U is for Sir Thomas Urquhart

This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!

Sir Thomas UrquhartWe all like to think that there is an ancestor with a claim to a title or was notable in some way, but few people can have taken his family history as far as Sir Thomas Urquhart when he published his Pantochronachanon in 1652.

Subtitled ‘a peculiar promptuary of time’, it claimed to trace the Urquhart genealogy back through 153 generations in an unbroken line to the Garden of Eden, taking in Methuselah and Noah along the way, and Pamprosodos Urquhart whose wife was the Pharaoh’s daughter who discovered Moses in the bullrushes.

Some say it was likely a literary joke on Uruhart’s part, but if it was it failed to raise a smile other than of the derisory kind because it has been ridiculed ever since.

The reason Uruhart wrote his genealogical polemic was to prove his worth to the country that had confiscated his property. He had been knighted by Charles I in 1641 for his loyalty to the royalist cause and as a result he was arrested by Cromwell’s men ten years later and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Although Uruhart was released on parole soon after, his land and property had been seized by the state and he spent the rest of his life trying to convince the government to give it back again.

Now you can probably tell from the title of his book that Uruhart had an unusual approach to the English language and the general consensus is that he made his meaning as clear as mud.

In 1644 he published his Trissotetras, a trigonometrical treatise which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as ‘almost impenetrably obscure’. It contains a handy glossary that supposedly explains Urquhart’s meanderings with such definitions as:

Amfractuosities – the cranklings, windings, turnings, and involutions belonging to the equisoleary Scheme;

Cathetobasall – the Concordance of Loxogononsphericall Moods, in the Datas of the Perpendicular, and the Base, for finding out the Maine question.

Having established his genealogical credentials, Urquhart set about the betterment of mankind by proposing a universal language of his own invention and listed sixty-six advantages over other tongues, among them the fact that it had eleven genders, ten tenses and seven moods. Plus each word would read the same backwards as forwards ‘whereby a wonderful facility is obtained in making of anagrams’.

What the language actually was we’ll never know as Urquhart said he would only publish it once his lands were returned to him and that was not to happen, but he did leave other examples of his unique lexicon.

Illustration from Urquhart's Rabelais translation published 1894

From Urquhart’s Rabelais translation published 1894

For example, he expanded a list of nine animal sounds to one of seventy-one, including the curking of quails, nuzzing of camels, smuttering of monkeys, charming of beagles, drintling of turkeys, boing of buffaloes, coniating of storks, gueriating of apes and crouting of cormorants.

But his zest for words could be an advantage and his translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel is considered to be one of the best. Another of Urquhart’s celebrated works is The Admirable Crichton, a fictionalised life of the Scottish hero James Crichton.

Urquhart died in 1660 reputedly brought about by an uncontrollable fit of laughter on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II.

To find out more about him and his words, see Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

3 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 4th December 2013

    I have become fascinated with genealogy of famous folk. All but one President has a common ancestor

  • Kate 4th December 2013

    How absolutely wonderfully quirky! On the quirkiestational scale of 1 to 13, he ranks 12, I should think. I wish I had another lifetime or two, because this kind of bizarre person/ life is just the sort of think I’d love to explore in a series of artworks.

  • Sharp Little Pencil 5th December 2013

    I love stories about quirky folks. His geneology certainly must have pissed off the Church! I do love this alternate adjectives for animals, and the circumstances of his death are somehow quite fitting. I mean, if I were to die laughing, I’d call that a good end! Thanks for hooking up at ABC… Peace, Amy


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