making “Celestinette” happen: Walpole, the compact OED, and grad school memories

One of my fondest memories of graduate school at Boston University was some office time with a professor while in his course “History and Theory of the English Novel.” I don’t remember what we were discussing, probably Shamela and parody or Haywood, but what I do recall is that he stopped mid-discussion—temporarily questioning the root of a word—and casually took a copy of the compact Oxford English Dictionary off a shelf to look it up. I thought that this was one of the best things I had ever seen and knew that if I was ever lucky enough to finish my PhD and become a professor with a book-lined office, I would need a set of the compact OED too.

Of course, that didn’t happen. I did not finish the PhD (maybe some day? somewhere?) and maybe this has something to do with this particular memory being one of my fondest, or perhaps this is necessary therapeutic editing? At any rate, the OED is still one of my favorite resources and I needed a copy for myself. Even more so because the online OED requires a subscription— enter my subsequent jobs in education.

A year ago, Stephen gifted me a set for my birthday. 

Some explanation is probably necessary here. The compact OED that I have from 1977 comes in two large volumes and is microprinted with four normal pages appearing per page, which means a normally 20 volume set is condensed into two very hefty books. This microprinting means that you need a magnifying glass to read it, which comes in a little drawer in the slipcase. It is an experience to read. My professor did not have his magnifying glass at hand at that moment, but he was still able to make out the entry; this is probably not possible with the nine-to-a-page pages in the modern versions of the compact OED. I think I’ll live without being able to look up “Chi-Town” and “Arnold Palmer.”

I use the OED to look up words of interest, but it is also worth reading in its own right, and this is much easier to do in print. That is how I came to find the word “celestinette,” upon my first perusal of my new set, which has stuck with me since. It struck me as a completely charming word for a musical instrument, almost onomatopoeic, conjuring up visions and sounds of a small tinkling piano. I was compelled to pick up my phone to google a photo and was quite disappointed to find that there are none (#firstworldproblems), only a lot of people who probably created the word anew for themselves and find it a good moniker for social media.

I did, however, find it to be tied to Horace Walpole—fittingly for these reflections as he was also taught in the course referenced above— who frequently wrote about it in his letters to the inventor, his friend William Mason. On January 22, 1780, Walpole perseveres through fingers sore with gout-induced chalkstones to tell Mason that he enjoyed his “Essay on the Celestinette” that “explod[es] prejudices” and even “restores ancient harmony." 

Comments on letters between Thomas Gray and William Mason in 1853 express confusion about whether or not the celestinette is a wind instrument (or a zumpe?), and the Dictionary of National Biography in 1893 calls the instrument a rather dubious improvement of the referenced Zumpe “upon which [Mason] performed with much expression.” This seems to be the instrument's main strength. In 1951, Phillip Gaskell writes with some authority that it was a “frame of strings of about the size of a harpsichord, which were selected with a keyboard and sounded by a bow; in fact, a large bowed hurdy-gurdy.”

In a further episode of particularly eighteenth century ailments, we are told in the DoNB that Mason died after “hurt[ing] his shin on a Friday in stepping out of his carriage” and managed to preach on Sunday “but died from the injury on the following Wednesday.” 

This reminded me of Kathryn Hughes’ article earlier this year on the inalienability of illnesses and injuries pre-modern medicine (read for the reason behind Darwin’s beard).

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Celestinette
1774 H. Walpole Let. Sir W. Hamilton 19 June, I heard a new instrument yesterday.. It is a copulation of a harpsicord and a violin; one hand strikes the keys and the other draws the bow.. The instrument is so small it stands on a table, and it is called a Celestinette. 

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