Sunday, July 12, 2009



Thanks to Eric Thomson for introducing me to the word milver. The word appears in Owen Barfield, "Coleridge's Enjoyment of Words," in John Beer, ed., Coleridge's Variety: Bicentenary Studies (London: Macmillan, 1974; rpt. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975), pp. 204-218. Here is the beginning of Barfield's essay:
There is a little volume in the series known as the Home University Library entitled The English Language. It is rather more than sixty years old now, but it is a book I always recommend very strongly to anyone who either enjoys words already or is anxious to begin enjoying them. But what does one mean when one speaks of 'enjoying' words?

When I was a very young man, I was for a brief period in rather close touch with the author of that book, Logan Pearsall Smith. In fact he took me to a certain extent under his wing as the result of an article I had published. Pearsall Smith was a literary friend of the poet Walter de la Mare, and I remember him telling me that, in one of his conversations with the poet, they had agreed there ought to be a word to denote a person with a certain easily recognisable but hardly definable feeling for, or delight in, or enjoyment of words. They decided to invent one and they further decided that, in doing so, they would apply a new principle of coinage. This was, to look around for some especially lovely word, with which there happened to be no available rhyme, and to invent a rhyme for it. The existing word they hit on was 'silver' and the word they invented was 'milver'. A 'milver' was to be a man who enjoyed words in the way they both meant.

I believe I am right in saying that that was as far as it went and that neither of them ever did actually did use the word in public.
As a matter of fact, Logan Pearsall Smith did use the word in public. It occurs, although with a different meaning, in his Afterthoughts, which I quote from the collection All Trivia: Trivia, More Trivia, Afterthoughts, Last Words (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945), pp. 168-169:
When we talk politely of new books with a new acquaintance, what chasms, abysmally, yawn between us!

But what festivals of unanimity we celebrate when we meet what I call a 'Milver'—a fellow-fanatic whose thoughts chime in a sweet ecstasy of execration with our own!
In either meaning of the word, Eric Thomson is a milver.

Jennifer Steinhauer, "A Literary Legend Fights for a Local Library," New York Times (June 19, 2009), quotes Ray Bradbury:
"Libraries raised me," Mr. Bradbury said. "I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."


The Internet? Don't get him started. "The Internet is a big distraction," Mr. Bradbury barked from his perch in his house in Los Angeles, which is jammed with enormous stuffed animals, videos, DVDs, wooden toys, photographs and books, with things like the National Medal of Arts sort of tossed on a table.

"Yahoo called me eight weeks ago," he said, voice rising. "They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? 'To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.'"
My Luddite sympathies incline me to agree with Ray Bradbury's execration of the Internet. On the other hand, if it weren't for the Internet, I would never have had the privilege of meeting Eric Thomson and a few other milvers.

I found Owen Barfield's essay on "Coleridge's Enjoyment of Words" a delightful read, and I want to record here another passage from the essay (pp. 212-213) which struck my fancy:
There are two ways in which the mind can relate itself to reality; and both of them have their importance. If you care to imagine reality as a vast solid sphere and the individual mind as an ant on its surface, one of the things the ant can do is to crawl about over as much of the surface as it has time for. The other thing is to begin from any point where it happens to be and bore its way in towards the centre. This is rather what can happen when anyone enjoys, studies and meditates on a particular word. That word, the point where he happens to be, becomes the point of penetration. This was very much Coleridge's way. And one of the first things this kind of ant discovers is that language is not, as he first supposed, a kind of thin film spread over the surface of a wordless sphere (a film which he can penetrate by taking care to feel through a word and not for it), but that the entire sphere is composed of a substance for which 'word' and 'thing' are both correct names in different contexts. 'I would endeavour', Coleridge wrote to Godwin in 1800, 'to destroy the old antithesis of Words and Things, elevating, as it were, words into Things, and living Things too. All the nonsense of vibrations etc. you would of course dismiss.'

In other words, if your goal is reality, or truth, or Life with a capital 'L', or whatever your favourite nickname may be for the sphere as a sphere, and if you are anxious to get at it through words, one of the sharpest instruments you can use is a deep feeling for words, and for their history. You will be all the better equipped for finding out how things came to be what they are, if you know something of how words came to be what they are.
Owen Barfield recommended Logan Pearsall Smith's The English Language to one who enjoys, or is eager to enjoy, words. I'd recommend Owen Barfield's own History in English Words (London: Faber, 1953; rpt. 1969).

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