Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Very Fine Distinction

Word-lovers will, I think, appreciate what I stumbled across last night. I was reading Volume II of Phantasms of the Living, a classic in parapsychology by Edward Gurney et al, the real focus of which, broadly speaking, is telepathy; in detail it is filled with reports of people seeing apparitions, usually associated with the death of the person seen. Phantasms was the result of the first effort to conduct research by the Society for Psychical Research after its founding in 1882. In every meaningful regard, it is a classic and laid the groundwork for all future research in paranormal studies, not least its very rigorous reliance on statistical analysis of findings.

The story of the book itself, in a modern context, is amusing in its own way. I’m reading Volume II in the original, you might say: print-outs from a gigantic PDF produced by direct photocopying of the original. That task was then followed by digitization of the image, both tasks performed by Google. The actual reprint of the book, made from the digitization, turns out to be essentially unreadable.  The text has been reprinted—but without any attention paid to layout. Footnotes are reproduced as paragraphs wherever they fall—not at the bottom of pages—and without change in typography. New Chapters begin simply as new paragraphs in  the middle of pages. And so on. The photo images I’m reading, however, are clear, sharp, and laid out with the meticulous care applied in 1886.

Now to my little discovery. It comes from Chapter XIV, p. 58 of Volume II. It is yet another case (Number 239) of an apparition, written by one J. Merrill. In the commentary on the vision, Mr. Merrill says:

Moreover, I used the Scotch word ‘wraith’ instead of ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit,’ as I had an idea that the former word was applied to appearances before death.

The comment is added because the subject revolves around this issue: was the person whose apparition had been seen dead at the time—or still alive? Mr. Merrill thought it was best to assume that the answer was “still alive” hence the use of the word wraith. Well, I didn’t know that there was such a distinction expressible by choice of word.

Indeed, it turns out, there is. My 1961 unabridged Webster’s International provides the following as its first definition: “1a an apparition of a living person in his exact likeness seen usu. just before his death.” The word is further defined as a “ghost” in 1b—but the first definition agrees with Mr. Merrill’s sense expressed in 1885.

Webster’s does not indicate a Scottish origin, but Online Etymology Dictionary does; that source, however, says nothing of the fine distinction in J. Merrill’s mind.

Now for those who have little interest in obscure words, never mind phantasms and such, this post is presented, also, as perhaps of some future value. Ever wonder how people in their very late 70s and 80s spend the ample time and leisure they have from housekeeping, gardening, and shopping? Here you have an example. Words, particularly for those who’re almost-wraiths (there ought to be a word for that too) are a great source of amusement, indeed of merriment. Merriment, incidentally, finds its rooting in mirth.

1 comment:

  1. Now I can't help but wonder if Rolls Royce consulted a dictionary before naming the Silver Spirit, Silver Ghost, and Silver Wraith models.

    Not to mention the Phantom!