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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Friday, 19 July 2013

Perfumed Candles, 1705

Perfumed candles, to make them 

Perfumes of this kind are very grateful for the entertainment of company, when they have a double advantage of pleasing two senses by it, one in seeing the cheerful light and the other in smelling the delightful odours, it disperses from its beams. To do this, take dried charcoal made from the branches of willow an ounce, wood of myrrh, storax, calamita and aloes of each an ounce and a half, of labdanum an ounce, of amber and musk each seven grains, oil of spikenard two ounces, spirit of wine wherein gum tragacanth is dissolved two ounces, bees wax four ounces, make these by a gentle heat so soft that you may rowl them up like small candles over a cotton wick, and when you see your time light one or more of them and they will give a tolerable good light, and perfume the place with a very pleasing odour; but if they give not light enough for the entertainment, you may set common  candles amongst them, and these burning by the bedside of a sick person, will be a great refreshment to the fading or drooping of spirits. 

You may make this composition, leaving the wax out, into little cakes or balls, and burn it in the day time for being set on fire, it will burn out without putting on any live coals; but rather in such a case, make it up into little rowls the length of your finger.

Beauties Treasury 1705 

I have been trying to make sense of the use of the comma in this text. The first paragraph seems to be straightforward, with commas between clauses, or marking good places to take a breath, until the very odd comma between 'odours' and 'it'; odd that is until I realised that with the addition of 'which' before 'it' there is no problem at all. There does seem a serious need to have a comma between 'time' and 'for' in the second paragraph, for there is a definite change of direction in the sentence, as there has been in this one. The comma between 'ounces' and 'make' in the first paragraph would now be replaced by a semi-colon; and that between 'person' and 'will' is needing only its counterpart between 'these' and 'burning' to satisfy modern sensibilities (i.e. mine). 

Punctuation, and particularly the locating of commas, seems a very personal and idiosyncratic business, to do with how we make meaning as we write: the weight we give to clauses and the connections we wish to emphasise. Originally designed to indicate to an orator where to take a breath, the comma still carries something of this, as well as indicating a break between blocks of closely connected meaning in a sentence. At my school one teacher taught us that if you could read five consecutive words within a sentence and they 'made sense' there was no comma needed; and if they didn't, then one was. But I don't think this can be much more than a rule of thumb, or perhaps it was designed to get unruly boys to think about how to communicate effectively.

How pleasant to see that people were making scented candles in 1705. But shouldn't there be an apostrophe there - Beauty's Treasury rather than Beauties Treasury? That's another story.

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