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Researchers say Sir Francis Bacon invented concept of good and bad taste

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By Chris Dyer via SWNS

The idea of taste as a measure of culture and sophistication can be traced back to Sir Francis Bacon more than 400 years ago, an expert discovered.

The concept of taste being used to indicate the cultural significance of books, food, music and works of art originated in a saying by the British philosopher, scientist and politician in 1597, a new study revealed.

Sir Francis' saying that "some bookes are to bee [sic] tasted, others to bee swallowed, and some few to bee chewed and digested" led people to discuss other art forms that could be sampled in a similar manner, a researcher found.

Portrait etching of Sir Francis Bacon, British philosopher, scientist and politician.(Simon Van de Passe, Copenhagen, 1626-1647. Collection of the Rij via SWNS)

This term led other writers to also use the same definition for "tasting books" in a similar context until the meaning evolved from being just a verb to also being used as a noun.

Use of the word continued to move from describing the writer's "taste" to include if something was of high quality or "tasteful."

Jonathan Lamb, an associate professor of English at The University of Kansas who researched the origins of the meaning, argued a key shift occurred following Francis Bacon’s famous aphorism about eating books.

This statement was some 75 years earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation for the earliest use of the word “taste” with the meaning of aesthetic discrimination, the study claimed.

Writers for the next century would quote and adapt Bacon’s line in a process that would culminate in a shift from “taste” in the sense of “ to sample,” to “taste” in the sense of discrimination and distinction, Lamb added.

Sir Francis Bacon’s full remark was: “Some bookes are to bee tasted, others to bee swallowed, and some few to bee chewed and digested: That is, some bookes are to be read only in partes; others to be read, but cursorily, and some few to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.”

Lamb said: "I has been searching Early English Books Online and finding the language of books anywhere I could. So when Bacon says some books are to be tasted, that's just one of about 5,000 examples I have collected of language like this.


"It includes things like ‘the book of nature’. People needed a way to talk about the natural world, and the book gave them a structured metaphor to do it.

"Another example is the phrase ‘to turn over a new leaf.’ Most people today think it refers to a leaf on a tree, but it was a popular bookish metaphor in the 17th century.”

Francis Bacon’s remark about tasting books struck a chord with his contemporary readers, Lamb added.

“What makes Bacon’s version special is, first, that he crosses the idea of tasting as sample with the idea of eating as comprehension and, second, that dozens of writers repeated his line and used it as a prompt," he said.

"By rerouting the notion of taste from a quality of books to a faculty of readers. Bacon opens the door for the modern notion of taste as aesthetic discrimination – what you mean when you say you have good ‘taste’ in music.”

Lamb also argued this led, nearly 75 years later, to the work of John Milton, cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as the first usage of this later concept of taste.

"The OED calls this kind of taste ‘a sense of what is appropriate, harmonious, or beautiful,’ specifically ‘the faculty of perceiving and enjoying what is excellent in art, literature, and the like,'" he said.

"The OED dates this notion of taste to 1671, in Mil­ton’s ‘Paradise Regained,’ which refers to ‘Sion’s songs, to all true tasts [sic] excel­ling, Where God is prais’d aright.'"

As a result, Lamb believes Bacon deserves as least inspirational credit for the modern meaning of taste as refined sensibility.

Lamb's findings appear in a new article called 'What Books Taste Like: Bacon and the Borders of the Book' and was published in the journal Textual Cultures.

The new article is based on research Lamb has been doing over the past two years for a book with the working title, “How the World Became a Book in Shakespeare’s England."

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