55. Pages 351-370 III
Bill Long 5/30/05
Exploring Verbs Beginning with "Dis"
Before returning to The List, I thought I would tarry for a while on some "dis" verbs. Shakespeare seems to be inordinately fond of them, as I showed that he was with "em/en" in Othello. "Dis" reverses the meaning of the thing it precedes. The use of "dis" may be rhetorically powerful for the hearer because it builds up momentary, but real, suspense. You say the sound "dis" and no one knows what you will be denouncing or dissenting from. You have, however, caught attention. And then, the other shoe falls. It might be "dis-own" or "dis-combobulate" or "dis-prove" or "dis-engage," but now the hearer, whose interest was piqued by hearing the "dis," is brought fully into your meaning. "Dis," therefore, is a sort of tease or lure to get people to listen. Shakespeare certainly understood this; note the uses below.
Dislimn has nothing to do with removing arms or legs. It reverses "limn"-- which means to paint, delineate or describe. [Yikes, I can see a mini-essay on THAT word someday...]. Thus, "dislimn" means to obscure or efface. A secondary meaning is to vanish. The Bard has pride of place in using it. From Antony & Cleopatra, "Sometime we see a clowd that's Dragonish, A vapour sometime, like a Bear, or Lyon..That which is now a Horse, even with a thoght, The Rack dislimes, and makes it indistinct..." (4.14). "The Rack" here is a bank of clouds. We see a shape in the clouds and then, poof, it is gone. The clouds shift their position or fade in color and all of a sudden the lion or bear we saw has disappeared. Why say "the rack dislimns" rather than "the clouds efface?" Well, why study words rather than watch reality TV? I don't know, but I don't take it as my task to write protreptics. Didn't Jesus say, "Those who have ears to hear, let them eat cake?" Something like that.
Well, you can tell that dislimn at least affected one writer. In the 19th century De Quincy could say, "The flash..of colourable truth, being as frail as the resemblances in clouds, would, like them, unmould and 'dislimn' itself." An amarathine splendor never dislimns, but anything that aids in the fading process, anything that obscures or wipes out, can be said to "dislimn" something. I think the word has lots of life left in it.
Other Shakespearean "Disses"
So, as I was reading the Century, my eyes went from dislimn to dislimb (not a Shakespearean term, but meaning to dismember) and then to disliken. But the quotation given there brought me into another Shakespearean "dis." In that hugely long scene in Winter's Tale (4.4), Camillo says to the rogue Autolycus,
"Muffle your face;/ Dismantle you; and, as you can, disliken/ The truth of your own seeming."
So we have two words: disliken and dismantle. To disliken means to "make unlike" or "disguise." I prefer disliken to disguise because it preserves in it the notion of "likeness," which is being reversed. To "disliken the truth of your own seeming" means to "change your appearance." But who doesn't resonate more with Shakespeare? Truth and seeming are terms of long-standing philosophical significance. Thus, when you "disliken the truth of seeming" you not only change how you look but you subtly trigger thoughts of the debate between reality and appearance that goes back to Plato.
But we receive a double dose of pleasure through the word dismantle. We use the word all the time in contemporary English to mean "take apart." "They dismantled the crane after the building was complete." But the first and original meaning of "dismantle" is, not unexpectedly, to deprive of dress or strip or divest or undress. "Dismantle you," then means to undress or change your dress. Shakespeare even plays with that term, however, by coming up with a similar but distinct meaning for it--"to undo." From King Lear:
"That she who even but now was your best object.../The best, the dearest, should in this trice of time/ Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle/ So many folds of favour."
You can see the mind of Shakespeare at work--taking a verb which he used with its literal meaning (to take off the clothes) and turning it into a figurative use--to undo or reverse.
One Little Cluster
I was only going to introduce one more verb: disprize, but then I saw that it was part of the trefoil of disprize, dispraise and depreciate. The use of dispraise goes back to around 1300 and means to blame or censure or speak with disparagement or disapprobation. Ben Jonson could say in 1616, "I rather thou shouldn'st utterly Dispraise my Work, than praise it frostily." One could speak of someone dispraisingly. The OED tells us that disprize is the development of this verb, and means "to depreciate, undervalue or hold in small repute or in contempt." It also means "to dishonor" or "speak of slightingly," as in Hamlet's words: "For who would beare...The pangs of dispriz'd love?" Depreciate brings in the Latin word for price and means not only to "reduce the purchasing power of (money)" but to "undervalue" or "belittle." "He depreciated the doctrine of the Zwinglians and returned to the fold of the "real presence" true believers" [The way the verb depreciate is or might be different from deprecate is beyond my scope, here]. When we use these terms we are in the realm of honor. Honor isn't a category on which we spend a lot of attention, but is the ever-present oil that greases the skids of life. When we feel dishonored, dispraised, disprized and depreciated, we feel hurt, discouraged, mad or even vengeful. I think "honor terms" deserve a reconsideration, and rediscovery today. Want to help me?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long