Tuesday, 17 January 2012


Doctor Johnson's dictionary often says a little more than it seems to. Consider the second sentence of this definition.

Bellibone n. A woman excelling in both beauty and goodness. A word now out of use.

Which is a terrible lexicographical statement about the modern woman. According to the OED the word was still going in 1586, which means that if we could get a firm date for this Donne poem of about the 1590s we would be able to pinpoint precisely when it all went wrong for the fairer sex.

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where
Lives a woman true and fair.

If thou find'st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

From which it will be easy to see why Johnson also described chivalrous as A word now out of use.


  1. Do you know the John Renbourn setting of the Donne? It's nice.

  2. I have now, and put the video in the post. Thank you.

  3. perhaps the clue is in the word "both" in the definition... that or he knew something about the vicar's wife...

  4. I like elfsheen better for a woman of unnatural beauty.