Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whiter, Walter

WHITER, WALTER (1758–1832), philologist, born at Birmingham on 30 Oct. 1758, was at school under Dr. Edwards for ten years at Coventry, where Robert Bree, M.D. [q. v.], was a fellow-pupil. He was admitted at Clare College, Cambridge, on 19 June 1776 as sizar, and graduated B.A. 1781, M.A. 1784, but did not go out in honours. On 4 April 1782 he was elected a fellow of Clare, probably on account of his reputation for classical and philological knowledge. He lived in his rooms in college from 1782 to 1797. Porson was one of his intimate friends, and often wrote notes on the margin of Whiter's books. Whiter's nephew possessed a copy of ‘Athenæus,’ once the property of his uncle, with these annotations (Watson, Porson, pp. 31–2). Porson in 1786 added some notes of his own and of Whiter to an edition by Hutchinson of Xenophon's ‘Anabasis’ (ib. p. 49). These were issued separately from Valpy's press in 1810, and George Townsend added them to his edition of 1823.

Whiter was presented by his college in 1797 to the rectory of Hardingham in Norfolk, and held the benefice until his death. His sense of clerical decorum was the reverse of strict. Baron Merian, in a letter to Dr. Samuel Butler of Shrewsbury school, writes: ‘I pity Whiter. A great etymologist, perhaps the greatest that ever lived. A genius certainly, but it seems, like most eminent artists, dissolute’ (Butler, Life and Letters, i. 186). Every year on 23 April, the day of St. George (titular saint of Hardingham church), it was his harmless practice to collect his friends at a picnic under a beech on a hillock called St. George's Mount, and to claim from each of them an appropriate poem in Latin or English. A specimen of his verses on one of these occasions is in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1816, i. 542–3). He died at Hardingham rectory on 23 July 1832, aged 73 years (Norfolk Chronicle, 4 Aug. 1832), and was buried in its churchyard on 30 July, a large railed-in tomb being erected to his memory. A bust of him is in the library at Clare College.

Whiter wrote: 1. ‘A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakspeare, containing (i.) Notes on “As you like it;” (ii.) Attempt to explain and illustrate various Passages on a new Principle derived from Locke's Doctrine of the Association of Ideas,’ 1794, pronounced by Mathias ‘very learned and sagacious’ (Pursuits of Lit. 1798 edit. Dialogue i. pp. 98–9). By 1819 he had collected sufficient matter for two or three volumes of notes. 2. ‘Etymologicon Magnum,’ a universal etymological dictionary on a new plan, Cambridge, 1800, part i.; no more published. In his preface he enlarged on the value of the gipsy language. These views and his word-speculations interested George Borrow, who made his acquaintance and introduced him, as understanding some twenty languages, into ‘Lavengro,’ 1851 edit. vol. i. chap. xxiv. (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vi. 370; Knapp, George Borrow, ii. 5). Jeffrey wrote two articles on the ‘Etymologicon Magnum’ in the ‘Monthly Review’ (June and July 1802), assigning to Whiter ‘much labour and shrewdness, with a considerable share of credulity.’ 3. ‘Etymologicon Universale, or Universal Etymological Dictionary on a New Plan,’ vols. i. and ii. 1822, vol. iii. 1825. These three large quarto volumes were partly printed at the cost of the University Press. The first volume was originally issued in 1811, and the preface to the first volume in the collected edition of 1822–5 still retains the date of 15 May 1811. In this work Whiter set out that ‘consonants are alone to be regarded in discovering the affinities of words, and that the vowels are to be wholly rejected; that languages contain the same fundamental idea, and that they are derived from the earth.’ Baron Merian styled it ‘splendid, a very fine book indeed’ (Butler, Life and Letters, i. 185). 4. ‘A Dissertation on the Disorder of Death, or that State called Suspended Animation,’ 1819. In this he tried to show how the apparently dead should be treated with a view to their restoration to life. In the advertisement at the end he announced ‘a series of essays to be called “Nova Tentamina Mythologica,” or Attempts to unfold various Portions of Mythology by a new Principle.’ These, and other manuscripts of Whiter, are now in the Cambridge University Library (Cat. of Cambr. Libr. MSS. iv. 521, 543–4).

[Gent. Mag. 1832, ii. 185; Cockburn's Lord Jeffrey, i. 127–8; three letters from Whiter to Dr. Samuel Butler in Additional MSS. (Brit. Mus.) 34585 ff. 200, 205 and 34587 f. 195 (ib. i. 234–5, 237–40); information from the Rev. Dr. Atkinson, Clare College, Cambridge, and the Rev. C. S. Isaacson of Hardingham rectory.]

W. P. C.