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Post 450, descriptive of how the Oxford Etymologist spent part of this past August

Yes, this is Post 450. The present blog was launched on March 1, 2006 and has appeared every Wednesday ever since, rain or shine. Another short year, and the jubilant world will celebrate the great number 500.

In summer, when there are no classes, I put in my bag one thick book in German or Icelandic and one thick book in English (those in Russian are taken for granted). This past August, the German book I picked up (as a matter of fact, I read two) was particularly depressing, in consequence of which I decided to return to The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. So I checked out the original edition and plodded joyfully through all 609 pages of it. Like most linguists, I usually pay attention not only to the plot but also to the writer’s language. Although I read the Pickwick Papers when I was sixteen years old, I remembered fairly well what happened there, but I have learned a good deal about Dickens since I was a schoolboy and therefore noticed a few things that escaped me then. For example, I was amazed to discover the amount of spirits everybody consumed, not excluding Mr. Pickwick. The characters of Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway look rather sober in comparison. It was also curious to observe how true Dickens remained to some of his favorite types and situations (winsome widows entrapping silly men, swooning and weeping ladies, arch maids, henpecked husbands, misfits sent to the colonies to make good, and so forth) and to the mannerisms of his younger days, but I don’t think he ever produced an equal of Sam Weller’s touching oration in which he refused to leave his master.

A few notes on Dickens’s usage may not be wholly uninteresting to our readers, though I realize that 177 years after the appearance of that novel nothing I can say about it will be new.

A few morsels of grammar.

It will be remembered that Peggotty, David Copperfield’s nurse, pronounced the name of her nephew Ham “as a morsel of English grammar” (that is, without an ‘h). Some other morsels are also “worthy of remark,” as Dickens might say.

  • “…and there was a dinner which would have been cheap at half-a-crown a mouth, if any moderate number of mouths could have eat it in that time” (p. 375), and “Here Mr. Sam Weller, who had silently eat his oysters with tranquil smiles, cried ‘Hear!’ in a very loud voice” (590);
  • “…Sam having ladled out, and drank two full glasses of punch in honor of himself, returned thanks in a neat speech” (p. 400).
  • One of the footmen says: “In fact, that’s the only thing between you and I, that makes service worth entering into” (p. 398).
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Mr. Pickwick Picnics by Fred Barnard, 1870s. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite words.

Indefatigable assiduity. Not too long ago, in connection with the phrase indefatigable assiduity that occurs in the opening paragraph of the Pickwick Papers, it was pointed out in our discussion that similar phrases were common in Dickens’s days. So they were, but Dickens used their components with rare assiduity indeed.

  • “…she… would have gone off, had it not been for the indefatigable efforts of the assiduous Goodwin” (p. 183);
  • “…three or four fortunate individuals, who… were staring through it [a grating] with the same indefatigable perseverance with which…” (p. 255);
  • “‘It looks a nice warm exercise that, doesn’t it?’” he inquired of Wardle, when that gentleman was thoroughly out of breath, by reason of the indefatigable manner in which…” (p. 312);
  • “Mr. Weller communicated this secret with great glee, and winked so indefatigably after doing so, that…” (p. 346).
  • “It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connexion with, the place they so indefatigably attend” (p. 456);
  • “‘No, I don’t, Sir’, replied Mr. Weller, beginning to button with extraordinary assiduity” (p. 474);
  • “…which the fat boy… expressed his perfect understanding of, by smirking, grinning and winking, with redoubled assiduity” (582).

Another favorite word is peremptory, which turns up even more often than indefatigable. Dickens’s characters occasionally “sally forth,” “fall into a violent perspiration,” and have cadaverous faces. Villains, when attacked, already then were in the habit of saying: “You will smart for this” (here Dodson and Fogg, and later Uriah Heep). However, none of those phrases became clichés with him.

Ajar. Mrs. Cluppins testifies: “‘I was there, …when I see Mrs. Bardell’s street on the jar’.” ‘On the what?” exclaimed the little Judge. “‘Partly open, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. “‘She said on the jar’,” said the little Judge, with a cunning look. “‘It’s all the same, my lord’,” said Sergeant Snubbin. The little Judge looked doubtful, and said he’d make a note of it” (p. 361).

Odds and ends. “The cloth was laid by an occasional chairwoman.…” (p. 408). Chairwoman for charwoman is supposed to have died out by the nineteenth century. Apparently, it did not. Skates is regularly spelled skaits, and visitor appears once as visiter (perhaps a misprint). Badinage, which also occurs only once, was in 1837 still printed in italics, and the most common synonym for exclaim was ejaculate (in grammar books, as late as the end of the nineteenth century, the usual term for interjection was ejaculation). Obviously, no dirty mind objected, for in the preface Dickens expressed his conviction that “throughout the book, no incident or expression occurs which could call a blush into the most delicate cheek.” The attributive use of slang “impertinent, etc.” was not too rare, but Dickens picked it up and ran away with it: “…a man… was performing the most popular steps of a hornpipe with a slang and burlesque caricature of grace and lightness…” (p. 441). Sam Weller’s father was sure that only an alibi could save Mr. Pickwick in the trial, and he, like most of us, had ideas about word origins: “…if your governor don’t prove a alleybi, he’ll be what the Italians call reg’larly flummoxed, and that’s all about it” (p. 345).

On America.

Here is what that gentleman (I mean Mr. Weller) thought of America. He proposed a plan to smuggle Mr. Pickwick out of prison and send him overseas: “The ‘Merrikin’ gov’ment will never give him up, ven vunce they finds as he’s got money, to spend, Sammy. …and then let him come back and write a book about ’Merrikins as’ll pay all his expenses and more, if he blows ’em up enough” (p. 485). Did Dickens remember this advice while writing Martin Chuzzlewit?

Election season.

Finally, now that our election season is coming to a head, we should not ignore the experience of our predecessors. The scene is set in Eatanswill, in which two parties, the Blues and the Buffs, fight. The honorable Mr. Slunkey, a Blue candidate, seems to have greater support, but at the moment the future of the seat is undecided. He is ready to greet the populace and is advised that “nothing has been left undone… there are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you’re to pat on the head, and inquire the age of; be particular about the children, my dear Sir,—it has always a great effect, that sort of thing.” “…and perhaps, my dear Sir—if you could… manage to kiss one of ’em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd.” “‘Would it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?’”… “‘Why, I am afraid it wouldn’t’,” replied the agent” (pp. 128-129). The candidate kissed them all and won. Both crowds were terribly excited, and Mr. Snodgrass did not know with which to shout. “‘Shout with the largest’, replied Mr. Pickwick. “Volumes could not have said more” (p. 122).

This is what I have scribbled for myself while reading the Pickwick Papers. Even if I happened to pursue my subject “with a perseverance worthy of a better cause,” I hope you have read my notes with “unruffled composure” and “unimpaired cheerfulness,” because they were “calculated to afford [you] the highest gratification.” And now that I have divested myself of all I know, I am empty and will have to go hungry, as the Big Bad Wolf said after Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother jumped out of him undigested.

Headline image credit: Mr. Pickwick addresses the club. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Cameron

    I recall being greatly disappointed that the description of the “fancy dress dejeune” hosted by Mrs. Leo Hunter was cut short before she got to recite the rest of her “Ode to an Expiring Frog”. Dickens just teases us with the first two stanzas.

    That episode is also interesting because of Mr. Tubman’s proposed costume:

    ———————-
    ‘I shall go as a bandit,’interposed Mr. Tupman.

    ‘What!’ said Mr. Pickwick, with a sudden start.

    ‘As a bandit,’ repeated Mr. Tupman, mildly.

    ‘You don’t mean to say,’ said Mr. Pickwick, gazing with solemn sternness at his friend—’you don’t mean to say, Mr. Tupman, that it is your intention to put yourself into a green velvet jacket, with a two-inch tail?’

    ‘Such is my intention, Sir,’ replied Mr. Tupman warmly. ‘And why not, sir?’
    ————————-

    Why would a green velvet jacket with a two-inch tail signify banditry? I see that Michel Pastoureau has followed up his books on the colors Blue and Black with a new book on Green. Perhaps he can explain this episode. I’ll have to look at his new book.

  2. Sharon Goetz

    Indeed, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) uses “ejaculated” to mean something like “uttered with force.” I don’t recall whether The Secret Garden (1911) does so, too—haven’t reread since childhood.

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