William Byrd II of Westover’s Curious Words

The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, edited by Kevin Joel BerlandAfter his 1728 Virginia-North Carolina boundary expedition, Virginia planter and politician William Byrd II composed two very different accounts of his adventures. The Secret History of the Line was written for private circulation, offering tales of scandalous behavior and political misconduct, peppered with rakish humor and personal satire. The History of the Dividing Line, continually revised by Byrd for decades after the expedition, was intended for the London literary market, though not published in his lifetime. Collating all extant manuscripts, Kevin Joel Berland’s landmark scholarly edition of these two histories provides wide-ranging historical and cultural contexts for both, helping to recreate the social and intellectual ethos of Byrd and his time. The Dividing Line Histories of William Byrd II of Westover, published by UNC Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, is now available.

Berland recently shared some interesting discoveries about Byrd’s writing on his blog, Netwallah Revividus. Berland writes:

William Byrd II of Westover
William Byrd II of Westover

Borges once observed, “A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.”

Sometimes, if dialogues between texts written long ago and 21st-century readers are to succeed, they need editorial assistance. This may mean providing cultural and historical contexts as part of the editorial apparatus, and it may mean paying attention to particular words.  As I transcribed and annotated the extant manuscripts of William Byrd’s Dividing Line narratives, I found both of these endeavours challenging and fascinating. But there is not always room in a book for everything that can be said, and I find (as the volume nears the publication date) that I have more to say, especially about a few words Byrd employed.

William Byrd II, in The History of the Dividing Line (his account of the 1728 survey to chart the Virginia-North Carolina border), produced a detailed narrative of the expedition, featuring a history of the colonies, descriptions of the flora, fauna, topography, natural resources, indigenous people, and much more. Indeed, he wrote (and rewrote) much of the Dividing Line in his library over the next seventeen years, adding more and more layers of interesting material. He was initiating a dialogue (as Borges would say) with his intended readers in the London literary marketplace. Byrd was evidently something of a logophile, choosing his words carefully, and in revision replacing terms with better, more interesting ones. The Oxford English Dictionary cites at least one of Byrd’s words as the earliest instance of a particular usage. However, he also introduced a few words whose history is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. In what follows I discuss a few examples of Byrd’s curious vocabulary, encountered as I prepared a new edition of the two Dividing Line histories.

What’s a “shoaller”? Or a “hough”? How about the “pride of the beaver”? Berland explores these ideas and more. Read the full post at Berland’s blog.