in English that its faithfulness to the original didn't matter as much as it might have. Outside of Borges, I haven't heard much about him. Having studied in journalism school, his inkpottisms don't bother me much. I love writers who run away from staid Strunkandwhitery.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:38 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Died of laughter after learning that Charles II was going to take the British throne. That is style.
posted by BWA at 8:00 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lovely, thanks for posting this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:10 PM on December 7, 2012

Pardoned by Cromwell, now that might involve some smooth-talking..
posted by ovvl at 8:45 PM on December 7, 2012

Man, BWA, I don't even care that that story is just a legend. It's too good not to believe.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:36 PM on December 7, 2012

posted by misteraitch at 11:30 PM on December 7, 2012

Also, the 1834 edition of Urquhart’s Works can be found on-line at Besides Logopandecteision, it includes his Epigrams (1641) (which ‘scarcely entitles the author to the appellation of a poet’); his abstruse mathematical treatise The Trissoteras (1645); ΠΑΝΤΟΧΡΟΝΟΧΑΝΟΝ (Pantochronachanon), which details a fanciul ‘pedigree, and lineal descent of the most ancient and honorable family of the Urquharts in the house of Cromatie, since the creation of the world until this present yeer of God, 1652;’ and ΕΚΣΚΥΒΑΛΑΥΡΟΝ (Ekskybalauron, ‘The Jewel,’ also 1652) which, like Logopandecteision, begins with an outline of Urquhart’s scheme for a universal language, only to veer off into a series of accounts of the lives of notable Scottish soldiers and scholars, dwelling in particular on the implausibly accomplished James Crichton (aka ‘the Admirable Crichton’).
posted by misteraitch at 12:41 AM on December 8, 2012

Thank you all for turning this into such an interesting thread. I realized when I accidently found six degrees of... that I was going down a rabbithole but didn't realize quite how deep the burrow would be. I can't check into my hotel here in Belem for another couple of hours so I'm going to have plenty of fun following these ledes
posted by adamvasco at 6:37 AM on December 8, 2012

There are over a thousand unpublished epigrams by Urquhart in a manuscript at Yale, 'Apollo and the Muses', unpublished because many of them are so filthy. Here's one of the slightly less filthy ones:
How a certain Cavalier, after his return from a long voyage, was welcomed by his wife

A sprightly gallant gentleman and proper,
 Come from a journey, was thus free
 With his espoused lady:
Shall we do that, or rather take our supper?
 Even as you please. But sir, quoth she,
 The supper is not ready.
The manuscript also illustrates Urquhart's fascination with hidden patterns and wordplay, as Roger Craik explains (in an article sadly available only with a JSTOR subscription):
In each book of 110 epigrams the thirteenth always concerns the sexual act and is couched in the terminology of various professions; all epigrams with nine as a second digit are distichs, all with four as a second digit are quatrains, and every eleventh epigram in each book is an aphorism in couplet form. There are more complicated designs still: for instance, if the particular book is dedicated to a man, then the 107th epigram of that book is in praise of the male patron of the following book. Intriguingly, the tenth epigram of the first book, the twentieth of the second and so on are all dedicated to an unidentified lady called Aura. But even this pattern pales in terms of eccentricity when set beside Urquhart's habit of charging the nineteenth epigram of every book with the responsibility of carrying, for example, all the letters of the alphabet, all the points of the die, and all the moods of a verb.
posted by verstegan at 2:41 PM on December 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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