Thursday, 22 January 2015

The word 'Document' according to Richard Chenevix Trench

Philip Harvey

DOCUMENT. Now used only of the material, and not, as once, of the moral proof, evidence, or means of instruction.

They were forthwith stoned to death, as a document unto others.
            Sir W. Raleigh, History of the World.
Utterly to extirpate all trust in riches, where they abound, is only possible to the Omnipotent Power, and a rare document of divine mercy.
            Jackson, Justifying Faith.

A Select Glossary of English Words Used Formerly in Senses Different from their Present, by Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster. 2nd ed., revised and improved. London, John W. Parker, 1859, page 62.

Dean Trench’s little books of word studies were one of the inspirations for the foundation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Trench devised a way of talking about words that became the model and benchmark of the descriptive method of definition in the OED: precise and concise definition, apposite quotation based on known usages and preferably the earliest provable usages. To write a Glossary like Trench’s you had to have both an extraordinary depth of reading in English writing of all kinds coupled with a very retentive memory. He was a Victorian Johnson.

Trench’s own purpose was not to make a dictionary but to indulge, one could say, in a favourite pastime, the fascinating study of how, but more especially why, words change meaning over time. His analysis of ‘document’ plunges us straight into the Victorian world of high-minded intellectual pursuit, done for no better reason than its own sake and the furtherance of generally agreed knowledge. We would have to reach for his biography, if it exists, to find out the method in his method, which is still in the nature of scientific amateurism. It took someone like Sir James Murray to turn such wayward literary behaviour into a professional practice of world standard. Trench did it because it was what came naturally.

The 1859 update on ‘document’ is perhaps not as final as it first sounds. Even in our own time, while we do not use the word as a noun meaning ‘moral proof’, it still often carries the weight of moral meaning. When lawyers reach for the documents they are seen as not only getting the material evidence for the court; it is expected that that evidence has a binding moral credibility. We do not expect a lawyer to place false evidence before the court, only evidence that may be relevant to the case, and therefore true, at least on face value.

Examples in the subsequent OED tell us though that ‘document’ had shifted appreciably in meaning by the age of Dean Trench. When Paul Bunyan trusts “That they might be documented in all good and wholesome things,” we do not instantly appreciate that he means that the people in question may be “instructed or admonished authoritatively”; nor when John Dryden admits “I am finely documented by my own daughter” that she has rebuked him or opened his eyes to his own foolishness on some matter.

It is but a century or so from the standardisation of ‘document’ as the material evidence or means of instruction, for ‘document’ to have become not just formally the record or official paper of evidence, but for it to mean almost any kind of written item whatsoever. Or not even written, now that digital has overwhelmed our patterns of printed exchange. A similar fate has overtaken the use of that other word of ancient lineage, ‘text’, as well.

The good Dean would no doubt have absorbed with sang froid the new use of the word ‘document’, being of a nature to appreciate the vicissitudes of English language change. We have grown so used to a document being almost anything of record in any material media that it is still helpful to ponder the definition in the dictionary

‘A document is a type of file that has been created or saved by an application. For example, a text file saved with Microsoft Word is a document, while a system library, such as a DLL file, is not. Examples of documents include word processing files, spreadsheets, presentations, audio files, video files, and saved media projects.

‘Each document has a filename, which identifies the file. It also includes an icon, which visually identifies the program associated with the file. In most cases, the document icon is generated by the program that created the document. When you double-click a document icon, it will open in the corresponding application.’

We are almost at the stage of saying a ‘document’ is whatever the carrier carries and whatever the load can take. It may seem all very specific to computers and online communication, when in fact it is the universality and commonality of these daily utilities that drives the use of the word. As Trench may have said. Indeed, ‘document’ has almost come to be whatever circumscribed item of information, in any form, we care to call a document. It almost enjoys the status of that ‘thing’ in common parlance, whatever material the text or other length of information happens to have been put upon.

Its moral proof has vanished. A document may contain words of witness the very opposite of anything we judge as morally meaningful. Even its material evidence is hard to ascertain with the naked eye, hovering in the netherworld of the hard drive or database, there to disappear by Monday morning.

No doubt Richard Chenevix Trench would have gone for a long walk around London or Dublin in order to sort this new definition in his head, or perhaps have discussed the matter with his wife over a cup of tea, or both.

And so I humbly submit this document on ‘document’ for your consideration. If you regard the author as a “rare document” in the Elizabethan sense, then that is as may be, there at the other end of a mileage of cords and satellites. 

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