Tuesday, 21 October 2008


Returning to the dictionary thing. Having demonstrated convincingly, I hope, that some words are being done an injustice by most of us, who presume to know their meaning because, well, we just do, I will now demonstrate that even the greatest dictionary of the greatest language contains surprising gaps.

Another of my long-term projects has been to photograph the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey, a wonderful National Trust property near Romsey in Hampshire, which I have visited most weeks in open season since 2001. Although I have mainly photographed the River Test, which flows through the grounds, I have also been interested in various other "changing constants" in the ornamental landscape -- the chalk spring, the trees, and various bits of statuary. Of these, a set of four "herms" are a particular favourite.

The herm is a curious beast. They turn up in many 18th century ornamental gardens, and are ultimately descended from Ancient Greek boundary markers associated with the cult of Hermes, taking the form of pillars which taper downwards and have a head at the top and a phallus halfway up. In the inventory of Mottisfont made by the Historic Monuments Commission, they are described like this:
"4 thermae, C18 stone, male & female heads standing in front of box hedge set on large radius, set 10m apart and 2m high. On low moulded plinth, foliage to front, batted, tooled finish to sides, 2 male & 2 female busts."
Apart from the use of "thermae" rather than "hermae", the word that caught my attention was "batted" -- what does it mean? Naturally, I looked it up in the OED. It wasn't there. I was amazed. I looked again. It still wasn't there.

The next stop, obviously, was Google. It took a bit of effort, but I eventually found discussions of "batting" on specialist masonry websites. It turns out that a "batted" piece of stone is one faced with decorative parallel grooves, carefully done with a chisel. You can see it here:

(Note how the "foliage to front" occupies the same p0sition as the phallus on the original herms!)

Why is this respectable and long-standing sense of "bat" absent from the dictionary? It's a little odd. Other similar mason's terms are absent ("dragged", for example -- stone finished with a metal comb, or "drag") while others are present ("pitch-faced" -- "having a rough face but an arris that is cut true"). Obviously, the OED relies on published printed sources, but you would have thought a routine pass through a few trade dictionaries would have thrown up these terms as candidates for admission. And let's set aside some kind of anti-Masonic thing as just too weird.

If nothing else, it's a good reminder that no authority is comprehensively authoritative. As a good citizen of the language, I've let the OED know about this lapse -- we'll wait and see how long it takes to make it into the online version.

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