Bodily Motions II
Bill Long 4/8/06
I doubt if the expression, "Don't jack me around" came from a shortened version of "Cease thy jactitations" (see previous essay), but it is at least linguistically possible that jactitation, meaning to toss or throw around, became the inspiration for all kinds of "jerk/jack" terminology we have in English. This essay continues to explore more terms suggesting bodily movements. Let's begin with nictitate and its derivatives.
Nictitate, meaning to wink or blink, has been used most frequently in medical contexts, but this is no reason for abandoning the word to the doctors. Indeed, the first author in English to use the word in the late 17th century (Thomas Ray) used it both in a theological and scientific/medical way. Thus, let Ray lead the way in our rehabilitation of nictitation today. The verb, by the way, is either nictate (attested in Johnson's 1755 dictioanry) or nictitate, first used in an 1822 medical treatise. A quick Google search indicates that both appear with relatively the same freuqency today--i.e., not that frequently. They derive from the participle of the post-classical Latin nictare (nictatus). Let's illustrate its scientific and non-scientific use. First, a word on Thomas Ray.
As mentioned above, we owe the English-language origin of the term to Thomas Ray (1637-1704 or 1705), who is characterized by this web site as the most significant English natural historian of the 17th century. One quotation from this article on Ray shows us how little we know about the world and those who have investigated it:
"Ray, a devout man who was to become the most influential British natural historian of his era, showed a keen interest in natural philosophy and chemistry in the 1650s, and while at Trinity was already embarking on solitary botanical tours around the Cambridge area. The Cambridge Catalogue of 1660 which resulted from this research was widely praised as a comprehensive account of the local flora. In it he also attacked the traditional herbalists’ doctrine of signatures, which suggested that certain plants resembled natural or artificial objects for which they had a special ‘affinity’."
Had you heard of Ray before a minute ago? Did you know that there was a raging debate in the 1660s over the "herbalists' doctrine of signatures?" I still don't know what this debate was all about, but now I have created a "file" in my mind for the future...
In any case, Ray's "great work" of natural theology was his 1691 The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Words of the Creation. His method was a precursor of the much more popular books on natural theology by William Paley a century later. Paley, as many know, became influential in America because his works were staples in the fledgling private colleges in pre-Civil War America. Thus, when Darwin "hit" the US after the Civil War, the debate was pitched between the "argument for design," which grew out of the tradition represented by Ray and Paley, and the the "argument from chance," or natural selection, which is how the Darwininans were characterized. Let's get back to nictate/nictitate now.
Returning to Nictate/Nictitate
Ray actually first used the term in 1678, in his translation of Willughby's Ornithology. "The Eyes are furnished with nictating membranes [L. nictitantibus membranis]." Then, in his 1691 word he says: "The Eyes of Man...want the seventh Muscle [what is known today as the "third eyelid"], or the nictating membrane." This is all of the quotation that the OED gives, but in it larger context, quoted in the Century, we see that Ray is making a theological and not simply a natural history point.
"Neither is it to be esteemed any defect or imperfection in the eyes of man that they want the seventh muscle, or the nictating membrane, which the eyes of many other animals are furnished withal."
Notice the nature of his argument. Humans lack something that nature/God has outfitted other earthy creatures--the membrans nictitans. But that is not a reflection on human defect. I haven't read the rest of Ray's treatment, but I would venture to say that he could make a virtue out of this lack, as any good theologian could. How do theologians argue? Well, that is beyond the scope of this essay, but in general theologians argue that God has, as it were, given compensatory benefits to man that not only fit his lofty station in life but make him more able to serve the Creator. In other words, I venture to say that Ray would argue that humans have other capacities and characteristics that not only mark us as unique but enable us better to serve God. What might these be? Well, we walk erect, and perhaps therefore don't need the nictating membrane to keep out all the dust (Darwininans would have a field day with this argument). In addition, we have a mind, thus enabling us to serve God not through scrounging around in the dust but in speaking and writing works to his glory.
I don't particularly like this kind of theological argument, and so I will close this essay with a literary reference to an author I admire a lot: Vladimir Nabokov. Share this net conversation with me:
"In "First Love," (Chptr 7 of Speak, Memory; section 1, p. 144) Nabokov describes grass seen from a moving train as "nictitating." Perhaps because I haven't travelled by train for many years, I am having some difficulty imagining winking grass. Could this be the effect of the wind rippling across a field, or merely the result of the train's movement: flashes of green in the window of the compartment? Or is this nictitation in another sense altogether?"
EDITOR'S NOTE: I have looked at the passage and paragraph. VN is
describing the "optical amalgamations" resulting from the "mixed
velocities" of scenes observed (at different distances) through the moving
window of the train dining car. VN, age 10, watches as he eats and grows
increasing queasy. As his gorge rises, the description becomes ever more
clinical: the adjacent rails commit suicide by "anastomosis," a bank of
grass "nictitates"-- and the boy barfs. In a sense the passage is an
extension of some earlier material in which the narrative P.O.V. switches
back and forth between a person on the train and a person watching the
passing train. The description above projects the characteristics of
boy's nausea to aspects of the animated landscape.
Like that better?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long