Words of Comfort

In March this year, the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index hit its highest point in a decade. Around the same time, Airbus reported that it was testing the passenger comfort of its new A350-1000. Both of these news stories use comfort in a particular way – in relation to our material and physical well-being. This is the meaning of comfort explored by historians such as John Crowley and Joan DeJean. They emphasise the eighteenth century as a time when we became increasingly concerned with physical comfort in our homes. As the domestic environment was transformed, the meaning of comfort also changed, moving away from traditional associations with solace and consolation to take on meanings linked with well-being of the body – a comfortable chair or more generally one’s creature comforts.

It might seem rather dry and pedantic to search old dictionaries to see how lexicographers defined comfort and its various synonyms and antonyms, but such an exercise can tell us a lot about contemporary understandings of the word and the meanings that it held to those using the word in their letters and diaries. Did they see comfort in physical terms?

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The title page from Edward Phillips’s 1658 Dictionary

Starting in the present day, the Oxford English Dictionary traces a material meaning of comfort right the way back to the Westminster divine, John Arrowsmith. In his Chain of Principles (1659), he writes that ‘The Scripture useth diminishing terms when it speaks of creature comforts’. Looking across to contemporary dictionaries, Comfort does not feature directly in Edward Phillips’s 1658 New World of English Words or in his posthumous New World of Words, published in 1706 by John Kersey. However, both define Consolation and Solace in terms of comfort, the former also being an easing of grief and the latter a consolation or delight, which in turn gives us a pretty clear idea of how they understood comfort itself. The New World of English Words also defines Ease as ‘rest, pleasure, comfort’ whilst Discomfort meant to ‘afford no comfort, to afflict, cast down, or put out of heart’. In his New English Dictionary (1713) John Kersey himself underscores this association, Comfort being a noun meaning ‘help, ease or relief in distress’ and verb, ‘to afford comfort, to encourage’; discomfort was thus ‘trouble or grief’ or ‘to afflict’.

This is very much in keeping with emotional meanings of comfort identified by Crowley and others – the support received by others, especially in times of trouble. It is in this sense that Daniel Defoe used the word most frequently. In Moll Flanders (1722) for example, the eponymous heroine worried that ‘in this distress I had no assistant, no friend to comfort or advise me’ or again that ‘the good minister … did what he could to comfort me with the same arguments’.

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Samuel Johnson – portrait by Joshua Reynolds

This meaning proved remarkably resilient, remaining central to dictionary definitions for the following 120 years or more. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1756) Samuel Johnson nuanced both the noun and the verb: Comfort meant support, assistance and consolation, and both to strengthen, enliven and invigorate, and to console or ‘strengthen the mind under calamity’ – a meaning he took from the long-suffering biblical character, Job. Discomfort, meanwhile, was uneasiness, sorrow, melancholy and gloom (attributed to Shakespeare) whilst Uncomfortable meant affording or receiving no comfort; gloomy, miserable and melancholy – nothing about hard beds or cold rooms. Contemporary authors concurred, Samuel Richardson having Pamela (1740) proclaim: ‘you know sir … that a father and mother’s comfort is the dearest thing to a good child that can be’. There is a hint of materiality in her rejection of material possessions, especially fine clothes: ‘I have no comfort in them, or anything else’. But even here, the comfort is emotional rather than physical – comfort comes from the clothes not through her bodily experience of them. having said that, Johnson himself was clearly aware that Comfort carried other meanings. In his History of Rasselas (1759) he compares the situation of Europeans and Africans from the perspective of a fictional African traveller who observes that ‘in enumerating the particular comforts of life, we shall find many advantages on the side of the Europeans’ – these include medical care, transport and houses, very much material things.

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Noah Webster – portrait by James Herring

By the end of the eighteenth century, James Barclay in his Complete and Universal English Dictionary (1792) elaborated further, but the basic theme remained largely the same: to Comfort was, amongst other things, ‘to make a person grow cheerful that is in sorrow, by advice and arguments’, and Comfortable meant able to be comforted or receiving comfort. Even by 1839, William Pickering in his New Dictionary of the English Language stuck firmly with solace, cheer up and strengthen. Only in Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, originally published in 1828, but revised and expanded in 1839, do we see some variation. Amongst nine definitions of Comfort, most of which remain fixed on ideas of support, strength, consolidation and cheer, he offers the following: ‘that which gives security from want, and furnishes moderate enjoyment’. It’s not exactly a smoking gun, but at last we have some hint that comfort might be something material: the absence of need and the ability to be contented. These meanings are reflected in Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, written in 1848. She notes that a home is dingy and comfortless without a fire and that she needed to make some ‘purchases necessary for her father’s comfort’. Yet far more numerous are references to the comfort of friends, the need to comfort oneself with happier thoughts or memories. In both literature and dictionary, then, the main focus remains firmly on emotional rather than physical well being.

Of course, there is a danger of obsessing about a particular word, especially when it is apparent that homes were being rendered far more “comfortable” as places to live. Yet lexicographers either failed to recognise or chose not to highlight this new way of using the word and thinking about what Comfort might involve. Or perhaps more accurately, they maintained its traditional and most common usage – a point readily apparent from analysis of Mary Barton and made explicit by Webster. Comfortable was, he stated, ‘being in a state of ease, or moderate enjoyment, as a person after sickness or pain’. He went on: ‘This is the most common use of the word in the United States’. So, comfortable was ease and enjoyment, and was linked to bodily well-being, but primarily in terms of recovery from illness. Today, when we hear that a patient is “comfortable” we imagine their lack of pain, not the softness and support of their bed and pillows.

Perhaps physical and material well-being were captured elsewhere in the dictionaries. If so, it is hard to see where it was. Ease, which Phillips (1706) equated with pleasure and comfort, shifted its nuance towards a ‘freedom from harshness, forced behaviour, or concerts’ in Johnson’s Dictionary. And he saw Easy as being ‘without want of more’ and ‘without constraint; without formality’, as well as the more obvious ‘not difficult’. There are hints here of contentment which Johnson equated with gratification and pleasure, Barclay (1792) with ‘full satisfaction, without a wish for more’, and Weber (1839) with a ‘satisfaction of mind; without disquiet’. And Pleasure, of course, conjured associations with delight and diversion (Phillips, 1706), gratification (Johnson, 1756) and enjoyment or expectation of good (Webster, 1839).

A different angle is offered by Commodious and Convenience. The former took on a meaning of fitness, convenience and usefulness by the early eighteenth century and kept this through the next 130 years or more. Thus, Horace Walpole could write in 1791 that he would change the day on which he wrote letters because it would be ‘more commodious for learning news from you’ (1791), whilst Lysons, in his Environs of London (1792), could describe a house as being pleasant and commodious’. Convenient, meanwhile, which Phillips saw in very similar terms as early as 1658, was given a specifically architectural meaning in the 1706 version of his dictionary. He wrote that it ‘consists in so ordering and disposing the several parts of a Building, that they may not hinder, or Shock one another’. There is a suggestion of aesthetics and taste here, but the thrust appears to be practical, as it was in the myriad architectural treatises published over the course of the eighteenth century. That said, the compilers of dictionaries quickly dropped this as a formal definition – it was omitted from Kersey’s 1713 New English Dictionary – and replaced by the more generic notion of consonance, fitness for purpose and freedom from difficulty.

So, where does all this take us? Physical comfort was real enough: people spent increasing amounts of money on new fireplaces, upholstered furniture and the like, and they wrote about the comforts of home, and the comfortable living enjoyed by acquaintances; but dictionary compilers appear to have been remarkably reluctant to incorporated this new meaning. Perhaps this says something about the conservativism of lexicographers, but it also reflects the reality that, well into the nineteenth century, comfort remained a word used primarily to express emotions rather than physical ease. When we talk about comfort during this crucial period in the transformation of domestic lives and domestic environments, we therefore need to very careful not to project back “modern” meanings. Equally, we should perhaps think in a more nuanced way about what comprises Consumer Comfort or what makes the passengers on an aeroplane feel comfortable. We should remember the mental as well as the material: the result of relationships with people as well as things.

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