No, not witchcraft, witcraft—the craft of wit. Too often the subtle distinctions between these two arts have been overlooked.

Ralph Lever was not a proto-Salemite. He was a logician and a patriotic Englishman. His treatise on logic, The Arte of Reason, rightly termed Witcraft: teaching a perfect way to argue and dispute, was published in 1573. It contained many ingenious terms coined from old Anglo-Saxon words that were intended to replace the rhetorical, logical, and grammatical terms derived from Latin and Greek.

Here are some of the substitutions—improvements!—he wanted to make:

Witcraft, of course, was his word for logic and speachcraft was his corresponding word for rhetoric. In Lever's terminology, a speachcrafter would begin his speache with a forespeache (a preface or introduction) and would close with an endspeache (a conclusion).

His vocabulary set for logic—I mean, witcraft—is nearly as intuitive. Lever wasn't a fan of erudite verbiage like "proposition;" he believed that people ought to say what they mean. Therefore, all logical propositions were called sayes. A declarative proposition was called a shewsay, a conditional proposition was called an ifsay, and, best of all, a definition was called a saywhat. Likewise, the premises of an argument were its foresayes and the argument's logical conclusion was simply the endsay.

Why not use the traditional terms?

Lever wrote this treatise in that exciting time when the identity of the English language was still emerging. In speech and in writing, the language was in constant flux. There were no standardizations, only temporary conventions of diction, spelling, syntax, grammar, etc. However, literate Englishmen were formally educated in the classical languages and they relied, perhaps too heavily, on their smalle Latine & lesse Greeke for their ability to improvise vernacular English.

And they had to improvise often, especially in the more technical fields of the time: natural philosophy, theology, rhetoric, and law. They were continually inventing neologisms and anglicizing foreign words to compensate for the meager mother tongue.

But a growing strain of nationalism and a growing intolerance of froufrou classical pedantry led many writers to avoid foreign polysyllabic words from Greek, Latin, Italian, or French. As George Gascoigne advised developing English poets,

"The most auncient English wordes are of one sillable, so that the more monosyllables that you use the truer Englishman you shall seeme, and the less you shall smell of the Inkehorne."
(Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English, 1575)

So how does this look in writing? Here's a sample saywhat from the book:

Gaynsaying shewsays are two shewsays, the one a yeasay and the other a naysay, changing neither foreset, backset, nor verb.

A saywhat indeed; now here's a translation into modern English:

Opposing propositions are two propositions, one an affirmation and the other a negation, without changing the subject term, predicate term, or verb.

As mentioned earlier, advocates of vernacular English like Lever and Gascoigne wanted to protect the mother tongue and give it its own character distinct from foreign languages. However, I think it was probably more important to them as a general principle that ideas not be obscured by learnèd words and that effective communication not be sacrificed for ornamentation's sake. They valued wit more than learning and advocated the clever compounding of two familiar words to make a new idea.


It turns out that Lever would be greatly outdone by a certain one of his contemporaries in terms of his contributions (or in his contribution of terms?) to the English language. And what is Shakespeare's linguistic genius? How can it be specified? It is like a winged amphibian at play in the fertile fen of human languages. It is equally at home in the rich muck of Anglo-Saxon as it is in the lucid lakes of Latin. Vaulting (Will's word) above both, it soars awhile before sumberging in a puddle with a ploosh.

In many places our language is stagnant with cliche and sloshed through by heedless waders who crush the delicate etymological flora. But it is always teeming with new life and its organic messiness resists most attempts at gardening. In their own ways, Lever and Shakespeare call us to attend more closely to what we say. I love Lever for loving honest speech, but I cannot abide by his retaining walls. I love Shakespeare for delighting in the muddy ambiguities of language. I am happy to inhabit his swamp. I admire his mire.

McDonald, Russ. Shakespeare and the Arts of Language. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.