Curious facts about the diarist Samuel Pepys
1. Samuel Pepys’ celebrated diary was only deciphered in the early nineteenth century, over a century after his death. The diary wasn’t written in code but in a form of shorthand called tachygraphy. It took a reverend several years to decipher the diary – and this wasn’t done until the 1820s. Partly what makes the diary so entertaining is Pepys’s personality: his confession of his own weaknesses, his refreshing frankness. But the diary is also the chronicle of a busy decade in English history. It’s well-known that Pepys (1633-1703) documents the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Dutch invasion, but it’s often the little day-to-day details that make the diary so interesting. Among other things, Pepys’s diary contains one of the first references to a Punch and Judy show in England, and even the earliest known reference to someone in England having a cup of tea.
2. His diary is also a valuable record of the changing English language. Samuel Pepys’s diary provides the earliest examples of the words attacker, catcall, embezzler, frighten, gherkin, good-humoured, and interested. It’s unlikely he coined these words, of course – but his diary is a valuable record of the language during this busy and exciting time (Shakespeare died just seventeen years before Pepys was born, and the age of Shakespeare was a golden age in the development of the English language).
3. He wasn’t a fan of Romeo and Juliet. Pepys recorded that he ‘‘saw “Romeo and Juliet,” the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do.’
4. Isaac Newton’s 1687 book Principia was licensed for publication by Samuel Pepys. Pepys was President of the recently established Royal Society when Newton’s landmark work of physics was published; as such, he was the one who licensed the book for publication by the Society.
5. Pepys liked to arrange his books not by their subject but by their size. Pepys amassed a large library of all sorts of books and appears to have been something of a bibliophile. In fact, among his possessions at his death was another famous person’s diary – the diary (or, more accurately, the almanac) of Sir Francis Drake, hero of the Spanish Armada.
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Image: Samuel Pepys, portrait by John Hayls (1666), Wikimedia Commons.