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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32

XI.—Timbrian, Timber

page 35

XI.—Timbrian, Timber.

To build or construct, in Saxon, is tymbrian, or getymbrian; in a secondary sense, it means to instruct. We also use the word to edify in the latter sense, and this is derived from a Latin word signifying to build. We no longer use the verb "to timber,"* but we retain the Saxon word timber as synonymous with wood, one of the materials used in building. But does timber come from tymbrian, or tymbrian from timber? On this point etymologists differ, as they do in some other similar cases. Dr. Bosworth, in his Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, considers that timber (wood) is the radical, and that tymbrian was used for "to build," because in primitive times all building was of wood. But Junius, who was the great reviver of Saxon learning in the seventeenth century, considers that tymbrian meant generally to build or construct, no matter of what material; and as the German tribes at first made use of wood only, the common material acquired the name of timber, just as we call white oak wainscot. Assuming that timber only obtained its name from tymbrian—its most conspicuous use—the word might as well have been applied to stone, clay, or brick; but probably, long before those materials came into use, the meaning of timber had become fixed. We have seen how the word deal (dael)—part—got exclusive possession of certain slabs of wood. Etymologically, the word is quite as applicable to similar slabs or cuttings of stone; but when a particular meaning fastens itself upon a word, it confers a sort of monopoly, and no effort can force the word back to its general and original sense. We have plenty of examples of the special monopoly of a word. For instance, undertaker means strictly one who undertakes anything; unternehmer, in German, and entrepreneur in French, still enjoy their wide signification. But in England, and in countries peopled by Englishmen, those very useful persons who "undertake" to put us into our coffins, and cany us to our graves, have somehow or other managed to get exclusive possession of the word, and although we are left at page 36 liberty to apply the verb "undertake" to any "undertaking," the word "undertaker" has become a forbidden word for all purposes but one. It is worth while to pursue this word undertaker a little farther. Addison, in the Spectator, has it in the general sense, but I am not aware that it has been so used since, without qualifying words. We may, for instance, say "he was the undertaker of the work." The French equivalents of the words to undertake, undertaking, and undertaker, are entreprendre, entreprise, and entrepreneur. We still retain enterprise as the equivalent of undertaking; but although the verb to enterprise, and the noun enterpriser, are to be found in old authors and in our dictionaries, they are now disused. It may be considered strange that we should keep enterprise, which we do not want, or do not much want, and yet retain no similar word for undertaker, which we do want. I say that we do not much want enterprise, and yet, as we possess it, it ought not to be parted with; for this reason: that the possession of two words, synonymous in the first instance, enables us to clothe them conventionally with two different shades of meaning. Though enterprise be the French equivalent of the Saxon undertaking, I think that most writers use the former word where they wish to imply more energy, or some greater risk or difficulty to be overcome. The word undertaking seems to offer itself to our hand when we desire to designate a somewhat tamer attempt. This is certainly an advantage in our double speech. Our phrase "the spirit of enterprise" seems to convey something of approval and something of dash about it, which the German unternehmungs-geist (under-taking-spirit) wants. I have heard some persons criticise French phraseology as clothing very trivial ideas in exalted language, which thus appears too theatrical. To speak of the enterprise of sweeping a crossing, or of selling apples at the corner of a street, would no doubt appear so in English. But there is nothing stilted in such expressions in French, and our ear soon becomes familiar to language which we are compelled to employ, rather than to shut our mouths. We soon glean from the context the shades of meaning which our more copious language so easily expresses.

* I am indebted to my son, Mr. Ernest Chapman, of Maniatoto, for the following correction :—"The verb 'to timber' is used every day : 'timbering a well,' for instance, instead of bricking it. 'You must timber a well before you can puddle back the surplus drainage.' So a shaft is 'timbered' to prevent it from falling in, and so is the drive of a mine."

It is, nevertheless, true that we no longer use the verb "to timber" in the general sense of "to build," as "tymbrian" was used. The occasional conversion of nouns into verbs, which our language allows, is quite another thing. The verb so made is limited to the sense of the noun. Thus we say, "to brick" a portion of a building; "to man" a ship; "to horse" a coach. In the New Zealand Assembly, we hear that Mr. A. has "tabled" amotion, and the Auckland papers some years ago informed us that Sir George Grey had been "interviewed'' at San Francisco.