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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Words Which Have Seen Better Days Part 1

by G. L Apperson
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 196-202


"Coleridge wisely said that more knowledge of more value might sometimes be learned from the history of a word than from the history of a campaign."

"'Bus' is in an intermediate state; but it is quite possible that in time to come 'omnibus'" may be as extinct as 'cabriolet.' One can only devoutly hope that such abominations as 'bike' and 'trike' may not similarly fight their way into the recognized vocabulary."

A lecture delivered before the Wimbledon branch of the P.N.E.U. [Part 2 is below]

I am sometimes inclined to think that the study of language--especially of our own noble mother-tongue--might be made more interesting, more real to pupils and students, if those who teach it grasped more fully the central fact that a language is a living organism, and that its vital processes resemble those which are constantly presented to the observation of the student of natural phenomena. A language grows by accretion [gradual increases], by development in some special direction, like a tree putting forth a fresh branch, or by absorption or adoption from the vocabulary of other tongues. Simultaneously with the process of growth or development, there is continually going on decay and removal. Here a word or phrase is sloughed off, so to speak; there is shed a whole group of words or terms rendered obsolete by the advance of science, by alterations in personal and in national habits and customs, and by a variety of other causes.

The one important thing to remember is that, in a live language, change is for ever going on, and that word-history is not only the key to etymology, but also often at many points touches and illuminates knowledge of the most varied kinds. Coleridge wisely said that more knowledge of more value might sometimes be learned from the history of a word than from the history of a campaign.

Change takes many forms. Not only are some words dying out and new words being invented or developed, but many words are continually undergoing change of meaning.

In some cases, the meaning becomes narrower; in many more, wider; in some, completely changed. A century and a half ago, a novelist was defined as "an admirer of new things or changes, a newsmonger or intelligencer." Now he is a writer of novels, and the old meaning is quite dead. In Elizabethan days a tobacconist was one who smoked, or in the then phrase, who drank tobacco; later it was applied to the person who sold the beneficent weed. A bibliographer was of old one who wrote books, now he is one who writes about books. I have lately had occasion to look up the history of marmalade--both the name and the thing itself; and marmalade is an interesting example of the widening process. We speak now of orange marmalade, and of lemon and other marmalades with no consciousness of absurdity. Yet, to say orange marmalade is really as absurd as to speak of red-currant apple pie. Marmalade comes from "marmelo," Portuguese for quince, and is simply quince jam or preserve. It was known under other names in the 15th century, but as marmalade it was presented to Henry VIII., who promptly, like Oliver Twist, asked for more, and from that time, i.e., early in the 16th century, until near the middle of the 18th, no one understood by marmalade anything save a confection or conserve of quince pulp with sugar. A cookery book of 1736 has receipts for quince marmalade, which seems to imply that other kinds of marmalade could be made; and in another old "Collection of Receipts in Cookery, Physick and Surgery," on my own shelves, the 7th edition of which is dated 1759, I find receipts for making marmalade or oranges, quinces, apricots, and orange-flowers, which proves that the wider application of the name was then fully established.

It is by no means possible in all or even in most cases to account for the fate which befails words and phrases. The fate of many, as of some books, seems to have been the sport of

          That shrewd and knavish sprite,
          Call'd Robin Goodfellow,

or some other irresponsible elf.

The history of a word is often singularly like that of a human being. Some words rise from a very lowly origin in the slums of slang to respectability and general use and favourable conditions, fall by mischance or neglect into dis-use, and drag out a maimed existence in provincial or dialectal forms. In worse case even than the latter are those words which, having been for many years, perhaps for centuries, in ordinary use by the best writers, gradually sink into disrepute, and being heard only in colloquial or vulgar language, find a last resting-place in the pages of a slang dictionary.

The main purpose of this paper is to give and illustrate a few examples of the last kind of word-history; but before doing so I should like to mention one or two instances of the contrary--the upward process.

First, two words which began life in the slums of slang are "neck-tie" and "derrick." Neck-tie is now an innocent and useful word enough, but originally was a purely cant term, ominously associated in the early part of the last century with the gallows on Tyburn hill. "Derrick" is now in perfectly reputable use as the name of the hoisting machine, the crane-like apparatus familiar on wharves and elsewhere; but its origin was somewhat ghastly, like that of "neck-tie." The public hangman at the beginning of the 17th century was a man named Derrick. This name, as in so many other cases, was turned into a verb. William Kemp, an Elizabethan actor and writer, speaks of a rascal who would "derrick his dad." As the next step in its development, the word became, first, a general name, like Calcraft or Ketch, for an executioner, and then a synonym for the gallows itself. Dekker writes of dancing "Derrick's dance in a hempen halter." From this gallows use we get the name of the lifting or hoisting machine now known all over the world as a "derrick."

Again, Boswell tells us that Dr. Johnson, when engaged in the compilation of his epoch-making "Dictionary," rejected the word "civilization," as opposed to barbarism, because he could find no authority for it; and when Boswell proposed "humiliating" as a good word, the doctor, while admitting that it was in common use, said that he did not know it to be good English. No one nowadays would think of questioning the claims of either "humiliating" or "civilization" to be regarded as good English. Many other words have had a like experience. A dictionary compiler of 1658 gave a collection of "barbarous words as are advised to be cautiously or not at all used," and among such barbarisms are included the now familiar words, autograph, bibliography, and evangelize. In 1644, "contrast" was ridiculed as a new-fangled word, and was held up to scorn among a number of other new coinages as "shallow inventions," "silly fancies," "ridiculous" and "unnatural." But "contrast" held its ground, while many of the other contemned words died an early and unregretted death. More familiar instances of progress in use are "cab" and "bat." "Bat" in the sense of one who bats at cricket-so-and-so, we say, is a good bat--is generally accepted as a perfectly admissible word. But it was originally a colloquialism--a convenient abbreviation of batter, which is now seldom heard. Older than either is "batsman," which is still used by conscientious scribes. "Cab" is a clearer case. Seventy or eighty years ago, when the cabriolet first appeared in London streets, in succession to the old hackney-coaches, the contracted name of "cab" was slang, and nothing else. The word was unknown in polite speech. But this was soon changed. Cabriolet was altogether too find and long for every-day use, and "cab" holds the field now as a word of unchallenged respectability. "'Bus" is in an intermediate state; but it is quite possible that in time to come "omnibus" may be as extinct as "cabriolet." One can only devoutly hope that such abominations as "bike" and "trike" may not similarly fight their way into the recognized vocabulary.

I will give only one more instance of upward progress, and that is the interesting word "honeymoon"--a word which no one now fears to use. In one of our earliest dictionaries, Richard Huloet's Abcedarium, published in 1552, there is the following quaint definition of honeymoon. "A terme proverbially applied to such as be newe married, whiche wyll not fall out at the fyrste, but th'one loveth the other at the beginnynge exceedingly; the likely hode of theyr exceadynge love appearing to aswage, ye which time the vulgar people cal the honymone." A cynical observer might remark with some satisfaction the unanimity with which authorities appear to limit the "exceadynge love" to one short month, after which period they expect to find a slight favour of bitterness entering into the matrimonial bliss. But, despite the cynical observer, authorities sometimes err, proverbs are not by any means invariably trustworthy guides, and even the honeymoon has been known to a prolonged through a series of years, even through a life-time. But this is by the way.

I turn now to words and phrases in the history of which the more common process of degeneration or depravation, as it may be called, has taken place. These are the words and phrase which have seen better days. There are many words which, having once been standard or literary English, have slipped from one cause or another out of literary use, but still retain a certain vogue either as provincialisms or as members of the great body of slang and colloquial expressions. These are the words which have become completely degenerate. Another section consists of those terms which have developed a downward tendency, but whose fate is not yet fixed. These are the words and phrases which are so often used colloquially and loosely in a non-natural sense, in a depraved extension and widening of their proper significations. Changes of this kind have always been taking place in the spoken language, but it is only in comparatively recent times that, owing chiefly to the hasty writing of journalists and slovenly book-makers, such depravation has proceeded at an accelerated pace, and has largely affected our written English. The loose construction, the twisted or inverted meaning, the slangy word or phrase crops up in current talk, no one knows how; it soon appears in print in hasty article, smart leader, or in slipshod fiction, and forthwith it is transferred to the columns of the latest thing in the way of big dictionaries. If, after this, it is challenged, reference is made to the latest dictionary; its authority shelters the new coinage or new attribution, and the vicious circle is complete.

Many words are of course misused from sheer ignorance or from simple carelessness. There was an advertisement the other day in a Croydon paper for "a young person to take the entire charge of two elderly children." What was intended is plain enough; but such misuse of "elderly" is lamentable. In a recent number of the Sphere a writer was allowed to describe something as "rather unique." A thing may be nearly unique, but how there can be degrees in uniqueness, I do not understand. Occasionally, writers and speakers, who should know better, are tempted to play tricks with the language, just to score some small point, or make some momentary effect. The late Mr. William Black, near the beginning of one of his shorter stories, describes a certain financier as having "rather a nasal nose." And I have been told that a learned judge not so very long ago informed a prisoner at the bar that he "merited most condign punishment," which was as much as to say that "he merited most merited punishment." Mr. Kipling's writings are by no means free from the vicious misuse of words; and writers of the "splashy" school revel in strange verbal applications. I was reading a few days ago a posthumously published book by the late and much lamented Stephen Crane--Wounds in the Rain, a series of vividly imagined stories and sketches of the war in Cuba. They are very graphic, very realistic; but the author plays strange tricks with words. He speaks, just to give one instance, of the Mauser bullets from the Spanish rifles "sneering" over the heads of the American firing line. What that may mean I do not know.

Loose and inaccurate use of words in ordinary speech is so common that it is hardly necessary to give examples. The depraved application of such words as "awful" and "awfully" are almost elbowing the legitimate meanings out of countenance and out of use. To use "awful" in its proper sense is to lay oneself open, if not to misapprehension, at least to bad puns and foolish jests. What, for instance, would modern slangy talkers and depravers of words make of Keat's line in "Isabel":--

          His heart beat awfully against his side!

But by-and-by, no doubt, "awfully" will be out of date, and some other absurdity will take its place. Ladies of the last century used "vastly" in much the same way. Plays and pictures, shows and dresses, were all "vastly" fine. "Purely" was similarly used. You will remember Austin Dobson's charming picture of Madam Placid, "a Gentlewoman of the Old School":--

          Her art was sampler-work design,
          Fireworks for her were 'vastly fine,'
          Her luxury was elder-wine--
          She loved that 'purely.'

But "vastly" and "purely" have both gone to the limbo to which we may hope "awfully" will also be relegated.

There are some poor words which have become so familiar to newspaper readers in their depraved significations, that they are now hardly noticed. The verb "transpire" is the best known of these. In sensationally descriptions of great disasters, again, we too often read of a "holocaust" of victims in cases where fire has had no share whatever in the catastrophe described. But I need not labour this point. Such depravation of words seems to be inevitably associated with the history of language.

Again, there are unaccountable fashions in the use of certain words; and one poor term is pressed to do the work of half-a-dozen. Of late years "distinctly" has been much run upon. The critic says that the characterisation in so-and-so's new novel is "distinctly" good; while the writer of market news in a trade journal asserts that pig-iron is "distinctly" quiet. "Appreciate" and "appreciation"--especially in terms of literary criticism--"smart," and some others have been much overworked. This tendency to drag a word from its own uses and, by constant application to anything and everything, to make it a mere meaningless verbal label is no new thing. A writer in the British Magazine, of 1763, complains of the then abuse of the word "rotation." "In short," he says, "nothing is done now but by rotation. At the card-playing routs, instead of cutting in to a party of whist, they play the rubbers by rotation; a fine lady returns her visits by rotation; and the parson of our parish declared yesterday that preaching every week was hard duty, and therefore he, his curate, the lecturer, and now and then a friend, would for the future preach by rotation . . . An oyster-woman t'other night, at the corner of White Fryars, being pressed by two or three customers at once, who were each in a hurry to be served first, very politely desired them to have patience, and she would serve them all in rotation. In short, sir," he concludes, "here is such a rout at present about rotation, that I am quite sick of it, and I hope, as it has got into such very low hands, it will soon be out of fashion."

(To be continued.)

Vol 12 pg 264-271

Words Which Have Seen Better days part 2
By G. L. Apperson

Word-history, like other kids of history, repeats itself. Very interesting are those words and phrases which have seen better days in a different sense to the misuses I have been mentioning. Such terms may be classed--firstly, as those which, though still literary, recognised words, are now used in a lower, more unpleasant, or more restricted sense than formerly; and secondly, as those which, once used in literary English, have now fallen from their former high estate, and, while no longer seen in serious writing of often heard from mouths polite, yet enjoy a vigorous existence either in dialect or among the humbler ranks of society. A good example of the former class is "knave." "Knave," nowadays, is not descriptive of the kind of person with whom one wishes to have any very intimate relations. Knave and rascal are synonymous terms. But it was by no means always so. Centuries ago "knave" was an equivalent for "boy"; and originally it meant servant. Old translations of the Bible have "Paul, the knave of Christ," where we now say "the servant of Christ." Wiclif's version has "knave child" for our "boy child." Again, when people use "platform" as a name for the programme or statement of opinions of a political party or candidate, they feel that they are using a colloquialism--one which is usually said to be of American invention. But, like not a few other so-called Americanisms, "platform" in this sense is of highly respectable English origin. As a verb, it was often used by the writers of two or three centuries ago in the sense of to lay down principles. Milton, in one of his controversial prose works, talks about church discipline being "platformed in the Bible."

"Respectable," although still itself a perfectly respectable word, has yet seen better days. Little more than a century ago it was a term of high praise. Johnson defines it as "venerable, meriting respect," though curiously enough the word is not in the earlier editions of his "Dictionary." Boswell writes of "the respectable notion which should ever be entertained of my illustrious friend," and calls Johnson the Duke of Argyll's "respectable guest." The Gentleman's Magazine wrote of the stone that covered the grave which held Mr. Johnson's "respectable remains"; while Lord Chesterfield spoke of the hour of death as a "very respectable one, let people who boast of not fearing it say what they please." It is a considerable descent from this view of "respectable" to the definition--so mercilessly satirized by Carlyle in his reiterated talk about "gigmanity"--the definition of a respectable man as one who kept a gig, or, to the present-day use of the word, as a term of very faint praise, as when we speak of so-and-so as a respectable musician, or writer, or what not.

One more example of this class may suffice. A word which might have served a very useful purpose in our language is "proser." We have no satisfactory equivalent in English for the French prosateur [prose writer]. "Proser" was coined to meet the want, and is to be found in this sense in Drayton. But the word has degenerated, and is now so universally used and accepted as a mere synonym for a bore, or a dull talker or writer, that it would be a hopeless task to try to employ it in any higher or broader sense, and, for the present at least, we must be content with the rather ugly compound "prose-writer."

I turn to the second class of words and phrases which have seen better days. Examples abound. The young lady in Dickens who "couldn't abear the men, they were such deceivers," Tennyson's Northern Farmer who "couldn't abear to see it," and the old lady who "can't abide these new-fangled ways," might all be said to speak vulgarly as fashion of speech now goes. But "abear" and "abide," although not now generally used by educated people, are words which have seen better days. It is only in comparatively recent years that they have been condemned as vulgar. "Abear," in the sense of to endure or to suffer, was good English in the days of King Alfred, and for centuries after. Like many other good old English words, exiled by culture from London, it has found a home in the dialects; and there are few provincial forms of English speech in which "abear" is not a familiar element. To "abide" in its now vulgar sense, is not quite so old as "abear," but is still of respectable antiquity. A character in Faire Em, one of the plays of doubtful authorship sometimes attributed to Shakespeare, says, "I cannot abide physic." Drayton makes a curious past tense of it--"He would not have aboad it." The word is still occasionally seen in good writing; but its literary use is dying out.

To "ax," for ask, is undoubtedly nowadays degraded to the rank of a vulgarism, but it really represents the earliest form of the word, and was in regular literary use for centuries, until it was supplanted by "ask," which had formerly been simply a current form in the northern dialect. To "ax" still survives in the dialects of midland and southern England. So, when a lady of the Sairey Gamp school "axes yer pardon for makin' so bold," she is using a verb which was literary English from the days of Chaucer and earlier to nearly the end of the 16th century. Coverdale's translation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, published in 1535, has "Axe and it shal be given to you." Wiclif's version, earlier, has the same spelling. By Shakespeare's time, "ask" had become the recognised form, and "axe" does not appear in any of the earlier editions of his plays. The study of language presents innumerable problems, and one of the most difficult is to account for the history of such a word as "ask." How was the northern form able to oust the more general "ax" from current use, and in course of time to stamp it as vulgar? It is a problem hard of solution.

Another example of the survival in dialect of a word or phrase once in literary use is to be found in the expression to be "shut of," meaning to be rid of. This is still very commonly heard in the northern parts of England as well as among the lower order of Londoners, but could hardly now be used in either prose or verse having any pretension to literary form. It is to be found in a variety of our older writers; in the pamphlets of the Elizabethan Nashe and in the Holy War of Bunyan. An example may be given from Massinger's play, the Unnatural Combat:--

          We are shut of him,
          He will be seen no more here.

Some words now very vulgar have seen much better days. A good example is the word "gob." As a noun, this is now vulgarly applied to the mouth, and as a verb it means to swallow. "Shut your gob" is a polite invitation to silence among certain classes of society. Says Tom Cringle in the first chapter of Michael Scott's famous sea-story--"I thrust half a doubled-up muffin into my gob." Yet the word itself is a very ancient and respectable one. "Gob" formerly meant, in a general sense, a small portion, mass, or collection of anything. In its longer form of "gobbet" it is found not infrequently in Piers Plowman, Chaucer, and Wiclif. One MS. of Wiclif's Bible has in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, verse 12, "Who heeng up with three fingris the heuynesse of the erthe;" but another MS. has "gob" instead of "heuynesse." It was often used literally or metaphorically to describe a mouthful or a piece of anything just large enough or fit to be put into the mouth at once. In Ludowick Barry's comedy of Ram-Alley, published in 1611, one of the characters says that "Throate the lawyer swallowed at one gob" certain land "for less than half the worth." The transition from mouthful to mouth was easy. The old general meaning seems to have survived in America. In Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad, Gibraltar is described as "pushed out into the sea on the end of a flat, narrow strip of land, and is suggestive of a 'gob' of mud on the end of a shingle."

Another degenerate word is "clean," in the sense of "entirely" or "altogether"--"clean gone" and so forth. The word with this meaning was constantly employed by the best writers until a very recent date, but its use now in serious writing would be considered colloquial, if not vulgar. A frequently heard vulgarism is "along of," in the sense of "on account of." But, vulgar as its use is now considered to be, it is a genuine, good old English phrase, which was in frequent literary use for centuries before it fell into the vocabulary of the street. It is found so far back as the ninth century in King Alfred's translation of Orosius's History, and is, in fact, common in most of the early writers. It occurs in Chaucer and in Caxton [King Arthur]. In the first part of Shakespeare's Henry VI., Act iv., Sc. 3, the Duke of York exclaims:--

          We mourn, France smiles; we lose, they daily get;
          All 'long of this vile traitor Somerset.

Cymbeline, when telling his daughter Imogen of her mother's death, says:--

          And long of her it was
          That we meet here so strangely.

Another street word of respectable descent is "fadge," to suit, or fit. Its use is now pretty well confined to coster-mongers and similar street folk; but it is to be found in Shakespeare and in other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. "How will this fadge?" asks Viola in Twelfth Night. "Clothes I must get; this fashion will not fadge with me," says a character in Beaumont and Fletcher's Wit without Money.

A notable instance of descent from literary to vulgar use is to be found in the history of one of the meanings of the verb to "cut." The phrases to "cut over" and to "cut away," are found in the writers of the latter part of the sixteenth century, bearing precisely the same meaning--to go, to move hastily--as attaches to the corresponding modern slang expression. The phrase to "knock off," meaning to desist from, to give up--men "knock off" work at such and such an hour--is a familiar colloquialism, with a peculiarly modern appearance; but, in reality, it can shew good authority for its existence in its use by one of the best and most vigorous of English prose writers. In the tenth chapter of the History of the Worthies of England, 1662, Thomas Fuller writes: "In noting of the nativities, I have wholly observed the instructions of Pitseus, where I knock off with his death, my light ending with his life on that subject." While quoting Fuller, I may note that he uses quite seriously the now very vulgar word for food--"prog." Various absurd derivations have been suggested for "prog," but perhaps the most ridiculous is that which makes it a pun upon the mythological Progne, a swallow. Dr. Johnson gives it a place in his Dictionary, but severely calls it a low word. Yet, a hundred years earlier, Fuller, in his Church History, published about 1660, remarks of certain monks that--"The abbot also every Saturday was to visit their beds [cells] to see if they had not shuffled in some softer matter or purloined some progge for themselves." The monks of old would appear to have had certain tastes in common with school-boys of the present day, including a love for clandestine and forbidden suppers.

Yet another word which has undergone depravation is to "square," in the sense of to quarrel. In the newspaper reports of police court cases one may read how some offender "squared up" at a companion or at the police, but the phrase is pretty certain to be marked off as slangy by the use of inverted commas. But to "square" in a quarrelsome sense is very old and respectable English. An excellent example of its literary use is to be found in the exquisite poetry of the Midsummer Night's Dream. In the second act of that delightful play, Puck, describing the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, says:--

          And now they never meet in grove or green,
          By fountain clear, or spangled starlight sheen,
          But they do square, that all their elves for fear
          Creep into acorn-cups and hide them there.

To "square" suggests "on the square," a phrase now seldom heard save amongst those who prey on society, who, in their own language, live or work "on the cross." They know and use the phrase; but take care not to put it into practice. A cheat likes to have the "square play" on the side of his pigeons, for the process of plucking is greatly facilitated by conduct like that of Ingoldsby's "Mark Mousquetaire," who--

          When gambling his worst, always played on the square.

This modern limitation of the phrase is simply a degradation of an older and wider meaning which was long current in literature. Udall's sixteenth century translation of the Apopthegms of Erasmus, has "out of square." The sense of a certain passage, says the translator, will not be out of square if one particular signification of a Greek vocable be preferred to another. In Chapman's version of the Odyssey (1596) are the lines:--

          I see, the gods to all men give not all
          Manly addiction, wisedome; words that fall
          (Like dice) upon the square still.

Here the words seem to have a slight flavour of the later restricted meaning. But the earlier and better signification is more plainly seen in Udall's use of the phrase. The reference was obviously to proportion, and a sense of what was fitting and appropriate, derived by analogy from the operations of a builder or designer.

In the course of its downhill career a word often undergoes some slight change of form as well as of meaning. Occasionally it casts a syllable. A curious instance of this is the word "peach," which, as you doubtless know, means to confess, to turn informer, to act as tell-tale. It is an aphetised form of the verb "appeach." The latter word was in use from the fifteenth till about the middle of the seventeenth century; and side by side with it there existed the now familiar form "peach." Both meant to accuse or charge:--

          Now, by mine honour, by my life, by my troth,
          I will appeach the villain,

cries York in the last act of Richard II. As "appeach" went out of use "peach" began its downward course. A curious example of the word in its transition state is to be found in Hudibras, a great repertory of seventeenth century vulgarisms. In the lines:--

          Make Mercury confesse and peach
          Those thieves which he himself did teach,

although its primary signification is evidently to accuse, yet the word seems to have a half reference to its modern colloquial sense. In another fifty years "peach" had almost descended to its present level, and was used much as it is to-day. Arbuthnot, in the appendix to his satire of John Bull, 1712, a work which contains a great many colloquialisms, says that a certain rascal with an unpronounceable name "came off, as rogues usually do upon such occasions, by peaching his partner; and being extremely forward to bring him to the gallows, Jack was accused as the contriver of all the roguery." Another remarkable feature in the history of this word is that with "appeach" and "peach," a third form was simultaneously in use. Caxton [translated Malory's King Arthur] in his translations, introduced the word empeche, a much better and closer representative than "appeach" of the old French original empechier. In the altered form of "impeach" the word is still retained in use. It is a case of the survival of the fittest. Of the three rival forms one ("appeach") died out altogether, another ("peach") degenerated and is now a familiar item in the slang of the criminal classes, while the third ("impeach") still flourishes and retains its original meaning.

Many other instances of the decline and fall of words and phrases might be given. To "punch" occurs in Spenser. To "swop," i.e., to exchange or barter, is now an undeniably vulgar word, but it appears in the classic pages of Addison's Spectator, and is also to be found much earlier in Robert Greene's voluminous writings. "Tall," in the American sense of vain or braggart--"tall talk" and so forth--is only a modification of the former generally accepted meaning of brave or bold. Dekker, in the first act of his play, The Shoemaker's Holiday, 1600, says: "Hee's a brother of our trade, a good workman, and a tall souldier." The Ingoldsby bard sings shamelessly--

          It's amazing to think
          How one cottons to drink!

But to "cotton," meaning "to take to," "to agree with," was used by serious writers as a word of acknowledged respectability centuries before Mr. Barham enhanced the gaiety of nations. The phrase to "make bones of," that is, "to find difficulty in anything," is now restricted to colloquial use; but it was formerly current literary coin, and is frequently to be met with in our older literature. Its earlier form, current nearly five hundred years ago, was "to find bones in," which clearly shews the phrase to have originated in a reference to bones in soup, or similar food, regarded as obstacles to swallowing.

But you must be tired of examples, and I will not further weary you by quoting more. The downward process is a natural one, and degradation in the meaning of words will always be going on. It is not possible to prevent it, but it is possible, unfortunately, to hasten it; and this is constantly being done by the slangy tone, the loose habit of colloquially twisting or misapplying words, which pervade so much of modern speech. It is a case of "giving a dog a bad name." If once a lower of slang meaning or application be tacked on to an innocent word, the tendency is for the looser, lower, less exact meaning to oust the original and correct signification from colloquial use, and ultimately out of both spoken and written language. It is, of course, possible to go too far in the opposite direction, and, by too great a conservatism, to impede the natural process of the language, to restrict its growth and stunt its development. This was the tendency during the greater part of the eighteenth century. But there is little fear nowadays, and indeed but little possibility, of thus hindering the free play of the language. The danger lies, as I have pointed out, in the opposite direction. As Englishmen and Englishwomen, we are justly proud of our noble literature--a literature second to none that the world has seen, and it is not unreasonable that we should protest against wonton and unnecessary depravation of the vehicle by which that literary heritage has been handed down to us, and through which many and glorious additions are being and will be made thereto, for the instruction and delight of future ages.


Proofread May 2011, LNL