Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Hezekiah Burhans's Octonisyllables.

Title page of Burhans's
1821 spelling book.
I can think of no part of my business that has quite the same delight as the serendipity of finding something fascinating in a box lot. 

At the antique auctions I sometimes attend, books and other items are often grouped and sold by the boxful. Bidders, each with their own unique knowledge base, may have a clear sense of the value of only some of the items in any particular box, and when the bidding starts, there's every chance that different bidders are bidding on different items in the same box. The result is that sometimes a buyer like me ends up with something wonderful that they didn't even know they were buying.

My post today is about one such "come-with" from the auction I went to last week. It came in a box of books that I was buying for other reasons (chiefly, I was trying to secure the rare Rough and Ready Primer from ca. 1849 that I had seen in the box). 

So I ended up with a copy of Hezekiah Burhans's 1821 Critical Pronouncing Spelling-Book completely by chance. The book, as a quick check on WorldCat suggests, was issued in several editions during the 1820s, and Burhans was especially concerned to provide a work that would be suitable for both British and American audiences. In this, Burhans may have been working against the tide of Americanization promoted by figures such as Noah Webster, and it may not have helped his case that his works were often self-published.

But Burhans's book was nevertheless ambitious, and (among various other things) he attempted to communicate clearly how stress levels operated in the pronunciations of long multi-syllabic words. Without going into too much detail of his system, I thought I would at least share with readers of the blog Burhans's unique names for the various multi-syllables.

Burhans's table of word lengths

Here we see a couple of familiar terms, but Quinisyllables, Senisyllables, and Octonisyllables were all new to me. I was a bit surprised to find that Google searches on each term turned up no results at all. Likewise, searches for these terms in Google's Ngram viewer also turned up no results.

So very often I've used Google to help me identify the text on a manuscript or printed fragment, I have come to unthinkingly rely on it as usefully complete. But of course Google books has certainly not digitally stored all books, and even if one copy or another of Burhans's book may have been scanned by Google, these words still have not turned up. (It may be worth noting that OCLC/WorldCat appears to record only three copies of this 1821 first edition in institutional libraries). 

The pronunciation of Septisyllables
and Octonisyllables

It seems likely that Burhans invented these terms.  Google's Ngram viewer confirms, for example, that octosyllable was in use before 1800, and we know that Burhans's new coinages never caught on, as his system itself perhaps never really caught on. But it seems a fascinating "might have been."


This was a book I've never encountered before, and probably I'll never encounter it again. There may be copies safely held in a few libraries, but few people, I suspect, have ever looked for them. And yet there is something of interest here. Serendipity: when you find something you were never looking for.