Friday, 25 May 2012

Undead, but not as we know it

According to Wikipedia, undead, 'is a collective name for beings that are deceased and yet behave as if alive. It could also describe a dead body animated by supernatural forces (or some other life force) or by either its own soul or the soul of a malevolent creature (such as a demon). Undead may be incorporeal, such as ghosts, or corporeal, such as vampires and zombies.' 

Its modern usage is likely derived from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Van Helsing introduces it, thusly:
Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world.
The word resonated with Stoker. Before Dracula went to print, its original title was The Un-Dead; it even appears in the novel's contract. When Stoker adapted his novel into a play—actually a dramatic reading to ensure copyright—it was titled, Dracula, or the Un-Dead.

The word is associated with Dracula to such a degree, I've long agreed with Elizabeth Miller's assumption that 'Stoker apparently coined the word "un-dead" as a synonym for "vampire."'1 And not just as a synonym, but the originator of the word, itself. She elaborates:
The word "undead" does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym for "not dead" or "alive." The 1989 edition adds "In vampirism, clinically dead but not yet at rest," adding citations from Dracula.2
While it's probable Stoker was the first to use 'undead' as a synonym for vampire, I now know he didn't invent the word. Not only that, but current usage effectively acts as a mockery of the word's original intent.

On Tuesday, I typed in the 'undead' and its variant, 'un-dead' into Google Books. Just for the hell of it, but with Miller's assumption in the back of my mind. The results surprised me. I found a dictionary definition of the world, alright. But it was much older than I was expecting: 

Google Books

'Not decayed, wasted, destroyed, killed; not mortal,' it reads. Easy to see how it's been associated with vampires, but not in the original context. The entry appears in the second volume of Charles Richardson's A new dictionary of the English language. It was published in 1856—beating Stoker's use by 41 years. 

However, this was a new edition. Was an older edition available? Yep: the word also appears in the second volume of the dictionary's 1839 edition. Same definition. 

Thankfully, the definitions were accompanied by examples of its usage. After Googling about, I figured out the first example—'Wiclif. 1 Tymo. c. 1.'—was actually a reference to a John Wycliffe Bible translation. In this case, 1 Timothy 1:17:
And to the king of worldis, vndeedli and vnvysible God aloone, be onour and glorie in to worldis of worldis. Amen.
At this point, I should mention the rendering of undead ('vndeedli'), here, dates 1395. That makes the prior 41 year gap look like a drop in the ocean. 

Using the Blue Letter Bible, I juxtaposed the verse with other English translations. For instance, the King James Version:
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, [be] honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
'Immortal' in lieu of 'vndeedli' (undeadly) appears time and time again. Therefore, that is the word's proper meaning. The word appears a second time in the 1856 edition:

Google Books

'For God made man vndeadli [undeadly],' it reads. 'L.V. unable to be distried [destroyed]'. Basically, something indestructible. With Dracula's religious overtones, I can't help wondering whether Stoker was aware of these Biblical usages. If so, another layer's added to his text.

Update (25 May 2012)

During the 19th century, the term's religious overtones were overt. In 1852, Thomas J. Vaiden wrote: 'They read the scriptures of an immortal God, undead and undying, written on the universe.'3

1. E Miller, Dracula: sense & nonsense, Desert Island Books Limited, Westcliff-on-Sea, UK, 2000, p. 52 

2. ibid, p. 55, n 43.  

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