Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Obnoxious (adj.)

Go ahead, Anne, choose the words that
will screw up my big plans.

"I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits . . . "

Wonderful!  Can't you see Anne Bradstreet at her writing table, slyly taking revenge on her nitty neighbors who all think she should be cooking and canning rather than composing poetry?  It's perfect for us, too, four hundred years removed from Anne's world.  It gives us a heady dose of her spirit.  We get a glimpse of the subtle rebellion that is (apparently) simmering away under her staid garb of a magistrate's wife.

Except . . .

Curse you, Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED is a multi-volume dictionary that contains -- not only (purportedly) every word in the language -- but how each word has been used over time.  So if (for instance) one wanted to find out what the word, "obnoxious" meant in the early seventeenth century, this would be one's first stop.  It's a wonderful tool for historical writers.

Except when it screws up my plans.

Definition 1; "Exposed to (actual or possible) harm; subject or liable to injury or evil of any kind."
Definition 1a:  "With to: Liable, subject, exposed, open . . . "

"Formerly the prevailing use," intones the OED, "now less frequent than 6."

Definition #6 (almost a column later) is our more familiar usage of the word:  "object of aversion or dislike; offensive, objectionable, odious . . . " Used as early as 1675, to be sure.  But philologically, a mistake:  a mixing-up of "obnoxious" with "noxious."

So if I bite the bullet and assume she was using the word as it was usually used in her time -- that makes it:
"I am wounded by each carping tongue"
"I am injured by each carping tongue"
"I am left open to criticism by each carping tongue"

Or some such.

Sure, still pretty good, still workable, still spirited but different than what I thought . . . and frankly (since the discovery is still in its first hour), a bummer.

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