Tuesday, 3 May 2016

‘A close stool under my nose’ and the Essex Wills

Continuing my posts on the vocabulary of the Essex Wills and its place in English lexical history, an introduction to which can be found here.

The Essex Wills are naturally full of words for household goods. The majority are words that are still used, though the things to which they are applied may now be different in design or appearance. A large majority are words, or meanings of words, that are no longer used, but are carefully recorded in dictionaries, and especially in the Oxford English Dictionary. But a significant number have escaped notice by lexicographers and yet can be found, often in large numbers, in wills, inventories, and other non-literary documents of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and sometimes in earlier and later documents). 

Furniture: seats

back bench, back settle

The presumption is that this means a bench or settle with a back. Compare back-chair (OED BACK comb. form 2, 1649 ‘a chair with a back’) . There seem to be no examples in Early English Books Online.

1561 (II.  124) the back bench in the hall

1562 (I. 217) backbench

1588 (V. 97) back settle

1594 (XI. 46) wainscot backsettles that are nailed to the walls

close chair

This must mean the same as OED CLOSE-STOOL n., sense a, which is somewhat coyly defined as ‘a chamber utensil enclosed in a stool or box.’ Here are the Essex Wills examples:

1568 (VIII. 187) a close chair with the pot

1572 (III. 63) table, form and close chair

1588 (XI. 18) the close little chair of rods

And here are some earlier occurrences from other sources:

1513 in D. Yaxley Researcher’s Glossary (2003) 37 j Close chayer (also 1588, 1597).

1994 N. J. G. Pounds Culture Eng. People 148 The close-stool or commode had made its appearance during the previous century… The earliest reference to this particular piece of furniture met with by this writer was the ‘close chayer’, recorded in a London inventory of about 1530... Another inventory of about 1572 makes it quite clear that the ‘close chair’ was amongst the furnishing of the hall.

There are several examples in Early English Books Online, from 1579 onwards. 

Around the second quarter of the seventeenth century a new meaning, ‘sedan chair’, comes in. This meaning (a collocation of CLOSE adj. 4b ‘private, secluded’ and CHAIR n. 10 ‘an enclosed chair or covered vehicle for one person, carried on poles by two men; a sedan’) is not mentioned in the OED either, although it occurs in a quotation at SLIP n.3:

1778   Encycl. Brit. II. 1053/2   The person intending to bathe..is carried in a close chair..to one of the slips which open into the bath. There he descends by steps into the water.

This polysemy, of course, offers opportunities for jokes and misunderstandings, as for example in Richard Brome’s comedy The Sparagus Garden (1640) v. vi. sig. K4, 

Enter the Sedan, Hoy[den] in it, in womans cloaths. 

Brit[tleware]. Pray gentleman stay, for I suppose She’s here: here’s number one and twenty; & this is sure the litter. 

Litter-man. What peep you for; you ought not to do so sir. 

Brit[tleware]. By what Commission ought you to carry my wife in a Close stoole under my nose. 

Litter-man. Tis a close Chayre by your leave: And I pray forbeare, you know not who we carry.

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