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Of course, “our objectionable phrase”

Of course is such a trivial phrase that few, I am afraid, will be interested in its history. And yet, what can be stranger than the shape of this most common two-word group? Course in it is evidently a noun. Why then does it not need an article? Is of course one of such adverbial locutions as go to bed, study at school, and stay in town? The OED traces the history of our idiom (I think it can be called an idiom) to the sixteenth century, but all the riddles remain. Of course was first used in the sense of a matter of course (one could also say a thing of course), and meant as a natural result, but the earliest citation of the phrase of course “naturally, certainly,” as we all know it, is amazingly late (1823).

It would not have occurred to me to deal with the phrase if I had not run into a discussion of it in my beloved periodical Notes and Queries. The discussion dates to 1879. It will be useful to quote one of the opening paragraphs of the article that set off the exchange. I stand in awe of Victorian English, and, although I realize that speaking so today would be ridiculous, preposterous, absurd, I cannot conceal my admiration of something like the following statement about of course: “It may be admitted that, just as some habitually disfigure their conversation with an oath, more from heedlessness than of malice prepense, so many use this expression from the thoughtlessness rather than from a desire to wound…. it is, in my opinion, a phrase of sinister and odious intendment.”

Malice prepense: a gesture of sinister and odious intendment. Image credit: Shirtless boy squeezing large inflatable ball by Vance Osterhout. Public Domain via Unsplash.

The author goes on to say that no language has an equivalent of the idiom now current in English (as noted, it seems to have become common property about fifty years before the publication of this article). “Our barbarous law Latin, it is true, had its writs ‘of course’ (de cursu), and our legal staff its ‘Cursitor clerk’ (whose employment it was to copy those writs) and even its ‘Cursitor baron’; but it is hardly necessary to say that, though the same in name with our objectionable phrase, they had no further connexion with it.” Perhaps so, but cannot of course be a so-called calque, or translation loan, of de cursu (a process by which every word or even morpheme of a foreign language is translated into the speaker’s native language)?

The author, C. F. Trower, an active writer on legal and religious questions, divided the uses of the phrase of course into five categories. 1) “Peevish, the peevishness being always marked by the asperity of tone with which it is uttered, as if the remark to which it is the reply were thought a truism, or too trite, or too uninteresting, or too troubles ome to be worth attending to.” (For instance, “Have you had a wet spring?” –“Of course we have.”) 2) “The ‘of course’ Supercilious, where the offensiveness of it lies rather in the question than in the answer. (“Of course you saw the eclipse last night?”) The ungraciousness would be avoided and the information required equally obtained by the simple omission of the expletive” (mind the traditional sense of the word expletive “a filler used without adding to the sense of the utterance”).

Of course you did not forget to take the number of that cab. Image credit: The Flatiron District by The Vantage Point. Public Domain via Unsplash.

3) ”Incriminatory”: “Of course you did not forget to take the number of that cab.” Yet it is granted that this use does not necessarily presuppose the speaker’s intention to attach blame to the interlocutor, as in: “Of course I should say: by all means let those who so desire go through all the examinations.” 4) “The of course meaningless, where it is purely an expletive, and might be omitted without altering the sense, being redundant,” as in “of course there are always faults on both sides.” 5) C. F. Trower found only two situations in which, according to him, of course is legitimate: when it is “confidential” (“Of course, old fellow, the next time you are our way you will stay to dine and sleep”) and when the sense is self-depreciating or humbling, as in “Of course you are the best judge, and know better than I do.”

The diatribe against of course evoked two responses. One writer agreed with Trower and added a “specimen, calculated for the meridian of London”: “Me and Jim was a-keepin’ company, and of course we were cousins, which it were only natural.” He called this usage of course Vulgar. But the case he cited is hardly special: we see the familiar redundant of course (an expletive). The sole defendant of the phrase quoted Bacon: “And if time of course alter things to the worse….” But perhaps here of course means something like “in due course,” de cursu, as it were.

In most of Trower’s examples, of course looks like a filler. Such fillers change, but their function remains the same: in most cases, the speaker prefers to sound (mildly) defensive and ward off possible objections. “He came, you know, and said….” (= “amazing, you won’t believe it, but that is what really happened”). The same holds for the universally denigrated but indestructible like: “He came, like, an hour late and did not even apologize” (= “ridiculous, isn’t it, but none of it is my fault; I am only reporting the facts as I know them”). I often see the “reassuring” of course in scholarly works (“Shakespeare, of course, couldn’t predict that four centuries later….” = “I understand it, and you are equally smart to share my opinion and won’t accuse Shakespeare of the nonsense some fool might impute to him—just common knowledge, my dear Watson”).

H. W. Fowler, whose book Modern English Usage is sheer delight, whether you agree with his recommendations or not (but if you decide to read it, use only the first or the second edition), included in his book an entry titled “Superiority.” In the introductory paragraph, he wrote: “Much misplaced ingenuity in finding forms of apology is shown by writers with a sense of their own superiority who wish to safeguard their dignity and yet be vivacious, to combine comfort with elegance, to touch pitch and not be defiled.” In the entry course (it is related to “Superiority”), he, too, offered a classification of the instances in which of course turns up. Of course, he did not read the exchange in Notes and Queries but more or less repeated Trower’s conclusions: “There are three common cases of of course as an adjunct to a statement of fact: the polite (‘I am sure you must be intelligent enough or know this already, but I may as well mention it’), the disdainful, and the showing off.”

H. W. Fowler, lexicographer and a teacher of good English. Image credit: FowlersModernEnglishUsage by JohnArmagh. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons Wikimedia.

One can classify and reclassify the utterances with of course in them, but most will probably agree that the one undoubtedly legitimate use of the phrase is in situations like: “Will you come to dinner, as you promised? –Of course” (= “Naturally, why even ask, rest assured that I’ll come. Do I ever break my word?”). In other cases, pause before you write of course, though in oral speech we are so often apologetic, needlessly cautious, emphatic, indignant, or uncertain of what we are saying, and so much depends on the intonation that censure and ridicule should perhaps be avoided or at least tempered. Yet a caveat won’t hurt: Don’t abuse of course. It may, like, hurt or make you sound stupid, you know.

Featured image credit: Diamond Ring #2 by Jim Strasma. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    A writ of course, of course, is one that is handed out by the courts more or less on request. This overlaps with writs of right, which you have a right to have issued in your favor.

    But habeas corpus is a writ of right but not of course: you can have it if you can convince a judge (not just a clerk) that you deserve it, and you cannot be denied it for arbitrary reasons (which would make it a writ of grace, of course).

  2. Jane.

    In Scotland, of course, you do not “go to bed”. You go to “your” bed. “I’m going to my bed”, “He’s awa’ tae his bed” etc.

  3. Lauren

    “‘He’s a traveller for a West-end shop; makes five hundred a year. I keep house for him, because of course he’s a widower.’

    The ‘of course’ puzzled Monica for a moment, but she remembered that it was an unmeaning expletive much used by people of Miss Eade’s education.”

    –From George Gissing’s The Odd Women

  4. John Cowan

    Jane: From which we may conclude, in good Whorfian fashion, that in Scotland the people are accustomed to going to other people’s beds!

    (But of course this is nonsense. “He put his hands in his pockets” is just as overdetermined, and most European languages say the equivalent of “He put the hands in the pockets”.)

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