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Sir Thomas Browne: The QI of His Day?

He is credited with coining dozens of new words which are still in common use. He died on his birthday. Some of his writing was first published without his permission. His works, when first published in the seventeenth century, proved hugely successful and influential. This description could easily fit William Shakespeare, but it also fits a relatively unsung hero of literature, Sir Thomas Browne.

It has become fashionable to debunk myths and examine widely held truths more closely in recent years, as witnessed by the success of the BBC television series QI (and its numerous tie-in books which have hit the Amazon bestseller lists), the Sky programme Mythbusters, and the books of Bill Bryson, to name just three of the most popular modern examples. Here at Interesting Literature, too, we’re not averse to debunking a myth or two, or of re-examining some of our literary misconceptions. But such a pursuit is nothing new. A seventeenth-century man was doing it, and an eager public was reading about it, over 350 years ago. The man in question was Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), who, fittingly, provides us with the first printed use of the word ‘misconception’.

browne1Browne first came to our attention as a prolific coiner of words, and although we cannot be sure he was the very first person to derive or invent all of the following, the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with the first recorded use of numerous words now in regular or everyday use, including (and these are only the most familiar ones): additionally, ambidextrous, antediluvian, approximate, biped, bisect, botanical, capillary, carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, complicated, continuum, convulse, cryptography, cylindrical, cynicism, depreciate, discrimination, disruption, dissemination, electricity, elevator, executive, factitious, ferocious, follicle, gypsum, hallucination, illustrative, inactivity, incisor, indigenous, insecurity, invariably, locomotion, praying mantis, medical, narwhal, non-existence, ossuary, parturition, patois, perspire, prairie, precipitous, precocious, prefix, presumably, protrusion, secretion, selection, subsidence, temperamental, transferable, transgressive, and ulterior. He also provides one of the earliest uses of the word ‘computer’ (though not, as has sometimes been claimed, the very first).

He also coined the word ‘extradictionary’, which doesn’t describe the appendix to a lexicon but instead refers to fallacies which are ‘real’ rather than verbal (though quite what he meant by this, we have not managed to fathom and welcome your suggestions). He also had a neat turn of phrase, and has left behind some wise and witty quotations, a selection of which can be found in this short video made by Creative Quotations:

Browne was born in Cheapside in London in 1605 (his birthday, October 19, would also be the day on which he would die, 77 years later). During the English Civil War, he was working as a doctor in Norwich, which was a Parliamentary city but Browne himself remained a royalist (in one of the most famous portraits of him, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the king, Charles I). He wrote on a range of topics, including religion (his Religio Medici, or ‘the religion of a doctor’, proved hugely successful when it appeared in the 1640s), urn-burial (on which he wrote a famous treatise), and various topics pertaining to the natural world.

It was this last subject which he took as the theme of his most ambitious work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which was published in 1646, although it was so popular it went through many more editions during Browne’s lifetime. The full title of this book is Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, although it is sometimes known simply as Vulgar Errors. Its purpose was to examine the widely held superstitions and beliefs of the time, and to correct those which were false. In order to do this, and in the empirical spirit popularised by Sir Francis Bacon earlier in the century, Browne conducted his own experiments wherever possible. For instance, in order to determine whether, as contemporary wisdom had it, spiders and toads repelled each other, he placed several spiders into a glass container with a toad. The result? The spiders walked over the toad’s body, and the toad, in turn, ate the spiders. Among the other errors of the day which he refuted were the belief that elephants had four knees, that crystal was merely very hard ice, and that if you rub a magnet with garlic you remove some of its magnetic power. Browne challenges and corrects these beliefs with wit and humour, writing in ornate but accessible prose.

This is a seventeenth-century version of QI‘s ‘General Ignorance’, Mythbusters, and all of the other books and television shows which delight in curiosity, questioning widely held assumptions, and examining common beliefs and urban legends. He encourages us to take a closer look, and not just accept things at face value. Browne was a one-man debunking machine.

There is a statue of Browne in Norwich city centre. It shows him sitting down, holding a broken urn – a reference to his treatise on urn-burial.