The Weird, Wonderful, Wacky, and Whimsical Writings of Sir Thomas Urquhart

Certain historical figures are worth studying for the sheer entertainment value. Near the top of that list would be Sir Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish author of the 17th century.

What can we say about Sir Thomas? He was a strange writer who did not have the most readable prose. Having said that, however, he never failed to be interesting. When it comes to Scottish literature, Urquhart stands in a field by himself.

Urquhart was born on Scotland’s Black Isle in 1611. More than 400 years after his birth, scholars remain undecided whether he was ahead of his time, crazy, or a masterful practical joker.

In 1645, Urquhart published The Trissotetras. He claimed that a student could learn a year’s worth of mathematical formulae in seven weeks by using his method. It was immediately debunked as being incomprehensible and impractical. A clue to this might have been found in the full title of the book: “The Trissotetras: or, a most exquisite table for resolving all manner of triangles, whether plaine or sphericall, rectangular or obliquangular, with greater facility, then ever hitherto hath been practised: most necessary for all such as would attaine to the exact knowledge of fortification, dyaling, navigation, surveying, architecture, the art of shadowing, taking of heights, and distances, the use of both the globes, perspective, the skill of making the maps, the theory of the planets, the calculating of their motions, and of all other astronomicall computations whatsoever. Now lately invented, and perfected, explained, commented on, and with all possible brevity, and perspicuity, in the hiddest, and most re-searched mysteries, from the very first grounds of the science it selfe, proved, and convincingly demonstrated. By Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromartie Knight. Published for the benefit of those that are mathematically affected.”

The Trissotetras title page. Click on image to expand.

If the reader was not sufficiently clued in about the book’s complexity from that mouthful of a title, a quick perusal of the author’s choice of terminology would probably be sufficient: “The directory of this second axiome is Pubkegdaxesh, which declareth that there are seven enodandas grounded on it, to wit, four rectangular, Upalem, Ubeman, Ekarul, Egalem, and three obliquangular, Danarele, Xemenorom and Shenerolem”. If you think the unusual words are a byproduct of reprinting 17th century literature, think again. Urquhart readily admitted that he made the words up. “The novelty of these words I know will seem strange to some, and to the ears of illiterate hearers sound like terms of conjuration,” he wrote.

It is the manner in which Urquhart explains comparatively simple mathematical principles where he really comes into his own. Consider the following explanation of a geometric rule you almost certainly learned in grade school:

In all plain Rectangled Triangles, the Ambients are equall in power to the Subtendent; for by demitting from the right Angle a Perpendicular, there will arise two Correctangles, from whose Equiangularity with the great Rectangle, will proceed such a proportion amongst the Homologall sides, of all the three, that if you set them right in the rule, beginning your Analogy at the main Subtendent, (seeing the including sides of the totall Rectangle, prove Subtendents in the partiall Correctangles, and the bases of those Rectanglets, the Segments of the great Subtendent) it will fall out, that as the main Subtendent is to his base, on either side (for either of the legs of a Rectangled Triangle, in reference to one another, is both base and Perpendicular) so the same bases, which are Subtendents in the lesser Rectangles, are to their bases, the Segment, of the prime Subtendent: Then by the Golden rule we find, that the multiplying of the middle termes (which is nothing else, but the squaring of the comprehending sides of the prime Rectangu∣lar) affords two products, equall to the oblongs made of the great Subtendent, and his respective Segments, the aggregat whereof by equation is the same with the square of the chief Subtendent, or Hypotenusa, which was to be demonstrated.

Did you recognize it? If not, that’s probably because you learned it this way: “In all right triangles, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” Alternatively, you may recognize the formula: a2+b2=c2. That’s right — Urquhart used 213 unnecessarily complicated words to describe the Pythagorean Theorem.

This method of explanation is essentially Urquhart’s approach to life. He takes a reasonably simple, straightforward concept and elaborates on it to the point of absurdity. This, in a nutshell, explains the brilliance and eccentricity of Sir Thomas Urquhart: he wrote a joke book in the form of a trigonometry textbook!

Professor of Mathematics William Wallace (1768-1843) at the University of Edinburgh was asked by a friend to give his opinion of the work. His opinion, which appears in the introduction to the Maitland Club’s press run of Urquhart’s collected works, included this observation:

“I have looked at Sir Thomas Urquhart’s Trissotetras, but I hardly know what to think of it. The book is not absolute nonsense, but is written in a most unintelligible way, and so as never book was written before nor since. On this account it is truly a literary curiosity. There appears to have been a perverted ingenuity exercised in writing it, and I imagine that, with some patience, the author’s plan might be understood, but I doubt if any man would take the trouble; for after he had overcome the difficulty, there is nothing to reward his labour… The book in question is certainly a curious, if not a valuable relic of Scottish genius in the olden time, and it is a good specimen of the pedantry and fantastic taste of the Author.”

In 1650, Urquhart was imprisoned after fighting with the royalists at the Battle of Worcester. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. During this time, his lands in Scotland became subject to forfeit, unless he could demonstrate that he deserved to keep them. He set about proving his worth by writing four books in 1652 and 1653. These books were designed to show that he was an important person from a noble family.

The first of these books was the Pantochronachanon, or A Peculiar Promptuary of Time, in which he traces his genealogy back to Adam and Eve. Along the way, he discloses some remarkable facts about some of his ancestors. He notes, for example, that his 109th-great grandmother, Termuth, found Moses in the rushes; that his 87th-great grandmother, Nicolia, although she lived in Ireland after her marriage, was “by many supposed to have been the Queen of Sheba,” that his 66th-great grandfather Uthork was a general for the mythical Fergus I of Scotland, and that a daughter of King Arthur, Tortolina, had also married into the family.

Having thus established his nobility in the grandest way possible, Urquhart turned his attention to his second great book of this period, Ekskybalauron, which is more commonly known as “The Jewel.” Ekskybalauron is one of Urquhart’s made-up words. Literally, it means “gold out of dung.” He coined other words with no consideration for ease of pronunciation, such as “kirkomantick” (fanatically devoted to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland), “vinomadified” (drunk), “fidimplicitary” (putting faith in another’s teachings), “hondersponding” (acting like a German mercenary), and “jobernolisme” (stupid).

His third book, Logopandecteision, bears a striking resemblance to Ekskybalauron. The primary reason for the similarity of the two books was that Urquhart was running out of time to make the case for being able to keep his land. Ekskybalauron and Logopandecteision together spell out Urquhart’s concept of a universal language.

Along the way of introducing his new language, Urquhart introduces us to a character by the name of Colonel Crichtoun. This fellow, who becomes the inspiration for “Admirable Crichton” in a play by J.M. Barrie, is a man of inexhaustible energy. We see him put on a dramatic performance in Italy, playing fifteen characters on stage simultaneously, for five hours. His command of the stage is so impressive that the ladies in the audience faint in admiration.

From there, Crichtoun meets his lady friend. The family-friendly standards of Commonplace Fun Facts prevent us from going into much detail about what takes place next. Suffice it to say, however, that Urquhart goes on to write a decidedly R-rated scene. What makes it so remarkable, however, is that it is replete with all of the things that spark his interests but have no particular connection to the act that he is describing. The scene is filled with references to astronomy, the construction of sundials, Greek and Latin words, and strikingly odd sentence structure. The convolution of all of that allows us to reprint this excerpt from Crichtoun’s romantic encounter without fear of scandalizing even the most delicate sensibilities of the reader:

“Thus, for a while, their eloquence was mute, and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively by virtue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactile sensation, for each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both. The visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here it was, that passion, was active, and action passive, they both being overcome by other and each, the conqueror.”

Along the way, Urquhart manages to lay out the promise of his universal language. He boasts that he created the most super of all super languages. With this new language, the communication barriers between nations and cultures will vanish, ushering in an era of global prosperity. Tellingly, he never got around to explaining the grammar of the language — probably because it couldn’t possibly have existed. To this day, some will tell you that Urquhart was serious in his proposition of the language, but consider some of the extraordinary claims that he made:

  • The language, “hath at least ten several synonyms” for every word, as well as “a wonderful facility – in making anagrams.”
  • It has 11 genders, seven moods, ten cases, and “four voices, although it was never heard that ever any language had above three.”
  • The names of soldiers express their rank, and the names of stars contain in the syllables their latitude and longitude.
  • It has 35 letters.
  • “Words expressive of herbs represent unto us with what degree of cold, moisture, heat or dryness they are qualified.”

Urquhart explains that there are sixty-six “qualities and advantages” to his new language. Among these are:

  • “…Sixthly, in the cases of all the declinable parts of speech, it surpasseth all other languages whatsoever: for whilst others have but five or six at most, it hath ten, besides the nominative.”
  • “…Eighthly, every word capable of number is better provided therwith in this language, then by any other: for instead of two or three numbers which others have, this affordeth you four; to wit, the singular, dual, plural, and redual.”
  • “…Tenthly, in this tongue there are eleven genders; wherein likewise it exceedth all other languages.”
  • “…Eleventhly, Verbs, Mongrels, Participles, and Hybrids have all of them ten tenses, besides the present: which number no language else is able to attain to.”
  • “…Thirteenthly, in lieu of six moods, which other languages have at most, this one enjoyeth seven in its conjugable words.”
  • “Five and twentiethly, there is no Hexameter, Elegiack, Saphick, Asclepiad, Iambick, or any other kind of Latin or Greek verse, but I will afford you another in this language of the same sort.”
  • “…Six and twentiethly, as it trotteth easily with metrical feet, so at the end of the career of each line, hath it dexterity, after the manner of our English and other vernaculary tongues, to stop with the closure of a rhyme; in the framing whereof, the well-versed in that language shall have so little labour, that for every word therein he shall be able to furnish at least five hundred several monosyllables of the same termination with it.”
  • “…Seven and fiftiethly, the greatest wonder of all is that of all the languages in the world it is easiest to learn; a boy of ten years old being able to attain to the knowledge thereof in three months’ space; because there are in it many facilitations for the memory, which no other language hath but itself.”
Sir Thomas Urquhart

If you are still inclined to think he was being serious, consider his even bolder assertion that there “…is no Language in the world, but for every word thereof, it will afford you another of the same signification, of equal syllables with it, and beginning or ending, or both, with vowels or consonants as it doth” and that “in translating verses of any vernaculary tongue, such as Italian, French, Spanish, Slavonian, Dutch, Irish, English, or whatever it be, it affords you of the same signification, syllable for syllable, and in the closure of each line a rime, as in the original.” In other words, his yet-to-be-disclosed universal language incorporates within it all of the words, together with their spellings and meanings, of every other language in the world.

He also boasts that “any number, of any magnitude whatsoever, may be expressed in this language by a single word, in fact so concisely that the number of sand-grains required to fill Earth and Heaven would be expressible by two letters.” Consider this achievement! Whether you are talking about one, pi, or Avogadro’s number, all you need to express that number are two letters.

Urquhart’s final book in this series is the one for which he is best remembered and lauded. He translated the work of Rabelais, the 16th century monk and physician. This translation is considered one of the most important translated works in literature, where the translation is nearly as important as the original work. Urquhart employs his gift for exaggeration and elaboration by producing a translation that is 70,000 words longer than the original. The reader can get a sense of his approach when considering that Rabelais lists nine animal noises, but Urquhart turns that into a list of 71:

The Philosopher . . . was, notwithstanding his uttermost endeavour to free himself from all untoward Noises, surrounded and environed about so with the barking of Currs, bawling of Mastiffs, bleating of Sheep, prating of Parrots, tattling of Jackdaws, grunting of Swine, girning of Boars, yelping of Foxes, mwwing of Cats, cheeping of Mice, squeaking of Weasils, croaking of Frogs, crowing of Cocks, kekling of Hens, calling of Partridges, chanting of Swans, chattering of Jays, peeping of Chickens, singing of Larks, creaking of Geese, chirping of Swallows, clucking of Moorfowls, clicking of Cuckoos, bumbling of Bees, rammage of Hawks, chirming of Linnets, croaking of Ravens, screeching of Owls, wicking of Pigs, gushing of Hogs, curring of Pigeons, grumbling of Cushet-doves, howling of Panthers, curkling of Quails, chirping of Sparrows, crackling of Crows, nuzzing of Camels, wheening of Whelps, buzzling of Dromedaries, mumbling of Rabbits, cricking of Ferrets, humming of Wasps, misling
of Tygers, bruzzing of Bears, sussing of Kitnings, clamouring of Scarfs, whimpering of Fullmarts, boing of Buffalos, warbling of Nightingales, quavering of Mavises, drintling of Turkeys, coniating of Storks, frantling of Peacocks, clattering of Magpies, murmuring of Stock-Doves, crouting of Cormorants, cighing of Locusts, charming of Beagles, guarring of Puppies, snarling of Wessens, rantling of Rats, guerieting of Apes, snuttering of Monkies, pioling of Pelicans, quecking of Ducks, yelling of Wolves, roaring of Lions, neighing of Horses, crying of Elephants, hissing of Serpents, and wailing of Turtles, that he was much more troubled than if he had been in the middle of the Crowd at the Fair at Fontenoy or Niort.

Unfortunately, not a lot is known about the latter years of Urquhart’s life, aside from the spectacular way that it ended. As if to prove that he was able to find absurdity and humor in any situation, Sir Thomas received the news that Charles II had been restored to the English throne by laughing himself to death.

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