Continuing on with Mason & Dixon, I have followed the Durham lad Jeremiah Dixon into the local “Ale-Grotto of terrible Reputation” the Cudgel and Throck, where he is reluctantly drinking with his old teacher William Emerson and the Jesuit Fr. Christopher Maire, who is trying to recruit him to work for the Society, perhaps in China. Here is a snippet of their conversation:

“Ye’d find nothing like this in China, Jeremiah, Lad,” cries Emerson.

“Mr. Dixon,” declares the Jesuit, “at present, owing to the pernicious Cult of Feng Shui, you would find it a Surveyor’s Bad Dream,— nowhere may a Geometer encounter an honest 360-Degree Circle,— rather, incomprehensibly and perversely, in willful denial of God’s Disposition of Time and Space, preferring 365 and a Quarter.”

“That being the number of Days in a year, what Human Surveyor, down here upon the Earth, would reject thah’,— each Day a single, perfect Chinese Degree,— were 360 not vastly more convenient, of course, to figure with? Surely God, being Omniscient, has little trouble with either…? all the Log Tables right there in His Nob, doesn’t he,—” Dixon, having been out tramping over the Fields and Fells for the past few weeks, with Table and Circumferentor, still enjoying a certain orthogonal Momentum, “and 365 and a quarter seems the sort of Division Jesuits might embrace,— the discomfort of all that extra calculation…? sort of mental Cilice, perhaps…?”

“Oh dear,” Emerson’s voice echoing within his Ale-can.

One of the pleasures of the book for me is looking up unknown words, and there are two of them in this passage. A circumferentor is, according to the OED: “Surveying. An instrument consisting of a flat brass bar with sights at the ends and a circular brass box in the middle, containing a magnetic needle, which plays over a graduated circle; the whole being supported on a staff or tripod. (Now commonly superseded by the THEODOLITE.)” And cilice (pronounced SILL-iss, from Latin cilicium ‘Cilician’) is “Hair-cloth; a rough garment made of hair-cloth, generally worn as a penitential robe.” Or so says the OED—but the Mason & Dixon glossary says “Jesuit chastity belt, a wire girdle with sharp metallic points to irritate the skin,” backing it up with a quotation from an anti-Opus Dei website, of whose trustworthiness I cannot judge, so I’ll stick with the OED for now.

Incidentally, you may be thinking (as I did) that the reference to Feng Shui is one of Pynchon’s beloved anachronisms, like having Dixon talk about Ley-Lines (the ley, “the supposed line of a prehistoric track in a straight line usually from hilltop to hilltop with identifying points such as ponds, mounds, etc., marking its route,” being a bit of lunacy invented in the 1920s), but no, it turns out the OED’s first citation is from as far back as 1797: “The greater part of the Chinese are of the opinion that all the happiness and misfortunes of life depend upon the fong-choui” (Encycl. Brit. IV. 679/1), so it’s not inconceivable a well-traveled Jesuit could have bandied the word about a generation earlier.

And this just for Eliza: a few paragraphs later Dixon refers to himself as an “old Geordie aslog thro’ the clarts”—clarts being, as I expect she knows, a northern dialect term for “sticky or claggy dirt, mud, filth.”


  1. There’s indeed some ambiguity (hesitate to call it “polysemy” since it seems to be a historical development) around “hair cloth/shirt”, which I came across only days ago reading up on Thomas More.
    Wikipedia has a picture of one model of gridle (ouch). More info in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

  2. Huh. I should have thought to check Wikipedia. Interesting; I wonder which meaning P. intended?

  3. It’s probably under the literary radar around here (I hope), but “cilice” has gotten quite some use lately in The Da Vinci Code. It’s even one of’s “SIPs” for that book.

  4. The below is a red herring, I think, but it was fun! What I found in Yule, Hobson-Jobson, p 861 (excuse loss of diacriticals):
    “Sackcloth”, often used in the masochistic sense of “hair shirt”, apparently traces back to the Persian “Sakkalat, saklatun”, which meant a kind of woollen broadcloth. (“Sack” + “cloth” is a apparently a etymology.) The form “syklatoun” is seen in Chaucer. “Sackcloth” is attested in 1430 (OED old ed). The term “suklat” was used in England in the XIXc for certain blankets or camlets from China.
    Yule says that according to Skeat, “scarlet” also traces back to “sakkalat”, and first meant the kind of cloth, and only later meant a certain color of this cloth.
    “Ciclas” is an XIIIc Italian or Latin translation of “siklatoun”. This is shouting distance of “celice”.
    HOWEVER, the old OED doesn’t recognize any of this, and does not seem to list Chaucer’s “syklatoun”.

  5. “is supposedly a false etymology”.

  6. Actually, “sackcloth” does not mean “hair shirt”, but I think that there’s some overlap.

  7. What’s the etymology of the Persian? Sack < saccus < Gk sakkos < Hebrew saq. Skeat says perhaps Egyptian; cf. Coptic sok ‘sack-cloth’. Might it be also an element in saqalat, saqarlat?
    Skeat also treats sackcloth as just sack + cloth, but s.v. scarlet gives the Chaucer word as ciclatoun, which is in the OED (and there they have an [r] in the Persian).

  8. Odd — in the ciclatoun entry they give the Persian word with r, but in the scarlet entry they say “The form saqirlāt, given in some Arabic dictionaries, is modern and prob. adopted from some European language.”

  9. OF escarlate, Sp escarlata, It scarlatto didn’t just grow an [r]. It’s in the wrong environment for dissimilation, and none of the forms anywhere has two [l]s. So the [r] was in the proximal source, if not the Persian.

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