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Gleanings from Dickens

By Anatoly Liberman


Some time ago I read Sidney P. Moss’s 1984 book Charles Dickens’ Quarrel with America. Those who remember Martin Cuzzlewit and the last chapter of American Notes must have a good idea of the “quarrel.” However, this post is, naturally, not on the book or on Dickens’s nice statement: “I have to go to America—on my way to the Devil” (this statement is used as an epigraph to Moss’s work). In Chapter 10, titled “The Reading Tour,” Moss recounts the impressions of the listeners who had the good luck to hear Dickens in 1867-1868, during his second and last trip to the United States. He was a splendid actor (it is not for nothing that he enjoyed describing theaters and circuses), and newspapers followed his tour at every step.

Two places aroused my curiosity. The Boston Daily Journal (3 December 1867) described Dickens’s appearance, his suit of faultless black, a profusion of gold chains festooned across his vest, and so forth. The description ended so: “A cashy, good-natured, shrewd English face it is, one that would be associated with the out-door life of a smart man of business, not particularly troubled with the sentiments, and most unmindful of good cheer, brusque, not beautiful, wide-awake and honest” (p. 271). The florid style of the description does not appeal to me, but this is beyond the point. I stumbled at the phrase cashy face. Judging by the general tenor of the article and the situation (a performance by a worldwide celebrity), the word could not be too conversational, and indeed, cashy did not turn up in slang dictionaries with the sense that might fit the context. It is also absent from Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles and A Dictionary of American Regional English. I finally hunted it down in John Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language, from which it made its way into Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary. Wright rearranged the senses, but the information remained intact.

Cashy, recorded in the form cashie, means “delicate, not able to endure fatigue; soft, flabby, not of good quality (said about vegetables); luxuriant, succulent (said about plants).” Most senses seem to carry negative overtones. Obviously, Dickens’s face was “delicate.” But why should the reporter have used a word that in his days had restricted currency even in Scotland? Cashy could not be an over-subtle allusion to Dickens’s fondness for the word. We may be certain that it does not occur in Dickens, for otherwise James Murray would have included it in the OED, but he did not. I assume that in 1867 the readers of the Boston Daily Journal were expected to understand what was written in their newspaper. It would be interesting to know whether our correspondents from Boston and Scotland still know this adjective.

Charles Dickens: A cashy face and rising inflection.

From an etymological point of view cashy looks like cash-y (expensive? involving great care?). All the modern senses of this adjective go back to cash. A cashy job is one performed “under the table,” usually by individuals who are not qualified or by persons avoiding taxes. A finished (“cashed”) box of marijuana is called cashy, and the simplest sense of cashy is “wealthy.” But it is most doubtful that the adjective meaning “delicate, flabby, succulent, luxuriant” can be traced to cash. Nor does it seem likely that cashy is an Anglicized form of French caché “secret, hidden.” Once again I would like to appeal to our readers. Someone may know something about the derivation of this troublesome adjective.

The New York Tribune (14 December) was equally laudatory. However, it criticized Dickens’s “partiality for rising inflection and some Cockneyisms of pronunciation” (p. 282 of Moss’s book). Since the “Cockneyisms of pronunciation” were not cited (did Dickens say toime instead of time?), we will let them be. It is the rising inflection that merits a moment’s attention. Rather long ago, I discussed the rising intonation in American English but would like to return to it in connection with Dickens’s speech habits. I remember my embarrassment when I came to Minnesota and could not interpret statements, all of which sounded like questions to my ear. “Where is that building?” “It is two blocks away from here…” (with a strong rise). The dean informed us (among many other things): “We cannot expect a decision before the end of the year…” (again with a strong rise). Someone told me that this intonation is peculiarly Midwestern: people are shy here and raise their voice to leave room for retreat (“That building is two blocks away from here, but, if you miss it, don’t blame me…”; “We cannot expect a decision before the end of the year; yet, it may come earlier, who knows? I am really not sure”). The explanation struck me as fanciful and unconvincing. Later, much to my satisfaction, I discovered that the timidity of the allegedly self-effacing Midwesterners is a myth. They are people like everybody else. Some are timid, while others are not.

Then, I think about ten years ago or so, everybody suddenly began to speak about young women in California using exactly this rise. It was discussed in the media, and journalists ascribed the phenomenon to the emancipatory trend among the female segment of the population, as though a rise were a challenge (“This is what I say. Will you dare to disagree?”). I was amused by a theory opposite to the one I had heard in my semi-native Minnesota. It should be noted that the history of intonation does not exist. English vowels and consonants have been described by schoolmasters and other interested people since the seventeenth century, and old spelling tells its own story, but we have no record of intonation predating the late eighteen-hundreds. Remarks like people in this area “sing” abound, but such remarks are not informative. They only tell us that the outsider did not “sing” in the same way. Also, those observations usually refer to tone languages and dialects rather than intonation. Some conclusions about pauses in the uninhibited speech of the past can be drawn from the division of an old text into words, lines, and paragraphs, and poetry provides us with clues about sentence stress. Other than that, the “singing” of our ancestors is lost.

It is hard to account for some rules. In principle, one expects a rise in a question. But in English only questions beginning with a verb have a rise (“Is he your friend? Do you know him well? Have you ever lived together?”), while so-called special questions end like statements in a dip (“When was he born? Where does he live? Who is he?”). This also holds for the second part of disjunctive questions (“Do they call him Bob [a rise] or Rob [a fall]?”). One and the same intonation can have different functions. I have read several descriptions of Cockney, but I don’t remember whether anyone mentioned a rising intonation as a special feature of that dialect. What will Londoners say? There is no certainty that the correspondent of the New York Tribune was a trustworthy judge of Cockney speech. But seemingly, Dickens did raise his voice the way they do in Minnesota and California (only in Minnesota this intonation is not “gender-specific”). The three identical patterns need not have a common origin, and it would be interesting to hear the opinion of people from the Midwest, California, London, and elsewhere.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: Charles Dickens – Scenes in his life. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery.

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3 Responses to “Gleanings from Dickens”
  1. I am open to other interpretations, but there may be some reason to think that “cash” here does not mean soft or delicate, but a wealthy man’s face–even if a wealthy man’s face is not especially obvious, without context. The article says the face is *not* “soft” or “refined.” It says his appearance is well-tended (beard is “well-kept”). His suit is “faultless” and perhaps expensive (“gold chains”). His face is associated with the “out door life of a smart [hence rich?] man of business.” This, in contrast to his (unexpectedly) *not* having “that soft, refined, ore-eminently intellectual look which one who so deeply stirs the finer feelings of our nature would naturally be thought to present.” So, from context, I guess “cash” here refers to one having cash money.

  2. Jeanette Clark says:

    The use of a rising inflection at the end of a sentence whether or not it is a question is common in Australia, in the north more than in the southern states. It is particularly prevalent amongst Aboriginal females when speaking English, and is sometimes attributed to their shyness and reluctance to make a statement. In recent years it has spread to other younger girls and is now widespread.

  3. Martin Auster says:

    I was going to make pretty much the same comment as Jeanette Clark. The rising inflection is a particular feature of Australian speech, more especially among the younger generation. And I remember last year reading a complaint from the UK that the rising inflection, specifically identified as an Australianism, was beginning to affect, or infect, British speech.

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