24 May, 2009


Imagine you're a harmless drudge. You've been assigned the task of scouring the works of Sir Thomas Browne for new words, or new uses of old words, or antedatings, and so you sit in your bright-lit windowless cubicle, poring over Urne Buriall, and The Garden of Cyrus, and then it's on to Religio Medici, and finally the Vulgar Errors. In the last of these, not quite as lexically fecund as the other works, you stumble on this:
What therefore may consist with history, by cessation of Oracles with Montacutius we may understand their intercision, not abscission or consummate desolation; their rare delivery, not total dereliction, and yet in regard of divers Oracles, we may speak strictly, and say there was a proper cessation.
You have little understanding of what it means, since you are only a humble word-spotter. And the word you spot, in this case, is intercision. You check your lists, and those of your colleagues; nothing yet. The word, whatever it means, is contrasted with 'consummate desolation', so it must mean something less than a complete destruction, and it must correspond in some degree to 'rare delivery'. More than that is hard to say. You check Cockeram, who says it means 'An intreating in ones behalf', clearly confusing it with intercession, which he has just defined as 'An intreaty in ones behalf'. You check Blount, who has 'a cutting off in the midst', from Latin intercisio. Clearly, whatever intercision means, it has a lot to do with intercisio. Du Cange merely has 'injuria', which seems to help little. How about modern Latin dictionaries? Lewis and Short offers 'a cutting through'. The OLD has nothing.

You are not stuck yet; intercisio, you reason, is clearly a nominal form of the verb intercido, which in turn is inter (between) and caedo (cut). So what do your lexica say on the verb? Here you strike gold. Lewis and Short list two intercidos: the first is 'to cut asunder, cut up, divide, pierce, cut through, part, divide, mangle, destroy', this clearly corresponding to the listed noun. But there is another: 'to fall between, to occur meanwhile, to happen, to fall to the ground, to go to ruin, be lost, perish'. This is promising. OLD, likewise, has 'to fall between, to be lost or wasted, go astray; to be lost from memory, fall into oblivion, be forgotten; to perish incidentally, to be destroyed during an action; to cease to exist, be lost, lapse, fail'. Intercisio, and therefore intercision, must have been formed from one of these verbs, each differing in shade. But which?


This is the classic problem of the neologism. Without an accepted context and range of meanings, a consuetudo, it can be impossible to determine the meaning of a word. It turns out, however, that intercision is not a neologism. In one context, in fact, it is common: the theology of grace. Lutheran doctrine held that it was possible for a member of the elect to fall from grace forever; Calvinism held that this was impossible, for a man's sin cannot override the divine act of bestowing grace. Thus Peter, who denied Christ, was nonetheless saved. This fall from grace is called intercisio or intercision; but even here the meaning is not clear-cut, at least in English. In 1626, the Cornish theologian Francis Rous published his Testis veritatis, writing:
God is for the Saints all the way from the first foreknowledge, unto the finall glory; what Arminius or [Peter] Bertius can make any Apostacy to be against us, when God is throughly for us? God being stedfast with us from Election to glorification, no interloper can come in with intercision to cut off and put a sunder this continued chaine of happinesse, which God hath joynd together and guardeth all the way.
In the same year, George Carleton, Bishop of Chichester, argues likewise: 'This is certaine, all is not gone, all is not cut off by intercision; here is a Seede of God abiding. . . If all be not falne away, then this man in whom it abideth can not fall totally.' In both of the above quotations, intercision sounds like something permanent. Carleton returns to the theme in 1629, claiming that 'Man cannot by any sinne make void any act of Gods', and arguing against the possibility of 'an intercision of justifying grace, caused by the sinnes of the flesh'.

In 1633 George Downham, Bishop of Derry, thinks it 'ridiculous' that 'there should bee an intercision of justification (which I proved before to be a continued act) so oft as there is an intermission of the act of faith'. Here the intercision seems more temporary, as a phenomenon accompanying an intermission. A similar meaning is found outside a theological context, in 1641, when John Jackson notes, 'there hath beene of late an intercision, and interruption herein'.

Ambiguous also is a line from a 1627 oration by Thomas Gataker: 'Their death is rather a departing, or a going out of this world, or a passage to heaven, or a returne to God, then a deceasing, or surceasing, or intermission, or intercision, yea, or diminution, either of life, or of their good or happy estate.' We are tangled up by conjunctions: the or cannot always be an 'or rather', but may be between intermission and intercision, or intercision and diminution. Trying to pinpoint the exact meaning of 'intercision' comes down to a morass of hard-to-determine textual passages of uncertain relations to one another.

The OED lists the Browne passage under the meaning 'The action of cutting off the course of, stopping, or interrupting, esp. temporarily; the fact of being interrupted or ceasing for a time.' Immediately preceding the Browne is a quotation from one Richard Montagu—in Latin, Montacutius—Bishop of Norwich, Browne's home-town. The passage in full runs:
Doth ARMINIUS maintaine touching finall Perseverance, (you must tell mee, my good Informers, for I have not read him) that sometime the Called and Elect of God, the Chosen ones and Justified by Faith, such as S. PETER was, though they doe fall totally for a Time, shall yet recover necessarily againe, and not fall away finally, or for ever? If this be Arminianisme, and so his conclusion, then therein He holdeth with ARMINIUS. But I have bin assured, that ARMINIUS did hold as the Lutherans in Germany doe, not only Intercision for a Time, but also Abscission and Abjection too, for ever.
This in fact is from Montagu's 1625 Appello Caesarem, against which Rous published his Testis the following year. The last line looks suspiciously similar to Browne's 'intercision, not abscission', and the entry's compiler must have thought that Browne was referring to this in writing 'with Montacutius'. Montagu's 'Intercision for a Time' is clearly the same intercision as Downham's and Jackson's: an interruption, rather than the permanent sundering of Rous and Carleton. If this is Montagu's intercision, then presumably it is Browne's too. In 1647, John Trapp seems to make a similar distinction when he writes that 'Happy for us, that we are kept by the power of God to salvation, 1 Pet. 1. 5. for else it were possible for us to fall away and perish: an intercision there might be, nay an utter excision from Christ'.

The problem is that the 1625 passage is not the origin of Browne's words, at least not directly. Browne is in fact translating another line from Montagu from Latin. This is from his 1635 refutation of the ecclesiastical history of Baronius, and glosses the word cessare, normally translated as 'cease':
Cessare dicitur id, quod cum olim in usu frequentissimo fuisset, postea rarissime adhibetur: non penitus autem cessare, sed respectu prioris frequentissimi usus. Secundo, Cessare dicitur aliquid dupliciter: vel per Intercisionem ad aliquod tempus; vel per Abscisionem, et desolationem consummatam.
To paraphrase: cessare is what happens when a frequent activity becomes much rarer, without necessarily stopping altogether. And cessare can mean either an intercisio, or an abscision or consummate desolation. It is clear, Montagu continues, that the cessatio of the oracles was not an abscisio, but only an intercisio, for the oracles continued to speak thereafter. The natural reading of this passage is that after the cessatio, the oracles were still delivered, only much less frequently; in other words, that they fell into disuse. One might compare Quintilian: 'verba intercidant invalescantque temporibus', 'words become obsolete or current with the lapse of years'. This is not only the natural reading, it is consonant with what many other people had written about the oracles. To understand the word this way, therefore, would necessitate not only knowing other uses of intercisio, but also the contemporary discourse about this rather arcane subject: and how many lexicographers would be capable of that?

The 1625 passage, with its 'Intercision for a Time', seems to resolve the question in the other direction: presumably, though not necessarily, Montagu intended the same distinction in each case, and by intercisio and intercision meant a temporary interruption in proceedings. The oracles, then, would stop being given, but then later return. Nobody else, to my knowledge, ever argued this. And so the claim has a rather spectral quality to it: it rests on no consuetudo, and has no support other than the use of a similar word in a different language in a different work. If Montagu's Appello had been lost, we would have had, I think, to read differently his intercisio, and so Browne's intercision. All of a sudden, the meaning of this word, a museum-piece, looks highly contingent.


kvond said...

It seems you have made an intercision into history on behalf of a word.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Kvond, glad you liked it.