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Title: Words; Their Use and Abuse
Author: Mathews, William
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  ETC., ETC.

  Die Sprache ist nichts anderes als der in die Erscheinung tretende
  Gedanke und beide sind innerlich nur eins und dasselbe.--BECKER.


  COPYRIGHT, 1876,

  COPYRIGHT, 1884,

Language and thought are inseparable. Words without thought are
dead sounds; thoughts without words are nothing. To think is to
speak low; to speak is to think aloud. The word is the thought
incarnate.--MAX MÜLLER.

A winged word hath struck ineradically in a million hearts, and
envenomed every hour throughout their hard pulsation. On a winged
word hath hung the destiny of nations. On a winged word hath human
wisdom been willing to cast the immortal soul, and to leave it
dependent for all its future happiness.--W. S. LANDOR.

Words are things; and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon
a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions,

A dead language is full of all monumental remembrances of the
people who spoke it. Their swords and their shields are in it;
their faces are pictured on its walls; and their very voices ring
still through its recesses.--B. W. DWIGHT.

Every sentence of the great writer is like an autograph....
If Milton had endorsed a bill of exchange with half-a-dozen
blank-verse lines, it would be as good as his name, and would be
accepted as good evidence in court.--ALEXANDER SMITH.

If there be a human talent, let it get into the tongue, and make
melody with that organ. The talent that can say nothing for itself,
what is it? Nothing; or a thing that can do mere drudgeries, and at
best make money by railways.--CARLYLE.

Human language may be polite and powerless in itself, uplifted
with difficulty into expression by the high thoughts it utters, or
it may in itself become so saturated with warm life and delicious
association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the
mere fascination of the syllables.--T. W. HIGGINSON.

Accustom yourself to reflect on the words you use, hear, or read,
their birth, derivation, and history. For if words are not things,
they are living powers, by which the things of most importance to
mankind are actuated, combined, and harmonized.--COLERIDGE.

Words possess an endless, indefinable, tantalizing charm. They
paint humanity in its thoughts, longings, aspirations, struggles,
failures--paint it upon a canvas of breath, in the colors of

Ye know not what hurt ye do to Learning, that care not for Words,
but for Matter, and so make a Divorce betwixt the Tongue and the

Let him who would rightly understand the grandeur and dignity of
speech, meditate on the deep mystery involved in the revelation of
the Lord Jesus as the Word of God.--F. W. FARRAR.

      Words are lighter than the cloud foam
        Of the restless ocean spray;
      Vainer than the trembling shadow
        That the next hour steals away;
      By the fall of summer rain-drops
        Is the air as deeply stirred;
      And the rose leaf that we tread on
        Will outlive a word.

      Yet on the dull silence breaking
        With a lightning flash, a word,
      Bearing endless desolation
        On its blighting wings, I heard.
      Earth can forge no keener weapon,
        Dealing surer death and pain,
      And the cruel echo answered
        Through long years again.

      I have known one word hang star-like
        O’er a dreary waste of years,
      And it only shone the brighter
        Looked at through a mist of tears,
      While a weary wanderer gathered
        Hope and heart on life’s dark way,
      By its faithful promise shining
        Clearer day by day.

      I have known a spirit calmer
        Then the calmest lake, and clear
      As the heavens that gazed upon it.
        With no wave of hope or fear;
      But a storm had swept across it.
        And its deepest depths were stirred.
      Never, never more to slumber.
        Only by a word.

              ADELAIDE A. PROCTER.


The unexpected favor with which this work has been received by the
public from year to year, since its publication in 1873, has made
the author anxious to render it more worthy of regard. He has,
therefore, carefully revised the work, corrected some errors, and
added two new chapters, one on “Onomatopes,” the other on “Names of
Men,” besides many pages on the subjects of the other chapters.

Professor G. P. Marsh, in his “Lectures on the English Language,”
quotes the saying of a distinguished British scholar of the last
century, that he had known but three of his countrymen who spoke
their native language with uniform grammatical accuracy; and the
Professor adds that “the observation of most persons acquainted
with English and American society confirms the general truth
implied in this declaration.” In this statement, made by one of
the most eminent philologists of the day, is found, at least,
a partial justification of works like the present, if they are
properly written. The author is well aware that, in writing such a
book, he is obnoxious to the complaint of Goethe, that “everybody
thinks that, because he can speak, he is entitled to speak about
language;” he is aware, too, that in his criticisms on the misuses
and abuses of words, he has exposed himself to criticism; and it
may be that he has been guilty of some of the very sins which he
has condemned. If so, he sins in good company, since nearly all of
his predecessors, who have written on the same theme, have been
found guilty of a similar inconsistency, from Lindley Murray down
to Dean Alford, Breen, Moon, Marsh, and Fowler. If the public is
to hear no philological sermons till the preachers are faultless,
it will have to wait forever. “The only impeccable authors,” says
Hazlitt, “are those who never wrote.”

It is hardly necessary to add that the work is designed for popular
reading, rather than for scholars. How much the author is indebted
to others, he cannot say. He has been travelling, in his own way,
over old and well worn ground, and has picked up his materials
freely from all the sources within his reach. _Non nova, sed nové_,
has been his aim; he regrets that he has not accomplished it more
to his satisfaction. The world, it has been truly said, does not
need new thoughts so much as it needs that old thoughts be recast.
There are some writers, however, to whom he has been particularly
indebted; they are Archbishop Trench, the Rev. Matthew Harrison,
author of “The Rise, Progress, and Present Structure of the English
Language,” Professor G. P. Marsh, and especially Archdeacon F. W.
Farrar, the last of whom in his three linguistic works has shown
the ability to invest the driest scientific themes with interest. A
list of the books consulted will be found on pages 479, 480.



  THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORDS                           1


  THE MORALITY IN WORDS                              62


  GRAND WORDS                                       105


  SMALL WORDS                                       139


  WORDS WITHOUT MEANING                             158


  SOME ABUSES OF WORDS                              177


  SAXON WORDS, OR ROMANIC?                          194


  THE SECRET OF APT WORDS                           210


  THE SECRET OF APT WORDS (continued)               229


  ONOMATOPES                                        242


  THE FALLACIES IN WORDS                            257


  THE FALLACIES IN WORDS (continued)                295


  NAMES OF MEN                                      323


  NICKNAMES                                         345


  CURIOSITIES OF LANGUAGE                           367


  COMMON IMPROPRIETIES OF SPEECH                    424

  INDEX                                             481




      “Speech is morning to the mind;
      It spreads the beauteous images abroad,
      Which else lie dark and buried in the soul.”

      La parole, cette main de l’esprit.--CHARRON.

      Syllables govern the world.--COKE.

To the thoughtful man, who has reflected on the common operations
of life, which, but for their commonness, would be deemed full of
marvel, few things are more wonderful than the origin, structure,
history and significance of words. The tongue is the glory of man;
for though animals have memory, will and intellect, yet language,
which gives us a duplicate and multipliable existence,--enabling
mind to communicate with mind,--is the Rubicon which they never
have dared to cross. The dog barks as it barked at the creation;
the owl hoots in the same octaves in which it screamed ages ago;
and the crow of the cock is the same to-day as when it startled
the ear of repentant Peter. The song of the lark and the howl
of the leopard have continued as unchangeable as the concentric
circles of the spider and the waxen hexagon of the bee; and even
the stoutest champion of the orang-outang theory of man’s origin
will admit that no process of natural selection has yet distilled
significant words out of the cries of beasts or the notes of birds.
Though we have little reason to doubt that animals think, there is
yet no proof that a single noise made by them expresses a thought,
and especially an abstraction or a generalization, properties
characterizing the language of man. He only, in this world, is
able to classify objects which in some respects resemble, and in
others differ from one another, and to analyze and decompound the
various objects of thought; and to him is limited the privilege
of designating by arbitrary signs, and describing by distinctive
terms, the things he thus comprehends. Speech is a divine gift. It
is the last seal of dignity stamped by God upon His intelligent
offspring, and proves, more conclusively than his upright form,
or his looks “commercing with the skies,” that he was made in
the image of God. Without this crowning gift to man, even reason
would have been comparatively valueless; for he would have felt
himself to be imprisoned even when at large, solitary in the
midst of a crowd; and the society of the wisest of his race would
have been as uninstructive as that of barbarians and savages. The
rude tongue of a Patagonian or Australian is full of wonders to
the philosopher; but as we ascend in the scale of being from the
uncouth sounds which express the desires of a savage to the lofty
periods of a Cicero or a Chatham, the power of words expands until
it attains to regions far above the utmost range of our capacity.
It designates, as Novalis has said, God with three letters, and
the infinite with as many syllables, though the ideas conveyed by
these words are immeasurably beyond the utmost grasp of man. In
every relation of life, at every moment of our active being, in
every thing we think or do, it is on the meaning and inflection of
a _word_ that the direction of our thoughts, and the expression of
our will, turn. The soundness of our reasonings, the clearness of
our belief and of our judgment, the influence we exert upon others,
and the manner in which we are impressed by our fellow-men,--all
depend upon a knowledge of the value of words. It is in language
that the treasures of human knowledge, the discoveries of Science,
and the achievements of Art are chiefly preserved; it is language
that furnishes the poet with the airy vehicle for his most
delicate fancies, the orator with the elements of his electrifying
eloquence, the savant with the record of his classification,
the metaphysician with the means of his sharp distinction, the
statesman with the drapery of his vast design, and the philosopher
with the earthly instrument of his heaven-reaching induction.

“Words,” said the fierce Mirabeau, in reply to an opponent in
the National Assembly, “are _things_;” and truly they were such
when _he_ thundered them forth from the Tribune, full of life,
meaning and power. Words are always things, when coming from the
lips of a master-spirit, and instinct with his own individuality.
Especially is this true of so impassioned orators as Mirabeau, who
have thoughts impatient for words, not words starving for thoughts,
and who but give utterance to the spirit breathed by the whole
Third Estate of a nation. Their words are not merely things, but
_living_ things, endowed with power not only to communicate ideas,
but to convey, as by spiritual conductors, the shock and thrill
which attended their birth. Hazlitt, fond as he was of paradox, did
not exaggerate when he said that “words are the only things that
live forever.” History shows that temples and palaces, mausoleums
and monuments built at enormous cost and during years of toil to
perpetuate the memory or preserve the ashes of ancient kings,
have perished, and left not even a trace of their existence. The
pyramids of Egypt have, indeed, escaped in some degree the changes
and chances of thousands of years; yet an earthquake may suddenly
engulf these masses of stone, and “leave the sand of the desert as
blank as the tide would have left it on the sea shore.” A sudden
accident may cause the destruction of the finest masterpieces of
art, and the Sistine Madonna, the Apollo Belvedere, or the Venus
de Medicis, upon which millions have gazed with rapture, may be
hopelessly injured or irretrievably ruined. A mob shivers into dust
the statue of Minerva, whose lips seemed to move, and whose limbs
seemed to breathe under the flowing robe; a tasteless director of
the Dresden Gallery removes the toning of Correggio’s “Notte,”
where the light breaks from the heavenly child, and deprives the
picture of one of its fairest charms; an inferior pencil retouches
the great Vandyck at Wilton, and destroys the harmony of its
colors; and though no such mishap as these befall the product of
the painter’s skill, yet how often,--

      “When a new world leaps out at his command,
      And ready nature waits upon his hand;
      When the ripe colors soften and unite,
      And sweetly melt into just shade and light;
      When mellowing years their full perfection give
      And each bold figure just begins to live.
      The treacherous colors the fair art betray,
      And all the bright creation fades away.”

Not so with words. The language which embodies the ideas and
emotions of a great poet or thinker, though entrusted to perishable
ink and paper, which a moth or a few drops of water may destroy,
is indestructible, and, when his body has turned to dust, he
continues to rule men by the power of his thought,--not “from his
urn,” like a dead hero whose deeds only are remembered, but by his
very spirit, living, breathing and speaking in his works. Look at
the “winged words” of old Homer, into which he breathed the breath
of his own spiritual life; how long have they kept on the wing! For
twenty-five or thirty centuries they have maintained their flight
across gulfs of time in which empires have suffered shipwreck, and
the languages of common life have sunk into oblivion; and they
are still full of the life-blood of immortal youth. “The ‘Venus’
of Apelles, and the ‘grapes’ of Zeuxis have vanished, and the
music of Timotheus is gone; but the bowers of Circe still remain
unfaded, and the ‘chained Prometheus’ has outlived the ‘Cupid’ of
Praxiteles, and the ‘brazen bull’ of Perillus.”

“How forcible,” says Job, “are right words!” “A word fitly spoken,”
says Solomon, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
No artificer’s hand, however cunning, can contrive a mechanism
comparable with those masterpieces of ingenuity that may be wrought
by him who can convey a great or noble thought in apt and vivid
words. A mosaic of words may be made more beautiful than any of
inlaid precious stones. Few persons have duly estimated the power
of language. In anatomical museums one will sometimes see the
analysis of a man,--that is, the mere chemical constituents, so
much lime, so much albumen, so much phosphorus, etc. These dead
substances fail not more utterly in representing a living man,
with his mental and moral force, than do the long rows of words
in the lexicon of exhibiting the power with which, as signs of
ideas, they may be endowed. Language has been truly pronounced
the armory of the human mind, which contains at once the trophies
of its past and the weapons of its future conquests. Look at a
Webster or a Calhoun, when his mighty enginery of thought is in
full operation; how his words tell upon his adversary, battering
down the intrenchments of sophistry like shot from heavy ordnance!
Cannon-shot are very harmless things when piled up for show; so are
words when tiered up in the pages of a dictionary, with no mind
to select and send them home to the mark. But let them receive
the vitalizing touch of genius, and how they leap with life; with
what tremendous energy are they endowed! When the little Corsican
bombarded Cadiz at the distance of five miles, it was deemed the
very triumph of engineering; but what was this paltry range to that
of words, which bombard the ages yet to come? “Scholars,” says Sir
Thomas Browne, “are men of peace. They carry no arms, but their
tongues are sharper than Actus his razors; their pens carry further
and make a louder report than thunder. I had rather stand the shock
of a basalisco than the fury of a merciless pen.”

The words which a man of genius selects are as much his own as
his thoughts. They are not the dress, but the incarnation, of his
thought, as the body contains the soul. As John Foster once said,
“his diction is not the clothing of his sentiments, it is the skin;
and to alter the language would be to flay the sentiments alive.”
Analyze a speech by either of the great orators I have just named,
and a critical study will satisfy you that the crushing force of
his arguments lies not less in the nicety and skill with which the
words are chosen, than in the granite-like strength of his thought.
Attempt to substitute other words for those that are used, and you
will find that the latter are part and parcel of the speaker’s mind
and conception; that every word is accommodated with marvellous
exactness to all the sinuosities of the thought; that not even
the most insignificant term can be changed without marring the
force and completeness of the author’s idea. If any other words
can be used than those which a writer does use, he is a bungling
rhetorician, and skims only the surface of his theme. True as this
is of the best prose, it is doubly true of the best poetry; it is a
linked strain throughout. It has been said by one who was himself
a consummate master of language, that if, in the recollection of
any passage of Shakespeare, a word shall escape your memory, you
may hunt through the forty thousand words in the language, and not
one shall fit the vacant place but that which the poet put there.
Though he uses only the simplest and homeliest terms, yet “you
might as well think,” says Coleridge, “of pushing a brick out of a
wall with your forefinger, as attempt to remove a word out of any
of the finished passages of Shakespeare.”

Who needs to be told how much the wizard sorcery of Milton depends
on the words he uses? It is not in what he directly tells us that
his spell lies, but in the immense suggestiveness of his verse.
In Homer, it has been justly said, there are no hidden meanings,
no deeps of thought into which the soul descends for lingering
contemplation; no words which are key-notes, awakening the spirit’s

      “Untwisting all the links that tie
      The hidden soul of harmony.”

But here is the realm of Milton’s mastery. He electrifies the mind
through conductors. His words, as Macaulay declares, are charmed.
Their meaning bears no proportion to their effect. “No sooner are
they pronounced, than the past is present and the distant near. New
forms of beauty start at once into existence, and all the burial
places of the memory give up their dead. Change the structure of
the sentence, substitute one synonym for another, and the whole
effect is destroyed. The spell loses its power; and he who should
then hope to conjure with it would find himself as much mistaken
as Cassim in the Arabian tale, when he stood crying ‘Open Wheat,’
‘Open Barley,’ to the door which obeyed no sound but ‘Open Sesame.’”

The force and significance which Milton can infuse into the
simplest word are strikingly shown in his description of the
largest of land animals, in “Paradise Lost.” In a single line the
unwieldy monster is so represented as coming from the ground, that
we almost involuntarily start aside from fear of being crushed by
the living mass:--

      “Behemoth, the biggest born of earth, upheaved
      His vastness.”

Note, again, that passage in which Death at hell-gates threatens
the Arch-Fiend, Satan:--

            “Back to thy punishment,
      False fugitive! and to thy speed add wings,
      Lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue
      Thy lingering,--or, with one stroke of this dart,
      Strange horror seize thee, and pangs unfelt before!”

“The hand of a master,” says Montgomery, “is felt through every
movement of this sentence, especially toward the close, where it
seems to grapple with the throat of the reader; the hard _staccato_
stops that well might take the breath, in attempting to pronounce
‘or, with one stroke of this dart,’ are followed by an explosion of
sound in the last line, like a heavy discharge of artillery, in
which, though a full syllable is interpolated even at the cæsural
pause, it is carried off almost without the reader perceiving the
surplusage.” No poet better understood than Milton the art of
heightening the majesty of his strains by an occasional sacrifice
of their harmony. By substituting quantities for accented verse,
he produces an effect like that of the skilful organist who throws
into the full tide of instrumental music an occasional discord,
giving intenser sweetness to the notes that follow.

It is this necromantic power over language,--this skill in striking
“the electric chain with which we are darkly bound,” till its
vibrations thrill along the chords of the heart, and its echoes
ring in all the secret chambers of the soul,--which blinds us to
the absurdities of “Paradise Lost.” While following this mighty
magician of language through

              ---- “many a winding bout
      Of linked sweetness long drawn out,”

we overlook the incongruity with which he makes angels fight with
“villanous saltpetre” and divinities talk Calvinism, puts the
subtleties of Greek syntax into the mouth of Eve, and exhibits the
Omnipotent Father arguing like a school divine. As with Milton,
so with his great predecessor, Dante. Wondrous as is his power
of creating pictures in a few lines, he owes it mainly to the
directness, simplicity, and intensity of his language. In him “the
invisible becomes visible; darkness becomes palpable; silence
describes a character; a word acts as a flash of lightning, which
displays some gloomy neighborhood where a tower is standing, with
dreadful faces at the window.”

The difference in the use of words by different writers is as
great as that in the use of paints by great and poor artists; and
there is as great a difference in the effect upon the understanding
and the sensibilities of their readers. Who that is familiar with
Bacon’s writings can ever fail to recognize one of his sentences,
so dense with pith, and going to the mark as if from a gun? In him,
it has been remarked, language was always the flexible and obedient
instrument of the thought; not, as in the productions of a lower
order of mind, its rebellious and recalcitrant slave.

“All authors below the highest seem to use the mighty gift of
expression with a certain secret timidity, lest the lever should
prove too ponderous for the hand that essays to wield it; or
rather, they resemble the rash student in the old legend, who was
overmastered by the demons which he had unguardedly provoked.”
Who that is familiar with Dryden’s “full, resounding line,” has
not admired the magic effects he produces with the most familiar
words? Macaulay well says that in the management of the scientific
vocabulary he succeeded as completely as his contemporary, Gibbons,
succeeded in carving the most delicate flowers from heart of oak.
The toughest and most knotty parts of language became ductile
at his touch. Emerson, in speaking of the intense vitality of
Montaigne’s words, says that if you cut them, they will bleed.
Joubert, in revealing the secret of Rousseau’s charm, says: “He
imparted, if I may so speak, _bowels of feeling_ to the words he
used (_donna des entrailles à tous les mots_), and poured into them
such a charm, sweetness so penetrating, energy so puissant, that
his writings have an effect upon the soul something like that of
those illicit pleasures which steal away our taste and intoxicate
our understanding.” So in the weird poetic fictions of Coleridge
there is an indescribable witchery of phrase and conceit that
affects the imagination as if one had eaten of “the insane root
that takes the reason prisoner.”

How much is the magic of Tennyson’s verse due to “the fitting of
aptest words to things,” which we find on every page of his poetry!
He has not only the vision, but the faculty divine, and no secret
of his art is hid from him. Foot and pause, rhyme and rhythm,
alliteration; subtle, penetrative words that touch the very quick
of the truth; cunning words that have a spell in them for the
memory and the imagination; old words, with their weird influence,

      “Bright through the rubbish of some hundred years,”

and words used for the occasion in their primary sense, are all his
ministers, and obedient to his will. An American writer, Mr. E.
C. Stedman, in speaking of Swinburne’s marvellous gift of melody,
asks: “Who taught him all the hidden springs of melody? He was born
a tamer of words, a subduer of this most stubborn, yet most copious
of the literary tongues. In his poetry we discover qualities we
did not know were in the language--a softness that seemed Italian,
a rugged strength we thought was German, a blithe and debonair
lightness we despaired of capturing from the French. He has added a
score of new stops and pedals to the instrument. He has introduced,
partly from other tongues, stanzaic forms, measures and effects
untried before, and has brought out the swiftness and force of
metres like the anapestic, carrying each to perfection at a single
trial. Words in his hands are like the ivory balls of a juggler,
and all words seem to be in his hands.”

Words, with such men, are “nimble and airy servitors,” not masters,
and from the exquisite skill with which they are chosen, and the
firmness with which they are knit together, are sometimes “half
battles, stronger than most men’s deeds.” What is the secret of the
weird-like power of De Quincey? Is it not that, of all late English
writers, he has the most imperial dominion over the resources
of expression; that he has weighed, as in a hair-balance, the
precise significance of every word he uses; that he has conquered
so completely the stubbornness of our vernacular as to render it
a willing slave to all the whims and caprices, the ever-shifting,
kaleidoscopic variations of his thought? Turn to whatever page
you will of his writings, and it is not the thorough grasp of his
subject, the enormous erudition, the extraordinary breadth and
piercing acuteness of intellect which he displays, that excite
your greatest surprise; but you feel that here is a man who has
gauged the potentiality of every word he uses, who has analyzed the
simples of his every compound phrase. In his hands our stiff Saxon
language becomes almost as ductile as the Greek. Ideas that seem to
defy expression,--ideas so subtile, or so vague and shifting, that
most thinkers find it difficult to contemplate them at all,--are
conveyed on his page with a nicety, a felicity of phrase, that
might almost provoke the envy of Shakespeare. In the hands of a
great sculptor marble and bronze become as soft and elastic as
living flesh, and not unlike this is the dominion which the great
writers possess over language. In their verse our rugged but pithy
and expressive English breathes all sounds, all melodies;

      “And now ’tis like all instruments,
        Now like a lonely flute,
      And now it is an angel’s song,
        That makes the heavens be mute.”

The superiority of the writers of the seventeenth century to those
of our own day is due not less to their choice and collocation
of words than to their weight of thought. There was no writing
public nor reading populace in that age; the writers were few
and intellectual, and they addressed themselves to learned, or,
at least, to studious and thoughtful readers. “The structure of
their language,” says Henry Taylor, “is itself an evidence that
they counted upon another frame of mind, and a different pace and
speed in reading, from that which can alone be looked to by the
writers of these days. Their books were not written to be snatched
up, run through, talked over, and forgotten; and their diction,
therefore, was not such as lent wings to haste and impatience,
making everything so clear that he who ran or flew might read.
Rather was it so constructed as to detain the reader over what was
pregnant and profound, and compel him to that brooding and prolific
posture of mind by which, if he had wings, they might help him to
some more genial and profitable employment than that of running
like an ostrich through a desert. And hence those characteristics
of diction by which these writers are made more fit than those
who have followed them to train the ear and utterance of a poet.
For if we look at the long-suspended sentences of those days,
with all their convolutions and intertextures,--the many parts
waiting for the ultimate wholeness,--we shall perceive that without
distinctive movement and rhythmical significance of a very high
order, it would be impossible that they could be sustained in
any sort of clearness. One of these writers’ sentences is often
in itself a work of art, having its strophes and antistrophes,
its winding changes and recalls, by which the reader, though
conscious of plural voices and running divisions of thought,
is not, however, permitted to dissociate them from their mutual
concert and dependency, but required, on the contrary, to give them
entrance into his mind, opening it wide enough for the purpose, as
one compacted and harmonious fabric. Sentences thus elaborately
constructed, and complex, though musical, are not easy to a remiss
reader, but they are clear and delightful to an intent reader.”

Few persons are aware how much knowledge is sometimes necessary
to give the etymology and definition of a word. In 1839 the
British Court of Queen’s Bench,--Sir F. Pollock, Mr. Justice
Coleridge, the Attorney General, Sir J. Campbell, and other learned
lawyers,--disputed for some hours about the meaning of the word
“upon,” as a preposition of time; whether it meant “after” or
“before.” It is easy to define words as certain persons satirized
by Pascal have defined _light_: “A luminary movement of luminous
bodies”; or as a Western judge once defined _murder_ to a jury:
“Murder, gentlemen, is when a man is murderously killed. It is the
_murdering_ that constitutes murder in the eye of the law. Murder,
in short, is--murder.” We have all smiled at Johnson’s definition
of _network_: “Network--anything reticulated or decussated at
equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.” Many
of the definitions in our dictionaries remind one of Bardolph’s
attempt to analyze the term _accommodation_: “Accommodation,--that
is, when a man is, as they say, accommodated; or when a man is
being whereby he may be thought to be accommodated, which is an
excellent thing.” _Brimstone_, for example, the lexicographer
defines by telling us that it is _sulphur_; and then rewards us for
the trouble we have had in turning to _sulphur_, by telling us
that it is _brimstone_. The eccentric Davy Crockett, whose exterior
roughness veiled a great deal of mother wit, happily characterized
this whole tribe of lexicographers by a remark he once made to
a Western member of Congress. When the latter, in a speech on a
bill for increasing the number of hospitals, wearied his hearers
by incessant repetition,--“Sit down,” whispered Crockett, “you
are coming out of the same hole you went in at.” There is a
mythical story that the forty members of the French Academy once
undertook to define the word _crab_, and hit upon this, which they
deemed quite satisfactory: “Crab,--a small red fish, which walks
backward.” “Perfect, gentlemen,” said Cuvier, when interrogated
touching the correctness of the definition; “perfect,--only I will
make one small observation in natural history. The crab is _not_ a
fish, it is _not_ red, and it does _not_ walk backward. With these
exceptions, your definition is admirable.” Too many easily made
definitions are liable to similar damaging exceptions.

The truth is, no word can be truly defined until the exact idea
is understood, in all its relations, which the word is designed
to represent. Let a man undertake to define the word “alkali”
or “acid,” for instance, and he will have to encounter some
pretty hard problems in chemistry. Lavoisier, the author of the
terminology of modern chemistry, tells us that when he undertook
to form a nomenclature of that science, and while he proposed to
himself nothing more than to improve the chemical language, his
work transformed itself by degrees, and without his being able
to prevent it, into a treatise upon the elements of chemistry.
Often a theory or an argument, which seems clear and convincing in
its disembodied form, is found to be incoherent and altogether
unsatisfactory as soon as it is fixed in words on paper. Samuel
Bailey, who held a derivative opinion in favor of Berkeley’s
“Theory of Vision,” tells us that having, in the course of a
philosophical discussion, occasion to explain it, he found, on
attempting to state _in his own language_ the grounds on which
it rested, that they no longer appeared to him to be so clear
and conclusive as he had fancied them to be. He determined,
therefore, to make them the subject of a patient and dispassionate
examination; and the result was a clear conviction of the
erroneousness of Berkeley’s theory, the philosophical grounds for
which conviction he has so ably and luminously set forth in his
book on the subject. The truth is, accurate definitions of the
terms of any science can only follow accurate and sharply defined
notions of the science itself. Try to define the words _matter_,
_substance_, _idea_, _will_, _cause_, _conscience_, _virtue_,
_right_, and you will soon ascertain whether you have grappled with
the grand problems or only skimmed the superficies of metaphysics
and ethics.

Daniel O’Connell once won a law-suit by the knowledge furnished
him of the etymology of a word. He was engaged in a case where
the matter at issue was certain river-rights, especially touching
a branch of the stream known by the name of the “Lax Weir.” His
clients were in possession of rights formerly possessed by a
defunct salmon-fishing company, formed by strangers from Denmark,
and they claimed the privilege of obstructing the “Lax Weir” for
the purposes of their fishery, while the opposite party contended
that it should be open to navigation. A natural inference from
the name of the piece of water in question seemed to turn the
scale against O’Connell; for how could he establish the right to
make that a close weir which, ever since the first existence of
the fishery, had been notoriously a lax one? His cause seemed
desperate, and he had given up all hope of success, when victory
was wrested from his adversaries by a couple of lines on a scrap of
paper that was handed to him across the court. These lines informed
him that in the language of Germany, and the north of Europe,
_lachs_, or _lax_, means a salmon. The “Lax Weir” was simply a
salmon weir. By the aid of this bit of philological knowledge,
O’Connell won not only a verdict for his client, but for himself a
great and sudden growth of his reputation as a young advocate.

Let no one, then, underrate the importance of the study of words.
Daniel Webster was often seen absorbed in the study of an English
dictionary. Lord Chatham read the folio dictionary of Bailey
twice through, examining each word attentively, dwelling on its
peculiar import and modes of construction, and thus endeavoring
to bring the whole range of our language completely under his
control. One of the most distinguished American authors is said
to be in the habit of reading the dictionary through about once a
year. His choice of fresh and forceful terms has provoked at times
the charge of pedantry; but, in fact, he has but fearlessly used
the wealth of the language that lies buried in the pages of Noah
Webster. It is only by thus working in the mines of language that
one can fill his storehouses of expression, so as to be above the
necessity of using cheap and common words, or even using these with
no subtle discrimination of their meanings. William Pinkney, the
great American advocate, studied the English language profoundly,
not so much to acquaint himself with the nice distinctions of
its philosophical terms, as to acquire copiousness, variety, and
splendor of expression. He studied the dictionary, page after
page, content with nothing less than a mastery of the whole
language, as a body of expression, in its primitive and derivative
stock. Rufus Choate once said to one of his students; “You don’t
want a diction gathered from the newspapers, caught from the air,
common and unsuggestive; but you want one whose every word is
full-freighted with suggestion and association, with beauty and
power.” The leading languages of the world are full of such words,
“opulent, microcosmic, in which histories are imaged, which record
civilizations. Others recall to us great passages of eloquence, or
of noble poetry, and bring in their train the whole splendor of
such passages, when they are uttered.”

Mr. Disraeli says of Canning, that he had at command the largest
possible number of terms, both “rich and rare,”--words most vivid
and effective,--really spirit-stirring words; for words there are,
as every poet knows, whose sound is an echo to the sense,--words
which, while by their literal meaning they convey an idea to the
mind, have also a sound and an association which are like music to
the ear, and a picture to the eye,--vivid, graphic, and picturesque
words, that make you almost see the thing described. It is said
of Keats, that when reading Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, he
became a critic of their thoughts, their words, their rhymes, and
their cadences. He brooded over fine phrases like a lover; and
often, when he met a quaint or delicious word in the course of his
reading, he would take pains to make it his own by using it, as
speedily as possible, in some poem he was writing. Upon expressions
like “the sea-shouldering whale” of Spenser, he would dwell with
an ecstasy of delight. It is said of Theophile Gautier, whose
language is remarkable for its copiousness and splendor, that
he enriched his picturesque vocabulary from the most recondite
sources, and that his favorite reading was the dictionary. He loved
words for themselves, their look, their aroma, their color, and
kept a supply of them constantly on hand, which he introduced at
effective points.

The question has been often discussed whether, if man were
deprived of articulate speech, he would still be able to think,
and to express his thought. The example of the deaf and dumb, who
evidently think, not by associations of sound, but of touch,--using
combinations of finger-speech, instead of words, as the symbols
of their thought,--appears to show that he might find a partial
substitute for his present means of reflection. The telegraph
and railway signals are, in fact, new modes of speech, which are
quickly familiarized by practice. The engine driver shuts off the
steam at the warning signal, without thinking of the words to which
it is equivalent; a particular signal becomes associated with a
particular act, and the interposition of words becomes useless. It
is well known that persons skilled in gesticulation can communicate
by it a long series of facts and even complicated trains of
thought. Roscius, the Roman actor, claimed that he could express
a sentiment in a greater variety of ways by significant gestures
than Cicero could by language. During the reign of Augustus,
both tragedies and comedies were acted, with powerful effect, by
pantomime alone. When the Megarians wanted help from the Spartans,
and threw down an empty meal-bag before the assembly, declaring
that “it lacked meal,” these verbal economists said that “the
mention of the sack was superfluous.” When the Scythian ambassadors
wished to convince Darius of the hopelessness of invading their
country, they made no long harangue, but argued with far more
cogency by merely bringing him a bird, a mouse, a frog, and two
arrows, to imply that unless he could soar like a bird, burrow like
a mouse, and hide in the marshes like a frog, he would never be
able to escape their shafts. Every one has heard of the Englishman
in China, who, wishing to know the contents of a dish which lay
before him, asked “Quack, quack?” and received in reply the words
“Bow-wow.” The language of gesture is so well understood in Italy
that it is said that when King Ferdinand returned to Naples after
the revolutionary movements of 1822, he made an address to the
lazzaroni from the balcony of the palace, wholly by signs; and
though made amidst the most tumultuous shouts, they were perfectly
intelligible to the assemblage. It is traditionally affirmed that
the famous conspiracy of the Sicilian Vespers was organized wholly
by facial signs, not even the hand being employed. Energetic and
faithful, however, as gesture is as a means of expression, it is
in the domain of feeling and persuasion, and for embellishing and
enforcing our ordinary language, that it is chiefly useful. The
conventionality of language, which can be parroted where there is
little thought or feeling, deprives it in many cases of its force;
and it is a common remark that a look, a tone, or a gesture is
often more eloquent than the most elaborate speech. But it is only
the most general facts of a situation that gesture can express; it
is incapable of distinguishing or decomposing them, and utterly
fails to express the delicate shades of difference of which verbal
expression is capable. Natural expression, from the cry and groan,
and laugh and smile, up to the most delicate variations of tone
and feature which the elocutionist uses, is emotional, subjective,
and cannot convey an intellectual conception, a judgment, or a

Facts like these tend to show that man might still have been,
as the root of the word “man” implies in Sanskrit, “a thinking
being,” though he had never been a “speech-dividing” being; but it
is evident that his range of thought would have been exceedingly
narrow, and that his mightiest triumphs over nature would have been
impossible. While it may be true, as Tennyson says, that

      “Thought leapt out to wed with thought,
      Ere thought could wed itself to speech,”

yet there is an intimate relation between _ratio_ and _oratio_,
and it may well be doubted whether, without _some_ signs, verbal
or of another sort, thought, except of the simplest kind, would
not have been beyond man’s power. Long use has so familiarized
us with language, we employ it so readily, and without conscious
effort, that we are apt to regard it as a matter of course, and
become blind to its mystery and deep significance. We rarely
think of the long and changeful history through which each word
we utter has passed,--of the many changes in form and changes in
signification it has undergone,--and of the time and toil spent in
its invention and elaboration by successive generations of thinkers
and speakers. Still less do we think how different man’s history
would have been, how comparatively useless would have been all
his other endowments, had God not given him the faculties “which,
out of the shrieks of birds in the forest, the roar of beasts,
the murmur of rushing waters, the sighing of the wind, and his
own impulsive ejaculations, have constructed the great instrument
that Demosthenes, and Shakespeare, and Massillon wielded, the
instrument by which the laws of the universe are unfolded, and the
subtle workings of the human heart brought to light.” Language is
not only a means of communication between man and man, but it has
other functions hardly less important. It is only by its aid that
we are able to analyze our complex impressions, to preserve the
results of the analysis, and to abbreviate the processes of thought.

Were we content with the bare reception of visual impressions, we
could to some extent dispense with words; but as the mind does
not receive its impressions passively, but reflects upon them,
decomposes them into their parts, and compares them with notions
already stored up, it becomes necessary to give to each of these
elements a name. By virtue of these names we are able to keep
them apart in the mind, and to recall them with precision and
facility, just as the chemist by the labels on his jars, or the
gardener by those on his flower-pots, is enabled to identify the
substances these vessels contain. Thus reflections which when past
might have been dissipated forever, are by their connection with
language brought always within reach. Who can estimate the amount
of investigation and thought which are represented by such words
as _gravitation_, _chemical affinity_, _atomic weight_, _capital_,
_inverse proportion_, _polarity_, and _inertia_,--words which are
each the quintessence and final result of an infinite number of
anterior mental processes, and which may be compared to the paper
money, or bills of exchange, by which the world’s wealth may be
inclosed in envelopes and sent swiftly to the farthest centres of
commerce? Who can estimate the inconvenience that would result,
and the degree in which mental activity would be arrested, were we
compelled to do without these comprehensive words which epitomize
theories, sum up the labors of the past, and facilitate and abridge
future mental processes? The effect would be to restrict all
scientific discovery as effectually as commerce and exchange would
be restricted, if all transactions had to be carried on with iron
or copper as the sole medium of mercantile intercourse.

Language has thus an educational value, for in learning words
we are learning to discriminate things. “As the distinctions
between the relations of objects grow more numerous, involved,
and subtle, it becomes more analytic, to be able to express them;
and, inversely, those who are born to be the heirs of a highly
analytic language, must needs learn to _think up_ to it, to
observe and distinguish all the relations of objects, for which
they find the expressions already formed; so that we have an
instructor for the thinking powers in that speech which we are apt
to deem no more than their handmaid and minister.” No two things,
indeed, are more closely connected than poverty of language and
poverty of thought. Language is, on one side, as truly the limit
and restraint of thought, as on the other that which feeds and
sustains it. Among the “inarticulate ones” of the world, there
may be, for aught we know, not a few in whose minds are ideas as
grand, pictures as vivid and beautiful, as ever haunted the brain
of a poet; but lacking the words which only can express their
conceptions, or reveal them in their true majesty to themselves,
they must remain “mute, inglorious Miltons” forever. A man of
genius who is illiterate, or who has little command of language,
is like a painter with no pigments but gray and dun. How, then,
shall he paint the purple and crimson of the sunset? Though he may
have made the circuit of the world, and gazed on the main wonders
of Nature and of Art, he will have little to say of them beyond
commonplace. In bridging the chasm between such a man and one of
high culture, the acquisition of words plays as important a part as
the acquisition of ideas.

It has been justly said that no man can learn from or communicate
to another more than the words they are familiar with either
express or can be made to express. The deep degradation of the
savage is due as much to the brutal poverty of his language as to
other causes. This poverty, again, is due to that deficiency of the
power of abstraction which characterizes savages of every land. A
savage may have a dozen verbs for “I am here,” “I am well,” “I am
thirsty,” etc.; but he has no word for “am”: he may have a dozen
words for “my head,” “your head,” etc.; but he can hardly conceive
of a head apart from its owner. Nearly all the tongues of the
American savages are polysynthetic; that is, whole clauses and even
whole sentences are compressed together so violently, that often no
single syllable would be capable of separate use. The Abbé Domenech
states that such is the absolute deficiency of the simplest
abstractions in some of these languages that an Indian cannot say
“I smoke” without using such a number of concrete pictures that his
immensely long word to represent that monosyllabic action means:
“I breathe the vapor of a fire of herb which burns in a stone bowl
wedged into a pierced stone.” To express the idea of “day,” the
Pawnees use such a word as _shakoorooceshairet_, and their word
for “tooth” is the fearful polysyllable _khotsiakatatkhusin_! The
word for “tongue” in Tlatskanai has twenty-two letters. Though
these vocables, which bristle with more consonants than the
four sneezes of a Russian name of note, would be enough, as De
Quincey says, “to splinter the teeth of a crocodile,” yet Mexican
has sounds even more ear-splitting. In this language the common
address to a priest is the one word _Notlazomahuizteopixcatatzin_;
that is, “Venerable priest, whom I honor as a father.” A fagot is
_tlatlatlalpistiteutli_, and “if the fagot were of green wood, it
could hardly make a greater splutter in the fire.” A lover would
have been obliged to say “I love you,” in this language, in this
style, _ni-mits-tsikāwakā-tlasolta_; and instead of a kiss he
would have had to ask for a _tetenna-miquilitzli_. “_Dieu merci!_”
exclaims the French writer who states this fact, “_quand on a
prononcé le mot on a bien mérité la chose_.”

It is easy to see, from these facts, what an obstacle the language
of the savage presents to his civilization. Let us suppose a savage
to possess extraordinary natural endowments, and to learn any one
of the leading languages of Europe; is it not easy to see that he
would find himself prepared for labor in departments of mental
effort which had been before utterly inaccessible to him, and that
he would feel that his powers had been cheated out of their action
by this possession of only inferior tools? Hence the knowledge of
words is not an elegant accomplishment only, not a luxury, but
a positive necessity of the civilized and cultivated man. It is
necessary not only to him who would express himself, but to him
who would _think_, with precision and effect. There is, indeed, no
higher proof of thorough and accurate culture than the fact that
a writer, instead of employing words loosely and at hap-hazard,
chooses only those which are the exact vesture of his thought. As
he only can be called a well dressed man whose clothes exactly fit
him, being neither small and shrunken, nor loose and baggy, so
it is the first characteristic of a good style that the words fit
close to the ideas. They will be neither too big here, hanging like
a giant’s robe on the limbs of a dwarf, nor too small there, like
a boy’s garments into which a man has painfully squeezed himself;
but will be the exact correspondents and perfect exponents of his
thought. Between the most synonymous words a careful writer will
have a choice; for, strictly speaking, there are no synonyms in a
language, the most closely resembling and apparently equivalent
terms having some nice shade of distinction,--a fine illustration
of which is found in Ben Jonson’s line, “Men may _securely_ sin,
but _safely_ never”; and, again, in the reply with which Sydney
Smith used to meet the cant about popular education in England:
“Pooh! pooh! it is the worst _educated_ country in the world, I
grant you; but it is the best _instructed_.” William Pitt was a
remarkable example of this precision of style. Fox said of him:
“Though I am myself never at a loss for a word, Pitt not only has
_a_ word, but _the_ word,--the very word,--to express his meaning.”
Robert Hall chose his words with a still more fastidious nicety,
and he gave as one reason for his writing so little, that he could
so rarely approach the realization of his own _beau-idéal_ of a
perfect style. It is related of him that, when he was correcting
the proofs of his sermon on “Modern Infidelity,” on coming to the
famous passage, “Eternal God, on what are thine enemies intent?
What are those enterprises of guilt and horror, that, for the
safety of their performers, require to be enveloped in a darkness
which the eye of Heaven must not penetrate?”--he exclaimed to his
friend, Dr. Gregory: “_Penetrate!_ did I say _penetrate_, sir, when
I preached it?” “Yes.” “Do you think, sir, I may venture to alter
it? for no man who considers the force of the English language
would use a word of three syllables there but from absolute
necessity. For _penetrate_ put _pierce_: _pierce_ is the word, sir,
and the only word, to be used there.”

John Foster was a yet more striking example of this
conscientiousness and severity in discriminating words. Never,
perhaps, was there a writer the electric action of whose mind,
telegraphing with all nature’s works, was so in contrast with
its action in writing. Here it was almost painfully slow, like
the expression of some costly oil, drop by drop. He would spend
whole days on a few short sentences, passing each word under his
concentrated scrutiny, so that each, challenged and examined, took
its place in the structure like an inspected soldier in the ranks.
When Chalmers, after a visit to London, was asked what Foster was
about, he replied: “Hard at it, at the rate of a line a week.”
Read a page of the essay on “Decision of Character,” and you will
feel that this was scarcely an exaggeration,--that he stood by the
ringing anvil till every word was forged into a bolt. Few persons
know how hard easy writing is. Who that reads the light, sparkling
verse of Thomas Moore, dreams of the mental pangs, the long and
anxious thought, which a single word often cost him? Irving tells
us that he was once riding with the Irish poet in the streets of
Paris, when the hackney-coach went suddenly into a deep rut, out of
which it came with such a jolt as to send their pates bump against
the roof. “By Jove, _I’ve got it_!” cried Moore, clapping his hands
with great glee. “Got what?” said Irving. “Why,” said the poet,
“that _word_ I’ve been hunting for six weeks, to complete my last
song. That rascally driver has jolted it out of me.”

The ancient writers and speakers were even more nice and
fastidious than the moderns, in their choice and arrangement of
words. Virgil, after having spent eleven years in the composition
of the Æneid, intended to devote three years to its revision; but,
being prevented by his last sickness from giving it the finishing
touches which his exquisite judgment deemed necessary, he directed
his friends to burn it. The great orator of Athens, to form his
style, transcribed Thucydides again and again. He insisted that it
was not enough that the orator, in order to prepare for delivery
in public, should write down his thoughts,--he must, as it were,
_sculpture_ them in brass. He must not content himself with that
loose use of language which characterizes a thoughtless fluency,
but his words must have a precise and exact look, like newly
minted coin, with sharply cut edges and devices. That Demosthenes
himself “recked his own rede” in this matter we have abundant proof
in almost every page of his great speeches. In his masterpieces
we are introduced to mysteries of prose composition of which
the moderns know nothing. We find him, as a German critic has
remarked, bestowing incredible pains, not only upon the choice of
words, but upon the sequence of long and short syllables, not in
order to produce a regularly recurring metre, but to express the
most various emotions of the mind by a suitable and ever-changing
rhythm. It is in this art of ordering words with reference to
their effect, even more, perhaps, than in the action for which his
name is a synonym, that he exhibits his consummate dexterity as
an orator. Change their order, and you at once break the charm.
The rhythm, in fact, _is_ the sense. You destroy the significance
of the sentence as well as its ring; you lessen the intensity
of the meaning as well as the verbal force. “At his pleasure,”
says Professor Marsh, “he separates his lightning and his thunder
by an interval that allows his hearer half to forget the coming
detonation, or he instantaneously follows up the dazzling flash
with a pealing explosion that stuns, prostrates and crushes the
stoutest opponent.”

Not less did the Roman orators consult the laws of euphonic
sequence or metrical convenience, and arrange their words in such
a succession of articulate sounds as would fall most pleasingly
on the ear. The wonderful effects which sometimes attended their
elocution were, in all probability, chiefly owing to their
exquisite choice of words and their skill in musical concords.
It was by the charm of numbers, as well as by the strength of
reason, that Cicero confounded Catiline and silenced the eloquent
Hortensius. It was this that deprived Curio of all power of
recollection when he rose to oppose that great master of enchanting
rhetoric; it was this that made even Cæsar himself tremble, and
at last change his determined purpose, and acquit the man he had
resolved to condemn. When the Roman orator, Carbo, pronounced,
on a certain occasion, the sentence, “_Patris dictum sapiens
temeritas filii comprobavit_,” it was astonishing, says Cicero, to
observe the general applause which followed that harmonious close.
Doubtless we are ignorant of the art of pronouncing that period
with its genuine emphasis; but Cicero assures us that had the final
measure,--what is technically called a _dichoree_,--been changed,
and the words placed in a different order, their whole effect would
have been absolutely destroyed. With the same exquisite sensibility
to numbers, an ancient writer says that a similar result would
follow, if, in reading the first line of the Æneid,

      “Arma virumque cano, Trojae qui primus ab oris.”

instead of _primus_ we were to pronounce it _primis_ (_is_ being
long, and _us_ short).

It is this cunning choice, along with the skilful arrangement of
words, that, even more than the thought, eternizes the name of
an author. Style is, and ever has been, the most vital element
of literary immortalities. More than any other quality it is a
writer’s own property; and no one, not time itself, can rob him of
it, or even diminish its value. Facts may be forgotten, learning
grow commonplace, startling truths dwindle into mere truisms; but a
grand or beautiful style can never lose its freshness or its charm.
For his gorgeous style, even more than for his colossal erudition,
is Gibbon admired; it is “the ordered march of his lordly prose”
that is the secret of Macaulay’s charm; and it is the unstudied
grace of Hume’s periods which renders him, in spite of his
imperfect learning, in spite of his wilful perversions of truth, in
spite of his infidelity and his toryism, the popular historian of

It has been truly said by a brilliant New England writer that this
mystery of style,--why it is, that when one man writes a fact,
it is cold or commonplace, and when another man writes it, in a
little different, but equivalent phraseology, it is a rifle-shot
or a revelation,--has never been sounded. “One can understand a
little how the wink or twinkle of an eye, how an attitude, how a
gesture, how a cadence or impassioned sweep of voice, should make
a boundless distance between truths stated or declaimed. But how
words, locked up in forms, still and stiff in sentences, contrive
to tip a wink, how a proposition will insinuate more scepticism
than it states, how a paragraph will drip with the honey of love,
how a phrase will trail an infinite suggestion, how a page can
be so serene or so gusty, so gorgeous or so pallid, so sultry
or so cool, as to lap you in one intellectual climate or its
opposite,--who has fathomed yet this wonder?”

From all this it will be seen how absurd it is to suppose that one
can adequately enjoy the masterpieces of literature by means of
translations. Among the arguments against the study of the dead
languages, none is more pertinaciously urged by the educational
red republicans of the day than this,--that the study is useless,
because all the great works, the masterpieces of antiquity, have
been translated. The man, we are told, who cannot enjoy Carlyle’s
version of Wilhelm Meister, Melmoth’s Cicero, Morris’s Virgil,
Martin’s Horace, or Carter’s Epictetus, must be either a prodigious
scholar or a prodigious dunce. Sometimes, it is urged, a translator
even improves upon the original, as did Coleridge, in the opinion
of many, upon Schiller’s “Wallenstein.” All this seems plausible
enough, but the Greek and Latin scholar knows it to be fallacious
and false. He knows that the finest passages in an author,--the
exquisite thoughts, the curious verbal felicities,--are precisely
those which defy reproduction in another tongue. The most
masterly translations of them are no more like the original than
a walking-stick is like a tree in full bloom. The quintessence of
a writer,--the life and spirit,--all that is idiomatic, peculiar,
or characteristic,--all that is Homerian in Homer, or Horatian in
Horace,--evaporates in a translation.

It is true that, judging by dictionaries only, almost every word
in one language has equivalents in every other; but a critical
study of language shows that, with the exception of terms denoting
sensible objects and acts, there is rarely a precise coincidence in
meaning between any two words in different tongues. Compare any two
languages, and you will find that there are, as the mathematicians
would say, many incommensurable quantities, many words in each
untranslatable into the other, and that it is often impossible, by
a paraphrase, to supply an equivalent. To use De Quincey’s happy
image from the language of eclipses, the correspondence between the
disk of the original word and its translated representative, is, in
thousands of instances, not _annular_; the centres do not coincide;
the words overlap. Even words denoting sensible objects are not
always exact equivalents in any two languages. It might be supposed
that a _berg_ (the German for mountain or hill) was a _berg_ all
the world over, and that a word signifying this tangible object in
one language must be the absolute equivalent of the word expressing
it in another. Yet, as a late German writer[1] has said, this is
far from being the case. The English “mountain,” for instance,
refers to something bigger than the German _berg_. On the other
hand, “hill,” which has the next lower signification, in its many
meanings is far too diminutive for the German term, which finds no
exact rendering in any English vocable.

A comparison of the best English versions of the New Testament
with the original, strikingly shows the inadequacy of the happiest
translations. Even in the Revised Version, upon which an enormous
amount of labor was expended by the best scholars in England and
the United States, many niceties of expression which mark the
original fail to appear. Owing to the poverty of our tongue
compared with the Greek, which, it has been said, can draw a clear
line where other languages can only make a blot, the translators
have been compelled to use the same English word for different
Greek ones, and thus obliterate many fine distinctions which are
essential to the meaning. Thus, as one of the Revisers has shown,
it is impossible to exhibit in English the delicate shades of
difference in meaning which appear in the Greek between the two
verbs both rendered “love,”[2] in John xxi, 15-17. “The word first
employed by Christ is a very common one in the New Testament,
and specially denotes a pure, spiritual affection. It is used of
God’s love to man, as in John iii, 16--‘God so _loved_ the world,’
etc.--and of man’s love to God, as in Matt. xxii, 37--‘Thou shalt
_love_ the Lord thy God,’ etc. The other word more particularly
implies that warmth of feeling which exists between friends. Thus,
it is used respecting Lazarus in John xi, 3: ‘Behold, he whom thou
_lovest_ is sick;’ and again, in John xx, 2, of St. John himself,
when he is spoken of as ‘the disciple whom Jesus _loved_.’ Now, the
use of the one word at first by Christ serves to remind St. Peter
of the claim which his Divine Master had upon his deep, reverential
love. But the Apostle, now profoundly sensible of his own weakness,
does not venture to promise this, yet, feeling his whole heart
flowing out to Christ, he makes use of the other word, and assures
the Saviour at least of a fervent personal affection. Christ then
repeats His question, still using the same verb, and Peter replies
as before. But on asking the question for the third time, Christ
graciously adopts the term employed by the Apostle: He speaks to
him again as a friend; He clasps the now happy disciple afresh
to His own loving heart.”[3] Now all this is lost through the
comparative meagreness of our language. To what extent the subtle
distinctions of the Greek original are and must be lost in the
translation, may be guessed from the fact that there are no fewer
than ten Greek words which have been rendered “appoint” in the
ordinary version, no fewer than fourteen which stand for “give,”
and no fewer than twenty-one which correspond to “depart.”

Above all does poetry defy translation. It is too subtle an essence
to be poured from one vessel into another without loss. Of Cicero’s
elegant and copious rhetoric, of the sententious wisdom of Tacitus,
of the keen philosophic penetration and masterly narrative talent
of Thucydides, of the thunderous eloquence of Demosthenes, and
even of Martial’s jokes, it may be possible to give some inkling
through an English medium; but of the beauties and splendors of
the Greek and Latin poets,--never. As soon will another Homer
appear on earth, as a translator echo the marvellous music of his
lyre. _Imitations_ of the “Iliad,” more or less accurate, may be
given, or _another_ poem may be substituted in its place; but a
perfect transfusion into English is impossible. For, as Goethe
somewhere says, Art depends on Form, and you cannot preserve the
form in _altering_ the form. Language is a strangely suggestive
medium, and it is through the reflex and vague operation of words
upon the mind that the translator finds himself baffled. Words, as
Cowper said of books, “are not seldom talismans and spells.” They
have, especially in poetry, a potency of association, a kind of
necromantic power, aside from their significance as representative
signs. Over and above their meanings as given in the dictionary,
they connote all the feeling which has gathered round them by their
employment for hundreds of years. There are in every language
certain magical words, which, though they can be translated into
other tongues, yet are hallowed by older memories, or awaken
tenderer and more delightful associations, than the corresponding
words in those tongues. Such words in English are _gentleman_,
_comfort_, and _home_, about each of which cluster a multitude of
associations which are not suggested by any foreign words by which
they can be rendered. There is in poetry a mingling of sound and
sense, a delicacy of shades of meaning, and a power of awakening
associations, to which the instinct of the poet is the key, and
which cannot be passed into a foreign language if the _meaning_
be also preserved. You may as easily make lace ruffles out of
hemp. Language, it cannot be too often repeated, is not the dress
of thought; it is its living expression, and controls both the
physiognomy and the organization of the idea it utters.

How many abortive attempts have been made to translate the “Iliad”
and the “Odyssey” into English verse! What havoc have even Pope
and Cowper made of some of the grandest passages in the old bard!
The former, it has been well said, turned his lines into a series
of brilliant epigrams, sparkling and cold as the “Heroic Epistles”
of Ovid; the other chilled the warmth and toned down the colors of
Homer into a sober, drab-tinted hue, through which gods and men
loom feebly, and the camp of the Achæans, the synod of the Trojans,
and the deities in council, have much of the air of a Quaker
meeting-house. Regarded as an English poem, Pope’s translation
of the “Iliad” is unquestionably a brilliant and exquisitely
versified production; but viewed as a transfusion of the old bard
into another language, it is but a _caput mortuum_, containing but
little more of Homer than the names and events. The fervid and
romantic tone, the patriarchal simplicity, the mythologic coloring,
the unspeakable audacity and freshness of the images,--all that
breathes of an earlier world, and of the sunny shores, and laughing
waves, and blue sky, of the old Ægean,--all this, as a critic has
observed, “is vanished and obliterated, as is the very swell and
fall of the versification, regular in its very irregularity, like
the roll of the ocean. Instead of the burning, picture-like words
of the old Greek, we have the dainty diction of a literary artist;
instead of the ever varied, resounding swell of the hexameter, the
neat, elegant, nicely balanced modern couplet. In short, the old
bard is stripped of his flowing chlamys and his fillets, and is
imprisoned in the high-heeled shoes, the laced velvet coat, and
flowing periwig of the eighteenth century.” Chapman, who has more
of the spirit of Homer, occasionally catches a note or two from
the Ionian trumpet; but presently blows so discordant a blast that
it would have grated on the ear of Stentor himself. Lord Derby and
William C. Bryant have been more successful in many respects than
Pope or Cowper; but each has gained some advantages by compensating

Did Dryden succeed better when he put the “Æneid” into verse? Did
he give us that for which Virgil toiled during eleven long years?
Did he give us the embodiment of those vulgar impressions which,
when the old Latin was read, made the Roman soldier shiver in
all his manly limbs? All persons who are familiar with English
literature know what havoc Dryden made of “Paradise Lost,” when
he attempted, even in the same language, to put it into rhyme,--a
proposal to do which drew from Milton the contemptuous remark:
“Ay, young man; you can tag my rhymes.” A man of genius never made
a more signal failure. He could not draw the bow of Ulysses. His
rhyming, rhetorical manner, splendid and powerful as it confessedly
is, proved an utterly inadequate vehicle for the high argument
of the great Puritan. So with his modernizations of Chaucer. His
reproductions of “the first finder of our faire language” contain
much admirable verse; but it is not Chaucer’s. They are simply
elaborate paraphrases, in which the idiomatic colors and forms, the
distinctive beauties of the old poet,--above all, the simplicity
and sly grace of his language, the exquisite tone of _naïveté_,
which, like the lispings of infancy, give such a charm to his
verse,--utterly vanish. Dryden failed, not from lack of genius,
but simply because failure was inevitable,--because this aroma of
antiquity, in the process of transfusion into modern language, is
sure to evaporate.

All such changes involve a loss of some subtle trait of expression,
or some complexional peculiarity, essential to the truthful
exhibition of the original. The outline, the story, the bones
remain; but the soul is gone,--the essence, the ethereal light,
the perfume is vanished. As well might a painter hope, by using a
different kind of tint, to give the expression of one of Raphael’s
or Titian’s masterpieces, as any man expect, by any other words
than those which a great poet has used, to convey the same meaning.
Even the humblest writer has an idiosyncrasy, a manner of his
own, without which the identity and truth of his work are lost.
If, then, the meaning and spirit of a poem cannot be transferred
from one place to another, so to speak, under the roof of a common
language, must it not _a fortiori_ be impossible to transport them
faithfully across the barriers which divide one language from
another, and antiquity from modern times?

How many ineffectual attempts have been made to translate Horace
into English and French! It is easy to give the right meaning, or
something like the meaning, of his lyrics; but they are cast in
a mould of such exquisite delicacy that their ease and elegance
defy imitation. All experience shows that the _traduttore_ must
necessarily be _tradittore_,--the translator, a traducer of the
Sabine bard. As well might you put a violet into a crucible, and
expect to reproduce its beauty and perfume, as expect to reproduce
in another tongue the mysterious synthesis of sound and sense, of
meaning and suggested association, which constitutes the vital
beauty of a lyric. The special imagination of the poet, it has been
well said, is an imagination inseparably bound up with language;
possessed by the infinite beauty and the deepest, subtlest meanings
of words; skilled in their finest sympathies; powerful to make
them yield a meaning which another never could have extracted from
them. It is of the very essence of the poet’s art, so that, in
the highest exercise of that art, there is no such thing as the
rendering of an idea in appropriate language; but the conception,
and the words in which it is conveyed, are a simultaneous creation,
and the idea springs forth full-grown, in its panoply of radiant

The works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, exist
in the words as the mind in conjunction with the body. Separation
is death. Alter the melody ever so skilfully, and you change the
effect. You cannot translate a sound; you cannot give an elegant
version of a melody. Prose, indeed, suffers less from paraphrase
than poetry; but even in translating a prose work, unless one
containing facts or reasoning merely, the most skilful linguist
can be sure of hardly more than of transferring the raw material
of the original sentiment into his own tongue. The bullion may be
there, but its shape is altered; the flower is preserved, but the
aroma is gone; there, to be sure, is the arras, with its Gobelin
figures, but it is the wrong side out. It is hardly an exaggeration
to say that there is as much contrast between the best translation
and the original of a great author, as between a wintry landscape,
with its dead grass and withered foliage, and the same landscape
arrayed in the green robes of summer. Nay, we prefer the humblest
original painting to a feeble copy of a great picture,--a barely
“good” original book to any lifeless translation. A living dog is
better than a dead lion; for the external attributes of the latter
are nothing without the spirit that makes them terrible.

The difficulty of translating from a dead language, of whose
onomatopœia we are ignorant, will appear still more clearly,
when we consider what gross and ludicrous blunders are made in
translating even from one living language into another. Few
English-speaking persons can understand the audacity of Racine, so
highly applauded by the French, in introducing the words _chien_
and _sel_ into poetry; “dog” and “salt” may be used by us without
danger; but, on the other hand, we may not talk of “entrails” in
the way the French do. Every one has heard of the Frenchman, who
translated the majestic exclamation of Milton’s Satan, “Hail!
horrors, hail!” by “_Comment vous portez-vous, Messieurs les
Horreurs, comment vous portez-vous?_” “How do you do, horrors, how
do you do?” Another Frenchman, in reproducing the following passage
from Shakespeare in his own tongue,

      “Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
      So dull, so dead in look, so _woe-begone_,”

translated the italicized words thus: “So, grief, be off with
you!” In the opera of “Macbetto,” the term “hell-broth” in the
witches’ scene is rendered in Italian _polto inferno_. Hardly less
ridiculous is the blunder made by a translator of Alexander Smith’s
“Life-Drama,” who metamorphoses the expression, “clothes me with
kingdoms,” into “_me fait un vêtement de royaumes_,”--“makes me a
garment of kingdoms.” Even so careful a writer as Lord Mahon, in
his “History of the War of the Succession in Spain,” translates
the French word _abbé_ by “abbot.” One of the chief difficulties
in translating into a foreign language is that, though every word
the translator uses may be authorized by the best writers, yet the
combination of his terms may be unidiomatic. Thus the words _arène_
and _rive_ are both to be found in the best French writers; yet
if a foreigner, not familiar with the niceties of that language,
should write

      “Sur la rive du fleuve amassant de l’arène,”

he would be laughed at, not only by the critics, but by the most
illiterate workmen in Paris. The French idiom will not admit of the
expression _sur la rive du fleuve_, correct though each word may be
taken singly, but requires the phrase _sur le bord de la rivière_,
as it does _amasser du sable_, and not _amasser de l’arène_. What
can be more expressive than one of the lines in which Milton
describes the lost angels crowding into Pandemonium, where, he
says, the air was

      “_Brushed_ with the _hiss_ of _rustling_ wings,”

a line which it is impossible to translate into words that will
convey precisely the same emotions and suggestions that are roused
by a perusal of the original? Suppose the translator to hit so near
to the original as to write

      “Stirred with the noise of quivering wings,”

will not the line affect you altogether differently? Let one
translate into another language the following line of Shakespeare,

      “The learned _pate ducks_ to the golden fool,”

and is it at all likely that the quaint, comic effect of the words
we have italicized would be reproduced?

The inadequacy of translations will be more strikingly exemplified
by comparing the following lines of Shakespeare with such a version
as we might expect in another language:

      “How sweet the moonlight _sleeps_ upon this bank!
      Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
      Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
      Become the touches of sweet harmony.”

A foreign translator, says Leigh Hunt, would dilute and take all
taste and freshness out of this draught of poetry, after some such
fashion as the following:

      “With what a charm the moon serene and bright
      Lends on the bank its soft reflected light!
      Sit we, I pray, and let us sweetly hear
      The strains melodious, with a raptured ear;
      For soft retreats, and night’s impressive hour,
      To harmony impart divinest power.”

In view of all these considerations what can be more untrue than
the statement so often made, that to be capable of easy translation
is a test of the excellence of a composition? This doctrine, it
has been well observed, goes upon the assumption that one language
is just like another language,--that every language has all the
ideas, turns of thought, delicacies of expression, figures,
associations, abstractions, points of view which every other
language has. “Now, as far as regards Science, it is true that all
languages are pretty much alike for the purposes of Science; but
even in this respect some are more suitable than others, which have
to coin words or to borrow them, in order to express scientific
ideas. But if languages are not all equally adapted even to furnish
symbols for those universal and eternal truths in which Science
consists, how can they be reasonably expected to be all equally
rich, equally forcible, equally musical, equally exact, equally
happy, in expressing the idiosyncratic peculiarities of thought of
some original and fertile mind, who has availed himself of one of
them? * * *

“It seems that a really great author must admit of translation, and
that we have a test of his excellence when he reads to advantage in
a foreign language as well as in his own. Then Shakespeare _is_ a
genius because he can be translated into German, and not a genius
because he cannot be translated into French. The multiplication
table is the most gifted of all conceivable compositions, because
it loses nothing by translation, and can hardly be said to belong
to any one language whatever. Whereas I should rather have
conceived that, in proportion as ideas are novel and recondite,
they would be difficult to put into words, and that the very fact
of their having insinuated themselves into one language would
diminish the chance of that happy accident being repeated in
another. In the language of savages you can hardly express any idea
or act of the intellect at all. Is the tongue of the Hottentot or
Esquimau to be made the measure of the genius of Plato, Pindar,
Tacitus, St. Jerome, Dante, or Cervantes?”[4]

The truth is, music written for one instrument cannot be played
upon another. To the most cunning writer that ever tried to
translate the beauties of an author into a foreign tongue, we may
say in the language of a French critic: “You are that ignorant
musician who plays his part exactly, not skipping a single note,
nor neglecting a rest,--only what is written in the key of _fa_, he
plays in the key of _sol_. Faithful translator!”

When we think of the marvellous moral influence which words have
exercised in all ages, we cannot wonder that the ancients believed
there was a subtle sorcery in them, “a certain bewitchery or
fascination,” indicating that language is of mystic origin. The
Jews, believing that God had revealed a full-grown language to
mankind, attached a divine character to language, and supposed
that there was a natural and necessary connection between words
and things. The name of a person was not a mere conventional
sign, but an essential attribute, an integral part of the person
himself. Hence we find in Genesis no less than fifty derivations
of names, in almost all of which the derivation connects the name,
prophetically or otherwise, with some event in the person’s life.
Hence, also, the practice, under certain conditions, of changing
men’s names, as illustrated in the histories of Abraham, Sarah,
Jacob, Joshua and others. “Call me not Naomi (pleasant), but Mara
(bitter),” said the broken-hearted widow of Elimelech. “Even in the
New Testament we find our Lord Himself in a solemn moment fixing
on the mind of His greatest apostle a new and solemn significance
given to the name he bore. ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock will
I build my church.’ St. Paul also, is probably playing upon a
name when, in Phil. iv, 3, he affectionately addresses a friend
as γνήσιε Σύζυγε, ‘true yoke fellow,’ since it is an ancient and
very probable supposition that Syzygus or Yokefellow is there
a proper name.” The Gothic nations supposed that even their
mysterious alphabetical characters, called “Runes,” possessed
magical powers; that they could stop a sailing vessel or a flying
arrow,--that they could excite love or hate, or even raise the
dead. The Greeks believed that there was a necessary, mysterious
connection between words and the objects they signified, so that
man unconsciously expressed, in the words whereby he named things
or persons, their innermost being and future destiny, as though in
a symbol incomprehensible to himself. The accidental good omen in
the name of an envoy who was called Hegesistratos, or “leader of
an army,” decided a Greek general to assist the Samians, and led
to the battle of Mycale. The Romans, in their levies, took care to
enrol first names of good omen, such as Victor, Valerius, Salvius,
Felix, and Faustus. Cæsar gave a command in Spain to an obscure
Scipio, merely for the omen which his name involved. When an
expedition had been planned under the leadership of Atrius Niger,
the soldiers absolutely refused to proceed under a commander of
so ill-omened a name,--_dux abominandi nominis_,--it being, as De
Quincey says, “a pleonasm of darkness.” The same deep conviction
that words are powers is seen in the _favete linguis_ and _bona
verba quæso_ of the Romans, by which they endeavored to repress the
utterance of any word suggestive of ill fortune, lest the event so
suggested to the imagination should actually occur. So they were
careful to avoid, by euphemisms, the utterance of any word directly
expressive of death or other calamity, saying _vixit_ instead
of _mortuus est_, and “be the event fortunate or otherwise,”
instead of “adverse.” The name Egesta they changed into Segesta,
Maleventum into Beneventum, Axeinos into Euxine, and Epidamnus
into Dyrrhachium, to escape the perils of a word suggestive of
_damnum_, or detriment. Even in later times the same feeling has
prevailed,--an illustration of which we have in the life of Pope
Adrian VI, who, when elected, dared not retain his own name, as he
wished, because he was told by his cardinals that every Pope who
had done so had died in the first year of his reign.[5]

That there is a secret instinct which leads even the most
illiterate peoples to recognize the potency of words, is
illustrated by the use made of names in the East, in “the black
art.” In the Island of Java, a fearful influence, it is said,
attaches to names, and it is believed that demons, invoked in the
name of a living individual, can be made to appear. One of the
magic arts practised there is to write a man’s name on a skull, a
bone, a shroud, a bier, an image made of paste, and then put it
in a place where two roads meet, when a fearful enchantment, it
is believed, will be wrought against the person whose name is so

But we need not go to antiquity or to barbarous nations to learn
the mystic power of words. There is not a day, hardly an hour of
our lives, which does not furnish examples of their ominous force.
Mr. Maurice says with truth, that “a light flashes out of a word
sometimes which frightens one. It is a common word; one wonders
how one has dared to use it so frequently and so carelessly, when
there were such meanings hidden in it.” Shakespeare makes one of
his characters say of another, “She speaks poniards, and every word
stabs”; and there are, indeed, words which are sharper than drawn
swords, which give more pain than a score of blows; and, again,
there are words by which pain of soul is relieved, hidden grief
removed, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, and courage infused.
How often has a word of recognition to the struggling confirmed a
sublime yet undecided purpose,--a word of sympathy opened a new
vista to the desolate, that let in a prospect of heaven,--a word of
truth fired a man of action to do a deed which has saved a nation
or a cause,--or a genius to write words which have gone ringing
down the ages!

      “I have known a word more gentle
        Than the breath of summer air;
      In a listening heart it nestled,
        And it lived forever there.
      Not the beating of its prison
        Stirred it ever, night or day;
      Only with the heart’s last throbbing
        Could it ever fade away.”

A late writer has truly said that “there may be phrases which shall
be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word
may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the
earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what
accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter; there may be
years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

“Nothing,” says Hawthorne, “is more unaccountable than the spell
that often lurks in a spoken word. A thought may be present to
the mind so distinctly that no utterance could make it more so;
and two minds may be conscious of the same thought, in which one
or both take the profoundest interest; but as long as it remains
unspoken, their familiar talk flows quietly over the hidden idea,
as a rivulet may sparkle and dimple over something sunken in its
bed. But speak the word, and it is like bringing up a drowned body
out of the deepest pool of the rivulet, which has been aware of the
horrible secret all along, in spite of its smiling surface.”

The significance of words is illustrated by nothing, perhaps, more
strikingly than by the fact that unity of speech is essential to
the unity of a people. Community of language is a stronger bond
than identity of religion, government, or interests; and nations
of one speech, though separated by broad oceans, and by creeds
yet more widely divorced, are one in culture, one in feeling.
Prof. Marsh has well observed that the fine patriotic effusion
of Arndt, “_Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?_” was founded upon
the idea that the oneness of the _Deutsche Zunge_, the German
speech, implied a oneness of spirit, of aims, and of duties; and
the universal acceptance with which the song was received showed
that the poet had struck a chord to which every Teutonic heart
responded. When a nation is conquered by another, which would hold
it in subjection, it has to be again conquered, especially if its
character is essentially opposed to that of its conqueror, and the
second conquest is often the more difficult of the two. To kill it
effectually, its nationality must be killed, and this can be done
only by killing its language; for it is through its language that
its national prejudices, its loves and hates, and passions live.
When this is not done, the old language, slowly dying out,--if,
indeed, it dies at all,--has time to convey the national traditions
into the new language, thus perpetuating the enmities that keep
the two nations asunder. We see this illustrated in the Irish
language, which, with all the ideas and feelings of which that
language is the representative and the vehicle, has been permitted
by the English government to die a lingering death of seven or
eight centuries. The coexistence of two languages in a state is
one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall it. The settlement
of townships and counties in our country by distinct bodies of
foreigners is, therefore, a great evil; and a daily newspaper, with
an Irish, German, or French prefix, or in a foreign language, is a
perpetual breeder of national animosities, and an effectual bar to
the Americanization of our foreign population.

The languages of conquered peoples, like the serfs of the middle
ages, appear to be _glebæ adscriptitiæ_, and to extirpate them,
except by extirpating the native race itself, is an almost
impossible task. Rome, though she conquered Greece, could not plant
her language there. The barbarians who overran the Roman Empire
adopted the languages of their new subjects; the Avars and Slavs
who settled in Greece became Hellenized in language; the Northmen
in France adopted a Romanic tongue; and the Germans in France
and northern Italy, as well as the Goths in Spain, conformed to
the speech of the tribes they had vanquished. It is asserted, on
not very good authority, that William the Conqueror fatigued his
ear and exhausted his patience, during the first years of his
sovereignty, in trying to learn the Saxon language; but, failing,
ordered the Saxons to speak Norman-French. He might as well have
ordered his new subjects to walk on their heads. Charles the Fifth,
in all the plenitude of his power, could not have compelled all his
subjects, Dutch, Flemish, German, Italian, Spanish, etc., to learn
his language; he had to learn theirs, though a score in number, as
had Charlemagne before him.

England has maintained her dominion in the East for more than a
hundred and fifty years, yet the mass of Hindoos know no more
of her language than of the Greek. In the last century, Joseph
II, of Austria, issued an edict that all his subjects, German,
Slavonic, or Magyar, should speak and write one language,--German;
but the people recked his decree as little as did the sea that of
Canute. Many of the provinces broke out into open rebellion; and
the project was finally abandoned. The Venetians were for a long
period under the Austrian yoke; but they spoke as pure Italian as
did any of their independent countrymen, and they never detested
their rulers more heartily than at the time of their deliverance.
The strongest bond of union between the different States of this
country is not the wisdom of our constitution, nor the geographical
unity of our territory, but the one common language that is spoken
throughout the Republic, from the great lakes to the Gulf of
Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Were different
tongues spoken in the different sections of the realm, no wisdom of
political structure or sagacity of political administration could
hold so many States together amidst such diversities of culture
and social customs, and interests so conflicting. But our unity of
speech,--the common language in which we express our thoughts and
feelings, making all friendly and commercial correspondence easy,
giving us a common literature, and enabling us to read the same
books, newspapers, printed lectures and speeches,--this is like a
soul animating all the limbs of the Republic, giving it a firmer
unity than its geological skeleton or its political muscles could
possibly ensure. Were the languages of our country as various as
those of Europe, who does not see that the task of allaying the
bitter feeling of hostility at the South, which led to the late
outbreak, and of fusing the citizens of the North and of the South
into one homogeneous people, would be almost hopeless?

As a corollary from all that has been said, it is plain that
nothing tends more to make a man just toward other nations
than the exploration through their languages of their peculiar
thought-world. He who masters the speech of a foreign people will
gain therefrom a profound knowledge of their modes of thought
and feeling, more accurate in some respects than he could gain
by personal intercourse with them. He will feel the pulse of
their national life in their dictionary, and will detect in their
phraseology many a noble and manly impulse, of which, while blinded
by national prejudice, he had never dreamed.

A volume might be filled with illustrations of the power of words;
but, great as is their power, and though, when nicely chosen, they
have an intrinsic force, it is, after all, the _man_ who makes
them potent. As it was not the famous needle gun, destructive as
it is, which won the late Prussian victories, but the intelligence
and discipline of the Prussian soldier,--the man _behind_ the gun,
educated in the best common schools in the world,--so it is the
latent heat of character, the man behind the words, that gives
them momentum and projectile force. The same words, coming from
one person, are as the idle wind that kisses the cheeks; coming
from another, they are the cannon shot that pierces the target
in the bull’s-eye. The thing said is the same in each case; the
enormous difference lies in the man who says it. The man fills out,
crowds his words with meaning, and sends them out to do a giant’s
work; or he makes them void and nugatory, impotent to reach their
destination, or to do any execution should they hit the mark. The
weight and value of opinions and sentiments depend oftentimes less
upon their intrinsic worth than upon the degree in which they have
been organized into the nature of the person who utters them;
their force, less upon their inherent power than upon the latent
heat stored away in their formation, which is liberated in their

There is in character a force which is felt as deeply, and which
is as irresistible, as the mightiest physical force, and which
makes the plainest expressions of some men like consuming fire.
Their words, instead of being the barren signs of abstract ideas,
are the media through which the life of one mind is radiated into
other minds. They inspire, as well as inform; electrify, as well
as enlighten. Even truisms from their lips have the effect of
original perceptions; and old saws and proverbs, worn to shreds by
constant repetition, startle the ear like brilliant fancies. Some
of the greatest effects recorded in the history of eloquence have
been produced by words which, when read, strike us as tame and
commonplace. The tradition that Whitefield could thrill an audience
by saying “Mesopotamia!” probably only burlesques an actual fact.

Grattan said of the eloquence of Charles James Fox that “every
sentence came rolling like a wave of the Atlantic, three thousand
miles long.” Willis says that every word of Webster weighs a pound.
College sophomores, newly fledged lawyers, and representatives from
Bunkumville, often display more fluency than the New Hampshire
giant; but his words are to theirs as the roll of thunder to
the patter of rain. What makes his argument so ponderous and
destructive to his opponents, is not its own weight alone, but in
a great degree the added weight of his temper and constitution,
the trip-hammer _momentum_ with which he makes it fall upon the
theory he means to crush. Even the vast mass of the man helped,
too, to make his words impressive. “He carried men’s minds, and
overwhelmingly pressed his thought upon them, with the immense
current of his physical energy.” When the great champion of New
England said, in the United States Senate, “There are Lexington and
Concord and Bunker Hill, and there they will remain forever,” it
was the weight of character, and of all the associations connected
with it, which changed that which, uttered by another, would have
been the merest truism, into a lofty and memorable sentiment. The
majesty of the utterance, which is said to have quickened the pulse
even of “the great Nullifier,” Calhoun, is due to the fact that
it came from a mighty nature, which had weighed and felt all the
meaning which those three spots represent in the stormy history
of the world. It was this which gave such prodigious power to the
words of Chatham, and made them smite his adversaries like an
electric battery. It was the haughty assumption of superiority, the
scowl of his imperial brow, the ominous growl of his voice, “like
thunder heard remote,” the impending lightnings which seemed ready
to dart from his eyes, and, above all, the evidence which these
furnished of an imperious and overwhelming will, that abashed the
proudest peers in the House of Lords, and made his words perform
the office of stabs and blows. The same words, issuing from other
lips, would have been as harmless as pop-guns.

In reading the quotations from Chalmers, which are reported to have
so overwhelmingly oppressed those who heard them, almost every
one is disappointed. It is the creative individuality projected
into the words that makes the entire difference between Kean or
Kemble and the poorest stroller that murders Shakespeare. It is
said that Macready never produced a more thrilling effect than
by the simple words, “_Who said that?_” An acute American writer
observes that when Sir Edward Coke, a man essentially commonplace
in his intellect and prejudices, though of vast acquirement and
giant force of character, calls Sir Walter Raleigh “a spider of
hell,” the metaphor may not seem remarkable; but it has a terrible
significance when we see the whole roused might of Sir Edward
Coke glaring through it.[6] What can be more effective than the
speech of Thersites in the first book of the “Iliad”? Yet the only
effect was to bring down upon the speaker’s shoulders the staff of
Ulysses. Pope well observes that, had Ulysses made the same speech,
the troops would have sailed for Greece that very night. The world
considers not merely what is said, but _who_ speaks, and _whence_
he says it.

      “Let but a lord once own the happy lines,
      How the wit brightens, how the style refines!”

says the same poet of a servile race; and another poet says of a
preacher who illustrated his doctrine by his life, that

      “Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway.”

Euripides expresses the same belief in the efficacy of position and
character, when he makes Hecuba entreat Ulysses to intercede for
her; “for the arguments,” says she, “which are uttered by men of
repute, are very different in strength from those uttered by men

The significance of the simplest epithet depends upon the character
of the man that uses it. Let two men of different education,
tastes, and habits of thought, utter the word “grand,” and our
sense of the word is modified according to our knowledge of the
men. The conceptions represented by the words a man uses, it is
evident, are different from every other man’s; and into this
difference enter all his individuality of character, the depth or
the shallowness of his knowledge, the quality of his education,
the strength or feebleness of his feelings, everything that
distinguishes him from another man.

Mr. Whipple says truly that “there are no more simple words than
‘green,’ ‘sweetness,’ and ‘rest,’ yet what depth and intensity of
significance shine in Chaucer’s ‘green’; what a still ecstasy of
religious bliss irradiates ‘sweetness,’ as it drops from the pen
of Jonathan Edwards; what celestial repose beams from ‘rest’ as
it lies on the page of Barrow! The moods seem to transcend the
resources of language; yet they are expressed in common words,
transfigured, sanctified, imparadised by the spiritual vitality
which streams through them.” The same critic, in speaking of style
as the measure of a writer’s power, observes that “the marvel of
Shakespeare’s diction is its immense suggestiveness,--his power
of radiating through new verbal combinations, or through single
expressions, a life and meaning which they do not retain in their
removal to dictionaries. When the thought is so subtle, or the
emotion so evanescent, or the imagination so remote, that it cannot
be flashed upon the ‘inward eye,’ it is hinted to the inward ear
by some exquisite variation of tone. An American essayist on
Shakespeare, Mr. Emerson, in speaking of the impossibility of
acting or reciting his plays, refers to this magical suggestiveness
in a sentence almost as remarkable as the thing it describes. ‘The
recitation,’ he says, ‘begins; one golden word leaps out immortal
from all this painted pedantry, _and sweetly torments us with
invitations to its own inaccessible homes_!’ He who has not felt
this witchery in Shakespeare’s style has never read him. He may
have looked _at_ the words, but has never looked _into_ them.”

The fact that words are never taken absolutely,--that they
are expressions, not simply of thoughts or feelings, but of
natures,--that they are media for the emission and transpiration
of character,--is one that cannot be too deeply pondered by
young speakers and writers. Fluent young men who wonder that the
words which they utter with such glibness and emphasis have so
little weight with their hearers, should ask themselves whether
their characters are such as to give weight to their words. As
in engineering it is a rule that a cannon should be at least
one hundred times heavier than its shot, so a man’s character
should be a hundred times heavier than what he says. When a La
Place or a Humboldt talks of the “universe,” the word has quite
another meaning than when it is used by plain John Smith, whose
ideas have never extended beyond the town of Hull. So, when a
man’s friend gives him religious advice, and talks of “the solemn
responsibilities of life,” it makes a vast difference in the weight
of the words whether they come from one who has been tried and
proved in the world’s fiery furnace, and whose whole life has been
a trip-hammer to drive home what he says, or from a callow youth
who prates of that which he feels not, and testifies to things
which are not realities to his own consciousness. There is a hollow
ring in the words of the cleverest man who talks of “trials and
tribulations” which he has never felt. “Words,” says the learned
Selden, “must be fitted to a man’s mouth. ’Twas well said by the
fellow that was to make a speech for my lord mayor, that he desired
first to take measure of his lordship’s mouth.”

Few things are more interesting in the study of a language, than
to note how much it gains by time and culture. In its vocabulary,
its forms, and its euphonic and other changes, it embodies the
mental growth and modifications of thousands of minds. It enriches
itself with all the intellectual spoils of the people that use
it, and with the lapse of years is gradually deepened, mellowed,
and refined. The language of an old and highly civilized people
differs from that of its infancy, as much as a broad and majestic
river, bearing upon its bosom the commerce of the world, differs
from the tiny streamlet in which it had its origin. And yet it is
no less true that, as Max Müller has observed, since the beginning
of the world no new addition has ever been made to the substantial
elements of speech, any more than to the substantial elements
of nature. There is a constant change in language, a coming and
going of words; but no man can ever invent an entirely new word.
Before a novel term can be introduced into use, there must be
some connection with a former term,--a bridge to enable the
mind to pass over to the new word. Equally true is it that when
a vocable has dropped out of the language,--has become dead or
obsolete,--it is almost as impossible to call it back to life as
it is to restore to life a deceased human being. Pope, it is true,
speaks of commanding “old words that have long slept to wake;”
and Horace declares that many words will be born again that have
seemingly dropped into their graves. But it is certain that, as
Prof. Craik says, “very little revivification has ever taken place
in human speech,” and that one may more easily introduce into a
language a dozen new words than restore to general use an old one
that has been discarded. It is true that when Thomson published his
“Castle of Indolence,” he prefixed to the poem a list of so-called
obsolete words, of which not a few, as “carol,” “glee,” “imp,”
“appall,” “blazon,” “sere,” are in good standing to-day. It is
true, also, that in the first quarter of this century Coleridge,
Byron, Keats, Scott, and other poets, enriched their vocabularies
with words taken from the more archaic and obsolescent element of
the language, and that we have in use many words that were more or
less neglected during the eighteenth century. But in nearly all
these cases it is probable that the vocables thus recalled to a
living and working condition, were never actually dead, but only in
a state of suspended animation.

It has been calculated that our English language, including the
nomenclature of the arts and sciences, contains one hundred
thousand words; yet of this immense number it is surprising how few
are in common use. It is a common opinion that every Englishman and
American speaks English, every German German, and every Frenchman
French. The truth is, that each person speaks only that limited
portion of the language with which he is acquainted. To the great
majority even of educated men, three-fourths of these words are
almost as unfamiliar as Greek or Choctaw. Strike from the lexicon
all the obsolete or obsolescent words; all the words of special
arts or professions; all the words confined in their usage to
particular localities; all the words of recent coinage which have
not yet been naturalized; all the words which even the educated
speaker uses only in homœopathic doses,--and it is astonishing
into what a manageable volume your plethoric Webster or Worcester
will have shrunk. It has been calculated that a child uses only
about one hundred words; and, unless he belongs to the educated
classes, he will never employ more than three or four hundred.
A distinguished American scholar estimates that few speakers or
writers use as many as ten thousand words; ordinary persons, of
fair intelligence, not over three or four thousand. Even the great
orator, who is able to bring into the field, in the war of words,
half the vast array of light and heavy troops which the vocabulary
affords, yet contents himself with a far less imposing display
of verbal force. Even the all-knowing Milton, whose wealth of
words seems amazing, and whom Dr. Johnson charges with using a
“Babylonish dialect,” uses only eight thousand; and Shakespeare
himself, “the myriad-minded,” only fifteen thousand. Each word,
however, has a variety of meanings, with more or fewer of which
every man is familiar, so that his knowledge of the language,
which has practically over a million of words, is far greater
than it appears. Still the facts we have stated show that the
difficulty of mastering the vocabulary of a new tongue is greatly
overrated; and they show, too, how absurd is the boast of every new
dictionary-maker that _his_ vocabulary contains so many thousand
words more than those of his predecessors. This may, or may not, be
a merit; but it is certain that there is scarcely a page of Johnson
that does not contain some word--obsolete, un-English, or purely
scientific--that has no business there; while Webster and Worcester
cram them in by hundreds and thousands at a time; each doing his
best to load and deform his pages, and all the while triumphantly
challenging the world to observe how prodigious an advantage he has
gained over his rivals.

We are accustomed to go to the dictionary for the meaning of words;
but it is _life_ that discloses to us their significance in all
the vivid realities of experience. It is the actual world, with
its joys and sorrows, its pleasures and pains, that reveals to
us their joyous or terrible meanings--meanings not to be found
in Worcester or Webster. Does the young and light-hearted maiden
know the meaning of “sorrow,” or the youth just entering on a
business career understand the significance of the words “failure”
and “protest”? Go to the hod carrier, climbing the many-storied
building under a July sun, for the meaning of “toil”; and, for a
definition of “overwork,” go to the pale seamstress who

      “In midnight’s chill and murk
      Stitches her life into her work;
      Bending backwards from her toil,
      Lest her tears the silk might soil;
      Shaping from her bitter thought
      Heart’s-ease and forget-me-not;
      Satirizing her despair
      With the emblems woven there!”

Ask the hoary-headed debauchee, bankrupt in purse, friends, and
reputation,--with disease racking every limb,--for the definition
of “remorse”; and go to the bedside of the invalid for the proper
understanding of “health.” Life, with its inner experience, reveals
to us the tremendous force of words, and writes upon our hearts the
ineffaceable records of their meanings. Man is a dictionary, and
human experience the great lexicographer. Hundreds of human beings
pass from their cradles to their graves who know not the force of
the commonest terms; while to others their terrible significance
comes home like an electric flash, and sends a thrill to the
innermost fibres of their being.

To conclude,--it is one of the marvels of language, that out of
the twenty plain elementary sounds of which the human voice is
capable, have been formed all the articulate voices which, for six
thousand or more years, have sufficed to express all the sentiments
of the human race. Few as are these sounds, it has been calculated
that one thousand million writers, in one thousand million years,
could not write out all the combinations of the twenty-four letters
of the alphabet, if each writer were daily to write out forty
pages of them, and if each page should contain different orders
of the twenty-four letters. Another remarkable fact is that the
vocal organs are so constructed as to be exactly adapted to the
properties of the atmosphere which conveys their sounds, while at
the same time the organs of hearing are fitted to receive with
pleasure the sounds conveyed. Who can estimate the misery that
man would experience were his sense of hearing so acute that the
faintest whisper would give him pain, loud talking or laughter
stun him, and a peal of thunder strike him deaf or dead?

      “If Nature thunder’d in his opening ears,
      And stunn’d him with the music of the spheres,
      How would he wish that Heaven had left him still
      The whispering zephyr and the purling rill!”


[1] Karl Hildebrand.

[2] ἀγαπάω and φιλέω.

[3] “Companion to the Revised Version of the English New
Testament,” by Alexander Roberts, D.D.

[4] “University Sermons,” by J. H. Newman.

[5] We have heard of an Englishman’s deploring with the deepest
pathos his having been named “James,” asserting that it had to some
extent made a flunkey of his very soul, against his will.

[6] “Literature and Life,” by Edwin P. Whipple.



  Genus dicendi imitatur publicos mores.... Non potest alius esse
  ingenio, alius animo color.--SENECA.

  The world is satisfied with words; few care to dive beneath the

  Words are the signs and symbols of things; and as in
  accounts, ciphers and symbols pass for real sums, so, in the
  course of human affairs, words and names pass for things
  themselves.--ROBERT SOUTH.

  Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil.--ISAIAH v, 20.

The fact that a man’s language is a part of his character,--that
the words he uses are an index to his mind and heart,--must
have been noted long before language was made a subject of
investigation. “Discourse,” says Quintilian, “reveals character,
and discloses the secret disposition and temper; and not without
reason did the Greeks teach that as a man lived so would he speak.”
_Profert enim mores plerumque oratio, et animi secreta detegit.
Nec sine causa Græci prodiderunt, ut vivat, quemque etiam dicere._
When a clock is foul and disordered, its wheels warped or cogs
broken, the bell hammer and the hands will proclaim the fact;
instead of being a guide, it will mislead, and, while the disorder
continues, will continually betray its own infirmity. So when a
man’s mind is disordered or his heart corrupted, there will gather
on his face and in his language an expression corresponding to
the irregularities within. There is, indeed, a physiognomy in the
speech as well as in the face. As physicians judge of the state
of the body, so may we judge of the mind, by the tongue. Except
under peculiar circumstances, where prudence, shame, or delicacy
seals the mouth, the objects dearest to the heart,--the pet words,
phrases, or shibboleths, the terms expressing our strongest
appetencies and antipathies,--will rise most frequently to the
lips; and Ben Jonson, therefore, did not exaggerate in saying that
no glass renders a man’s form and likeness so true as his speech.
“As a man speaks, so he thinks; and as he thinketh in his heart, so
is he.”

If a man is clear-headed, noble-minded, sincere, just, and pure
in thought and feeling, these qualities will be symbolized
in his words; and, on the other hand, if he has a confused
habit of thought, is mean, grovelling and hypocritical, these
characteristics will reveal themselves in his speech. The door
keeper of an alien household said to Peter, “Thou art surely a
Galilean; thy speech bewrayeth thee”; and so, in spite of all masks
and professions, in spite of his reputation, the essential nature
of every person will stamp itself on his language. How often do the
words and tones of a professedly religious man, who gives liberally
to the church, prays long and loud in public, and attends rigidly
to every outward observance, betray in some mysterious way,--by
some impalpable element which we instinctively detect, but cannot
point out to others,--the utter worldliness of his character! How
frequently do words uttered volubly, and with a pleasing elocution,
affect us as mere sounds, suggesting only the hollowness and
unreality of the speaker’s character! How often does the use of a
single word flash more light upon a man’s motives and principles
of action, give a deeper insight into his habits of thought and
feeling, than an entire biography! How often, when a secret sorrow
preys upon the heart, which we would fain hide from the world
by a smiling face, do we betray it unconsciously by a trivial or
parenthetical word! Fast locked do we deem our Bluebeard chamber to
be, the key and the secret of which we have in our own possession;
yet all the time a crimson stream is flowing across the door sill,
telling of murdered hopes within.

Out of the immense magazine of words furnished by our English
vocabulary,--embracing over a hundred thousand distinct
terms,--each man selects his own favorite expressions, his own
forms of syntax, by a peculiar law which is part of the essential
difference between him and all other men; and in the verbal stock
in trade of each individual we should find, could it once be laid
open to us, a key that would unlock many of the deepest mysteries
of his humanity,--many of the profoundest secrets of his private
history. How often is a man’s character revealed by the adjectives
he uses! Like the inscriptions on a thermometer, these words of
themselves reveal the temperament. The conscientious man weighs his
words as in a hair-balance; the boaster and the enthusiast employ
extreme phrases, as if there were no degree but the superlative.
The cautious man uses words as the rifleman does bullets; he utters
but few words, but they go to the mark like a gunshot, and then he
is silent again, as if he were reloading. The dogmatist is known by
his sweeping, emphatic language, and the absence of all qualifying
terms, such as “perhaps” and “it may be.” The fact that the word
“glory” predominates in all of Bonaparte’s dispatches, while
in those of his great adversary, Wellington, which fill twelve
enormous volumes, it never once occurs--not even after the hardest
won victory,--but “duty,” “duty,” is invariably named as the
motive for every action, speaks volumes touching their respective
characters. It was to work out the problem of self-aggrandizement
that Napoleon devoted all his colossal powers; and _conscience_,
_responsibility_, and kindred terms, seem never to have found their
way into his vocabulary. Men, with their physical and moral force,
their bodily energies, and their passions, prejudices, delusions,
and enthusiasms, were to him but as fuel to swell the blaze on
the altar of that ambition of which he was at once the priest and
deity. Of duties to them he never for a moment dreamed; for, from
the hot May-day of Lodi to the autumnal night of Moscow, when he
fled the flaming Kremlin, he seemed unconscious that he was himself
a created and responsible being.

An author’s style is an open window through which we can look in
upon him, and estimate his character. The cunning reader reads
between the lines, and finds out secrets about the writer, as
if he were overhearing his soliloquies. He marks the pet phrase
or epithet, draws conclusions from asseveration and emphasis,
notes the half-perceptible sneer or insinuation, detects the
secret misery that is veiled by a jest, and learns the writer’s
idiosyncrasies even when he tries hardest to mask them. We know a
passage from Sir Thomas Browne, as we know a Rembrandt or a Dürer.
Macaulay is betrayed by his antitheses, and Cicero by his _esse

Dr. Arnold has strikingly shown how we may judge of a historian
by his style, his language being an infallible index to his
character. “If it is very heavy and cumbrous, it indicates either
a dull man or a pompous man, or at least a slow and awkward man;
if it be tawdry and full of commonplaces enunciated with great
solemnity, the writer is most likely a silly man; if it be highly
antithetical and full of unusual expressions, or artificial ways of
stating a plain thing, the writer is clearly an affected man. If it
be plain and simple, always clear, but never eloquent, the writer
may be a very sensible man, but is too hard and dry to be a very
great man. If, on the other hand, it is always elegant, rich in
illustrations, and without the relief of simple and great passages,
we must admire the writer’s genius in a very high degree, but we
may fear that he is too continually excited to have attained to
the highest wisdom, for that is necessarily calm. In this manner
the mere language of a historian will furnish us with something
of a key to his mind, and will tell us, or at least give us cause
to presume, in what his main strength lies, and in what he is
deficient.” It has been said of Gibbon’s style that it was one in
which it was impossible to speak the truth.

A writer in the “Edinburgh Review” observes that the statement that
a man’s language is part of his character, holds true, not only in
regard to the usage of certain shibboleths of a party, whether in
religion or politics, but also in regard to a general vocabulary.
“There is a school vocabulary and a college vocabulary; certain
phrases brought home to astound and perplex the uninitiated,
and passing now and then into general currency. In this age of
examinations,--army, navy, civil-service, and middle-class,--the
verb ‘to pluck’ is well-nigh incorporated with the vernacular, and
must take its place in dictionaries. The sportsman Nimrod has his
esoteric vocabulary, and so has likewise the angler Walton. The man
of the world has his own set of phrases, understood and recognized
by the fraternity; and so has the gourmand; and so also has the
fancier of wines, who, in opposition to one of the laws of nature,
speaks to you of wine, a fluid, as being ‘dry.’ The connoisseur
in painting tells you also of ‘dryness’ in a picture, and he uses
other terms which seem as if they had been invented to puzzle the
uninitiated. Your favorite landscape may have ‘tones’ in it, as
well as your violin. With shoulders that are ‘broad,’ and with
cloth that is ‘broad’ covering those broad shoulders, you stand and
observe that a painting is ‘broad.’ You sit down at dinner with a
‘delicious bit’ of venison before you on the table, and looking up
see a ‘delicious bit’ of Watteau or Wouvermans before you on the

As with individuals, so with nations: the language of a people is
often a moral barometer, which marks with marvellous precision the
rise or fall of the national life. The stock of words composing
any language corresponds to the knowledge of the community that
speaks it, and shows with what objects it is familiar, what
generalizations it has made, what distinctions it has drawn,--all
its cognitions and reasonings, in the worlds of matter and of
mind. “As our material condition varies, as our ways of life, our
institutions, public and private, become other than they have been,
all is necessarily reflected in our language. In these days of
railroads, steamboats and telegraphs, of sun pictures, of chemistry
and geology, of improved wearing stuffs, furniture, styles of
building, articles of food and luxury of every description, how
many words and phrases are in every one’s mouth which would be
utterly unintelligible to the most learned man of a century ago,
were he to rise from his grave and walk our streets!... Language is
expanded and contracted in precise adaptation to the circumstances
and needs of those who use it; it is enriched or impoverished,
in every part, along with the enrichment or impoverishment of
their minds.”[7] Every race has its own organic growth, its own
characteristic ideas and opinions, which are impressed on its
political constitution, its legislation, its manners and its
customs, its modes of religious worship; and the expression of all
these peculiarities is found in its speech. If a people is, as
Milton said of the English, a noble and a puissant nation, of a
quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent and subtle
to discourse, its language will exhibit all these qualities; while,
on the other hand, if it is frivolous and low-thoughted,--if it is
morally bankrupt and dead to all lofty sentiments,--its mockery of
virtue, its inability to comprehend the true dignity and meaning of
life, the feebleness of its moral indignation, will all inevitably
betray themselves in its speech, as truly as would the opposite
qualities of spirituality of thought and exaltation of soul.
These discreditable qualities will find an utterance “in the use
of solemn and earnest words in senses comparatively trivial or
even ridiculous; in the squandering of such as ought to have been
reserved for the highest mysteries of the spiritual life, on slight
and secular objects; and in the employment, almost in jest and
play, of words implying the deepest moral guilt.”

Could anything be more significant of the profound degradation of
a people than the abject character of the complimentary and social
dialect of the Italians, and the pompous appellations with which
they dignify things in themselves insignificant, as well as their
constant use of intensives and superlatives on the most trivial
occasions? Is it not a notable fact that they, who for so long
a time had no country,--on whose altars the fires of patriotism
have, till of late, burned so feebly,--use the word _pellegrino_,
“foreign,” as a synonym for “excellent”? Might we not almost infer
_a priori_ the servile condition to which, previous to their late
uprising, centuries of tyranny had reduced them, from the fact that
with the same people, so many of whom are clothed in rags, a man of
honor is “a well dressed man”; that a man who murders in secret is
“a brave man,” _bravo_; that a _virtuoso_, or “virtuous man,” is
one who is accomplished in music, painting, and sculpture,--arts
which should be the mere embroidery, and not the web and woof, of
a nation’s life; that, in their magnificent indigence, they call a
cottage with three or four acres of land _un podere_, “a power”;
that they term every house with a large door _un palazzo_, “a
palace,” a lamb’s fry _una cosa stupenda_, “a stupendous thing,”
and that a message sent by a footman to his tailor through a
scullion is _una ambasciata_, “an embassy”?

Let us not, however, infer the _hopeless_ depravity of any people
from the baseness of the tongue they have inherited, not chosen. It
makes a vast difference, as Prof. Marsh justly observes, whether
words expressive of noble thoughts and mighty truths do not exist
in a language, or whether ages of soul-crushing tyranny have
compelled their disuse, and the employment of the baser part of
the national vocabulary. The mighty events that have lately taken
place in Italy “show that a tone of hypocrisy may cling to the
tongue, long after the spirit of a nation is emancipated, and that
where grand words are found in a speech, there grand thoughts,
noble purposes, high resolves exist also; or, at least, the spark
slumbers which a favoring breath may, at any moment, kindle into a
cherishing and devouring flame.”[8]

A late writer calls attention to the fact that the French language,
while it has such positive expressions as “drunk” and “tipsy,”
conveyed by _ivre_ and _gris_, contains no such negative term as
“sober.” _Sobre_ means always “temperate” or “abstemious,” never
the opposite condition to intoxication. The English, it is argued,
drink enough to need a special illustrative title for a man who has
not drunk; but though the Parisians began to drink alcohol freely
during the sieges, the French have never yet felt the necessity
of forming any such curious subjective appellation, consequently
they do not possess it. Again, the French boast that they have no
such word as “bribe,” as if this implied their exemption from that
sin; and such, indeed, may be the fact. But may not the absence
of this word from their vocabulary prove, on the contrary, their
lack of sensibility to the heinous nature of the offense, just as
the lack of the word “humility,” in the language of the Greeks,
usually so rich in terms, proves that they lacked the thing itself,
or as the fact that the same people had no word corresponding
to the Latin _ineptus_, argues, as Cicero thought, not that the
character designated by the word was wanting among them, but that
the fault was so universal with them that they failed to recognize
it as such? Is it not a great defect in a language that it lacks
the words by which certain forms of baseness or sinfulness, in
those who speak it, may be brought home to their consciousness?
Can we properly hate or abhor any wicked act till we have given it
a specific objective existence by giving it a name which shall at
once designate and condemn it? The _pot-de-vin_, and other jesting
phrases which the French have coined to denote bribery, can have no
effect but to encourage this wrong.

What shall we think of the fact that the French language has no
word equivalent to “listener”? Is it not a noteworthy circumstance,
shedding light upon national character, that among thirty-seven
millions of talkers, no provision, except the awkward paraphrase,
_celui qui écoute_, “he who hears,” should have been made for
hearers? Is there any other explanation of this blank than the
supposition that every Frenchman talks from the pure love of
talking, and not to be heard; that, reversing the proverb, he
believes that silence is silver, but talking is golden; and
that, not caring whether he is listened to or not, he has never
recognized that he has no name for the person to whom he chatters?
Again, is it not remarkable that, among the French, _bonhomme_, “a
good man,” is a term of contempt; that the fearful Hebrew word,
“gehenna,” has been condensed into _gêne_, and means only a petty
annoyance; and that _honnêteté_, which once meant honesty, now
means only civility? It was in the latter half of the reign of
Louis XIV that the word _honnête_ exchanged its primitive for its
present meaning. Till then, according to good authority, when a
man’s descent was said to be _honnête_, he was complimented on the
virtuousness of his progenitors, not reminded of the mediocrity of
their condition; and when the same term was applied to his family,
it was an acknowledgment that they belonged to the middle ranks
of society, not a suggestion that they were plebeians. Again,
how significant is the fact that the French has no such words as
“home,” “comfort,” “spiritual,” and but one word for “love” and
“like,” compelling them to put Heaven’s last gift to man on a
par with an article of diet; as “I love Julia,”--“I love a leg
of mutton”! Couple with these peculiarities of the language the
circumstance that the French term _spirituel_ means simply witty,
with a certain quickness, delicacy, and versatility of mind, and
have you not a real insight into the national character?

It is said that the word oftenest on a Frenchman’s lips is _la
gloire_, and next to that, perhaps, is _brillant_, “brilliant.” The
utility of a feat or achievement in literature or science, in war
or politics, surgery or mechanics, is of little moment in his eyes
unless it also dazzles and excites surprise. It is said that Sir
Astley Cooper, the great British surgeon, on visiting the French
capital, was asked by the surgeon _en chef_ of the empire how many
times he had performed some feat of surgery that required a rare
union of dexterity and nerve. He replied that he had performed the
operation thirteen times. “Ah! but, Monsieur, I have performed him
one hundred and sixty time. How many time did you save his life?”
continued the curious Frenchman, as he saw the blank amazement of
Sir Astley’s face. “I,” said the Englishman, “saved eleven out
of the thirteen. How many did _you_ save out of a hundred and
sixty?” “Ah! Monsieur, I lose dem all;--but de operation was very

The author of “Pickwick” tells us that in America the sign vocal
for starting a coach, steamer, railway train, etc., is “Go Ahead!”
while with John Bull the ritual form is “All Right!”--and he
adds that these two expressions are somewhat expressive of the
respective moods of the two nations. The two phrases are, indeed,
vivid miniatures of John Bull and his restless brother, who sits on
the safety valve that he may travel faster, pours oil and rosin
into his steam furnaces, leaps from the cars before they have
entered the station, and who would hardly object to being fired off
from a cannon or in a bombshell, provided there were one chance
in fifty of getting sooner to the end of his journey. Let us hope
that the day may yet come when our “two-forty” people will exchange
a little of their fiery activity for a bit of Bull’s caution, and
when our Yankee Herald’s College, if we ever have one, may declare
“All Right!” to be the motto of our political escutcheon, with as
much propriety as it might now inscribe “Go Ahead!” beneath that
fast fowl, the annexing and screaming eagle, that hovers over the
peaks of the Rocky Mountains, dips its wings in two oceans, and has
one eye on Cuba and the other on Quebec.

A volume might be filled with illustrations of the truth that the
language of nations is a mirror, in which may be seen reflected
with unerring accuracy all the elements of their intellectual as
well as of their moral character. What scholar that is familiar
with Greek and Latin has failed to remark how indelibly the
contrariety of character in the two most civilized nations of
antiquity is impressed on their languages, distinguished as is
the one by exuberant originality, the other by innate poverty
of thought? In the Greek, that most flexible and perfect of all
the European tongues,--which surpasses every other alike in
its metaphysical subtlety, its wealth of inflections, and its
capacity for rendering the minutest and most delicate shades of
meaning,--the thought controls and shapes the language; while the
tyrannous objectivity of the Latin, rigid and almost cruel, like
the nation whose voice it is, and whose words are always _Sic
volo, sic jubeo, stet pro ratione voluntas_, coerces rather than
simply syllables the thought. “Greek,” says Henry Nelson Coleridge,
“the shrine of the genius of the old world; as universal as our
race, as individual as ourselves; of infinite flexibility, of
indefatigable strength; with the complication and distinctness of
nature herself; to which nothing was vulgar, from which nothing was
excluded; speaking to the ear like Italian, speaking to the mind
like English; at once the variety and picturesqueness of Homer,
the gloom and intensity of Æschylus; not compressed to the closest
by Thucydides, not fathomed to the bottom by Plato, not sounding
with all its thunders, nor lit up with all its ardors under the
Promethean touch of Demosthenes himself. And Latin,--the voice of
Empire and of Law, of War and of the State,--the best language for
the measured research of History, and the indignant declamation
of moral satire; rigid in its constructions, parsimonious in
its synonyms; yet majestic in its bareness, impressive in its
conciseness; the true language of history, instinct with the spirit
of nations, and not with the passions of individuals; breathing the
maxims of the world, and not the tenets of the schools; one and
uniform in its air and spirit, whether touched by the stern and
haughty Sallust, by the open and discursive Livy, by the reserved
and thoughtful Tacitus.”

It is a noteworthy fact that, as the Romans were the most majestic
of nations, so theirs is the only ancient language that contains
the word “majesty,” the Greek having nothing that exactly
corresponds to it; and the Latin language is as majestic as were
the Romans themselves. Cicero, or some other Latin writer, finds
an argument to show that the intellectual character of the Romans
was higher than that of the Greeks, in the fact that the word
_convivium_ means “a living together,” while the corresponding
Greek term, συμπόσιον, means “a drinking together.” While the
Romans retained their early simplicity and nobility of soul,
their language was full of power and truth; but when they became
luxurious, sensual, and corrupt, their words degenerated into
miserable and meaningless counters, without intrinsic value, and
serving only as a conventional medium of exchange. It has been
said truly that “in the pedantry of Statius, in the puerility of
Martial, in the conceits of Seneca, in the poets who would go into
emulous raptures on the beauty of a lap-dog and the apotheosis
of a eunuch’s hair, we read the hand-writing of an empire’s

The climate of a country, as well as the mind and character of its
people, is clearly revealed in its speech. The air men breathe,
the temperature in which they live, and the natural scenery amid
which they pass their lives, acting incessantly upon body and
mind, and especially upon the organs of speech, impart to them
a soft or a harsh expression. The languages of the South, as we
should expect them to be, “are limpid, euphonic, and harmonious,
as though they had received an impress from the transparency of
their heaven, and the soft sweet sounds of the winds that sigh
among the woods. On the other hand, in the hirrients and gutturals,
the burr and roughness of the Northern tongues, we catch an echo
of the breakers bursting on their crags, and the crashing of the
pine branch over the cataract.” The idiom of Sybaris cannot be
that of Sparta. The Attic Greek was softer than the Doric, the
dialect of the mountains; the Ionic, spoken in the voluptuous
regions of Asia Minor, was softer and more sinuous than the Attic.
The Anglo-Saxon, the language of a people conversant chiefly with
gloomy forests and stormy seas, and prone to silence, was naturally
harsh and monosyllabic. The roving sea-king of Scandinavia, cradled
on the ocean and rocked by its storms, could no more speak in the
soft and melting accents of a Southern tongue than the screaming
eagle could utter the liquid melody of a nightingale’s song.

It is said that in the South Sea Islands version of the New
Testament there are whole chapters with no words ending in
consonants, except the proper names of the original. Italian has
been called the love-talk of the Roman without his armor. Fuller,
contrasting the Italians and the Swiss, quaintly remarks that the
former, “whose country is called ‘the country of good words,’
love the circuits of courtesy, that an ambassador should not, as
a sparrow hawk, fly outright to his prey, and meddle presently
with the matter in hand; but, like the noble falcon, mount in
language, soar high, fetch compasses of compliment, and then in due
time stoop to game, and seize on the business propounded. Clean
contrary, the Switzers (who sent word to the king of France not to
send them an ambassador with stores of words, but a treasurer with
plenty of money) count all words quite out which are not straight
on, have an antipathy against eloquent language, the flowers of
rhetoric being as offensive to them as sweet perfume to such as are
troubled with the mother; yea, generally, great soldiers have their
stomachs sharp set to feed on the matter; loathing long speeches,
as wherein they conceive themselves to lose time, in which they
could conquer half a country; and, counting bluntness their best
eloquence, love to be accosted in their own kind.”

It is in the idioms of a people, its peculiar turns of expression,
and the modifications of meaning which its borrowed words have
undergone, that its distinctive genius is most strikingly seen.
The forms of salutation used by different nations are saturated
with their idiosyncrasies, and of themselves alone essentially
reveal their respective characters. How clearly is the innermost
distinction between the Greek mind and the Hebrew brought out in
their respective salutations, “Rejoice!” and “Peace!” How vividly
are contrasted, in the two salutations, the sunny, world-enjoying
temper of the one people with the profound religious feeling of the
other! The formula of the robust, energetic, valiant Roman,--with
whom virtue was manliness, and whose value was measured by his
_valor_,--was _Salve! Vale!_ that is, “Be well,” “Be strong.”
In the expression, “If God will it, you are well,” is betrayed
the fatalism of the Arab; while the greeting of the Turk, “May
your shadow never be less!” speaks of a sunny clime. In the hot,
oppressive climate of Egypt perspiration is essential to health,
and you are asked, “How do you perspire?” The Italian asks, _Come
sta?_ literally, “How does he stand?” an expression originally
referring to the _standing_ of the Lombard merchants in the market
place, and which seems to indicate that one’s well-being or health
depends on his business prosperity. Some writers, however, have
regarded the word “stand” in this formula as meaning no more
than “exist”; mere life itself, in the land of _far niente_,
being a blessing. The Genoese, a trading people, and at one time
the bankers of Europe, used in former days to say, _Sanita e
guadagno_, or “Health and gain!” a phrase in which the ideals of
the countrymen of Columbus are tersely summed up. The dreamy,
meditative German, dwelling amid smoke and abstractions, salutes
you with the vague, impersonal, metaphysical _Wie gehts?_--“How
goes it?” Another salutation which he uses is, _Wie befinden sie
sich?_--“How do you find yourself?” A born philosopher, he is so
absent-minded, so lost in thought and clouds of tobacco smoke, that
he thinks you cannot tell him of the state of your health till you
have searched for and _found_ it.

The trading Hollander, who scours the world, asks, _Hoe
vaart’s-ge?_ “How do you go?” an expression eminently
characteristic of a trading, travelling people, devoted to
business, and devoid of sentiment. The thoughtful Swede inquires,
“How do you think?” They also inquire, _Hur mär ni?_--literally
“How can you?” that is, “Are you strong?” The lively, restless,
vivacious Frenchman, who lives in other people’s eyes, and is
more anxious about appearances than about realities,--who has
never to hunt himself up like the German, and desires less to do,
like the Anglo-Saxon, than to be lively, to show himself,--says
frankly, _Comment vous portez-vous?_--“How do you carry yourself?”
In these few words we have the pith and essence, the very soul,
of the French character. Externals, the shapes and shows of
things,--for what else could we expect a people to be solicitous,
who are born actors, and who live, to a great extent, for stage
effect; who unite so much outward refinement with so much inward
coarseness; who have an exquisite taste for the ornamental, and
an almost savage ignorance of the comfortable; who invented, as
Emerson says, the dickey, but left it to the English to add the
shirt? It has been said that a man would be owl-blind, who in the
“Hoo’s a’ wi’ ye” of the kindly Scot, could not perceive the
mixture of national pawkiness with hospitable cordiality. “One
sees, in the mind’s eye, the canny chield, who would invite you
to dinner three days in the week, but who would look twice at
your bill before he discounted it.” What can be more unmistakably
characteristic than the Irish peasant’s “Long life to your honor;
may you make your bed in glory!” After such a grandiose salute,
we need no mouser among the records of antiquity to certify to
us that the Hibernian is of Oriental origin, nor do we need any
other key to his peculiar vivacity and impressionableness of
feeling, his rollicking, daredevil, hyperbole-loving enthusiasm.
Finally, of all the national forms of salutation, the most signally
characteristic,--the one which reveals the very core, the inmost
“heart of heart” of a people,--is the Englishman’s “How do you
do?” In these four little monosyllables the activity, the intense
practicality of the Englishman, the very quintessence of his
character, are revealed as by a lightning’s flash. To do! Not to
think, to stand, to carry yourself, but to _do_; and this doing is
so universal among the English,--its necessity is so completely
recognized,--that no one dreams of asking whether you are doing, or
what you are doing, but all demand, “_How_ do you do?”

It has been well observed by the learned German writer, J. D.
Michaelis, that “some virtues are more sedulously cultivated
by moralists, when the language has fit names for indicating
them; whereas they are but superficially treated of, or rather
neglected, in nations where such virtues have not so much as a
name. Languages may obviously do injury to morals and religion
by their equivocation; by false accessories, inseparable from
the principal idea; and by their poverty.” It is a striking fact,
noted by an English traveller, that the native language of Van
Dieman’s Land has four words to express the idea of taking life,
not one of which indicates the deep-lying distinction between
to kill and to murder; while any word for love is wanting to it
altogether. One of the most formidable obstacles which Christian
missionaries have encountered in teaching the doctrines and
precepts of the Gospel to the heathen, has been the absence from
their languages of a spiritual and ethical nomenclature. It is in
vain that the religious teachers of a people present to them a
doctrinal or ethical system inculcating virtues and addressed to
faculties, whose very existence their language, and consequently
the conscious self-knowledge of the people, do not recognize.
Equally vain is it to reprehend vices which have no name by which
they can be described and denounced, as things to be loathed and
shunned. Hence, in translating the Bible into the languages of
savage nations, the translators have been compelled to employ
merely provisional phrases, until they could develop a dialect
fitted to convey moral as well as intellectual truth. It is said
that the Ethiopians, having but one word for “person” and “nature,”
could not apprehend the doctrine of the union of Christ’s two
natures in one single person. There are languages of considerable
cultivation in which it is not easy to find a term for the Supreme
Being. Seneca wrote a treatise on “Providence,” which had not
even a name at Rome in the time of Cicero. It is a curious fact
that the English language, rich as it is in words to express the
most complex religious ideas, as well as in terms characterizing
vices and crimes, had until about two centuries ago no word for
“selfishness,” the root of all vices, nor any single word for
“suicide.” The Greeks and Romans had a clear conception of a moral
ideal, but the Christian idea of “sin” was utterly unknown to the
Pagan mind. Vice they regarded as simply a relaxed energy of the
will, by which it yielded to the allurements of sensual pleasure;
and _vir_tue, literally “manliness,” was the determined spirit, the
courage and vigor with which it resisted such temptations. But the
idea of “holiness” and the antithetic idea of sin were such utter
strangers to the Pagan mind that it would have been impossible to
express them in either of the classical tongues of antiquity. As
De Maistre has strikingly observed, man knew well that he could
“irritate” God or “a god,” but not that he could “offend” him.
The words “crime” and “criminal” belong to all languages: those
of “sin” and “sinner” belong only to the Christian tongue. For a
similar reason, man could always call God “Father,” which expresses
only a relation of creation and of power; but no man, of his own
strength, could say “my Father”! for this is a relation of love,
foreign even to Mount Sinai, and which belongs only to Calvary.

Again, the Greek language, as we have already seen, had no term
for the Christian virtue of “humility”; and when the apostle Paul
coined one for it, he had to employ a root conveying the idea,
not of self-abasement before a just and holy God, but of positive
debasement and meanness of spirit. On the other hand, there is a
word in our own tongue which, as De Quincey observes, cannot be
rendered adequately either by German or Greek, the two richest of
human languages, and without which we should all be disarmed for
one great case, continually recurrent, of social enormity. It is
the word “humbug.” “A vast mass of villany, that cannot otherwise
be reached by legal penalties, or brought within the rhetoric
of scorn, would go at large with absolute impunity, were it not
through the stern Rhadamanthian aid of this virtuous and inexorable

There is no way in which men so often become the victims of error
as by an imperfect understanding of certain words which are
artfully used by their superiors. Cynicism is seldom shallower
than when it sneers at what it contemptuously calls the power of
words over the popular imagination. If men are agreed about things,
what, it is asked, can be more foolish than to dispute about names?
But while it is true that in the physical world things dominate
over names, and are not at the mercy of a shifting vocabulary,
yet in the world of ideas,--of history, philosophy, ethics and
poetry,--words triumph over things, are even equivalent to things,
and are as truly the living organism of thought as the eyes, lips,
and entire physiognomy of a man, are the media of the soul’s
expression. Hence words are the only certain _test_ of thought;
so much so that we often stop in the midst of an assertion, an
exclamation, or a request, startled by the form it assumes in
words. Thus, in Shakespeare, King John says to Hubert, who pleaded
his sovereign’s order for putting the young prince to death, that
if, instead of receiving the order in signs,

      Hadst bid me tell my tale _in express words_,
      Deep shame had struck me dumb.”

Words are often not only the vehicle of thought, but the very
mirror in which we see our ideas, and behold the beauty or ugliness
of our inner selves.

A volume might be written on the mutual influence of language and
opinion, showing that as

      “Faults in the life breed errors in the brain,
      And these reciprocally those again,”

so the sentiments we cherish mould our language, and our words
react upon our opinions and feelings. Let a man go into a foreign
country, give up his own language, and adopt another, and he will
gradually and unconsciously change his opinions, too. He will
neither be able to express his old ideas adequately in the new
words, nor to prevent the new words of themselves putting new
ideas in his brain. Who has failed to notice that the opinion we
entertain of an object does not more powerfully influence the
mind in applying to it a name or an epithet, than the epithet
or name influences the opinion? Call thunder “the bolt of God’s
wrath,” and you awaken a feeling of terror; call it, with the
German peasant, _das liebe gewitter_, “the dear thunder,” and you
excite a different emotion. As the forms in which we clothe the
outward expression of our feelings react with mighty force upon
the heart, so our speculative opinions are greatly confirmed or
invalidated by the technical terms we employ. Fiery words, it has
been truly said, are the hot blast that inflames the fuel of our
passionate nature; and formulated doctrine, a hedge that confines
the discursive wanderings of the thoughts. In personal quarrels,
it is the stimulus men give themselves by stinging words that
impels them to violent deeds; and in argumentative discussions it
is the positive affirmation and reaffirmation of our views which,
more than the reasons we give, deepen our convictions. The words
that have helped us to conquer the truth often become the very
tyrants of our convictions; and phrases once big with meaning
are repeated till they “ossify the very organs of intelligence.”
False or partial definitions often lead into dangerous errors; an
impassioned polemic falls a victim to his own logic, and a wily
advocate becomes the dupe of his own rhetoric.

Words, in short, are excellent servants, but the most tyrannical of
masters. Some men command them, but a vast majority are commanded
by them. There are words which have exercised a more iron rule,
swayed with a more despotic power, than Cæsar or the Russian Czar.
Often an idle word has conquered a host of facts; and a mistaken
theory, embalmed in a widely received word, has retarded for
centuries the progress of knowledge. Thus the protracted opposition
in France to the Newtonian theory arose chiefly from the influence
of the word “attraction”; the contemptuous misnomer, “Gothic,”
applied to northern mediæval architecture, perpetuated the dislike
with which it was regarded; and the introduction of the term
“landed proprietor” into Bengal caused a disorganization of society
which had never been caused by its most barbarous invaders.

Macaulay, in his “History of England,” mentions a circumstance
strikingly illustrative of the connection between language and
opinion,--that no large society of which the language is not
Teutonic has ever turned Protestant, and that wherever a language
derived from ancient Rome is spoken, the religion of modern Rome to
this day prevails. “Men believe,” says Bacon, “that their reason is
lord over their words, but it happens, too, that words exercise a
reciprocal and reactionary power over the intellect.... Words, as a
Tartar’s bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest,
and mightily entangle and pervert the judgment.” Not only every
language, but every age, has its charmed words, its necromantic
terms, which give to the cunning speaker who knows how to ring
the changes upon them, instant access to the hearts of men, as
at “Open Sesame!” the doors of the cave flung themselves open to
the thieves, in the Arabian tale. “There are words,” says Balzac,
“which, like the trumpets, cymbals and bass drums of mountebanks,
attract the public; the words ‘beauty,’ ‘glory,’ ‘poetry,’ have
witcheries that seduce the grossest minds.” At the utterance of the
magic names of Austerlitz and Marengo, thousands have rushed to a
forlorn hope, and met death at the cannon’s mouth.

When Haydon’s picture of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem was
exhibited in London in 1820, Mrs. Siddons, the famous actress,
entering the exhibition room, said: “The paleness of your Christ
gives it a supernatural look.” This, says the painter, settled its
success. There is great value in the selection of terms; many a
man’s fortune has been made by a happy phrase. Thousands thronged
to see the great work with “a supernatural look.”

South, in his eloquent sermons on “The Fatal Imposture and Force of
Words,” observes that any one who wishes to manage “the rabble,”
need never inquire, so long as they have ears to hear, whether
they have any understanding whereby to judge. With two or three
popular, empty words, well tuned and humored, he may whistle them
backward and forward, upward and downward, till he is weary; and
get upon their backs when he is so. When Cæsar’s army mutinied, no
argument from interest or reason could persuade them; but upon his
addressing them as _Quirites_, the tumult was instantly hushed, and
they took that word in payment of all. “In the thirtieth chapter
of Isaiah we find some arrived at that pitch of sottishness, and so
much in love with their own ruin, as to own plainly, and roundly
say, what they would be at. In the tenth verse, ‘Prophesy not unto
us,’ say they, ‘right things, but prophesy to us smooth things.’ As
if they had said, ‘Do but oil the razor for us, and let us alone to
cut our own throats.’ Such an enchantment is there in words; and so
fine a thing does it seem to some to be ruined plausibly, and to be
ushered to destruction with panegyric and acclamation; a shameful,
though irrefragable argument of the absurd empire and usurpation of
words over things; and that the greatest affairs and most important
interests of the world are carried on by things, not as they are,
but as they are called.”

The Romans, after the expulsion of Tarquin, could not brook the
idea of being governed by a _king_; yet they submitted to the
most abject slavery under an emperor. Cromwell was too sagacious
to disgust the republicans by calling himself King, though he
doubtless laughed grimly in his sleeve as, under the title of Lord
Protector, he exercised all the regal functions. We are told by
Saint Simon that at the court of the grand monarch, Louis XIV,
gambling was so common that even the ladies took part in it. The
gentlemen did not scruple to cheat at cards; but the ladies had
a peculiar tenderness on the subject. No lady could for a moment
think of retaining such unrighteous gains; the moment they were
touched, they were religiously given away. But then, we must add,
the gift was always made to some other winner of her own sex.
By carefully avoiding the words “interchange of winnings,” the
charming casuists avoided all self-reproach, and all sharp censure
by their discreet and lenient confessors. There are sects of
Christians at the present day that protest vehemently against a
hired ministry; yet their preachers must be warmed, fed and clothed
by “donation parties”; reminding one of the snob gentleman in
Molière, whose father was no shop-keeper, but kindly “chose goods”
for his friends, which he let them have for--money.

Party and sectarian leaders know that the great secret of the art
of swaying the people is to invent a good shibboleth or battle
cry, to be dinned continually in their ears. Persons familiar with
British history will remember certain talismanic vocables, such
as “Wilkes and Liberty,” the bare utterance of which has been
sufficient at times to set a whole population in a flame; while the
solemn and sepulchral cadences in which Pitt repeated the cuckoo
song of “thrones and altars,” “anarchy and dissolution of social
order,” were more potent arguments against revolution than the most
perfect syllogism that was ever constructed in mood and figure. So
in our own country this verbal magic has been found more convincing
than arguments in “Barbara” or “Baralipton.” Patriots and
demagogues alike have found that it was only necessary, in South’s
phrase, to take any passion of the people, when it was predominant
and just at the critical height of it, “and nick it with some
lucky or unlucky word,” and they might “as certainly overrule it
to their own purpose as a spark of fire, falling upon gunpowder,
will infallibly blow it up.” “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights,” “No
More Compromise,” “The Higher Law,” “The Irrepressible Conflict,”
“Squatter Sovereignty,” and other similar phrases, have roused and
moved the public mind as much as the pulpit and the press.

Gouverneur Morris, in his Parisian journal of 1789, tells an
anecdote which strikingly illustrates this influence of catch-words
upon the popular mind. A gentleman, in walking, came near to a knot
of people whom a street orator was haranguing on the power of a
qualified veto (_veto suspensif_), which the constituent assembly
had just granted to the king. “Messieurs,” said the orator, “we
have not a supply of bread. Let me tell you the reason. It has
been but three days since the king obtained this qualified veto,
and during that time the aristocrats have bought up some of these
_suspensions_, and carried the grain out of the kingdom.” To
this profound discourse the people assented by loud cheers. Not
only shibboleths, but epithets, are often more convincing than
syllogisms. The term _Utopian_ or _Quixotic_, associated in the
minds of the people with any measure, even the wisest and most
practicable, is as fatal to it as what some one calls the poisonous
sting of the American (?) _humbug_.

So in theology; false doctrines and true doctrines have owed their
currency or non-currency, in a great measure, to the coinage of
happy terms, by which they have been summed up and made attractive
or offensive. Trench observes that “the entire secret of Buddhism
is in the ‘Nirvâna.’ Take away the word, and it is not too much
to say that the keystone to the whole arch is gone.” When the
Roman Catholic Church coined the term “transubstantiation,” the
error which had so long been held in solution was precipitated,
and became henceforth a fixed and influential dogma. What a
potent watchword was the term “Reformation,” in the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries! Who can estimate the influence of the
phrases “Broad Church,” “Liberal Church,” “Close Communion,” in
advancing or retarding the growth of certain religious sects at
this day? Many of even the most “advanced thinkers,” who reject
the supernatural element of the Bible, put all religions upon the
same level, and deem Shakespeare as truly inspired as the Apostles,
style themselves “Christians.”

Even in science happy names have had much to do with the general
reception of truth. “Hardly any original thoughts on mental or
social subjects,” says a writer, “ever make their way among
mankind, or assume their proper proportions even in the minds
of their inventors, until aptly selected words or phrases have,
as it were, nailed them down and held them fast.” How much is
the study of the beautiful science of botany hindered by such
“lexical superfetations” as _chrysanthemum leukanthemum, Myosotis
scorpioeides_,--“scorpion-shaped mouse’s ear”; and how much is that
of astronomy promoted by such popular terms as “the bear,” “the
serpent,” “the milky way”! How much knowledge is gathered up in
the compact and easily remembered phrase, “correlation of forces”;
and to what an extent the wide diffusion of Darwin’s speculations
is owing to two or three felicitous and comprehensive terms, such
as “the struggle for existence,” “survival of the fittest,” “the
process of natural selection”! Who that has felt the painfulness
of doubt has not desired to know something of “the _positive_
philosophy” of Comte? On the other hand, the well-known anatomist,
Professor Owen, complains with just reason of the embarrassments
produced in his science by having to use a long description
instead of a name. Thus a particular bone is called by Soemmering
“_pars occipitalis stricte sic dicta partis occipitalis ossis
spheno-occipitalis_,” a description so clumsy that only the direst
necessity would lead one to use it.

Even great authors, who are supposed to have “sovereign sway and
masterdom” over words, are often bewitched and led captive by them.
Thus Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth were bent on establishing
their Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna, not because
they knew anything of that locality, but because Susquehanna was
“such a _pretty name_.” Again, to point an epigram or give edge
to a sarcasm, a writer will stab a rising reputation as with a
poniard; and, even when convicted of misrepresentation, will sooner
stick to the lie than part with a _jeu d’esprit_, or forego a
verbal felicity. Thus Byron, alluding to Keats’s death, which was
supposed to have been caused by Gifford’s savage criticism in the
“Quarterly,” said:

      “Strange that the soul, that very fiery particle,
      Should let itself be snuffed out by an article!”

Though he was afterward informed of the untruth of these lines,
Byron, plethoric as he was with poetic wealth and wit, could not
willingly let them die; and so the witticism yet remains to mislead
and provoke the laughter of his readers.

Again, there are authors who, to meet the necessities of rhyme,
or to give music to a period, will pad out their sentences with
meaningless expletives. They employ words as carpenters put false
windows into houses; not to let in light upon their meaning, but
for symmetry. Or, perhaps, they imagine that a certain degree of
distension of the intellectual stomach is required to enable it to
act with its full powers,--just as some of the Russian peasantry
mix sawdust with the train oil they drink, or as hay and straw, as
well as corn, are given to horses, to supply the necessary bulk.
Thus Dr. Johnson, imitating Juvenal, says:

      “Let observation, with extensive view,
      Survey mankind from China to Peru.”

This, a lynx-eyed critic contended, was equivalent to saying:
“Let observation, with extensive observation, observe mankind
extensively.” If the Spartans, as we are told, fined a citizen
because he used three words where two would have done as well, how
would they have punished such prodigality of language?

It is an impressive truth which has often been noticed by
moralists, that indulgence in verbal vice speedily leads to
corresponding vices in conduct. If a man talk of any mean, sensual,
or criminal practice in a familiar or flippant tone, the delicacy
of his moral sense is almost sure to be lessened, he loses his
horror of the vice, and, when tempted to do the deed, he is
far more likely to yield. Many a man, without dreaming of such
a result, has thus talked himself into vice, into sensuality,
and even into ruin. The apostle James was so impressed with the
significance of speech that he regarded it as an unerring sign of
character. “If any man offend not in word,” he declares, “the same
is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” Again
he declares that “the tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly
poison”; commenting upon which, Rev. F. W. Robertson observes:
“The deadliest poisons are those for which no test is known; there
are poisons so destructive that a single drop insinuated into the
veins produces death in three seconds.... In that drop of venom
which distils from the sting of the smallest insect, or the spikes
of the nettle-leaf, there is concentrated the quintessence of a
poison so subtle that the microscope cannot distinguish it, and
yet so virulent that it can inflame the blood, irritate the whole
constitution, and convert night and day into restless misery.”
So, he adds, there are words of calumny and slander, apparently
insignificant, yet so venomous and deadly that they not only
inflame hearts and fever human existence, but poison human society
at the very fountain springs of life. It was said with the deepest
feeling of the utterers of such words, by one who had smarted under
their sting: “Adders’ poison is under their lips.”

Who can estimate the amount of misery which has been produced in
society by merely idle words, uttered without malice, and by words
uttered in jest? A poet, whose name is unknown to us, has vividly
painted the effects of such utterances:

      “A frivolous word, a sharp retort,
        A flash from a passing cloud,
      Two hearts are scathed to their inmost core,
      Are ashes and dust forevermore;
        Two faces turn to the crowd,
      Masked by pride with a lifelong lie,
      To hide the scars of that agony.

      “A frivolous word, a sharp retort,
        An arrow at random sped;
      It has cut in twain the mystic tie
      That had bound two souls in harmony,
        Sweet love lies bleeding or dead.
      A poisoned shaft, with scarce an aim,
      Has done a mischief sad as shame.”

How often have thoughtless words set empires ablaze, and kindled
furious wars among nations! It was one of the virtues of George
Washington that he knew how to be silent. John Adams said he had
the most remarkable mouth he had ever seen; for he had the art of
controlling his lips. One of the rules of conduct to which David
Hume inflexibly adhered, was never to reply to any attack made
upon him or his writings. It was creditable to him that he had no
anxiety to have “the last word,”--that which in family circles has
been pronounced to be “the most dangerous of infernal machines.”

It is not, however, in the realm of literature and morals only that
the power of words is seen. Who is ignorant of their sway in the
world of politics? Is not fluency of speech, in many communities,
more than statesmanship? Are not brains, with a little tongue,
often far less potent than “tongue with a garnish of brains”? Need
any one be told that a talent for speech-making has stood in place
of all other acquirements; that it is this which has made judges
without law, and diplomatists without French; which has sent to
the army brigadiers who knew not a cannon from a mortar, and to
the legislature men who could not tell a bank note from a bill of
exchange; which, according to Macaulay, made a Foreign Minister
of Mr. Pitt, who never opened Vattel, and which was near making a
Chancellor of the Exchequer of Mr. Sheridan, who could not work a
sum in long division? “To be a man of the world,” says Corporal
Bunting, a character in one of Bulwer’s novels, “you must know all
the ins and outs of speechifying. It’s words that make another
man’s mare go your road. Augh! that must have been a clever man as
invented language. It is a marvel to think how much a man does in
the way of cheating, if he only has the gift of the gab; wants a
missus,--talks her over; wants your horse,--talks you out of it;
wants a place,--talks himself into it.... Words make even them ’ere
authors, poor creatures, in every man’s mouth. Augh! sir, take note
of the _words_, and the things will take care of themselves.”

It is true that “lying words” are not always responsible for the
mischief they do; that they often rebel and growl audibly against
the service into which they are pressed, and testify against their
taskmasters. The latent nature of a man struggles often through
his own words, so that even truth itself comes blasted from his
lips, and vulgarity, malignity, and littleness of soul, however
anxiously cloaked, are betrayed by the very phrases and images of
their opposites. “A satanic drop in the blood,” it has been said,
“makes a clergyman preach diabolism from scriptural texts, and a
philanthropist thunder hate from the rostrum of reform.”[9] But
though the truth often leaks out through the most hypocritical
words, it is yet true that they are successfully employed, as
decoy ducks, to deceive, and the dupes who are cheated by them are
legion. There are men fond of abstractions, whom words seem to
enter and take possession of, as their lords and owners. Blind to
every shape but a shadow, deaf to every sound but an echo, they
invert the legitimate order, and regard things as the symbols of
words, not words as the symbols of things. There is, in short, “a
besotting intoxication which this verbal magic, if I may so call
it, brings upon the mind of man.... Words are able to persuade men
out of what they find and feel, to reverse the very impressions of
sense, and to amuse men with fancies and paradoxes, even in spite
of nature and experience.”[10]

All who are familiar with Dickens will recollect the reply of the
shrewd Samuel Weller, when asked the meaning of the word monomania:
“When a _poor_ fellow takes a piece of goods from a shop, it is
called theft; but if a wealthy lady does the same thing, it is
called _monomania_.” There is biting satire as well as _naïveté_
and dry humor in the reply, and it strikingly shows the moral power
of language; how the same act may be made to appear in wholly
different lights, according to the phraseology used to describe it.
The same character may be made to look as spotless as an angel, or
as black as “the sooty spirits that troop under Acheron’s flag,”
through the lubricity of language. “_Timidus_,” says Seneca, “_se
cantum vocat; sordidus parcum_.” Thousands who would shrink back
with disgust or horror from a vice which has an ugly name, are led
“first to endure, then pity, then embrace,” when men have thrown
over it the mantle of an honorable appellation. A singular but
most instructive dictionary might be compiled by taking one after
another the honorable and the sacred words of a language, and
showing for what infamies, basenesses, crimes, or follies, each has
been made a pretext. Is there no meaning in the fact that, among
the ancient Romans, the same word was employed to designate a crime
and a great action, and that a softened expression for “a thief”
was “a man of three letters” (f. u. r.)? Does it make no difference
in our estimate of the gambler and his profession, whether we call
him by the plain, unvarnished Saxon “blackleg,” or by the French
epithet, “industrious chevalier”? Can any one doubt that in Italy,
when poisoning was rifest, the crime was fearfully increased by
the fact that, in place of this term, not to be breathed in ears
polite, the death of some one was said to be “assisted”? Or can
any one doubt the moral effect of a similar perversion of words in
France, when a subtle poison, by which impatient heirs delivered
themselves from persons who stood between them and the inheritance
they coveted, was called “succession powder”?

Juvenal indignantly denounces the polished Romans for relieving
the consciences of rich criminals by softening the names of their
crimes; and Thucydides, in a well known passage of his history,
tells how the morals of the Greeks of his day were sapped, and
how they concealed the national deterioration, by perversions of
the customary meanings of words. Unreasoning rashness, he says,
passed as “manliness” and _esprit de corps_, and prudent caution
for specious cowardice; sobermindedness was a mere “cloak for
effeminacy,” and general prudence was “inefficient inertness.”
The Athenians, at one time, were adepts in the art of coining
agreeable names for disagreeable things. “Taxes” they called
“subscriptions,” or “contributions”; the prison was “the house”;
the executioner a “public servant”; and a general abolition of debt
was “a disburdening ordinance.” Devices like these are common to
all countries; and in our own, especially, one is startled to see
what an amount of ingenuity has been expended in perfecting this
“devil’s vocabulary,” and how successful the press has been in its
efforts to transmute acts of wickedness into mere peccadilloes, and
to empty words employed in the condemnation of evil, of the depth
and earnestness of the moral reprobation they convey.

The use of classical names for vices has done no little harm to
the public morals. We may say of these names, what Burke said with
doubtful correctness of vices themselves, that “they lose half
their deformity by losing all their grossness.” If any person is in
doubt about the moral quality of an act, let him characterize it in
plain Saxon, and he will see it in its true colors.

Some time ago a Wisconsin clergyman, being detected in stealing
books from a bookstore, confessed the truth, and added that he left
his former home in New Jersey under disgrace for a similar theft.
This fact a New York paper noted under the head of “A Peculiar
Misfortune.” About the same time a clerk in Richmond, Va., being
sent to deposit several hundreds of dollars in a bank, ran away
with the money to the North. Having been pursued, overtaken, and
compelled to return the money, he was spoken of by “the chivalry”
as the young man “who had lately _met with an accident_.” Is it
not an alarming sign of the times, when, in the legislature of one
of our largest eastern States, a member declares that he has been
asked by another member for his vote, and told that he would get
“five hundred _reasons_ for giving it”; thus making the highest
word in our language, that which signifies divinely given power of
discrimination and choice, the synonym of bribery?

Perhaps no honorable term in the language has been more debased
than “gentleman.” Originally the word meant a man born of a
noble family, or _gens_, as the Romans called it; but as such
persons were usually possessed of wealth and leisure, they were
generally distinguished by greater refinement of manners than the
working classes, and a more tasteful dress. As in the course of
ages their riches and legal privileges diminished, and the gulf
which separated them from the citizens of the trading towns was
bridged by the increasing wealth and power of the latter, the term
“gentleman” came at last to denote indiscriminately all persons
who kept up the state and observed the social forms which had once
characterized men of rank. To-day the term has sunk so low that
the acutest lexicographer would be puzzled to tell its meaning.
Not only does every person of decent exterior and deportment assume
to be a gentleman, but the term is applied to the vilest criminals
and the most contemptible miscreants, as well as to the poorest and
most illiterate persons in the community.

In aristocratic England the artificial distinctions of society have
so far disappeared that even the porter who lounges in his big
chair, and condescends to show you out, is the “gentleman in the
hall”; Jeames is the “gentleman in uniform”; while the valet is
the “gentleman’s gentleman.” Even a half a century ago, George IV,
who was so ignorant that he could hardly spell, and who in heart
and soul was a thorough snob, was pronounced, upon the ground of
his grand and suave manners, “the first gentleman of Europe.” But
in the United States the term has been so emptied of its original
meaning,--especially in some of the southern states, where society
has hardly emerged from a feudal state, and where men who shoot
each other in a street fray still babble of being “born gentlemen,”
and of “dying like gentlemen,”--that most persons will think it is
quite time for the abolition of that heartless conventionality,
that pretentious cheat and barbarian, the gentleman. Cowper
declared, a hundred years ago, in regard to duelling:

                      “A gentleman
      Will not insult me, and no other can.”

A southern newspaper stated some years ago that a “gentleman” was
praising the town of Woodville, Mississippi, and remarked that
“it was the most quiet, peaceable place he ever saw; there was
no quarrelling or rowdyism, no fighting about the streets. If a
_gentleman_ insulted another, he was _quietly shot down_, and
there was the last of it.” The gentle Isaiah Rynders, who acted
as marshal at the time the pirate Hicks was executed in New York,
had doubtless similar notions of gentility; for, after conversing
a moment with the culprit, he said to the bystanders: “I asked
the _gentlemen_ if he desired to address the audience, but he
declined.” In a similar spirit Booth, the assassin of Lincoln, when
he was surrounded in the barn, where he was shot like a beast,
offered to pledge his word “as a _gentleman_,” to come out and try
to shoot one or two of his captors. When the Duke of Saxe-Weimar
visited the United States about fifty years ago, he was asked by a
hackman: “Are you the _man_ that’s going to ride with me; for I am
the _gentleman_ that’s to drive?”

When a young man becomes a reckless spendthrift, how easy it
is to gloss over his folly by talking of his “generosity,” his
“big-heartedness,” and “contempt for trifles”; or, if he runs into
the opposite vice of miserly meanness, how convenient to dignify
it by the terms “economy” and “wise forecast of the future”! Many
a man has blown out another’s brains in “an affair of honor,” who,
if accused of murder, would have started back with horror. Many a
person stakes his all on a public stock, or sells wheat or corn
which he does not possess, in the expectation of a speedy fall,
who would be thunderstruck if told that, while considering himself
only a shrewd speculator, he is, in everything save decency of
appearance, on a par with the haunter of a “hell,” and as much
a gambler as if he were staking his money on _rouge-et-noir_ or
_roulette_. Hundreds of officials have been tempted to defraud
the government by the fact that the harshest term applied to the
offence is the rose-water one, “defaulting”; and men have plotted
without compunction the downfall of the government, and plundered
its treasury, as “secessionists,” who would have expected to dangle
at the rope’s end, or to be shot down like dogs, had they regarded
themselves as rebels or traitors. So Pistol objected to the odious
word “steal,”--“_convey_ the wise it call.” There are multitudes
of persons who can sit for hours at a festive table, gorging
themselves, Gargantua-like, “with links and chitterlings,” and
guzzling whole bottles of champagne, under the impression that they
are “jolly fellows,” “true epicureans,” and “connoisseurs in good
living,” whose cheeks would tingle with indignation and shame if
they were accused, in point-blank terms, of vices so disgusting as
intemperance or gluttony. “I am not a slut,” boasts Audrey, in “As
You Like It,” “though I thank the gods I am foul.”

Of all classes of men whose callings tempt them to juggle
with words, none better than auctioneers understand how much
significance lies in certain shades of expression. It is told of
Robins, the famous London auctioneer, who in selling his wares
revelled in an oriental luxury of expression, that in puffing an
estate he described a certain ancient gallows as a “hanging wood.”
At another time, having made the beauties of the earthly paradise
which he was commissioned to sell too gorgeously enchanting, and
finding it necessary to blur it by a fault or two, lest it should
prove “too good for human nature’s daily food,” the Hafiz of the
mart paused a moment, and reluctantly added: “But candor compels me
to add, gentlemen, that there are two drawbacks to this splendid
property,--_the litter of the rose leaves and the noise of the

It is hardly possible to estimate the mischief which is done
to society by the debasement of its language in the various
ways we have indicated. When the only words we have by which to
designate the personifications of nobleness, manliness, courtesy
and truth are systematically applied to all that is contemptible
and vile, who can doubt that these high qualities themselves will
ultimately share in the debasement to which their proper names are
subjected? Who does not see how vast a difference it must make in
our estimate of any species of wickedness, whether we are wont
to designate it, and to hear it designated, by some word which
brings out its hatefulness, or by one which palliates and glosses
over its foulness and deformity? How much better to characterize
an ugly thing by an ugly word, that expresses moral condemnation
and disgust, even at the expense of some coarseness, than to call
evil good and good evil, to put darkness for light, and light for
darkness, by the use of a term that throws a veil of sentiment over
a sin! In reading the literature of former days, we are shocked
occasionally by the bluntness and plain speaking of our fathers;
but even their coarsest terms,--the “naked words, stript from
their shirts,”--in which they denounced libertinism, were far less
hurtful than the ceremonious delicacy which has taught men to abuse
each other with the utmost politeness, to hide the loathsomeness
of vice, and to express the most indecent ideas in the most modest

It has been justly said that the corrupter of a language stabs
straight at the very heart of his country. He commits a crime
against every individual of a nation, for he poisons a stream
from which all must drink; and the poison is more subtle and
more dangerous, because more likely to escape detection, than the
deadliest venom with which the destructive philosophy of our day is
assailing the moral or the religious interests of humanity. “Let
the words of a country,” says Milton in a letter to an Italian
scholar, “be in part unhandsome and offensive in themselves, in
part debased by wear and wrongly uttered, and what do they declare
but, by no light indication, that the inhabitants of that country
are an indolent, idly yawning race, with minds already long
prepared for any amount of servility?”

Sometimes the spirit which governs employers or employed, and
other classes of men, in their mutual relations, is indicated by
the names they give each other. Some years ago the legislature
of Massachusetts made a law requiring that children of a certain
age, employed in the factories of that State, should be sent to
school a certain number of weeks in the year. While visiting the
factories to ascertain whether this wise provision of the State
government was complied with, an officer of the State inquired of
the agent of one of the principal factories at New Bedford, whether
it was the custom to do anything for the physical, intellectual,
or moral welfare of the work people. The reply would not have been
inappropriate from the master of a plantation, or the captain
of a coolie ship: “We never do; as for myself, I regard my work
people as I regard _my machinery_.... They must look out for
_themselves_, as I do for _myself_. When my machinery gets old and
useless, I reject it and get new: and these people are a part of my
machinery.” Another agent in another part of the State replied to
a similar question, that “he used his mill hands _as he used his
horse_; as long as the horse was in good condition and rendered
good service, he treated him well; otherwise he got rid of him as
soon as he could, and what became of him afterward was no affair of

But we need not multiply illustrations to show the moral power of
words. As the eloquent James Martineau says: “Power they certainly
have. They are alive with sweetness, with terror, with pity. They
have eyes to look at you with strangeness or with response. They
are even creative, and can wrap a world in darkness for us, or
flood it with light. But in all this, they are not signs of the
weakness of humanity: they are the very crown and blossom of its
supreme strength; and the poet whom this faith possesses will,
to the end of time, be master of the critic whom it deserts. The
whole inner life of men moulds the forms of language, and is
moulded by them in turn; and as surely pines when they are rudely
treated as the plant whose vessels you bruise or try to replace
with artificial tubes. The grouping of thought, the musical scale
of feeling, the shading and harmonies of color in the spectrum of
imagination, have all been building, as it were, the molecules
of speech into their service; and if you heedlessly alter its
dispositions, pulverize its crystals, fix its elastic media, and
turn its transparent into opaque, you not only disturb expression,
you dislodge the very things to be expressed. And in proportion as
the idea or sentiment thus turned adrift is less of a mere personal
characteristic, and has been gathering and shaping its elements
from ages of various affection and experience, does it become less
possible to replace it by any equivalents, or dispense with its
function by any act of will.”

To conclude: there is one startling fact connected with words,
which should make all men ponder what they utter. Not only is
every wise and every idle word recorded in the book of divine
remembrance, but modern science has shown that they produce an
abiding impression on the globe we inhabit. Plunge your hand into
the sea, and you raise its level, however imperceptibly, at the
other side of the globe. In like manner, the pulsations of the air,
once set in motion, never cease; its waves, raised by each sound,
travel the entire round of earth’s and ocean’s surface; and in
less than twenty-four hours, every atom of atmosphere takes up the
altered movement resulting from that sound. The air itself is one
vast library, on whose pages are written in imperishable characters
all that man has spoken, or even whispered. Not a word that goes
from the lips into the air can ever die, until the atmosphere
which wraps our huge globe in its embrace has passed away forever,
and the heavens are no more. There, till the heavens are rolled
together as a scroll, will still live the jests of the profane, the
curses of the ungodly, the scoffs of the atheist, “keeping company
with the hours,” and circling the earth with the song of Miriam,
the wailing of Jeremiah, the low prayer of Stephen, the thunders of
Demosthenes, and the denunciations of Burke.

      “Words are mighty, words are living;
        Serpents, with their venomous stings,
      Or, bright angels, crowding round us
        With heaven’s light upon their wings;
      Every word has its own spirit,
        True or false, that never dies;
      Every word man’s lips have uttered
        Echoes in God’s skies.”


[7] “Language and the Study of Language,” by W. D. Whitney.

[8] “Lectures on the English Language.”

[9] “Literature and Life,” by Edwin P. Whipple.

[10] South’s Sermons.



  The fool hath planted his memory with an army of

  In the commerce of speech use only coin of gold and silver.... Be
  profound with clear terms, and not with obscure terms.--JOUBERT.

  The more you have studied foreign languages, the more you will be
  disposed to keep Ollendorff in the background; the proper result
  of such acquirements is visible in a finer ear for words.--T. W.

  Never be grandiloquent when you want to drive home a searching
  truth. Don’t whip with a switch that has the leaves on, if you
  want to tingle.--H. W. BEECHER.

It is a trite remark that words are the representatives of things
and thoughts, as coin represents wealth. You carry in your pocket
a doubloon or a dollar, stamped by the king or state, and you are
the virtual owner of whatever it will purchase. But who affixes the
stamp upon a word? No prince or potentate was ever strong enough
to make or unmake a single word. Cæsar confessed that with all his
power he could not do it, and Claudius could not introduce even a
new letter. He attempted to introduce the consonant V, as distinct
from U, the Roman alphabet having but one character for both;
but he could not make his subjects accept the new letter, though
he could kill or plunder them at pleasure. Cicero tried his hand
at word-coining; but though he proved a skilful mint-master, and
struck some admirable trial pieces, which were absolutely needed to
facilitate mental exchanges, yet they did not gain circulation, and
were thrown back upon his hands. But that which defied the power of
Cæsar and of Cicero does not transcend the ability of many writers
of our own day, some of whom are adepts in the art of word-coining,
and are daily minting terms and phrases which must make even Noah
Webster, boundless as was his charity for new words, turn in his
grave. It is doubtful, however, whether these persons do so much
damage to our noble English language as those who vulgarize it by
the use of penny-a-liner phrases. There is a large and growing
class of speakers and writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who,
apparently despising the homely but terse and telling words of
their mother tongue, never use a Saxon term, if they can find what
Lord Brougham calls a “long-tailed word in _’osity_ or _’ation_” to
do its work.

What is the cause of this? Is it the extraordinary, not to say
excessive, attention now given by persons of all ages to foreign
languages, to the neglect of our own? Is it the comparative
inattention given to correct diction by the teachers in the schools
of to-day; or is it because the favorite books of the young are
sensational stories, made pungent, and, in a sense, natural,
through the lavish use of all the colloquialisms and vulgarisms
of low life? Shall we believe that it is because there is little
individuality and independence in these days, that the words of
so few persons are flavored with their idiosyncrasies; that it
is from conscious poverty of thought that they try to trick out
their ideas in glittering words and phrases, just as, by means
of high-heeled boots, a laced coat, and a long feather, a fellow
with a little soul and a weak body might try to pass muster as a
bold grenadier? Or is it because of the prevalent mania for the
sensational,--the craving for novelty and excitement, which is
almost universal in these days,--that so many persons make sense
subservient to sound, and avoid calling things by their proper
names? Or, finally, to take a more charitable view of the case, is
it because it is impossible for inaccurate minds to hit the exact
truth, and describe a thing just as they have seen it,--to express
degrees of feeling, to observe measures and proportions, and define
a sensation as it was felt? Was Talleyrand wrong when he said that
language was given to man to conceal his thought; and was it really
given to hide his want of thought? Is it, indeed, the main object
of expression to convey the smallest possible amount of meaning
with the greatest possible amount of appearance of meaning; and,
since nobody can be “so wise as Thurlow looked,” to look as wise as
Thurlow while uttering the veriest truisms?

Be all this as it may, in nothing else is the lack of simplicity,
which is so characteristic of our times, more marked than in
the prevailing forms of expression. “The curse and the peril of
language in our day, and particularly in this country,” says an
American critic, who may, perhaps, croak at times, but who has
done much good service as a literary policeman in the repression
of verbal licentiousness, “is that it is at the mercy of men who,
instead of being content to use it well, according to their honest
ignorance, use it ill, according to their affected knowledge;
who, being vulgar, would seem elegant; who, being empty, would
seem full; who make up in pretence what they lack in reality;
and whose little thoughts, let off in enormous phrases, sound
like fire-crackers in an empty barrel.” In the estimation of many
writers at the present day, the great, crowning vice in the use of
words is, apparently, to employ plain, straightforward English.
The simple Saxon is not good enough for their purposes, and so
they array their ideas in “big, dictionary words,” derived from the
Latin, and load their style with expletives as tasteless as the
streamers of tattered finery that flutter about the person of a
dilapidated belle. The “high polite,” in short, is their favorite
style, and the good old Spartan rule of calling a spade a spade
they hold in thorough contempt. Their great recipe for elegant or
powerful writing is to call the most common things by the most
uncommon names. Provided that a word is out-of-the-way, unusual, or
far-fetched,--and especially if it is one of many syllables,--they
care little whether it is apt and fit or not.

With them a fire is always “the devouring element,” or a
“conflagration”; and the last term is often used where there is no
meeting of flames, as when a town is fired in several places, but
when only one building is burned; the fire never burns a house, but
it always “consumes an edifice,” unless it is got under, in which
case “its progress is arrested.” A railroad accident is always “a
holocaust,” and its victims are named under the “death roll.” A man
who is the first to do a thing “takes the initiative.” Instead of
loving a woman, a man “becomes attached” to her; instead of losing
his mother by death, he “sustains a bereavement of his maternal
relative.” A dog’s tail, in the pages of these writers, is his
“caudal appendage”; a dog breaker, “a kunopædist”; and a fish-pond
they call by no less lofty a title than “piscine preserve.” Ladies,
in their classic pages, have ceased to be married, like those poor,
vulgar creatures, their grandmothers; they are “led to the hymeneal
altar.” Of the existence of such persons as a man, a woman, a
boy, or a girl, these writers are profoundly ignorant; though
they often speak of “individuals,” “gentlemen,” “characters,”
and “parties,” and often recognize the existence of “juveniles”
and “juvenile members of the community.” “Individual” is another
piece of pompous inanity which is very current now. In “Guesses
at Truth” mention is made of a celebrated preacher, who was so
destitute of all feeling for decorum in language, as to call our
Saviour “this eminent _individual_.” “Individual” is a good Latin
word, and serves a good purpose when it distinguishes a person from
a people or class, as it served a good purpose in the scholastic
philosophy; but would Cicero or Duns Scotus have called a great
man an _eminens individuum_? These “individuals,” strange to say,
are never dressed, but always “attired”; they never take off their
clothes, but “divest themselves of their habiliments,” which is so
much grander.

“In the church,” says St. Paul, “I had rather speak five words
with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also,
than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Not so think some
of the preachers of the Gospel of the present day, if we may judge
them by the language they use in their discourses. To give their
sermons a philosophical air, or because simple language is not to
their taste, they invest their discourses with the technicalities
of science and philosophy. They never speak of so old-fashioned a
thing as the will, but always of “volition”; duty, with them, is
never duty simply, but always “moral obligation”; and their sermons
abound in “necessary relations,” “moral and physical necessities,”
“intellectual processes,” “laws of nature,” and “arguments _a
priori_ and _a posteriori_.” It was a preacher of this class, who
having occasion to tell his hearers that there was not one Gospel
for the rich and another for the poor, informed them that, “if
they would not be saved on ‘general principles,’ they could not be
saved at all.” Who can doubt that such language as this is not only
poorly understood, if understood it is, by the ordinary hearer,
but is far less effective than the simple Saxon words which might
be used to convey the same ideas? Some years ago a white minister
preached in a plain, direct style to a church of negroes in the
South, whose “colored” pastor was greatly addicted to the use of
high-flown language in his sermons. In the season of exhortation
and prayer that followed, an old negro thanked the Lord for the
various blessings of the Sabbath and the sanctuary, and especially,
he added, “we thank Thee that to-day we have been fed from _a low
crib_.” Would it not be well for preachers generally to remember
that many of Christ’s flock are “little ones,” whose necks are
short, and that they may consequently starve, if their food,
however nutritious, is placed in too lofty a crib?

But preachers are not the only anti-Saxons of our day; we may find
them in nearly all the classes of society,--persons who never tell
us that a man is asleep, but say that he is “locked in slumber”;
who deem it vulgar, and perhaps cruel, to say that a criminal
was hanged, but very elegant to say that he was “launched into
eternity.” A person of their acquaintance never does so low a
thing as to break his leg; he “fractures his limb.” They never
see a man fall; but sometimes see “an individual precipitated.”
Our Latin friends,--fortunate souls,--never have their feelings
hurt, though it must be confessed that their “sensibilities” are
sometimes dreadfully “lacerated.” Above the necessities of their
poor fellow-creatures, they never do so vulgar a thing as to eat
a meal; they always “partake of a repast,” which is so much more
elegant. They never do so commonplace a thing as to take a walk;
they “make a pedestrian excursion.” A conjurer with them is a
“prestidigitator”; a fortune-teller, a “vaticinator.” As Pascal
says, they mask all nature. There is with them no king, but an
“august monarch”; no Paris, but a “capital of a kingdom.” Even our
barbers have got upon stilts. They no longer sell tooth-powder and
shaving-soap, like the old fogies, their fathers, but “odonto,”
and “dentifrice,” and “rypophagon”; and they themselves, from
the barber-ous persons they once were, have been transformed
into “_artists_ in hair.” The medical faculty, too, have caught
the spirit of the age. Who would suspect that “epistaxis” means
simply bleeding at the nose, and “emollient cataplasm” only a
poultice? Fancy one schoolboy doubling up his fist at another,
and telling him to look out for epistaxis! Who would dream that
“anheidrohepseterion” (advertised in the London “Times”) means only
a saucepan, or “taxidermist” a bird-stuffer? Is it not remarkable
that tradesmen have ceased “sending in” their “little bills,” and
now only “render their accounts”?

“There are people,” says Landor, “who think they write and speak
finely, merely because they have forgotten the language in which
their fathers and mothers used to talk to them.” As in dress,
deportment, etc., so in language, the dread of vulgarity, as
Whately has suggested, constantly besetting those who are half
conscious that they are in danger of it, drives them into the
opposite extreme of affected finery. They act upon the advice of

      “Quoique vous écriviez, évitez la bassesse;
      Le style le moins noble a pourtant sa noblesse;”

and, to avoid the undignified, according to them, it is only
necessary not to call things by their right names. Hence the use of
“residence” for house, “electric fluid” for lightning, “recently
deceased” for lately dead, “encomium” for praise, “location” for
place, “locate” for put, “lower limb” for leg, “sacred edifice”
for church, “attired” for clad,--all of which have so learned an
air, and are preferred to the simpler words for the same reason,
apparently, that led Mr. Samuel Weller, when writing his famous
valentine to Mary, to prefer “circumscribed” to “circumvented,” as
having a deeper meaning.

Such persons forget that glass will obstruct the light quite as
much when beautifully painted as when discolored with dirt; and
that a style studded with far-fetched epithets and high-sounding
phrases may be as dark as one abounding in colloquial vulgarisms.
Who does not sympathize with the indignation of Dr. Johnson, when,
taking up at the house of a country friend a so called “Liberal
Translation of the New Testament,” he read, in the eleventh
chapter of John, instead of the simple and touching words, “Jesus
wept,”--“Jesus, the Saviour of the world, overcome with grief,
burst into a flood of tears”? “_Puppy!_” exclaimed the critic, as
he threw down the book in a rage; and had the author been present,
Johnson would doubtless have thrown it at his head. Yet the great
literary bashaw, while he had an eagle’s eye for the faults of
others, was unconscious of his own sins against simplicity, and,
though he spoke like a wit, too often wrote like a pedant. He
had, in fact, a dialect of his own, which has been wittily styled
_Johnsonese_. Goldsmith hit him in a vulnerable spot when he said:
“Doctor, if you were to write a fable about little fishes, you
would make them talk like whales.” The faults of his pompous,
swelling diction, in which the frivolity of a coxcomb is described
in the same rolling periods and with the same gravity of antithesis
with which he would thunder against rebellion and fanaticism, are
hardly exaggerated by a wit of his own time who calls it

                              “A turgid style,
      Which gives to an inch the importance of a mile;
      Uplifts the club of Hercules--for what?
      To crush a butterfly, or brain a gnat;
      Bids ocean labor with tremendous roar,
      To heave a cockle-shell upon the shore;
      Sets wheels on wheels in motion,--what a clatter!
      To force up one poor nipperkin of water;
      Alike in every theme his pompous art,
      Heaven’s awful thunder, or a rumbling cart.”

One of the latest “modern improvements” in speech is the
substitution of “lady” and “female” for the good old English
“woman.” On the front of Cooper’s Reading Room, in the city of
New York, is the sign in golden letters, “Male and Female Reading
Rooms.” Suppose Scott, in his noble tribute to women for their
devotion and tenderness to men in their hour of suffering, had sung

      “Oh, LADIES, in our hours of ease,” etc.,

would not the lines have been far more touching? An English writer
says truly that the law of euphemisms is somewhat capricious; “one
cannot always tell which words are decent and which are not....
It really seems as if the old-fashioned feminine of ‘man’ were
fast getting proscribed. We, undiscerning male creatures that
we are, might have thought that ‘woman’ was a more elegant and
more distinctive title than ‘female.’ We read only the other day
a report of a lecture on the poet Crabbe, in which she who was
afterward Mrs. Crabbe was spoken of as ‘a female to whom he had
formed an attachment.’ To us, indeed, it seems that a man’s wife
should be spoken of in some way which is not equally applicable to
a ewe lamb or a favorite mare. But it was a ‘female’ who delivered
the lecture, and we suppose the females know best about their own

Can any person account for the apparent antipathy which many
writers and speakers have to the good Saxon verb “to begin”?
Ninety-nine out of every hundred persons one talks with are sure
to prefer the French words “to commence” and “to essay,” and the
tendency is strong to prefer “to inaugurate” to either. Nothing in
our day is begun, not even dinner; it is “inaugurated with soup.”
In their fondness for the French words, many persons are betrayed
into solecisms. Forgetting, or not knowing, that, while “to begin”
may be followed by an infinitive or a gerund, “to commence” is
transitive, and must be followed by a noun or its equivalent, they
talk of “commencing to do” a thing, “essaying to do well,” etc.
Persons who think that “begin” is not stately enough, or that it
is even vulgar, would do well to look into the pages of Milton and
Shakespeare. With all his fondness for Romanic words, the former
hardly once uses “commence” and “commencement”; and the latter is
not only content with the idiomatic word, but even shortens it, as
in the well known line that depicts so vividly the guilt-wasted
soul of Macbeth:

      “I ’gin to grow a-weary of the sun.”

What a shock would every right-minded reader receive if, upon
opening his Bible, he should find, in place of the old familiar
words, the following: “In the _commencement_ God created
the heavens and the earth,”--“The fear of the Lord is the
_commencement_ of wisdom!” Well did Coleridge say: “Intense study
of the Bible will keep any writer from being vulgar in point of
style.” “Commence” is a good word enough, but, being of outlandish
origin, should never take the place of “begin,” except for the sake
of rhythm or variety.

Another of these grand words is “imbroglio.” It is from the
Italian, and means an intricate or complicated plot. Why, then,
should a quarrel in the Cabinet at Washington, or a prospective
quarrel with France or England, be called an “imbroglio”? Again,
will any one explain to us the meaning of “interpellation,” so
often used by the correspondents of our daily newspapers? The word
properly means an interruption; yet when an opposition member of
the French or Italian Parliament asks a question of a minister,
he is said “to put an interpellation.” Why should an army be
said to be “decimated,” without regard to the number or nature
of its losses? The original meaning of this term was grave, and
often terrible; it meant no less than taking the tenth of a man’s
substance, or shooting every tenth man in a mutinous regiment,
the victims being called out by lot. “This appalling character of
decimation lay in the likelihood that innocent persons, slain in
cold blood, might suffer for the guilty. But the peculiar horror
vanishes when we alter the conditions; and a regiment which has
taken part in a hard-fought battle, and comes off the field only
decimated,--that is to say, with nine living and unscathed for
each man left on the field,--might be accounted rather fortunate
than the reverse.” Why, again, should “donate” be preferred to
“give”? Does it show a larger soul, a more magnificent liberality,
to “donate” than to give? Must we “_donate_ the devil his due,”
when we would be unusually charitable? Why should “elect” be
preferred to “choose,” when there is no election whatever; or why
is “balance” preferable to “remainder”? As a writer has well said:
“Would any man in his senses dare to quote King David as saying:
‘They are full of children, and leave the _balance_ of their
substance unto their babes’? or read, ‘Surely the wrath of man
shall praise thee: the _balance_ of wrath thou shalt restrain,’
where the translators of our Bible wrote ‘the remainder’? And if
any one went into the nursery, and telling that tale of perennial
interest of the little boys that ‘a-sliding went, a-sliding went,
a-sliding went, all on a summer’s day,’ should, after recounting
how ‘they all fell in, they all fell in, they all fell in,’ add
‘the _balance_ ran away,’ would there not go up a chorus of tiny
but indignant protests against this mutilation, which would enlist
a far wider sympathy than some of the proposed changes in the texts
of classic authors, which have set editors and commentators at

Again, why should one say “rendition” for performance, “enactment”
for acting, or “nude” for naked? In the seventeenth century,
certain fanatics in England ran about without clothes, crying: “We
are the naked Truth.” Had they lived in this age of refinement,
instead of shocking their countrymen with such indelicate
expressions, they would have said, “We are Verity in a nude
condition”; and had any person clothed them, he would have been
said to have “rehabilitated” them. More offensive than any of these
grandiose words is “intoxicated” in place of “drunk,” which it has
nearly banished. A man can be intoxicated only when he has lost his
wits, not by quantity, but by quality,--by drinking liquor that
has been drugged. “Intoxicated,” however, has five syllables;
drunk has but one; so the former carries the day by five to one.
No doubt nine-tenths of those who drink to excess in this country,
are, in fact, intoxicated, or poisoned; still, the two words should
not be confounded. “Ovation” is a word often used incorrectly, as
when an emperor, empress, king or queen, on making a triumphal
entry into the capital of a state amid great popular enthusiasm, is
said to receive an “ovation,” though such an honor is distinctively
reserved for meritorious subjects of the ruler. Sometimes we find
a word of Latin origin used in a sense precisely opposite to
the true one, as when “culminate,” which can be applied only to
something which has reached the limit of its possible height, is
used regarding the career of some wrong-doer, which is said to
“culminate” in the lowest depths of degradation.

Solomon tells us that there is nothing new under the sun; and
this itching for pompous forms of expression, this contempt for
plainness and simplicity of style, is as old as Aristotle. In the
third book of his “Rhetoric,” discussing the causes of frigidity
of style, he speaks of one Alcidamas, a writer of that time, as
“employing ornaments, not as seasonings to discourse, but as if
they were the only food to live upon. He does not say ‘sweat,’
but ‘the humid sweat’; a man goes not to the Isthmian games,
but to ‘the collected assembly of the Isthmian solemnity’; laws
are ‘the legitimate kings of commonwealths’; and a race, ‘the
incursive impulse of the soul.’ A rich man is not bountiful, but
the ‘artificer of universal largess.’” Is it not curious that our
modern Quicklys and Malaprops, who often pride themselves upon
their taste for swelling words and phrases, and their skill in
using them, should have been anticipated by Alcidamas two thousand
years ago?

The abuse of the queen’s English, to which we have called
attention, did not begin with Americans. It began with our
transatlantic cousins, who employed “ink-horn” terms and outlandish
phrases at a very early period. In “Harrison’s Chronicle” we are
told that after the Norman conquest “the English tongue grew into
such contempt at court that most men thought it no small dishonor
to speak any English there; which bravery took his hold at the last
likewise in the country with every ploughman, that even the very
carters began to wax weary of their mother tongue, and labored to
speak French, which was then counted no small token of gentility.”

The English people of to-day are quite as much addicted to the
grandiose style as the Americans. Gough, in one of his lectures,
speaks of a card which he saw in London, in which a man called
himself “Illuminating Artist to Her Majesty,” the fact being that
he lighted the gas lamps near the palace. Mr. E. A. Freeman, the
English historian, complained in a recent lecture that our language
had few friends and many foes, its only friends being ploughboys
and a few scholars. The pleasant old “inns” of England, he said,
had disappeared, their places being supplied by “hotels,” or
“establishments”; while the landlord had made way for the “lessee
of the establishment.” A gentleman going into a shop in Regent
street to buy half-mourning goods was referred by the shopman to
“the mitigated affliction department.” The besetting sin of some
of the ablest British writers of this century is their lack of
simplicity of language. Sydney Smith said of Sir James Mackintosh,
that if he were asked for a definition of “pepper,” he would
reply thus: “Pepper may philosophically be described as a dusty
and highly pulverized seed of an oriental fruit; an article rather
of condiment than diet, which, dispersed lightly over the surface
of food, with no other rule than the caprice of the consumer,
communicates pleasure, rather than affords nutrition; and by adding
a tropical flavor to the gross and succulent viands of the North,
approximates the different regions of the earth, explains the
objects of commerce, and justifies the industry of man.”

Francis Jeffrey, the celebrated critic, had, even in conversation,
an artificial style and language, which were fit only for
books and a small circle of learned friends. His diction and
pronunciation, it is said, were unintelligible to the mass of his
countrymen, and in the House of Commons offensive and ridiculous.
An anecdote told in illustration of this peculiarity strikingly
shows the superiority of simple to high-flown language in the
practical business of life. In a trial, which turned upon the
intellectual competency of a testator, Jeffrey asked a witness, a
plain countryman, whether the testator was “a man of intellectual
capacity,”--“an intelligent, shrewd man,”--“a man of capacity?”
“Had he ordinary mental endowments?” “What d’ye mean, sir?” asked
the witness. “I mean,” replied Jeffrey, testily, “was the man of
sufficient ordinary intelligence to qualify him to manage his
own affairs?” “I dinna ken,” replied the chafed and mystified
witness,--“Wad ye say the question ower again, sir?” Jeffrey being
baffled, Cockburn took up the examination. He said: “Ye kenned
Tammas ----?” “Ou, ay; I kenned Tammas weel; me and him herded
together when we were laddies [boys].” “Was there onything in the
cretur?” “De’il a thing but what the spune [spoon] put into him.”
“Would you have trusted him to sell a cow for you?” “A cow! I wadna
lippened [trusted] him to sell a calf.” Had Jeffrey devoted a
review article to the subject, he could not have given a more vivid
idea of the testator’s incapacity to manage his own affairs.

Our readers need not be told how much Carlyle has done to teutonize
our language with his “yardlongtailed” German compounds. It was a
just stroke of criticism when a New York auctioneer introduced a
miscellaneous lot of books to a crowd with the remark: “Gentlemen,
of this lot I need only say, six volumes are by Thomas Carlyle;
the seventh is written in the _English_ language.” Some years ago,
a learned doctor of divinity and university professor in Canada
wrote a work in which, wishing to state the simple fact that the
“rude Indian” had learned the use of firing, he delivered himself
as follows: “He had made slave of the heaven-born element, the
brother of the lightning, the grand alchemist and artificer of all
times, though as yet he knew not all the worth or magical power
that was in him. By his means the sturdy oak, which flung abroad
its stalwart arms and waved its leafy honors defiant in the forest,
was made to bow to the behest of the simple aborigines.” As the
plain Scotchwoman said of De Quincey, “the bodie has an awfu’ sicht
o’ words!” This style of speaking and writing has become so common
that it can no longer be considered wholly vulgar. It is gradually
working upward; it is making its way into official writings and
grave octavos; and is even spoken with unction in pulpits and
senates. Metaphysicians are wont to define words as the signs of
ideas; but with many persons, they appear to be, not so much the
signs of their thought, as the signs of the signs of their thought.
Such, doubtless, was the case with the Scotch clergyman, whom a
bonneted abhorrer of legal preaching was overheard eulogizing:
“Man, John, wasna yon preachin’!--yon’s something for a body to
come awa wi’. The way that he smashed down his text into so mony
heads and particulars, just a’ to flinders! Nine heads and twenty
particulars in ilka head--and _sic mouthfu’s o’ grand words!_--an’
every ane o’ them fu’ o’ meaning, if we but kent them. We hae ill
improved our opportunities; man, if we could just mind onything he
said, it would do us guid.”

The whole literature of notices, handbills, and advertisements, in
our day, has apparently declared “war to the knife” against every
trace of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons. We have no schoolmasters
now; they are all “principals of collegiate institutes”; no
copy-books, but “specimens of caligraphy”; no ink, but “writing
fluid”; no physical exercise, but “calisthenics” or “gymnastics.”
A man who opens a groggery at some corner for the gratification of
drunkards, instead of announcing his enterprise by its real name,
modestly proclaims through the daily papers that his “saloon” has
been fitted up for the reception of customers. Even the learned
architects of log cabins and pioneer cottages can find names for
them only in the sonorous dialects of oriental climes. Time was
when a farmhouse was a farmhouse and a porch a porch; but now the
one is a “villa” or “hacienda,” and the other nothing less than
a “veranda.” In short, this genteel slang pursues us from the
cradle to the grave. In old times, when our fathers and mothers
died, they were placed in coffins, and buried in the graveyard or
burying ground; now, when an unfortunate “party” or “individual”
“deceases” or “becomes defunct,” he is deposited in a “burial
casket” and “interred in a cemetery.” It matters not that the good
old words “grave” and “graveyard” have been set in the pure amber
of the English classics,--that the Bible says, “There is no wisdom
in the grave,” “Cruel as the grave,” etc. How much more pompous
and magniloquent the Greek: “There is no wisdom in the cemetery,”
“Cruel as the cemetery!”

Seriously, let us eschew all these vulgar fineries of style, as we
would eschew the fineries of a dandy. Their legitimate effect is
to barbarize our language, and to destroy all the peculiar power,
distinctiveness, and appropriateness of its terms. Words that are
rarely used will at last inevitably disappear; and thus, if not
speedily checked, this grandiloquence of expression will do an
irreparable injury to our dear old English tongue. Poetry may for
a while escape the effects of this vulgar coxcombry, because it
is the farthest out of the reach of such contagion; but, as prose
sinks, so must poetry, too, be ultimately dragged down into the
general gulf of feebleness and inanition.

It was a saying of John Foster that “eloquence resides in the
thought, and no words, therefore, can make that eloquent which
will not be so in the plainest that could possibly express the
same.” Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the notion that
the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of pompous and sonorous
language are necessary to the expression of the sublime and
powerful in eloquence and poetry. So far is this from being true,
that the finest, noblest, and most spirit-stirring sentiments ever
uttered, have been couched, not in sounding polysyllables from
the Greek or Latin, but in the simplest Saxon,--in the language we
hear hourly in the streets and by our firesides. Dr. Johnson once
said that “big thinkers require big words.” He did not think so
at the time of the great Methodist movement in the last century,
when “the ice period” of the establishment was breaking up. He
attributed the Wesleys’ success to their plain, familiar way of
preaching, “which,” he says, “clergymen of genius and learning
ought to do from a principle of duty.” Arthur Helps tells a story
of an illiterate soldier at the chapel of Lord Morpeth’s castle
in Ireland. Whenever Archbishop Whately came to preach, it was
observed that this rough private was always in his place, mouth
open, as if in sympathy with his ears. Some of the gentlemen
playfully took him to task for it, supposing it was due to the
usual vulgar admiration of a celebrated man. But the man had a
better reason, and was able to give it. He said, “That isn’t it at
all. The Archbishop is easy to understand. There are no fine words
in him. A fellow like me, now, can follow along and take every bit
of it in.” “Whately’s simplicity,” observes a writer to whom we are
indebted for this illustration, “meant no lack of pith or power.
The whole momentum of his large and healthy brain went into those
homely sentences, rousing and feeding the rude and the cultured
hearer’s hunger alike, as sweet bread and juicy meat satisfy a
natural appetite.”

Emerson observes that as any orator at the bar or the senate rises
in his thought, he descends in his language; that is, when he
rises to any height of thought or of passion, he comes down to a
level with the ear of all his audience. “It is the oratory of John
Brown and of Abraham Lincoln, the one at Charleston, the other at
Gettysburg, in the two best specimens of oratory we have had in
this country.” Daniel Webster, in his youth, was a little bombastic
in his speeches; but he very soon discovered that the force of a
sentence depends chiefly on its meaning, and that great writing is
that in which much is said in few words, and those the simplest
that will answer the purpose. Having made this discovery, he became
“a great eraser of adjectives”; and whether convincing juries, or
thundering in the senate,--whether demolishing Hayne, or measuring
swords with Calhoun,--on all occasions used the plainest words.
“You will find,” said he to a friend, “in my speeches to juries, no
hard words, no Latin phrases, no _fieri facias_; and that is the
secret of my style, if I have any.”

Chaucer says, in praise of his Virginia, that

      “No contrefited termes had she
      To semen wise;”

and if any one would write or speak well, his English should be
genuine, not counterfeit. The simplest words that will convey one’s
ideas are always best. What can be simpler and yet more sublime
than the “Let there be light, and there was light!” of Moses,
which Longinus so admired? Would it be an improvement to say, “Let
there be light, and there was a solar illumination”? “I am like
a child picking up pebbles on the seashore,” said Newton. Had he
said he was like an awe-struck votary, lying prostrate before the
stupendous majesty of the cosmical universe, and the mighty and
incomprehensible _Ourgos_ which had created all things, we might
think it very fine, but should not carry in our memories such a
luggage of words. The fiery eloquence of the field and the forum
springs upon the vulgar idiom as a soldier leaps upon his horse.
“Trust in the Lord, and keep your powder dry,” said Cromwell to
his soldiers on the eve of a battle. “Silence, you thirty voices!”
roars Mirabeau to a knot of opposers around the tribune. “I’d sell
the shirt off my back to support the war!” cries Lord Chatham; and
again, “Conquer the Americans! I might as well think of driving
them before me with this crutch.” “I know,” says Kossuth, speaking
of the march of intelligence, “that the light has spread, and that
_even the bayonets think_.” “You may shake me, if you please,”
said a little Yankee constable to a stout, burly culprit whom he
had come to arrest, and who threatened violence, “but recollect,
if you do it, you don’t shake a chap of five-feet-six; you’ve _got
to shake the whole State of Massachusetts_!” When a Hoosier was
asked by a Yankee how much he weighed,--“Well,” said he, “commonly
I weigh about one hundred and eighty; but _when I’m mad I weigh
a ton_!” “Were I to die at this moment,” wrote Nelson after the
battle of the Nile, “‘_more frigates_’ would be found written
on my heart.” The “Don’t give up the ship!” of our memorable
sea-captain stirs the heart like the sound of a trumpet. Had he
exhorted the men to fight to the last gasp in defence of their
imperilled liberties, their altars, and the glory of America, the
words might have been historic, but they would not have been quoted
vernacularly, as they have been, for over threescore years and ten.

There is another phase of the popular leaning to the grandiose
style, which is not less reprehensible than that which we have
noticed; we mean the affectation of foreign words and phrases. As
foreign travel has increased, and the study of foreign languages
has become fashionable in our country, this vice has spread till
society in some places, like Armado and Holofernes, seems to have
been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps. Many
persons scarcely deign to call anything by its proper English name,
but, as if they believed with Butler, that

            “He that’s but able to express
      No sense at all in several languages,
      Will pass for learneder than he that’s known
      To speak strongest reason in his own,”--

they apply to it some German, French, or Italian word. In their
dialect people are _blasés_, and _passés_, or have _un air
distingué_; _in petto, dolce far niente_, are among their pet
phrases; and not infrequently they betray their ignorance by
some ludicrous blunder, as when they use _boquet_ for _bouquet_,
_soubriquet_ for _sobriquet_, and talk of a _sous_, instead of
a _sou_, a mistake as laughable as the Frenchman’s “un pence.”
Some of the modern fashionable novelists and writers of books
of travel have even shown so bad a taste as to state in German,
French, or Italian, whatever is supposed to have been said by
Germans, Frenchmen, or Italians. In Currer Bell’s “Villette” a
large proportion of the dialogue, even in pages containing the
very marrow of the plot, is thus written in French, making the
book, though an English book, unintelligible to an Englishman,
however familiar with his native tongue, unless he has mastered a
foreign one also, and that not in its purity, but “after the scole
of Stratford-atte-Bowe.” In striking contrast to this taste for
exotics is the rooted dislike which the French have to foreign
words and idioms. It is only in cases of the direst necessity that
they consent to borrow from their neighbors, whether in _perfide
Angleterre_ or elsewhere. Even when they deign to adopt a new
word, they so disguise it that the parent language would not know
it again. They strip it gradually of its foreign dress, and make
it assume the costume of the country. “Beefsteak” is turned into
_bifteck_; “plum-pudding” is metamorphosed into _pouding de plomb_;
“partner” becomes _partenaire_; “riding-coat” becomes _redingote_;
and now fashionable English tailors advertise these “redingotes,”
never for a moment dreaming that they are borrowing an expression
which the French stole from the English. It was their contempt for
the practice of borrowing foreign words that enabled the Greeks
to preserve their native tongue so long in its purity; while on
the contrary, by an affectation in the Romans of Greek words and
idioms, the Latin language was not only corrupted, but lost in a
few centuries much of the beauty and majesty it had in the Augustan

It is said that the Spaniards, in all ages, have been distinguished
for their love of long and high-flown names,--the sounding brass
and tinkling cymbal of appellative glory and honor. In looking at
the long string of titles fastened like the tail of a kite to the
name of some Don or other grandee, one is puzzled to tell whether
it is the man that belongs to the name, or the name to the man.
There is nothing odd, therefore, in the conduct of that Spaniard,
who, whenever his name was mentioned, always took off his hat in
token of respect to himself,--that is, as the possessor of so
many appellations. A person of high diplomatic talent, with the
unpretending and rather plebeian name of “Bubb,” was once nominated
to represent Great Britain at Madrid. Lord Chesterfield was then
a minister of state, and on seeing the newly appointed minister
remarked,--“My dear fellow, your name will damn you with the
Spaniards; a one-syllable patronymic will infallibly disgust the
grandees of that hyperbolic nation.” “What shall I do?” said Bubb.
“Oh, that is easily managed,” rejoined the peer; “get yourself
dubbed, before you start on your mission, as Don Vaco y Hijo
Hermoso y Toro y Sill y Bubb, and on your arrival you will have all
the Spanish Court at your feet.”

The effort of the Spaniards to support their dignity by long and
sounding titles is repeated daily, in a slightly different form,
by many democratic Americans. Writers and speakers are constantly
striving to compensate for poverty of thought by a multitude of
words. Magniloquent terms, sounding sentences, unexpected and
startling phrases, are dropped from pen and tongue, as gaudy and
high-colored goods are displayed in shop windows, to attract
attention. “Ruskin,” says an intelligent writer, “long ago cried
out against the stuccoed lies which rear their unblushing fronts
on so many street corners, shaming our civilization, and exerting
their whole influence to make us false and pretentious. Mrs. Stowe
and others have warned us against the silken lies that, frizzled,
flounced, padded, compressed, lily-whitened and rouged, flit about
our drawing rooms by gaslight, making us familiar with sham and
shoddy, and luring us away from real and modest worth. Let there be
added to these complaints the strongest denunciation of the kindred
literary lies which hum about our ears and glitter before our eyes,
which corrupt the language, and wrong every man and woman who
speaks it by robbing it of some portion of its beauty and power.”

When shall we learn that the secret of beauty and of force, in
speaking and in writing, is not to say simple things finely, but
to say fine things as simply as possible? “To clothe,” says Fuller,
“low creeping matter with high-flown language is not fine fancy,
but flat foolery. It rather loads than raises a wren to fasten the
feathers of an ostrich to her wings.” It is a significant fact
that the books over which generation after generation of readers
has hung with the deepest delight,--which have retained their
hold, amid all the fluctuations of taste, upon all classes,--have
been written in the simplest and most idiomatic English, that
English for which the “fine school” of writers would substitute a
verbose and affected phraseology. Such books are “Robinson Crusoe,”
“Gulliver’s Travels,” and “Pilgrim’s Progress,” which Macaulay has
justly characterized as treasures of pure English. Fitz-Greene
Halleck tells us that some years ago a letter fell into his hands
which a Scotch servant girl had written to her lover. The style
charmed him, and his literary friends agreed that it was fairly
inimitable. Anxious to clear up the mystery of its beauty, and even
elegance, he searched for its author, who thus solved the enigma:
“Sir, I came to this country four years ago. Then I did not know
how to read or write. Since then I have learned to read and write,
but I have not yet learned how to spell; so always when I sit down
to write a letter, I choose those words which are so short and
simple that I am sure to know how to spell them.” This was the
whole secret. The simple-minded Scotch girl knew more of rhetoric
than Blair or Campbell. As Halleck forcibly says: “Simplicity is
beauty. Simplicity is power.”

It is through the arts and sciences, whose progress is so rapid,
that many words of “learned length and thundering sound” force
their way in these days into the language. The vocabulary of
science is so repugnant to the ear and so hard to the tongue,
that it is a long while before its terms become popularized. We
may be sure that many years will elapse before “aristolochioid,”
“megalosaurus,” “acanthopterygian,” “nothoclæna-trichomanoides,”
“monopleurobranchian,” “anonaceo-hydrocharideo-nymphæoid,” and
other such “huge verbal blocks, masses of syllabic aggregations,
which both the tongue and the taste find it difficult to surmount,”
will establish themselves in the language of literature and
common life. Still, while the lover of Anglo-Saxon simplicity
is rarely shocked by such terms, there are hundreds of others,
less stupendous, such as “phenomenon,” “demonstrative,” “inverse
proportion,” “transcendental,” “category,” “predicament,”
“exorbitant,” which, once heard only in scientific lecture rooms or
in schools, are now the common currency of the educated; and it is
said that in one of our Eastern colleges, the learned mathematical
professor, on whom the duty devolved one morning of making the
chapel prayer, startled his hearers by asking Divine Goodness to
enable them to know its length, its breadth, and its superficial
contents. Should popular enlightenment go on for some ages with the
prodigious strides it has lately made, a future generation may hear
lovers addressing their mistresses in the terms predicted by Punch:

      “I love thee, Mary, and thou lovest me.
      Our mutual flame is like the affinity
      That doth exist between two simple bodies.
      I am Potassium to thine Oxygen.
      ... Sweet, thy name is Briggs,
      And mine is Johnson. Wherefore should not we
      Agree to form a _Johnsonate of Briggs_?
      We will. The day, the happy day is nigh,
      When Johnson shall with beauteous Briggs combine.”

It is useless, of course, to complain of the terminology of
science, since inaccurate names, that connote too many things,
or that are otherwise lacking in precision, would be productive
of continual mischief. But indispensable as this distinctive
nomenclature is, it is, no doubt, often needlessly uncouth, and
it has been well said that if the language of common life were
equally invariable and unelastic, imagination would be cancelled,
and genius crushed. How barbarous and repulsive appear many of
the long, polysyllabic, technical names of plants and flowers in
our treatises on botany, when compared with such popular names as
“Stag-beetle,” “Rosemary,” and “Forget-me-not!” To express the
results of science without the ostentation of its terms, is an
admirable art, known, unfortunately, to but few. How few surgeons
can communicate in simple, intelligible language to a jury, in
a law case, the results of a _post-mortem_ examination! Almost
invariably the learned witness finds a wound “in the parieties
of the abdomen, opening the peritoneal cavity”; or an injury of
some “vertebra in the dorsal or lumbar region”; or something else
equally frightful. Some years ago, in one of the English courts, a
judge rebuked a witness of this kind by saying, “You mean so and
so, do you not, sir?”--at the same time translating his scientific
barbarisms into a few words of simple English. “I do, my Lord.”
“Then why can’t you _say_ so?” He _had_ said so, but in a foreign

To all the writers and speakers who needlessly employ grandiose
or abstract terms, instead of plain Saxon ones, we would say, as
Falstaff said to Pistol: “If thou hast any tidings whatever to
deliver, prithee deliver them like a man of this world!” Never,
perhaps, did a college professor give a better lesson in rhetoric
than was given by a plain farmer in Kennebec County, Maine, to
a schoolmaster. “You are excavating a subterranean channel, it
seems,” said the pedagogue, as he saw the farmer at work near his
house. “No, sir,” was the reply, “I am only digging a ditch.” A
similar rebuke was once administered by the witty Governor Corwin,
of Ohio, to a young lady who addressed him in high-flown terms.
During a political tour through the State, he and the Hon. Thomas
Ewing stayed at night at the house of a leading politician, but
found no one at home but his niece, who presided at the tea-table.
Having never conversed with “great men” before, she supposed she
must talk to them in elephantine language. “Mr. Ewing, will you
take condiments in your tea, sir?” inquired the young lady. “Yes,
miss, if you please,” replied the Senator. Corwin’s eyes twinkled.
Here was a temptation that could not be resisted. Gratified
at the apparent success of her trial in talking to the United
States Senator, the young lady addressed Mr. Corwin in the same
manner,--“Will you take condiments in _your_ tea, sir?” “Pepper and
salt, but no mustard,” was the prompt reply, which the lady, it
is said, never forgave, declaring that the Governor was “horridly

The faults of all those who thus barbarize our tongue would be
comparatively excusable, were it so barren of resources that
any man whose conceptions are clear need find difficulty in
wreaking them upon expression. But the language in which Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson have sung; in which
Hume, Gibbon, Froude, Motley, and Prescott have narrated; in which
Addison, Swift, Newman, and Ruskin have written; and in which
Bolingbroke, Chatham, Fox, Pitt, and Webster have spoken, needs not
to ask alms of its neighbors. Not only these, but a hundred other
masters, have shown that it is rich enough for all the exigencies
of the human mind; that it can express the loftiest conceptions of
the poet, portray the deepest emotions of the human heart; that it
can convey, if not the fripperies, at least the manly courtesies of
polite life, and make palpable the profoundest researches of the
philosopher. It is not, therefore, because of the poverty of our
vocabulary that so many writers Gallicize and Germanize our tongue;
the real cause is hinted at in the answer of Handel to an ambitious
musician, who attributed the hisses of his hearers to a defect in
the instrument on which he was playing: “The fault is not there, my
friend,” said the composer, jealous of the honor of the organ, on
which he himself performed; “the fact is, you have no music in your

We are aware that the English tongue,--our own cartilaginous
tongue, as some one has quaintly styled it,--has been decried,
even by poets who have made it discourse the sweetest music, for
its lack of expressive terms, and for its excess in consonants,
guttural, sibilant, or mute. It was this latter peculiarity,
doubtless, which led Charles V, three centuries ago, to compare it
to the whistling of birds; and others since, from the predominance
of the _s_, to the continued hissing of red-hot iron in water.
Madame de Stael likens it to the monotonous sound of the surge
breaking on the sea-shore; and even Lord Byron,--whose own
burning verse, distinguished not less by its melody than by its
incomparable energy, has signally revealed the hidden harmony
that lies in our short Saxon words,--turns traitor to his native
language, and in a moment of caprice denounces it for its harshness:

      “I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
        Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
      And sounds as if it should be writ on satin,
        With syllables that breathe of the sweet South,
      And gentle liquids, gliding all so pat in,
        That not a single accent seems uncouth,
      Like our harsh, Northern, whistling, grunting guttural,
      Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and sputter all.”

It is strange that the poet could not see that, in this very
selection of condemnatory terms, he has strikingly shown the
wondrous expressiveness of the tongue he censures. What can be
softer, more musical, or more beautifully descriptive, than the
“gentle liquids gliding,” and the words “breathe of the sweet
South”; and where among all the languages of the “sweet South”
would he have found words so well fitted to point his sarcasm,
so saturated with harshness, as the terms “harsh,” “uncouth,”
“northern,” “whistling,” “grunting,” “guttural,” “hiss,” “spit,”
and “sputter?” It has been well said that “the hand that possesses
strength and power may have as delicate a touch, when needed,
as the hand of nervous debility. The English language can drop
the honeyed words of peace and gentleness, and it can visit with
its _withering, scathing, burning, blasting curse_.” Again, even
Addison, who wrote so musical English, contrasting our own tongue
with the vocal beauty of the Greek, and forgetting that the latter
is the very lowest merit of a language, being merely its _sensuous_
merit, calls it brick as against marble. Waller, too, ungrateful to
the noble tongue that has preserved his name, declares that

      “Poets that lasting marble seek,
      Must carve in Latin or in Greek.”

Because smoothness is one of the requisites of verse, it has been
hastily concluded that languages in which vowels and liquids
predominate must be better adapted to poetry, and that the most
mellifluous must also be the most melodious. But so far is this
from being true, that, as Henry Taylor has remarked, in dramatic
verse our English combinations of consonants are invaluable, both
in giving expression to the harsher passions, and in impairing
keenness and significancy to the language of discrimination, and
especially to that of scorn.

The truth is, our language, so far from being harsh, or poor and
limited in its vocabulary, is the richest and most copious now
spoken on the globe. As Sir Thomas More long ago declared: “It
is plenteous enough to expresse our myndes in anythinge whereof
one man hath used to speak with another.” Owing to its composite
character, it has a choice of terms expressive of every shade of
difference in the idea, compared with which the vocabulary of
many other modern tongues is poverty itself. But for the impiety
of the act, those who speak it might well raise a monument to the
madcaps who undertook the tower of Babel; for, as the mixture of
many bloods has made them the most vigorous of modern races, so has
the mingling of divers tongues given them a language which is one
of the noblest vehicles of thought ever vouchsafed to man. This
very mingling of tongues in our language has been made the ground
of an accusation against it; and the Anglo-Saxon is sometimes told
by foreigners that he “has been at a great feast of languages
and stolen the scraps”; that his dialect is “the alms-basket of
wit,” made up of beggarly borrowings, and is wholly lacking in

It is true that the Anglo-Saxon has pillaged largely from the
speech of other peoples; that he has a craving desire to annex,
not only states and provinces, even whole empires, to his own, but
even the best parts of their languages; that there is scarce a
tongue on the globe which his absorbing genius has not laid under
contribution to enrich the exchequer of his all-conquering speech.
Strip him of his borrowings,--or “annexations,” if you will,--and
he would neither have a foot of soil to stand upon, nor a rag of
language in which to clothe his shivering ideas. To say nothing of
the Greek, Latin, and French, which enter so largely into the woof
of the tongue, we are indebted to the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese,
Dutch, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindoo, and even the North American Indian
dialects, for many words which we cannot do without. The word-barks
of our language are daily increasing in size, and terms that
sprang up at Delhi and Benares four thousand years ago are to-day
scaling the cliffs of the Rocky Mountains. But while the English
has thus borrowed largely from other tongues, and the multifarious
etymology of “its Babylonish vocabulary,” as its enemies are
pleased to call it, renders it, of all modern languages, one of
the most difficult to master in all its wealth and power, yet it
makes up in eclecticism, vigor, and abundance far more than it
loses in apparent originality. Mosaic-like and heterogeneous as are
its materials, it is yet no mingle-mangle or patchwork, but is as
individual as the French or the German. Though the rough materials
are gathered from a hundred sources, yet such is its digestive and
assimilative energy that the most discordant aliments, passing
through its anaconda-like stomach, are as speedily identified with
its own independent existence as the beefsteak which yesterday
gave roundness to the hinder symmetry of a prize ox becomes
to-morrow part and parcel of the proper substance,--the breast,
leg, or arm,--of an Illinois farmer.

In fact the very caprices and irregularities of our idiom,
orthography, and pronunciation, which make foreigners “stare and
gasp,” and are ridiculed by our own philological ultraists, are the
strongest proofs of the nobleness and perfection of our language.
It is the very extent to which these caprices, peculiar idioms,
and exceptions prevail in any tongue, that forms the true scale
of its worth and beauty; and hence we find them more numerous
in Greek than in Latin,--in French or Italian than in Irish or
Indian. There is less symmetry in the rugged, gnarled oak, with
the grotesque contortions of its branches, which has defied the
storms of a thousand years, than in the smoothly clipped Dutch yew
tree; but it is from the former that we hew out the knees of mighty
line-of-battle ships, while a vessel built of the latter would go
to pieces in the first storm. It was our own English that sustained
him who soared “above all Greek, above all Roman fame”; and the
same “well of English undefiled” did not fail the myriad-minded
dramatist, when

      “Each scene of many colored life he drew,
      Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new.”

Nor have even these great writers, marvellous and varied as is
their excellence, fathomed the powers of the language for grand
and harmonious expression, or used them to the full. It has
“combinations of sound grander than ever rolled through the mind
of Milton; more awful than the mad gasps of Lear; sweeter than the
sighs of Desdemona; more stirring than the speech of Antony; sadder
than the plaints of Hamlet; merrier than the mocks of Falstaff.”
To those, therefore, who complain of the poverty or harshness of
our tongue, we may say, in the words of George Herbert:

      “Let foreign nations of their language boast,
        What fine variety each tongue affords;
      I like our language, as our men and coast:--
        _Who cannot dress it well, want_ WIT, _not_ WORDS.”



  It is with words as with sunbeams,--the more they are condensed,
  the deeper they burn.--SOUTHEY.

  Language is like the minim immortal among the infusoria, which
  keeps splitting itself into halves.--COLERIDGE.

Among the various forms of ingratitude, one of the commonest is
that of kicking down the ladder by which one has climbed the steeps
of celebrity; and a good illustration of this is the conduct of the
author of the following lines, who, though indebted in no small
degree for his fame to the small words, the monosyllabic music of
our tongue, sneers at them as low:

      “While feeble expletives their aid do join,
      And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

“How ingenious! how felicitous!” the reader exclaims; and, truly,
Pope has shown himself wonderfully adroit in ridiculing the Saxon
part of the language with words borrowed from its own vocabulary.
But let no man despise little words, even though he echo the little
wasp of Twickenham. Alexander Pope is a high authority in English
literature; but it is long since he was regarded as having the
infallibility of a Pope Alexander. The multitude of passages in
his works, in which the small words form not only the bolts, pins,
and hinges, but the chief material in the structure of his verse,
show that he knew well enough their value; but it was hard to avoid
the temptation of such a line as that quoted. “Small words,” he
elsewhere says, “are generally stiff and languishing, but they may
be beautiful to express melancholy.” It is the old story of

                      “---- the ladder
      Whereto the climber upward turns his face,
      But when he once attains the utmost round,
      He then unto the ladder turns his back,
      Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
      By which he did ascend.”

The truth is, the words most potent in life and literature,--in
the mart, in the senate, in the forum, and at the fireside,--are
small words, the monosyllables which the half-educated speaker
and writer despises. All passionate expression,--the outpouring
of the soul when moved to its depths,--is, for the most part, in
monosyllables. They are the heart-beats, the very throbs of the
brain, made visible by utterance. The will makes its giant victory
strokes in little monosyllables, deciding for the right and against
the wrong. In the hour of fierce temptation, at the ballot-box,
in the court-room, in all the crises of life, how potent for good
or evil are the little monosyllables, “Yes” and “No”! “‘Yes’ is
the Olympian nod of approval which fills heaven with ambrosia and
light; ‘no’ is the stamp of Jupiter which shakes heaven and darkens
the faces of the gods. ‘Yes:’ how it trembles from the maiden’s
lips, the broken utterance, the key-syllable of a divine song
which her heart only sings; how it echoes in the ecstatic pulses
of the doubtful lover, and makes Paradise open its gates for the
royal entry of the triumphing conqueror, Love. ‘No,’--well might
Miles Standish say that he could not stand fire if ‘No’ should come
‘point-blank from the mouth of a woman’; what ‘captain, colonel or
knight-at-arms’ could? ‘No:’ ’tis the impregnable fortress,--the
very Malakoff of the will; it is the breastwork and barrier thrown
up, which the charge must be fierce indeed to batter down or
overleap. It is the grand and guarded tower against temptation; it
is the fierce and sudden arrow through all the rings, that dismays
the suitors of the dear and long-cherished and faithful Penelope,
and makes the unforgotten king start from the disguise of a beggar.”

Again, there is a whole class of words, and those among the most
expressive in the language, of which the great majority are
monosyllables. We refer to the interjections. We are aware that
some philologists deny that interjections are language. Horne Tooke
sneers at this whole class of words as “brutish and inarticulate,”
as “the miserable refuge of the speechless,” and complains that,
“because beautiful and gaudy,” they have been suffered to usurp a
place among words. “Where will you look for it” (the interjection),
he triumphantly asks; “will you find it among laws, or in books
of civil institutions, in history, or in any treatise of useful
arts or sciences? No: you must seek for it in rhetoric and poetry,
in novels, plays and romances.” This acute writer has forgotten
one book in which interjections abound, and awaken in the mind
emotions of the highest grandeur and pathos,--namely, the Bible.
But the use of this part of speech is not confined to books. It
is heard wherever men interchange thought and feeling, whether on
the gravest or the most trivial themes; in tones of the tenderest
love and of the deadliest hate; in shouts of joy and ecstasies
of rapture, and in the expression of deep anguish, remorse and
despair; in short, in the outburst of every human feeling. More
than this, not only is it heard in daily life, but we are told
by the highest authority that it is heard in the hallelujahs of
angels, and in the continual “Holy! Holy! Holy!” of the cherubim.

What word in the English language is fuller of significance, has
a greater variety of meanings, than the diminutive “Oh”? Uttered
by the infant to express surprise or delight, it is used by the
man to indicate fear, aspiration or appeal, and, indeed, according
to the tone in which it is uttered, may voice almost any one of
the emotions of which he is capable. What a volume of meaning is
condensed in the derisive “Oh! oh!” which greets a silly utterance
in the House of Commons! In no other assembly, perhaps, are the
powers of human speech more fully exhibited; yet it was in that
body that one of the most famous of interjections originated,--we
mean the cry of “Hear! hear!” which, though at first an imperative
verb, is now “nothing more or less than a great historical
interjection,” indicating, according to the tone in which it is
uttered, admiration, acquiescence, indignation or derision. It has
been truly said that when a large assembly is animated by a common
sentiment which demands instantaneous utterance, it can find that
utterance only through interjections.

Again, how many exquisite passages in poetry owe to the
interjection their beauty, their pathos, or their power! “The first
sincere hymn,” says M. Taine, “is the one word ‘O.’” This “O,”
the sign of the vocative, must not be confounded with “Oh!” the
emotional interjection, which expresses a sentiment, as of appeal,
entreaty, expostulation, etc. What depth of meaning is contained in
that little word, as an expression of grief, in the following lines
by Wordsworth:

      “She lived unknown, and few could know
        When Lucy ceased to be!
      Now she is in her grave,--and oh!
        The difference to me.”

What possible combination of words could be more significant than
the reply “Pooh! pooh!” to a controversialist’s theory, or the
contemptuous “Fudge!” with which Mr. Churchill, in “The Vicar
of Wakefield,” sums up the pretensions of the languishing Miss
Carolina Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs:

  “Virtue, my dear Lady Blarney, virtue is worth any price; but
  where is that to be found?”


How full of pathos is the “Alack, alack!” of Jeanie Deans at the
supreme moment in her sister’s trial; and how forcibly “Oho!”
expresses exasperating self-felicitation at the discovery of a
carefully guarded secret! What volumes of meaning are sometimes
condensed into the little word “psha”! “Doubt,” says Thackeray,
“is always crying ‘psha,’ and sneering.” How expressive are those
almost infinitesimal words which epitomize the alternations of
human life, “ah!” and “ha!” As Fuller beautifully moralizes: “‘Ha!’
is the interjection of laughter; ‘ah!’ is an interjection of
sorrow. The difference between them is very small, as consisting
only in the transposition of what is no substantial letter, but a
bare aspiration. How quickly, in the age of a minute, in the very
turning of our breath, is our mirth changed to mourning!”

      “Nature in many tones complains,
      Has many sounds to tell her pains;
      But for her joys has only three,
      And those but small ones, Ha! ha! he!”

The truth is that, so far is this class of words from being, as Max
Müller contends, the mere _outskirts_ of language, they are more
truly words than any others. These little words, so expressive of
joy, of hope, of doubt, of fear, which leap from the heart like
fiery jets from volcanic isles,--these surviving particles of the
ante-Babel tongues, which spring with the flush or blanching of the
face to all lips, and are understood by all men,--these “silver
fragments of a broken voice,” to use an expression of Tennyson’s,
“the only remains of the Eden lexicon in the dictionaries of all

                    “The only words
      Of Paradise that have survived the fall,”--

are emphatically and preëminently language. It is doubtless
true that civilization, with its freezing formalities, tends
to diminish the use of interjections, as well as their natural
accompaniments, gesture and gesticulation; but on the other hand,
it should be noted, that there are certain interjections which are
the fruits of the highest and most mature forms of human culture.
Interjections, in truth, are not so much “_parts_ of speech” as
entire expressions of feeling or thought. They are preëminently
pictorial. If I pronounce the words “house,” “strike,” “black,”
“beautifully,” without other words or explanatory gestures, I say
nothing distinctly; I may mean any one of a hundred things; but
if I utter an interjectional exclamation, denoting joy or sorrow,
surprise or fear, every person who hears me knows at once by what
affection I am moved. I communicate a fact by a single syllable.
Instead of ranking below other words, the interjection stands on
a higher plane, because its significance is more absolute and
immediate. Moreover, from these despised parts of speech has been
derived a whole class of words; as, for example, in the natural
interjection “ah”! _ach!_ we have the root of a large class of
words in the Aryan languages, such as ἄχος, _achen!_ “ache,”
“anguish,” “anxious,” _angustus_, and the word “agony” itself. Many
words are used interjectionally which are not interjections, such
as “Farewell!” “Adieu!” “Welcome!” which are to be looked upon as
elliptical forms of expression. They are, in fact, abbreviated
sentences, resembling the Ο for οὐ, “not,” with which the poet
Philoxenus is said to have replied in writing to the tyrant
Dionysius who had invited him to the court of Syracuse. The true
interjection is an apostrophe, condensed into a syllable. It is
the effort of Nature to unburden herself of some intense, pressing
emotion. It is the sigh of humanity for what it cannot have or
hope for; for what it has lost; for what it did not value till it
lost it. George Eliot thus defines it when she speaks of certain
deeds as “little more than interjections, which give vent to the
long passion of a life.” In oratory, poetry, and the drama, the
interjection plays an important part. Public speakers, especially,
find it indispensable to their success. “As the most eloquent men
are apt to find their language inadequate to their needs,--as
still, after they have exhausted their vocabulary of other words,

            ‘There hover in these restless heads
      One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the best,
      Which into words no virtue can digest,’

they find great need of the interjection. In their hands it
deepens all assertions, gives utterance to intense longings,
carries the hearer away into ultimate possibilities, and expresses
the most passionate emotions in the instant of their most
overwhelming power.” Who that is familiar with the history of
oratory, does not remember instances when these little words, so
despised by grammarians, have been more impressive, more to the
point, more eloquent than a long speech? The interjections of
Whitefield,--his “Ah!” of pity for the unrepentant sinner, and
his “Oh!” of encouragement and persuasion for the almost converted
listener,--were words of tremendous power, and formed a most potent
engine in his pulpit artillery.[11] Garrick used to say that he
would give a hundred guineas if he could say “Oh!” as Whitefield
did. The condensed force of interjections,--their inherent
expressiveness,--entitles them, therefore, to be regarded as the
appropriate language, the mother-tongue of passion; and hence the
effect of good acting depends largely on the proper introduction
and just articulation of this class of words.

Shakespeare’s interjections exact a rare command of modulation, and
cannot be rendered with any truth except by one who has mastered
the whole play. What a profound insight of the masterpiece of
the poet is required of him who would adequately utter the word
“indeed” in the following passage of Othello! “It contains in it,”
says an English writer, “the gist of the chief action of the play,
and it implies all that the plot develops. It ought to be spoken
with such an intonation as to suggest the diabolic scheme of Iago’s
conduct. There is no thought of the grammatical structure of the
compound, consisting of the preposition ‘in’ and the substantive
‘deed,’ which is equivalent to ‘act,’ ‘fact,’ or ‘reality.’ All
this vanishes and is lost in the mere iambic dissyllable which is
employed as a vehicle for the feigned tones of surprise.”

  “_Iago._ I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

  _Oth._ O, yes, and went between us very oft.

  _Iago._ INDEED!

  _Oth._ Indeed? ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that? Is he
  not honest?

  _Iago._ Honest, my lord?

  _Oth._ Honest? ay, honest!”

The Greek and Latin languages abound with interjections, which are
used by the orators and poets with great effect. To gratify the
Athenians, as they behold their once proud enemy humbled to the
dust, and draining the cup of affliction to the very last dregs,
Æschylus, in his “Persai,” employs almost every form of ejaculation
in which abject misery can be expressed.

The English language is preëminently a language of small words.
It has more monosyllables than any other modern tongue, a
peculiarity which gives it a strikingly direct and straightforward
character, equally removed from the indirect French and the
intricate, lumbering German. Its fondness for this class of
words is even greater than that of the Anglo-Saxon. Not a few of
our present monosyllables, such as the verbs “to love,” “bake,”
“beat,” “slide,” “swim,” “bind,” “blow,” “brew,” were, in the
Anglo-Saxon, dissyllables. The English language, impatient of
all superfluities, cuts down its words to the narrowest possible
limits,--lopping and condensing, never expanding. Sometimes it
cuts off an initial syllable, as in “gin” for “engine,” “van” for
“caravan,” “prentice” for “apprentice,” “’bus” for “omnibus,” “wig”
for “periwig”; sometimes it cuts off a final syllable or syllables,
as in “aid” for “aidedecamp,” “prim” for “primitive,” “cit” for
“citizen,” “grog” for “grogram,” “pants” for “pantaloons,” “tick”
for (pawnbroker’s) “ticket”; sometimes it strikes out a letter,
or letters, from the middle of a word, or otherwise contracts
it, as in “last” for “latest,” “lark” for “laverock,” “since”
for “sithence,” “fortnight” for “fourteen nights,” “lord” for
“hlaford,” “morning” for “morrowning,” “sent” for “sended,” “chirp”
for “chirrup” or “cheer up,” “fag” for “fatigue,” “consols” for
“consolidated annuities.” The same abbreviating processes are
followed, when English words are borrowed from the Latin. Thus we
have the monosyllable “strange” from the trisyllable _extraneus_;
“spend” from _expendo_; “scour” from _exscorio_; “stop” from
_obstipo_; “funnel” from _infundibulum_; “ply” from _plico_;
“jetty” from _projectum_; “dean” from _decanus_; “count” from
_computo_; “stray” from _extravagus_; “proxy” from _procurator_;
“spell” from _syllabare_, etc. Not only are single Latin words thus
maimed when converted into English, and their letters changed,
transposed, or omitted, but often two English words are clipped
and squeezed into one word. Thus from “proud” and “dance” we have
“prance”; from “grave” and “rough” we have “gruff”; from “scrip”
and “roll” comes “scroll”; from “tread,” or “trot,” and “drudge,”
we have “trudge.” Even in the construction of its primitive
monosyllables the English language manifests the same economy, and
forms words of a totally different meaning by the simple change
of a vowel; as, bag, beg, big, bog, bug; bat, bet, bit, bot, but;
ball, bell, bill, boll, bull; or, again, by the change of the first
letter; as, fight, light, might, night, right, tight,--dash, hash,
lash, gash, rash, sash, wash. The final “ed” of our participles
is rapidly disappearing, as a distinct syllable. Not content
with suppressing half the letters of our syllables, and half the
syllables of our words, we clip our vowels, in speaking, shorter
than any other people, so that our language threatens to become
a kind of stenology, or algebraic condensation of thought,--a
pemmican of ideas. Voltaire said that the English gained two hours
a day by clipping their words. The same love of brevity has shown
itself in rendering the final _e_ in English always mute. In
Chaucer the final _e_ must often be sounded as a separate syllable,
or the verse will limp. To the same cause we owe such expressions
as “ten _o_’clock,” instead of “_of_ the clock,” or “_on_ the
clock,” and the hissing _s_, so offensive to foreign ears. The old
termination of the verb, _th_, has given way to _s_ in the third
person singular, and _en_ to a single letter in the third person

The Anglo-Saxon, the substratum of our modern English, is
emphatically monosyllabic; yet many of the grandest passages in
our literature are made up almost exclusively of Saxon words. The
English Bible abounds in grand, sublime, and tender passages,
couched almost entirely in words of one syllable. The passage in
Ezekiel, which Coleridge is said to have considered the sublimest
in the whole Bible: “And he said unto me, son of man, can these
bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest,”--contains
seventeen monosyllables to three others. What passage in Holy Writ
surpasses in energetic brevity that which describes the death of
Sisera,--“At her feet he bowed, he fell; at her feet he bowed, he
fell, he lay down; where he bowed, there he fell down dead”? Here
are twenty-two monosyllables to one dissyllable thrice repeated,
and that a word which is usually pronounced as a monosyllable.
The lament of David over Saul and Jonathan is not surpassed in
pathos by any similar passage in the whole range of literature;
yet a very large proportion of these touching words are of one
or two syllables:--“The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high
places; how are the mighty fallen!... Ye mountains of Gilboa, let
there be no dew, neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of
offering.... Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their
lives, and in their death they were not divided.... They were
swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.... How are the
mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast
slain in thine high places. I am distressed for thee, my brother
Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was
wonderful, passing the love of women.” Occasionally a long word
is used in the current version, where a more vivid or picturesque
short one might have been employed, as where our Saviour exclaims:
“Oh, ye generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the
wrath to come?” In one of the older versions “brood” is used in
place of “generation,” with far greater effect.

The early writers, the “pure wells of English undefiled,” abound
in small words. Shakespeare employs them in his finest passages,
especially when he would paint a scene with a few masterly touches.
Hear Macbeth:

                        “Here lay Duncan,
      His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
      And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in Nature
      For ruin’s wasteful entrance. There the murderers,
      Steep’d in the colors of their trade, their daggers
      Unmannerly breech’d with gore.”

Are monosyllables passionless? Listen, again, to the “Thane of

                      “That is a step
      On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
      For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires,
      Let not light see my black and deep desires.
      The eye winks at the hand. Yet, let that be
      Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.”

Two dissyllables only among fifty-two words!

Bishop Hall, in one of his most powerful satires, speaking of the
vanity of “adding house to house and field to field,” has these
beautiful lines:

      “Fond fool! six feet shall serve for all thy store,
      And he that cares for most shall find no more.”

“What harmonious monosyllables!” exclaims the critic, Gifford;
yet they may be paralleled by others in the same writer, equally
musical and equally expressive.

Was Milton tame? He knew when to use polysyllables of “learned
length and thundering sound”; but he knew also when to produce the
grandest effects by the small words despised by inferior artists.
Read his account of the journey of the fallen angels:

            “Through many a dark and dreary vale
      They passed, and many a region dolorous,
      O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp,
      _Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death_,--
      A universe of death.”

In what other language shall we find in the same number of words a
more vivid picture of desolation than this? Hear, again, the lost
archangel calling upon hell to receive its new possessor:

                          “One who brings
      A mind not to be changed by place or time.
      The mind is its own place, and in itself
      Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
      What matter where, if I be still the same,
      And what I should be--all but less than He
      Whom thunder hath made greater? Here, at least,
      We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
      Here for His envy; will not drive us hence;
      Here we may reign secure, and, in my choice,
      To reign is worth ambition, though in hell;
      Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Did Collins lack lyric beauty, grace, or power? Read the following
exquisite lines, in which the truth of the sentiment that “poetry
is the short-hand of thought” is strikingly illustrated:

      “How sleep the brave who sink to rest
      By all their country’s wishes blest!
      When Spring, with dewy fingers cold,
      Returns to deck their hallow’d mould,
      She there shall dress a sweeter sod
      Than Fancy’s feet have ever trod.

      By fairy hands their knell is rung,
      By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
      There Honor comes, a pilgrim gray,
      To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
      And Freedom shall a while repair,
      To dwell a weeping hermit there.”

Where, in the whole range of English poetry, shall we find anything
more perfect than these lines? What a quantity and variety of
thought are here condensed into two verses, like a cluster of rock
crystals, sparkling and distinct, yet receiving and reflecting
lustre by the combination! Poetry and picture, pathos and fancy,
grandeur and simplicity, are combined in verse, the melody of which
has never been surpassed. Yet, out of the seventy-nine words in
these lines, sixty-two are monosyllables.

Did Byron lack force or fire? His skilful use of monosyllables
is often the very secret of his charm. It is true that he too
frequently resorts to quaint, obsolete, and outlandish terms,
thinking thereby to render his style more gorgeous or grand. But
his chief strength lies in his despotic command over the simplest
forms of speech. Listen to the words in which he describes the
destruction of Sennacherib:

      “For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
      And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
      And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill,
      And their hearts beat but once, and forever lay still.”

Here, out of forty-two words, all but four are monosyllables; and
yet how exquisitely are all these monosyllables linked into the
majestic and animated movement of the anapestic measure! Again,
what can be more musical and more melancholy than the opening verse
of the lines in which the same poet bids adieu to his native land?

      “Adieu! adieu! my native shore
        Fades o’er the waters blue,
      The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
        And shrieks the wild sea-mew.

      Yon sun that sets upon the sea
        We follow in his flight;
      Farewell awhile to him and thee,
        My native land, good night!

      With thee, my bark, I’ll swiftly go
        Athwart the foaming brine;
      Nor care what land thou bear’st me to,
        So not again to mine.

      Welcome, welcome, ye dark blue waves
        And when you fail my sight,
      Welcome, ye deserts and ye caves!
        My native land, good night!”

Two Latin words, “native” and “desert”; one French, “adieu”; the
rest, English purely. The third and fourth lines paint the scene to
the life; yet all the words but one are monosyllables.

How graceful, tender, thoughtful, and melancholy, are the following
lines by Moore, of which the monosyllabic music is one of the
principal charms:

      “Those evening bells! those evening bells!
      How many a tale their music tells,
      Of youth and home, and that sweet time,
      When last I heard their soothing chime.

      Those joyous hours have passed away;
      And many a heart, that then was gay,
      Within the tomb now darkly dwells,
      And hears no more those evening bells.

      And so ’twill be when I am gone;
      That tuneful peal will still ring on,
      While other bards shall walk those dells,
      And sing your praise, sweet evening bells!”

The following brief passage from one of Landor’s poems strikingly
illustrates the metrical effect of simple words of one syllable:

                          “She was sent forth
      To bring that light which never wintry blast
      Blows out, nor rain, nor snow extinguishes--
      The light that shines from loving eyes upon
      Eyes that love back, till they can see no more.”

Here, out of thirty different words, but one is a long one; nearly
all the rest are monosyllables.

Herbert Spencer, in an able paper on the “Philosophy of Style,”
has pointed out the superior forcibleness of Saxon-English to
Latin-English, and shown that it is due largely to the comparative
brevity of the Saxon. If a thought gains in energy in proportion
as it is expressed in fewer words, it must also gain in energy
in proportion as the words in which it is expressed have fewer
syllables. If surplus articulations fatigue the hearer, distract
his attention, and diminish the strength of the impression made
upon him, it matters not whether they consist of entire words
or of parts of words. “Formerly,” says an able writer, “when
armies engaged in battle, they were drawn up in one long line,
fighting from flank to flank; but a great general broke up this
heavy mass into several files, so that he could bend his front
at will, bring any troops he chose into action, and, even after
the first onslaught, change the whole order of the field; and
though such a broken line might not have pleased an old soldier’s
eye, as having a look of weakness about it, still it carried the
day, and is everywhere now the arrangement. There will thus be an
advantage, the advantage of suppleness, in having the parts of a
word to a certain degree kept by themselves; this, indeed, is the
way with all languages as they become more refined; and so far
are monosyllabic languages from being lame and ungainly, that such
are the sweetest and gracefulest, as those of Asia; and the most
rough and untamed (those of North America) abound in huge unkempt
words,--yardlongtailed, like fiends.”

I have spoken in the previous chapter of Johnson’s fondness for
big, swelling words, the leviathans of the lexicon, and also of
certain speakers and writers in our own day, who have an equal
contempt for small words, and never use one when they can find a
pompous polysyllable to take its place. It is evident from the
passages I have cited, that these Liliputians,--these Tom Thumbs
of the dictionary,--play as important a part in our literature as
their bigger and more magniloquent brethren. Horne Tooke admitted
their force, when, on his trial for high treason, he said that he
was “the miserable victim of two prepositions and a conjunction.”
Like the infusoria of our globe, so long unnoticed, which are now
known to have raised whole continents from the depths of the ocean,
these words, once so despised, are now rising in importance, and
are admitted by scholars to form an important class in the great
family of words.

The class of small words which were once contemptuously called
“particles,” are now acknowledged to be the very bolts, pins, and
hinges of the structure of language. Their significance increases
just in the degree that a nation thinks acutely and expresses its
thought accurately. An uncultivated idiom can do without them; but
as soon as a people becomes thoughtful, and wishes to connect and
modify its ideas,--in short, to pursue metaphysical inquiries,
and to reason logically,--the microscopic parts of speech become
indispensable. In some kinds of writing the almost exclusive use of
small words is necessary. What would have been the fate of Bunyan’s
immortal book, had he told the story of the Pilgrim’s journey in
the ponderous, elephantine “osities” and “ations” of Johnson, or
the gorgeous Latinity of Taylor? It would have been like building
a boat out of timbers cut out for a ship. It is owing to this
grandiose style, as much as to any other cause, that the author of
the “Rambler,” in spite of his sturdy strength and grasp of mind,
“lies like an Egyptian king, buried and forgotten in the pyramid
of his fame.” When a man half understands the subject of which he
speaks or writes, he will, like Goldsmith’s schoolmaster, use words
of “learned length and thundering sound.” But when he is master of
his theme, and when he feels deeply, he will use short, plain words
which all can understand. Rage and fear, it has been happily said,
strike out their terms like the sharp crack of the rifle when it
sends its bullets straight to the point.[12] When, after wearily
waiting in Chesterfield’s ante-room, Johnson wrote his indignant
letter, he broke away, to a considerable extent, from his usual
elephantine style, and used short, sharp, and stinging terms.

In conclusion, when we remember that the Saxon language, the soul
of the English, is essentially monosyllabic; that our language
contains, of monosyllables formed by the vowel _a_ alone, more
than five hundred; by the vowel _e_, some four hundred and fifty;
by the vowel _i_, about four hundred; by the vowel _o_, over four
hundred; and by the vowel _u_, more than two hundred and fifty;
we must admit that these seemingly petty and insignificant words,
even the microscopic particles, so far from meriting to be treated
as “creepers,” are of high importance, and that to know when and
how to use them is of no less moment to the speaker or writer than
to know when to use the grandiloquent expressions which we have
borrowed from the language of Greece and Rome. To every man who has
occasion to teach or move his fellow-men by tongue or pen, I would
say in the words of Dr. Addison Alexander,--themselves a happy
example of the thing he commends:

      “Think not that strength lies in the big round word,
        Or that the brief and plain must needs be weak.
      To whom can this be true who once has heard
        The cry for help, the tongue that all men speak
      When want or woe or fear is in the throat,
        So that each word gasped out is like a shriek
      Pressed from the sore heart, or a strange, wild note
        Sung by some fay or fiend? There is a strength
      Which dies if stretched too far or spun too fine,
        Which has more height than breadth, more depth than length;
      Let but this force of thought and speech be mine,
        And he that will may take the sleek, fat phrase,
      Which glows and burns not, though it gleam and shine,--
        Light, but no heat--a flash, but not a blaze!
      Nor is it mere strength that the short word boasts;
        It serves of more than fight or storm to tell,
      The roar of waves that clash on rock-bound coasts,
        The crash of tall trees when the wild winds swell,
      The roar of guns, the groans of men that die
        On blood-stained fields. It has a voice as well
      For them that far off on their sick beds lie;
        For them that weep, for them that mourn the dead;
      For them that laugh, and dance, and clap their hand;
        To joy’s quick step, as well as grief’s slow tread.
      The sweet, plain words we learned at first keep time;
        And though the theme be sad, or gay, or grand,
      With each, with all, these may be made to chime,
        In thought, or speech, or song, in prose or rhyme.”


[11] “Lectures on the English Language,” by G. P. Marsh.

[12] “The Use of Short Words,” by Hon. Horatio Seymour.



      POLONIUS. What do you read, my Lord?

      HAMLET. Words, words, words.--SHAKESPEARE.

  Is not cant the _materia prima_ of the Devil, from which all
  falsehoods, imbecilities, abominations, body themselves; from
  which no true thing can come? For cant is itself properly a
  double-distilled lie; the second power of a lie.--CARLYLE.

  Mankind are fond of inventing certain solemn and sounding
  expressions which appear to convey much, and in reality mean
  little; words that are the proxies of absent thoughts, and, like
  other proxies, add nothing to argument, while they turn the
  scales of decision.--SHELLEY.

Some years ago the author of the “Biographical History of
Philosophy,” in a criticism of a certain public lecturer in London,
observed that one of his most marked qualities was the priceless
one of frankness. “He accepts no sham. He pretends to admire
nothing he does not in his soul admire. He pretends to _be_ nothing
that he _is_ not. Beethoven bores him, and he says so: how many are
as wearied as he, but dare not confess it? Oh, if men would but
recognize the virtue of intrepidity! If men would but cease lying
in traditionary formulas,--pretending to admire, pretending to
believe, and all in sheer respectability!”

Who does not admire the quality here commended, and yet what
quality, in this age of self-assertion, of sounding brass and
tinkling cymbal, is more rare? What an amount of insincerity there
is in human speech! In how few persons is the tongue an index to
the heart! What a meaningless conventionality pervades all the
forms of social intercourse! Everybody knows that “How d’ye do?”
and “Good morning!” are parroted in most cases without a thought of
their meaning, or at least, without any positive interest in the
health or prosperity of the person addressed; we begin a letter
to one whom we secretly detest with “My dear sir,” and at the end
subscribe ourselves his “obedient servant,” though we should resent
a single word from him which implied a belief in our sincerity,
or bore the slightest appearance of a command. But not to dwell
upon these phrases, the hollowness of which may be excused on
the ground that they sweeten human intercourse, and prevent the
roughest men from degenerating into absolute boors, it is yet
startling to reflect how large a proportion of human speech is the
veriest cant. That men should use words the meaning of which they
have never weighed or discriminated, is bad enough; but that they
should habitually use words as mere counters or forms, is certainly
worse. There is hardly a class, a society, or a relation in which
man can be placed toward man, that does not call into play more or
less of language without meaning. The “damnable iteration” of the
lawyer in a declaration of assault and battery is not more a thing
of form than is the asseveration of one petitioner that he “will
ever pray,” etc., and of another that he “will be a thousand times
obliged,” if you will grant his request. Who does not know to what
an amount of flummery the most trifling kindness done by one person
to another often gives occasion on both sides? The one racks the
vocabulary for words and phrases in which to express his pretended
gratitude, while, in fact, he is only keenly humiliated by having
to accept a favor, and the other as eloquently disclaims any merit
in the grant, which he really grudged, and will never think of
without feeling that he made a great sacrifice.

The secret feeling of many a “public benefactor,” loudly praised
by the newspapers, was finely let out by Lord Byron when he sent
four thousand pounds to the Greeks, and privately informed a friend
that he did not think he could _well get off for less_. How many
wedding and other presents, and subscriptions to testimonials
and to public enterprises, are made by those who secretly curse
the occasion that exacts them! With the stereotyped “thanks” and
“grateful acknowledgments” of the shopkeeper all are familiar, as
they are with “the last,” the “positively the last,” and the “most
positively the very last” appearances of the dramatic stars that
shine for five hundred or a thousand dollars a night. As nobody is
deceived by these phrases, it seems hypercritical to complain of
them, and yet one can hardly help sympathizing with the country
editor who scolds a celebrated musician because he is now making
farewell tours “once a year,” whereas formerly he made them “only
once in five years.” Considering the sameness of shop-keepers’
acknowledgments, one cannot help admiring the daring originality
of the Dutch commercial house of which the poet Moore tells, that
concluded a letter thus: “Sugars are falling more and more every
day; not so the respect and esteem with which we are your obedient
servants.” The cant of public speakers is so familiar to the public
that it is looked for as a matter of course. When a man is called
on to address a public meeting, it is understood that the apology
for his “lack of preparation” to meet the demand so “unexpectedly”
made upon him, will preface the “impromptu” which he has spent
weeks in elaborating, as surely as the inevitable “This is so
unexpected” prefaces the reply of a maiden to the long-awaited
proposal of marriage from her lover.

Literary men are so wont to weigh their words that cant in them
seems inexcusable; yet where shall we find more of it than in
books, magazines, and newspapers? How many reasons are assigned
by authors for inflicting their works on the public, other than
the true one, namely, the pleasure of writing, the hope of a
little distinction, or of a little money! How many writers profess
to welcome criticism, which they nevertheless ascribe to spite,
envy, or jealousy, if it is unfavorable! What is intrinsically
more deceptive than the multitudinous “we” in which every writer,
great and small, hides his individuality,--whether his object be,
as Archdeacon Hare says, “to pass himself off unnoticed, like
the Irishman’s bad guinea in a handful of halfpence,” or to give
to the opinions of a humble individual the weight and gravity of
a council? “Who the ---- is ‘We’?” exclaimed the elder Kean on
reading a scathing criticism upon his “Hamlet”; and the question
might be pertinently asked of many other _nominis umbræ_ who
deliver their vaticinations and denunciations as oracularly as
if they were lineal descendants of Minos or Rhadamanthus. Who
can estimate the diminution of power and influence that would
result should the ten thousand editors in the land, who now assume
a mystic grandeur and speak with a voice of authority, as the
organs of the public or a party, come down from their thrones, and
exchange the regal “we” for the plebeian and egotistic “I”? “Who is
‘I’?” the reader might exclaim, in tones even more contemptuous
than Kean’s. The truth is, “I” is a nobody. He represents only
himself. He may be Smith or Jones,--the merest cipher. He may weigh
but a hundred pounds, and still less morally and intellectually.
He may be diminutive in stature, and in intellect a Tom Thumb. Who
cares what such a pygmy thinks? But “we” represents a multitude, an
imposing crowd, a mighty assembly, a congress, or a jury of sages;
and we all quail before the opinions of the great “we.” As a writer
has well said: “‘We have every reason to believe that beef will
rise to starvation prices’ is a sentiment which, when read in a
newspaper, will make the stoutest stomach tremble; but substitute
an ‘I’ for the ‘we,’ and nobody cares a copper for the opinion. It
has been well said that what terrified Belshazzar was the hand on
the wall, because he couldn’t see to whom it belonged; and the same
may be said of the editorial ‘we.’ It is the mystery in which it is
involved that invests it with potency.”

The history of literature abounds with examples of words used
almost without meaning by whole classes of writers. There is a
time in the history of almost every literature when language
apparently loses its vitality, and becomes dead, by being divorced
from the living thought that created it. Many of the most effete
and worn-out forms of expression, when first introduced, pleased
by their novelty, and manifested originality in their inventors;
but by dint of continual repetition, the delicate bloom has been
rubbed off, and they have lost their power. A great deal of what
is preserved in books, and is called fine writing, is made up of
these lifeless parts of language, which are like the elements of a
decayed and rotten tree, of which the organic form and structure
are perfect, but the life of which has departed. It is the outward
form of literature without the soul; an abundance of fine writing,
but no ideas. It has been truly said that it is amazing to see
how much of this dead material is accumulated at the present day;
whole books filled to repletion with words without thoughts,
standing like dead forests, upright indeed, and regular in form
and structure, but presenting no fruit nor verdure, sheltering no
life, monuments only of past vitality, and soon to crumble into
oblivion. “Wandering through these catacombs of the mind, one meets
everywhere with the most admirable ‘styles,’ which, doubtless, when
first constructed, were the vehicles of as admirable thought, the
fit language of great and stately minds, but which, transported
from the past, and made to represent the little and despicable
‘notions’ of their plunderers, become a very mockery.”

Who does not know how feeble and hollow British poetry had become
in the eighteenth century, just before the appearance of Cowper?
Compelled to appear in the costume of the court, it had acquired
its artificiality; and dealing with the conventional manners and
outside aspects of men, it had almost forsaken the human heart, the
proper haunt and main region of song. Instead of being the vehicle
of lofty and noble sentiments, it had degenerated into a mere trick
of art,--a hand-organ operation, in which one man could grind out
tunes nearly as well as another. A certain monotonous smoothness, a
perpetually recurring assortment of images, had become so much the
traditional property of the versifiers, that one could set himself
up in the business as a shopkeeper might supply himself with his
stock in trade. The style that prevailed has been aptly termed by
the poet Lowell “the Dick Swiveller style.” As Dick always called
the wine “rosy,” sleep “balmy,” so did these correct gentlemen
always employ a glib epithet or a diffuse periphrasis to express
the commonest ideas. The sun was never called by his plain, almanac
name, but always “Phœbus,” or “the orb of day.” The moon was known
only as “Cynthia,” “Diana,” or “the refulgent lamp of night.”
Naïads were as plenty in every stream as trout or pickerel. If
these poets wished to say tea, they would write

      “Of China’s herb the infusion hot and mild.”

Coffee would be nothing less than

      “The fragrant juice of Mocha’s kernel gray.”

A boot would be raised to

      “The shining leather that the leg encased.”

A wig was “Alecto’s snaky tresses”; a person traversing St.
Giles was “Theseus threading the labyrinth of Crete”; and a
magistrate sitting in judgment was nothing less than “Minos” or
“Rhadamanthus.” If a poet wished to speak of a young man’s falling
in love, he set himself to relate how Cupid laid himself in ambush
in the lady’s eye, and from that fortress shot forth a dart at the
breast of the unhappy youth, who straightway began to writhe under
his wound, and found no ease till the lady was pleased to smile
upon him. All women in that golden age were “nymphs”; “dryads”
were as common as birds; carriages were “harnessed pomps”; houses,
humble or stately “piles”; and not a wind could blow, whether the
sweet South, or “Boreas, Cecias, or Argestes loud,” but it was “a
gentle zephyr.” Pope satirized this conventional language in the
well known lines:

      “While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
      With sure returns of still expected rhymes,
      Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze,’
      In the next line ‘it whispers through the trees’;
      If crystal streams ‘with pleasing murmurs creep,’
      The reader’s threatened, not in vain, with ‘sleep.’”

Yet Pope himself was addicted to these circumlocutions and to
threadbare mythological allusions, quite as much as the small
wits whom he ridiculed. The manly genius of Cowper broke through
these traditionary fetters, and relieved poetry from the spell in
which Pope and his imitators had bound its phraseology and rhythm.
Expressing his contempt for the “creamy smoothness” of such verse,
in which sentiment was so often

                      “Sacrificed to sound,
      And truth cut short to make a period round,”

he cried:

      “Give _me_ the line that ploughs its stately course,
      Like a proud swan, conquering the stream by force;
      That, like some cottage beauty, strikes the heart,
      Quite unindebted to the tricks of art.”

The charm of Cowper’s letters, acknowledged by all competent judges
to be the best in the English language, lies in the simplicity
and naturalness,--the freedom from affectation,--by which they
are uniformly characterized. Contrasting them with those of
Wilberforce, Dr. Andrew Combe observes in a letter to a friend:
“Cowper’s letters, to my mind, do far more to excite a deep sense
of religion, than all the labored efforts of Wilberforce. The one
gives expression simply and naturally to the thoughts and feelings
which spring up spontaneously as he writes. The other _forces in
the one topic in all his letters_, and lashes himself up to a
due fervor of expression, whether the mind wills or not. On one
occasion Wilberforce dispatched a very hurried letter on Saturday
night, without any religious expressions in it. In the night-time
his conscience troubled him so much for the omission, that he could
not rest till he sat down next morning and wrote a second with the
piety, and apologizing for his involuntary departure from his rule!
Only think what a perversion of a good principle this was!”

It is in the conduct of political affairs that the class of words
of which we have spoken are used most frequently. Sir Henry Wotton
long since defined an ambassador as “a gentleman sent abroad _to
lie_ for the benefit of his country.” In Europe, so indissolubly
has diplomacy been associated with trickery, that it is said
Talleyrand’s wonderful success with the representatives of foreign
courts was owing largely to his frankness and fair dealing, nobody
believing it possible that he was striving for that for which he
seemed to be striving. The plain, open, straightforward way in
which he spoke of and dealt with all public matters, completely
puzzled the vulgar minds, that could not dissociate from diplomacy
the mysterious devices that distinguish the hack from the true
diplomatist. In the titles and styles of address used by Kings and
Emperors, we have examples of cant in its most meaningless forms.
One sovereign is His Most Christian Majesty; another, Defender
of the Faith, etc. A monarch, forced by public opinion to issue
a commission of inquiry, addresses all the members of it as his
“well-beloved,” though in his heart he detests them.

Everybody knows that George I of England obtained his crown, not
by hereditary title, but by an Act of Parliament; yet, in his
very first speech to that body, he had the effrontery to speak of
ascending the throne of his ancestors. Well might Henry Luttrell

      “O that in England there might be
      A duty on hypocrisy!
      A tax on humbug, an excise
      On solemn plausibilities,
      A stamp on everything that canted!
      No millions more, if these were granted,
      Henceforward would be raised or wanted.”

So an American politician, who, by caucus-packing, “wire-pulling,”
and perhaps bribery, has contrived to get elected to a State
legislature or to Congress, will publicly thank his fellow-citizens
for having sent him there “by their voluntary, unbiased suffrages.”
When the patriot, Patkul, was surrendered to the vengeance of
Charles XII of Sweden, the following sentence was read over to
him: “It is hereby made known to be the order of his Majesty, our
_most merciful_ sovereign, that this man, who is a traitor to
his country, be broken on the wheel and quartered,” etc. “What
mercy!” exclaimed the poor criminal. It was with the same mockery
of benevolence that the Holy Inquisition was wont, when condemning
a heretic to the torture, to express the tenderest concern for
his temporal and eternal welfare. One of the most offensive forms
of cant is the profession of extreme humility by men who are full
of pride and arrogance. The haughtiest of all the Roman Pontiffs
styled himself “the servant of the servants of God,” at the very
time when he humiliated the Emperor of Germany by making him wait
five days barefoot in his ante-chamber in the depth of winter,
and expected all the Kings of Europe, when in his presence, to
kiss his toe or hold his stirrup. Catherine of Russia was always
mouthing the language of piety and benevolence, especially when
about to wage war or do some rascally deed. Louis the Fourteenth’s
paroxysms of repentance and devotion were always the occasion
for fresh outrages upon the Huguenots; and Napoleon was always
prating of his love of peace, and of being compelled to fight by
his quarrelsome neighbors. While the French revolutionists were
shouting “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity!” men were executed in
Paris without law and against law, and heads fell by cartloads
from the knife of the guillotine. The favorite amusement of
Couthon, one of the deadliest of Robespierre’s fellow-cutthroats,
was the rearing of doves. The contemplation of their innocence,
he said, made the charm of his existence, in consoling him for
the wickedness of men. Even when he had reached the height of his
“bad preëminence” as a terrorist, he was carried to the National
Assembly or the Jacobin Club fondling little lapdogs, which he
nestled in his bosom. It is told of one of his bloody compatriots,
who was as fatal to men and as fond of dogs as himself, that when a
distracted wife, who had pleaded to him in vain for her husband’s
life, in retiring from his presence, chanced to tread on his
favorite spaniel’s tail, he cried out, “Good heavens, Madam! have
you no _humanity_?”

“My children,” said Dr. Johnson, “clear your minds of cant.” If
professional politicians should follow this advice, many of them
would be likely to find their occupation clean gone. At elections
they are so wont to simulate the sentiments and language of
patriotism,--to pretend a zeal for this, an indignation for that,
and a horror for another thing, about which they are known to be
comparatively indifferent, as if any flummery might be crammed down
the throats of the people,--that the voters, whom the old party
hacks fancy they are gulling, are simply laughing in their sleeves
at their transparent attempts at deception. Daniel O’Connell,
the popular Irish orator, is said to have had a large vocabulary
of stock political phrases, upon which he rang the changes with
magical effect. He could whine, and wheedle, and wink with one eye,
while he wept with the other; and if his flow of oratory was ever
in danger of halting, he had always at hand certain stereotyped
catch-words, such as his “own green isle,” his “Irish heart,” his
“head upon the block,” his “hereditary bondsmen, know ye not,”
etc., which never failed him in any emergency.

Offensive as are all these forms of speech without meaning,
they are not more so than the hollow language of--strange to
say,--some moral philosophers. Many persons have been so impressed
by the ethical essays of Seneca, in which he sings the praises
of poverty, and denounces in burning language the corruption of
Rome and the extortion in the provinces, that they could account
for the excellence of these writings only on the theory of a
Christian influence; and a report gained credit that the Roman
philosopher had met and conversed with the Apostle Paul. But what
are these brilliant moral discourses? Reading them by the light
of the author’s life and character, we find they are only words.
A late German historian tells us that the same Seneca who could
discourse so finely upon the abstemiousness and contentment of
the philosopher, and who, on all occasions, paraded his contempt
for earthly things as nothingness and vanity, amassed, during the
four years of his greatest prosperity and power, a fortune of
three hundred millions of sesterces,--over fifteen millions of
dollars. While writing his treatise on “Poverty,” he had in his
house five hundred citrus tables, tables of veined wood brought
from Mount Atlas, which sometimes cost as much as twenty-five,
and even seventy thousand dollars. The same Seneca, who denounced
extortion with so virtuous anger, built his famous museum gardens
with the gold and the tears of Numidia. The same Seneca, who
preached so much about purity of morals, was openly accused of
adultery with Julia and Agrippina, and led his pupil Nero into
still more shameful practices. He wrote a work upon “Clemency,”
yet had, beyond question, a large part of Nero’s atrocities upon
his conscience. It was he who composed the letter in which Nero
justified before the Senate the murder of his own mother.[13]

Common, however, as are meaningless phrases on the stump and
platform, and even in moral treatises, it is to be feared that
they are hardly less so in the meeting-house, and there they are
doubly offensive, if not unpardonable. It is a striking remark
of Coleridge, that truths, of all others the most awful and
interesting, are too often considered so true that they lose all
the power of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory of the soul,
side by side with the most despised and exploded errors. Continual
handling wears off the beauty and significance of words, and it is
only by a distinct effort of the mind that we can restore their
full meaning. Gradually the terms most vital to belief cease to
mean what they meant when first used; the electric life goes out
of them; and, for all practical purposes, they are dead. Hence it
is that “the traditional maxims of old experience, though seldom
questioned, have often so little effect on the conduct of life,
because their meaning is never, by most persons, really felt,
until personal experience has brought it home. And thus, also, it
is that so many doctrines of religion, ethics, and even politics,
so full of meaning and reality to first converts, have manifested
a tendency to degenerate rapidly into lifeless dogmas, which
tendency all the efforts of an education expressly and skilfully
directed to keeping the meaning alive are barely found sufficient
to counteract.”[14]

There can be little doubt that many a man whose life is thoroughly
selfish cheats himself into the belief that he is pious, because
he parrots with ease the phrases of piety and orthodoxy. Who is
not familiar with scores of such pet phrases and cant terms, which
are repeated at this day apparently without a thought of their
meaning? Who ever attended a missionary meeting without hearing
“the Macedonian cry,” and an account of some “little interest,” and
“fields white for the harvest”? Who is not weary of the ding-dong
of “our Zion” and the solecism of “in our midst”; and who does
not long for a verbal millennium when Christians shall no longer
“feel to take” and “grant to give”? “How much I regret,” says
Coleridge, “that so many religious persons of the present day think
it necessary to adopt a certain cant of manner and phraseology as
a token to each other! They must ‘improve’ this and that text, and
they must do so and so in a ‘prayerful’ way; and so on. A young
lady urged upon me, the other day, that such and such feelings
were the ‘marrow’ of all religion; upon which I recommended her
to try to walk to London on her marrow bones only.” The language
of prayer, both public and private, being made up more or less of
technical expressions, tends continually to become effete. The
scriptural and other phrases, which were used with good taste and
judgment several generations ago, may have lost their significance
to-day, and should, in that case, be exchanged for others which
have a living meaning. Profound convictions, it has been truly
said, are imperilled by the continued use of conventional
phraseology after the life of it has gone out, so that nothing in
the real experience of the people responds to it, when they hear it
or when they use it. Mr. Spurgeon, in his “Lectures to Students,”
remarks that “‘the poor unworthy dust’ is an epithet generally
applied to themselves by the proudest men in the congregation, and
not seldom by the most moneyed and grovelling; in which case the
last words are not so very inappropriate. We have heard of a good
man who, in pleading for his children and grandchildren, was so
completely beclouded in the blinding influence of this expression,
that he exclaimed, ‘O Lord, save thy dust, and thy dust’s dust, and
thy dust’s dust’s dust.’ When Abraham said, ‘I have taken upon me
to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes,’ the utterance
was forcible and expressive; but in its misquoted, perverted, and
abused form, the sooner it is consigned to its own element the

Many persons have very erroneous ideas of what constitutes
religious conversation. That is not necessarily religious talk
which is interlarded with religious phrases, or which is solely
about divine things; but that which is permeated with religious
feeling, which is full of truth, reverence, and love, whatever the
theme may be. Who has not heard some men talk of the most worldly
things in a way that made the hearer feel the electric current of
spirituality playing through their words, and uplifting his whole
spiritual being? And who has not heard other men talk about the
divinest things in so dry, formal, and soulless a way that their
words seemed a profanation, and chilled him to the core? It is
almost a justification of slang that it is generally an effort to
obtain relief from words worn bare by the use of persons who put
neither knowledge nor feeling into them, and which seem incapable
of expressing anything real.

When Lady Townsend was asked if Whitefield had recanted, she
replied, “No; he has only _canted_.” Often, when there is no
deliberate hypocrisy, good men use language so exaggerated and
unreal as to do more harm than the grossest worldliness. We have
often, in thinking upon this subject, called to mind a saying of
Dr. Sharp, of Boston, a Baptist preacher, who was a hater of all
cant and shams. “There’s Dr. ----,” said he, about the time of the
first meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, “who went all the way to
Europe to talk up brotherly love. If he should meet a poor Baptist
minister in the street, he wouldn’t speak to him.” Robert Hall had
an intense abhorrence of religious cant, to which he sometimes gave
expression in blunt terms. A young preacher who was visiting him
spent a day in sighing and in begging pardon for his suspirations,
saying that they were caused by grief that he had so hard a heart.
The great divine bore with him all the first day, but when the
lamentations were resumed the next morning at breakfast, he said:
“Why, sir, don’t be cast down; remember the compensating principle,
and be thankful and still.” “Compensating principle!” exclaimed the
young man; “what can compensate for a hard heart?” “Why, a soft
head, to be sure,” said Hall, who, if rude, certainly had great
provocation. Nothing is cheaper than pious or benevolent talk. A
great many men would be positive forces of goodness in the world,
if they did not let all their principles and enthusiasm escape
in words. They are like locomotives which let off so much steam
through the escape valves, that, though they fill the air with
noise, they have not power enough left to move the train. There is
hardly anything which so fritters spiritual energy as talk without
deeds. “The fluent boaster is not the man who is steadiest before
the enemy; it is well said to him that his courage is better kept
till it is wanted. Loud utterances of virtuous indignation against
evil from the platform, or in the drawing-room, do not characterize
the spiritual giant; so much indignation as is expressed has found
vent; it is wasted; is taken away from the work of coping with
evil; the man has so much less left. And hence he who restrains
that love of talk lays up a fund of spiritual strength.”[15]

      “Prune thou thy words, the thoughts control
        That o’er thee swell and throng;
      They will condense within thy soul,
        And change to purpose strong.

      But he who lets his feelings run
        In soft luxurious flow,
      Shrinks when hard service must be done,
        And faints at every woe.

      Faith’s meanest deed more favor bears,
        Where hearts and wills are weigh’d.
      Than brightest transports, choicest prayers,
        Which bloom their hour and fade.”[16]

It is said that Pambos, an illiterate saint of the middle ages,
being unable to read, came to some one to be taught a psalm. Having
learned the simple verse, “I said, I will take heed to my ways,
that I offend not with my tongue,” he went away, saying that was
enough if it was practically acquired. When asked six months,
and again many years after, why he did not come to learn another
verse, he answered that he had never been able truly to master
this. A man may have a heart overflowing with love and sympathy,
even though he is not in the habit of exhibiting on his cards
“J. Good Soul, Philanthropist,” and was never known to unfold his
cambric handkerchief, with the words, “Let us weep.” On the other
hand, nothing is easier than to use a set phraseology without
attaching to it any clear and definite meaning,--to cheat one’s
self with the semblance of thought or feeling, when no thought
or feeling exists. It has been truly said that when good men who
have no deep religious fervor use fervent language, which they
have caught from others, or which was the natural expression of
what they felt in other and better years,--above all, when they
employ on mean and trivial occasions expressions which have been
forged in the fires of affliction and hammered out in the shock of
conflict,--they cannot easily imagine what a disastrous impression
they produce on keen and discriminating minds. The cheat is at once
detected, and the hasty inference is drawn that all expressions
of religious earnestness are affected and artificial. The honest
and irrepressible utterance of strong conviction and deep emotion
commands respect; but intense words should never be used when the
religious life is not intense. “Costing little, words are given
prodigally, and sacrificial acts must toil for years to cover the
space which a single fervid promise has stretched itself over. No
wonder that the slow acts are superseded by the available words,
the weighty bullion by the current paper money. If I have conveyed
all I feel by language, I am tempted to fancy, by the relief
experienced, that feeling has attained its end and realized itself.
Farewell, then, to the toil of the ‘daily sacrifice!’ Devotion has
found for itself a vent in words.”[17]

Art, as well as literature, politics, and religion, has its cant,
which is as offensive as any of its other forms. When Rossini was
asked why he had ceased attending the opera in Paris, he replied,
“I am embarrassed at listening to music with Frenchmen. In Italy or
Germany, I am sitting quietly in the pit, and on each side of me is
a man shabbily dressed, but who feels the music as I do; in Paris I
have on each side of me a fine gentleman in straw-colored gloves,
who explains to me all I feel, but who feels nothing. All he says
is very clever, indeed, and it is often very true; but it takes the
gloss off my own impression,--if I have any.”


[13] Ulhorn’s “Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism;” pp. 93, 94.

[14] Mill’s “Logic.”

[15] Sermons, by Rev. F. W. Robertson.

[16] Professor J. H. Newman.

[17] “Life and Letters of F. W. Robertson.”



  He that hath knowledge spareth his words.--PROVERBS XVII, 27.

  Learn the value of a man’s words and expressions, and you know
  him.... He who has a superlative for everything wants a measure
  for the great or small.--LAVATER.

  Words are women; deeds are men.--GEORGE HERBERT.

  He that uses many words for the explaining of any subject, doth,
  like the cuttle-fish, hide himself for the most part in his own

The old Roman poet Ennius was so proud of knowing three languages
that he used to declare that he had three hearts. The Emperor
Charles V expressed himself still more strongly, and declared
that in proportion to the number of languages a man knows, is he
more of a man. According to this theory, Cardinal Mezzofanti, who
understood one hundred and fourteen languages, and spoke thirty
with rare excellence, must have been many men condensed into
one. Of all the human polyglots in ancient or modern times, he
had perhaps the greatest knowledge of words. Yet, with all his
marvellous linguistic knowledge, he was a mere prodigy or freak
of nature, and, it has been well observed, scarcely deserves
a higher place in the Pantheon of intellect than a blindfold
chess-player or a calculating boy. Talking foreign languages with
a fluency and accuracy which caused strangers to mistake him for
a compatriot, he attempted no work of utility,--left no trace of
his colossal powers; and therefore, in contemplating them, we can
but wonder at his gifts, as we wonder at the Belgian giant or a
five-legged lamb. In allusion to his hyperbolical acquisitions,
De Quincey suggests that the following would be an appropriate
epitaph for his eminence: “Here lies a man who, in the act of
dying, committed a robbery,--absconding from his fellow-creatures
with a valuable polyglot dictionary.” Enormous, however, as were
the linguistic acquisitions of Mezzofanti, no man was ever less
vain of his acquirements,--priding himself, as he did, less upon
his attainments than most persons upon a smattering of a single
tongue. “What am I,” said he to a visitor, “but an ill-bound
dictionary?” The saying of Catherine de Medicis is too often
suggested by such prodigies of linguistic acquisition. When told
that Scaliger understood twenty different languages,--“That’s
twenty words for one idea,” said she; “I had rather have twenty
ideas for one word.” In this reply she foreshadowed the great error
of modern scholarship, which is too often made the be-all and the
end-all of life, when its only relation to it should be that of a
graceful handmaid. The story of the scholar who, dying, regretted
at the end of his career that he had not concentrated all his
energies upon the dative case, only burlesques an actual fact.
The educated man is too often one who knows more of _language_
than of _idea_,--more of the husk than of the kernel,--more of
the vehicle than of the substance it bears. He has got together a
heap of symbols,--of mere counters,--with which he feels himself
to be an intellectual Rothschild; but of the substance of these
shadows, the sterling gold of intellect, coin current throughout
the realm, he has not an eagle. All his wealth is in paper,--paper
like bad scrip, marked with a high nominal amount, but useless
in exchange, and repudiated in real traffic. The great scholar is
often an intellectual miser, who expends the spiritual energy that
might make him a hero upon the detection of a wrong dot, a false
syllable, or an inaccurate word.

In this country, where fluency of speech is vouchsafed in so
large a measure to the people, and every third man is an orator,
it is easier to find persons with the twenty words for one
idea, than persons with twenty ideas for one word. Of all the
peoples on the globe, except perhaps the Irish, Americans are the
most spendthrift of language. Not only in our court-houses and
representative halls, but everywhere, we are literally deluged
with words,--words,--words. Everybody seems born to make long
speeches, as the sparks to fly upward. The Aristotelian theory
that Nature abhors a vacuum appears to be a universal belief, and
all are laboring to fill up the realms of space with “mouthfuls of
spoken wind.” The quantity of breath that is wasted at our public
meetings,--religious, political, philanthropic, and literary,--is
incalculable. Hardly a railroad or a canal is opened, but the
occasion is seized on as a chance for speeches of “learned length
and thundering sound”; and even a new hotel cannot throw open its
doors without an amount of breath being expended, sufficient, if
economically used, to waft a boat across a small lake.

One is struck, in reading the “thrilling” addresses on various
occasions, which are said to have “chained as with hooks of steel
the attention of thousands,” and which confer on their authors
“immortal reputations” that die within a year, to see what
tasteless word-piling passes with many for eloquence. The advice
given in Racine’s “_Plaideurs_,” by an ear-tortured judge to
a long-winded lawyer, “to skip to the deluge,” might wisely be
repeated to our thousand Ciceros and Chathams. The Baconian art
of condensation seems nearly obsolete. Many of our orators are
forever breaking butterflies on a wheel,--raising an ocean to
drown a fly,--loading cannon to shoot at humming-birds. Thought
and expression are supplanted by lungs and the dictionary. Instead
of great thoughts couched in a few close, home, significant
sentences,--the value of a thousand pounds sterling of sense
concentrated into a cut and polished diamond,--we have a mass of
verbiage, delivered with a pompous elocution. Instead of ideas
brought before us, as South expresses it, like water in a well,
where you have fulness in a little compass, we have the same
“carried out into many petty, creeping rivulets, with length and
shallowness together.”

It is in our legislative bodies that this evil has reached the
highest climax. A member may have a thought or a fact which may
settle a question; but if it may be couched in a sentence or
two, he thinks it not worth delivering. Unless he can wire-draw
it into a two-hours speech, or at least accompany it with some
needless verbiage to plump it out in the report, he will sit stock
still, and leave the floor to men who have fewer ideas and more
words at command. The public mind, too, revolts sometimes against
nourishment in highly concentrated forms; it requires bulk as well
as nutriment, just as hay, as well as corn, is given to horses, to
distend the stomach, and enable it to act with its full powers.
Then, again,--and this, perhaps, is one of the main causes of
long-winded speeches,--there is a sort of reverence entertained
for a man who can “spout” two or three hours on the stretch; and
the wonder is heightened, if he does it without making a fool of
himself. Nothing, however, can be more absurd than to regard mere
volubility as a proof of intellectual power. So far is this from
being the case that it may be doubted whether any large-thoughted
man, who was accustomed to grapple with the great problems of life
and society, ever found it easy upon the rostrum to deliver his
thoughts with fluency and grace.

Bruce, the traveller, long ago remarked of the Abyssinians, that
“they are all orators, as,” he adds, “are most barbarians.” It is
often said of such tonguey men that they have “a great command
of language,” when the simple fact is that language has a great
command of them. As Whately says, they have the same command of
language that a man has of a horse that runs away with him. A
true command of language consists in the power of discrimination,
selection, and rejection, rather than in that of multiplication.
The greatest orators of ancient and modern times have been
remarkable for their economy of words. Demosthenes, when he

      “Shook the arsenal, and fulmined over Greece
      To Macedon and Artaxerxes’ throne,”

rarely spoke over thirty minutes, and Cicero took even less time
to blast Catiline with his lightnings. There are some of the Greek
orator’s speeches which were spoken, as they may now be read with
sufficient slowness and distinctness, in less than half an hour;
yet they are the effusions of that rapid and mighty genius the
effect of whose words the ancients exhausted their language in
describing; which they could adequately describe only by comparing
it to the workings of the most subtle and powerful agents of
nature,--the ungovernable torrent, the resistless thunder. Chatham
was often briefer still, and Mirabeau, the master-spirit of the
French tribune, condensed his thunders into twenty minutes.

It is said that not one of the three leading members of the
convention that formed the Constitution of the United States spoke,
in the debates upon it, over twenty minutes. Alexander Hamilton
was reckoned one of the most diffuse speakers of his day; yet
he did not occupy more than two hours and a half in his longest
arguments at the bar, nor did his rival, Aaron Burr, occupy over
half that time. A judge who was intimately acquainted with Burr and
his practice declares that he repeatedly and successfully disposed
of cases involving a large amount of property in half an hour.
“Indeed,” says he, “on one occasion he talked to the jury seven
minutes in such a manner that it took me, on the bench, half an
hour to straighten them out.” He adds. “I once asked him, ‘Colonel
Burr, why cannot lawyers always save the time, and spare the
patience of the court and jury, by dwelling only on the important
points in their cases?’ to which Burr replied, ‘Sir, you demand the
greatest faculty of the human mind, selection.’” To these examples
we may add that of a great English advocate. “I asked Sir James
Scarlett,” says Buxton, “what was the secret of his preëminent
success as an advocate. He replied that he took care to press home
the one principal point of the case, without paying much regard to
the others. He also said that he knew the secret of being short.
‘I find,’ said he, ‘that when I exceed half an hour, I am always
doing mischief to my client. If I drive into the heads of the jury
unimportant matter, I drive out matter more important that I had
previously lodged there.’”

Joubert, a French author, cultivated verbal economy to such an
extreme that he tried almost to do without words. “If there is a
man on earth,” said he, “tormented by the cursed desire to get a
whole book into a page, a whole page into a phrase, and this phrase
into one word,--that man is myself.” The ambition of many American
speakers, and not a few writers, is apparently the reverse of this.
We do not seem to know that in many cases, as Hesiod says, a half
is more than the whole; and that a speech or a treatise hammered
out painfully in every part is often of less value than a few
bright links, suggestive of the entire chain of thought. Who wants
to swallow a whole ox, in order to get at the tenderloin?

Prolixity, it has been well said, is more offensive now than
it once was, because men think more rapidly. They are not more
thoughtful than their ancestors, but they are more vivid,
direct, and animated in their thinking. They are more impatient,
therefore, of long-windedness, of a loose arrangement, and of a
heavy, dragging movement in the presentation of truth. “A century
ago men would listen to speeches and sermons,--to divisions and
subdivisions,--that now would be regarded as utterly intolerable.
As the human body is whisked through space at the rate of a mile a
minute, so the human mind travels with an equally accelerated pace.
Mental operations are on straight lines, and are far more rapid
than they once were. The public audience now craves a short method,
a distinct, sharp statement, and a rapid and accelerating movement,
upon the part of its teachers.”[18] It is, in short, an age of
steam and electricity that we live in, not of slow coaches; an age
of locomotives, electric telegraphs, and phonography; and hence it
is the cream of a speaker’s thoughts that men want,--the wheat, and
not the chaff,--the kernel, and not the shell,--the strong, pungent
essence, and not the thin, diluted mixture. The model discourse
to-day is that which gives, not all that can be said, even _well_
said, on a subject, but the very _apices rerum_, the tops and
sums of things reduced to their simplest expression,--the drop of
oil extracted from thousands of roses, and condensing all their
odors,--the healing power of a hundred weight of bark in a few
grains of quinine.

“Certainly the greatest and wisest conceptions that ever issued
from the mind of man,” says South, “have been couched under, and
delivered in, a few close, home, and significant words.... Was not
the work of all the six days [of creation] transacted in so many
words?... Heaven, and earth, and all the host of both, as it were,
dropped from God’s mouth, and nature itself was but the product of
a word.... The seven wise men of Greece, so famous for their wisdom
all the world over, acquired all that fame, each of them by a
single sentence consisting of two or three words. And γνῶθι σεαυτὸν
still lives and flourishes in the mouths of all, while many vast
volumes are extinct, and sunk into dust and utter oblivion.”

Akin to the prolixity of style which weakens so many speeches, is
the habitual exaggeration of language which deforms both our public
and our private discourse. The most unmanageable of all parts of
speech, with many persons, is the adjective. Voltaire has justly
said that the adjectives are often the greatest enemies of the
substantives, though they may agree in gender, number, and case.
Generally the weakness of a composition is just in proportion to
the frequency with which this class of words is introduced. As in
gunnery the force of the discharge is proportioned, not to the
amount of powder that can be used, but to the amount that can be
thoroughly ignited, so it is not the multitude of words, but the
exact number fired by the thought, that gives energy to expression.
There are some writers and speakers who seem to have forgotten
that there are three degrees of comparison. The only adjectives
they ever use are the superlative, and even these are raised to
the _third power_. With them there is no gradation, no lights and
shadows. Every hill is Alpine, every valley Tartarean; every virtue
is godlike, every fault a felony; every breeze a tempest, and every
molehill a mountain. Praise or blame beggars their vocabulary;
epithets are heightened into superlatives; superlatives stretch
themselves into hyperboles; and hyperboles themselves get out of
breath, and die asthmatically of exhaustion.

Of all the civilized peoples on the face of the globe, our
Hibernian friends excepted, Americans are probably the most
addicted to this exaggeration of speech. As our mountains, lakes
and rivers are all on a gigantic scale, we seem to think our speech
must be framed after the same pattern. Even our jokes are of the
most stupendous kind; they set one to thinking of the Alleghanies,
or suggest the immensity of the prairies. A Western orator, in
portraying the most trivial incident, rolls along a Mississippian
flood of eloquence, and the vastness of his metaphors makes you
think you are living in the age of the megatheriums and saurians,
and listening to one of a pre-Adamite race. Our political speeches,
instead of being couched in plain and temperate language, too
often bristle

                  “With terms unsquared
      Which, from the tongue of roaring Typhon dropped,
      Would seem hyperboles.”

In ordinary conversation, such is our enthusiasm or our poverty
of expression, that we cannot talk upon the most ordinary themes,
except in the most extravagant and enraptured terms. Everything
that pleases us is positively “delicious,” “nice,” or “charming”;
everything handsome is “elegant,” or “splendid”; everything that we
dislike is “hateful,” “dreadful,” “horrible,” or “shocking.” Listen
to a circle of lively young ladies for a few minutes, and you will
learn that, within the compass of a dozen hours, they have met
with more marvellous adventures and hairbreadth escapes,--passed
through more thrilling experiences, and seen more gorgeous
spectacles,--endured more fright, and enjoyed more rapture,--than
could be crowded into a whole life-time, even if spun out to
threescore and ten.

Ask a person what he thinks of the weather in a rainy season, and
he will tell you that “it rains cats and dogs,” or that “it beats
all the storms since the flood.” If his clothes get sprinkled in
crossing the street, he has been “drenched to the skin.” All our
winds blow a hurricane; all our fires are conflagrations,--even
though only a hen-coop is burned; all our fogs can be cut with
a knife. Nobody fails in this country; he “bursts up.” All our
orators rival Demosthenes in eloquence; they beat Chillingworth in
logic; and their sarcasm is more “withering” than that of Junius
himself. Who ever heard of a public meeting in this country that
was not “an immense demonstration”; of an actor’s benefit at
which the house was not “crowded from pit to dome”; of a political
nomination that was not “sweeping the country like wild-fire”?
Where is the rich man who does not “roll in wealth”; or the poor
man who is “worth the first red cent”? All our good men are
paragons of virtue,--our villains, monsters of iniquity.

Many of our public speakers seem incapable of expressing themselves
in a plain, calm, truthful manner on any subject whatever. A great
deal of our writing, too, is pitched on an unnatural, falsetto key.
Quiet ease of style, like that of Cowley’s “Essays,” Goldsmith’s
“Vicar of Wakefield,” or White’s “Natural History of Selborne,”
is almost a lost art. Our newspaper literature is becoming more
and more sensational; and it seems sometimes as if it would come
to consist of head-lines and exclamation points. Some of the
most popular correspondents are those whose communications are a
perfect _florilegium_ of fine words. They rival the “tulipomania”
in their love of gaudy and glaring colors, and apparently care
little how trite or feeble their thoughts may be, provided they
have dragon-wings, all green and gold. It was said of Rufus Choate,
whose brain teemed with a marvellous wealth of words, and who was
very prodigal of adjectives, that he “drove a substantive-and-six”
whenever he spoke in public, and that he would be as pathetic as
the grand lamentations in “Samson Agonistes” on the obstruction of
fish-ways, and rise to the cathedral music of the universe on the
right to manufacture India-rubber suspenders. When Chief-Justice
Shaw, before whom he had often pleaded, heard that there was a new
edition of “Worcester’s Dictionary,” containing two thousand five
hundred new words, he exclaimed, “For heaven’s sake, don’t let
Choate get hold of it!”[19]

Even scientific writers, who might be expected to aim at some
exactness, often caricature truth with equal grossness, describing
microscopic things by colossal metaphors. Thus a French naturalist
represents the blood of a louse as “rushing through his veins like
a torrent!” Even in treating on this very subject of exaggeration,
a writer in an English periodical, after rebuking sharply this
_American_ fault, himself outrages truth by declaring that
“he would walk fifty miles on foot to see the man that never
caricatures the subject on which he speaks!” To a critic who thus
fails to reck his own rede, one may say with Sir Thomas Browne:
“Thou who so hotly disclaimest the devil, be not thyself guilty of

Seriously, when shall we have done with this habit of amplification
and exaggeration,--of blowing up molehills into Himalayas and
Chimborazos? Can anything be more obvious than the dangers of such
a practice? Is it not evident that by applying super-superlatives
to things petty or commonplace, we must exhaust our vocabulary, so
that, when a really great thing is to be described, we shall be
bankrupt of adjectives? It is true there is no more unpardonable
sin than dulness; but, to avoid being drowsy, it is not necessary
that our “good Homers” should be always electrifying us with a
savage intensity of expression. There is nothing of which a reader
tires so soon as of a continual blaze of brilliant periods,--a
style in which a “_qu’il mourut_” and a “let there be light” are
crowded into every line. On the other hand, there is nothing which
adds so much to the beauty of style as contrast. Where all men
are giants, there are no giants; where all is emphatic in style,
there is no emphasis. Travel a few months among the mountains, and
you will grow as sick of the everlasting monotony of grandeur, of
beetling cliffs and yawning chasms, as of an eternal succession of
plains. Yet, in defiance of this obvious truth, the sensational
writer thinks the reader will deem him dull unless every sentence
blazes with meaning, and every paragraph is crammed with power.
His intellect is always armed cap-a-pie, and every passage is an
approved attitude of mental carte and tierce. If he were able to
create a world, there would probably be no latent heat in it, and
no twilight; and should he drop his pen and turn painter, his
pictures would be all foreground, with no more perspective than
those of the Chinese.

De Quincey, speaking of the excitability of the French, says that,
having appropriated all the phrases of passion to the service of
trivial and ordinary life, they have no language of passion for the
service of poetry, or of occasions really demanding it, because
it has been already enfeebled by continual association with cases
of an unimpassioned order. “Ah, Heavens!” or “O my God!” are
exclamations so exclusively reserved by the English for cases of
profound interest that, on hearing a woman even utter such words,
they look round expecting to see her child in some situation of
danger. But in France “_Ciel!_” and “_O mon Dieu!_” are uttered
by every woman if a mouse does but run across the floor. There
is much suggestive truth in this. By the habitual use of strong
language men may blunt and petrify their feelings, as surely as
by the excessive use of alcoholic stimulants they may deaden the
sensibility of the palate. “Naturally the strongest word ought to
be used to give expression to the strongest feeling. But strong
words have been so blunted through frequent use that they have
lost their sharp edge, and pass over our thick skin without even
pricking our sensibility; while, at moments when we expect a heavy
blow, the light tickling of the socially polite feather may far
more vividly stimulate our sensibility.”

It is a law of oratory, and indeed of all discourse, whether oral
or written, that it is the subdued expression of conviction and
feeling, when the speaker or writer, instead of giving vent to his
emotions, veils them in part, and suffers only glimpses of them to
be seen, that is the most powerful. It is the man who is all _but_
mastered by his excitement, but who, at the very point of being
mastered, masters himself,--apparently cool when he is at a white
heat,--whose eloquence is most conquering. When the speaker, using
a gentler mode of expression than the case might warrant, appears
to stifle his feelings and studiously to keep them within bounds,
a reaction is produced in the hearer’s mind, and, rushing into the
opposite extreme, he is moved more deeply than by the most vehement
and passionate declamation. The jets of flame that escape now and
then,--the suppressed bursts of feeling,--the partial eruptions
of passion,--are regarded as but hints or faint intimations of
the volcano within. Balzac, in one of his tales, tells of an
artist, who, by a few touches of his pencil, could give to a most
commonplace scene an air of overpowering horror, and throw over
the most ordinary and prosaic objects a spectral air of crime and
blood. Through a half-opened door you see a bed with the clothes
confusedly heaped, as in some death-struggle, over an undefined
object which fancy whispers must be a bleeding corpse; on the floor
you see a slipper, an upset candlestick, and a knife perhaps; and
these hints tell the story of blood more significantly and more
powerfully than the most elaborate detail, because the imagination
of man is more powerful than art itself. So with Hood’s description
of the Haunted House:--

      “Over all there hung a cloud of fear;
        A sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
      And said, as plain as whisper to the ear,
        ‘The place is haunted!’”

Thoreau, describing an interview he had at Concord with John Brown,
notices as one of the latter’s marked peculiarities, that he did
not overstate anything, but spoke within bounds. “He referred to
what his family had suffered in Kansas, without ever giving the
least vent to his pent-up fire. _It was a volcano with an ordinary
chimney-flue._” In one of the published letters of the late Rev.
F. W. Robertson, there are some admirable comments on a letter,
full of strongly expressed religious sentiments, pious resolutions,
etc., which he had received from a fashionable lady. The letter, he
says, “is in earnest so far as it goes; only _that fatal facility
of strong words_ expresses feeling which will seek for itself no
other expression. She believes or means what she says, but the very
vehemence of the expression injures her, for really it expresses
the penitence of a St. Peter, and would not be below the mark if it
were meant to describe the bitter tears with which he bewailed his
crime; but when such language is used for trifles, there remains
_nothing stronger for the awful crises of human life_. It is like
Draco’s code,--death for larceny; and there remains for parricide
or treason only death.”

Let us then be as chary of our superlatives as of our Sunday suit.
Hardly a greater mistake can be made in regard to expression, than
to suppose that a uniform intensity of style is a proof of mental
power. So far is this from being true, that it may safely be said
that such intensity not only implies a want of truthfulness and
simplicity, but even of earnestness and real force. Intensity
is not a characteristic of nature, in spirit or in matter. The
surface of the earth is not made up of mountains and valleys, but,
for the most part, of gentle undulations. The ocean is not always
in a rage, but, if not calm, its waves rise and fall with gentle
fluctuation. Hurricanes and tempests are the extraordinary, not
the usual, conditions of our atmosphere. Not only the strongest
thinkers, but the most powerful orators, have been distinguished
rather for moderation than for exaggeration in expression. The
great secret of Daniel Webster’s strength as a speaker lay in
the fact that he made it a practice to understate rather than to
overstate his confidence in the force of his own arguments, and in
the logical necessity of his conclusions. The sober and solid tramp
of his style reflected the movements of an intellect that palpably
respected the relations and dimensions of things, and to which
exaggeration would have been an immorality. Holding that violence
of language is evidence of feebleness of thought and lack of
reasoning power, he kept his auditor constantly in advance of him,
by suggestion rather than by strong asseveration, and by calmly
stating the facts that _ought_ to move the hearer, instead of by
making passionate appeals, the man being always felt to be greater
than the man’s feelings. Such has been the method of all great
rhetoricians of ancient and modern times.

The most effective speakers are not those who tell all they think
or feel, but those who, by maintaining an austere conscientiousness
of phrase, leave on their hearers the impression of reserved power.
Great bastions of military strength must lie at rest in times of
peace, that they may be able to execute their destructive agencies
in times of war; and so let it be with the superlatives of our
tongue. Never call on the “tenth legion,” or “the old guard,”
except on occasions corresponding to the dignity and weight of
those tremendous forces. Say plain things in a plain way, and then,
when you have occasion to send a sharp arrow at your enemy, you
will not find your quiver empty of shafts which you wasted before
they were wanted.

      “You should not speak to think, nor think to speak;
      But words and thoughts should of themselves outwell
      From inner fulness; chest and heart should swell
      To give them birth. Better be dumb a week
      Than idly prattle; better in leisure sleek
      Lie fallow-minded, than a brain compel
      To wasting plenty that hath yielded well,
      Or strive to crop a soil too thin and bleak.
      One true thought, from the deepest heart upspringing,
      May from within a whole life fertilize;
      One true word, like the lightning sudden gleaming,
      May rend the night of a whole world of lies.
      Much speech, much thought, may often be but seeming,
      But in one truth might boundless ever lies.”


[18] Shedd’s “Homiletics.”

[19] Perhaps Choate justified himself by the authority of Burke,
who sometimes harnessed five adjectives to a noun; _e.g._, in his
diatribe against the metaphysicians, he says: “Their hearts are
like that of the principal of evil himself,--incorporeal, pure,
unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.”



  I cannot admire the constant use of French or Latin words,
  instead of your own vernacular. My Anglo-Saxon feelings are
  wounded to the quick ... by such words as _chagrin_ instead
  of “grief,” _malediction_ instead of “curse,” etc.--COUNT DE
  MONTALEMBERT, in letter to Mrs. Oliphant.

  The devil does not care for your dialectics and eclectic
  homiletics, or Germanic objectives and subjectives; but pelt
  him with Anglo-Saxon in the name of God, and he will shift his
  quarters.--REV. C. H. SPURGEON.

      Words have their proper places, just like men;
      We listen to, not venture to reprove,
      Large language swelling under gilded domes,
      Byzantine, Syrian, Persepolitan.--LANDOR.

It is a question of deep interest to all public speakers and
writers, and one which has provoked not a little discussion of
late years, whether the Saxon or the Romanic part of our language
should be preferred by those who would employ “the Queen’s English”
with potency and effect. Of late it has been the fashion to cry up
the native element at the expense of the foreign; and among the
champions of the former we may name Dr. Whewell, of Cambridge,
and a modern rector of the University of Glasgow, whom De Quincey
censures for an erroneous direction to the students to that
effect. We may also add Lord Stanley,--one of the most brilliant
and polished speakers in the British Parliament,--who, in an
address some years ago to the students of the same university,
after expressing his surprise that so few persons, comparatively,
in Great Britain, have acquainted themselves with the origin,
the history, and the gradual development of that mother tongue
which is already spoken over half the world, which is destined
to yet further geographical extension, and which embodies many
of the noblest thoughts that have ever issued from the brain of
man,--adds: “Depend upon it, it is the plain Saxon phrase, not the
term borrowed from Greek or Roman literature, that, whether in
speech or writing, goes straightest and strongest to men’s heads
and hearts.” On the other hand “the Opium-Eater,” commenting on a
remark of Coleridge that Wordsworth’s “Excursion” bristles beyond
most poems with polysyllabic words of Greek or Latin origin,
asserts that so must it ever be in meditative poetry upon solemn,
philosophic themes. The gamut of ideas needs a corresponding gamut
of expressions; the scale of the thinking, which ranges through
every key, exacts for the artist an unlimited command over the
entire scale of the instrument he employs.

It has been computed, he adds, that the Italian opera has not
above six hundred words in its whole vocabulary; so narrow is the
range of its emotions, and so little are those emotions disposed
to expand themselves into any variety of thinking. The same remark
applies to that class of simple, household, homely passion, which
belongs to the early ballad poetry. “Pass from these narrow fields
of the intellect, where the relations of the objects are so few
and simple, and the whole prospect so bounded, to the immeasurable
and sea-like arena upon which Shakespeare careers,--co-infinite
with life itself,--yes, and with something more than life. Here
is the other pole, the opposite extreme. And what is the choice
of diction? What is the _lexis_? Is it Saxon exclusively, or
is it Saxon by preference? So far from that, the Latinity is
intense,--not, indeed, in his construction, but in his choice
of words; and so continually are these Latin words used, with a
critical respect to their earliest (and where _that_ happens to
have existed, to their unfigurative) meaning, that, upon this one
argument I would rely for upsetting the else impregnable thesis
of Dr. Farmer as to Shakespeare’s learning.... These ‘dictionary’
words are indispensable to a writer, not only in the proportion by
which he transcends other writers as to extent and as to subtlety
of thinking, but also as to elevation and sublimity. Milton was
not an extensive or discursive thinker, as Shakespeare was; for
the motions of his mind were slow, solemn, sequacious, like those
of the planets; not agile and assimilative; not attracting all
things into its sphere; not multiform; repulsion was the law of
his intellect,--he moved in solitary grandeur. Yet, merely from
this quality of grandeur,--unapproachable grandeur,--his intellect
demanded a larger infusion of Latinity into his diction.” De
Quincey concludes, therefore, that the true scholar will manifest a
partiality for neither part of the language, but will be governed
in his choice of words by the theme he is handling.

This we believe to be the true answer to the question. The English
language has a special dowry of power in its double-headed origin:
the Saxon part of the language fulfils one set of functions; the
Latin, another. Neither is good or bad absolutely, but only in
its relation to its subject, and according to the treatment which
the subject is meant to receive. The Saxon has nerve, terseness,
and simplicity; it smacks of life and experience, and “puts small
and convenient handles to things,--handles that are easy to
grasp;” but it has neither height nor breadth for every theme.
To confine ourselves to it would be, therefore, a most egregious
error. The truth is, it is no one element which constitutes the
power and efficiency of our noble and expressive tongue, but the
great multitude and the rich variety of the elements which enter
into its composition. Its architectural order is neither Doric,
Ionic, nor Corinthian, but essentially composite; a splendid
mosaic, to the formation of which many ancient and modern languages
have contributed; defective in unity and symmetrical grace of
proportion, but of vast resources and of immense power. With such a
wealth of words at our command, to confine ourselves to the pithy
but limited Saxon, or to employ it chiefly, would be to practise
a foolish economy,--to be poor in the midst of plenty, like the
miser amid his money bags. All experiments of this kind will fail
as truly, if not as signally, as that of Charles James Fox, who, an
intense admirer of the Saxon, attempted to portray in that dialect
the revolution of 1688, and produced a book which his warmest
admirers admitted to be meagre, dry, and spiritless,--without
picturesqueness, color, or cadence.

It is true that within a certain limited and narrow circle of
ideas, we can get along with Saxon words very well. The loftiest
poetry, the most fervent devotion, even the most earnest and
impassioned oratory, may all be expressed in words almost
purely Teutonic; but the moment we come to the abstract and the
technical,--to discussion and speculation,--we cannot stir a step
without drawing on foreign sources. Simple narrative,--a pathos
resting upon artless circumstances,--elementary feelings,--homely
and household affections,--these are all most happily expressed by
the old Saxon vocabulary; but a passion which rises into grandeur,
which is complex, elaborate, and interveined with high meditative
feelings, would languish or absolutely halt, without aid from the
Romanic part of the vocabulary. If Anglo-Saxon is the framework
or skeleton of our language, the spine on which the structure of
our speech is hung,--if it is the indispensable medium of familiar
converse and the business of life,--it no more fills out the full
and rounded outline of our language, than the skeleton, nerves,
and sinews form the whole of the human body. It is the classical
contributions, the hundreds and thousands of Romanic words which
during and since the sixteenth century have found a home in our
English speech, that have furnished its spiritual conceptions, and
endowed the material body with a living soul.

These words would never have been adopted, had they not been
absolutely necessary to express new modes and combinations of
thought. As children of softer climes and gentler aspect than
our harsh but pithy Teutonic terms, they have been received into
the English family of words, and add grace and elegance to the
speech that has adopted them. The language has gained immensely
by the infusion, not only in richness of synonym and the power of
expressing nice shades of thought and feeling, but, more than all,
in light-footed polysyllables that trip singing to the music of
verse. If the saying of Shakespeare, that

      “The learned pate ducks to the golden fool,”

is more expressive than it would be if couched in Latin words,
would not the fine thought that

      “Nice customs courtesy to kings,”

be greatly injured by substituting any other words for “nice” and
“courtesy”? Because Shakespeare’s “oak-cleaving thunderbolts” is
so admirable, shall we fail to appreciate Milton’s “fulmined over
Greece,” where the idea of flash and reverberation is conveyed,
without that of riving and shattering? It has been observed that
Wordsworth’s famous ode, “Intimations of Immortality,” translated
into “Hints of Deathlessness,” would hiss like an angry gander.
Instead of Shakespeare’s

            “Age cannot wither her.
      Nor custom stale her infinite variety,”

say “her boundless manifoldness,” and would not the sentiment
suffer in exact proportion with the music? With what terms
equally expressive would you supply the place of such words as
the long ones blended with the short in the exclamation of the
horror-stricken Macbeth?--

      “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
      Clean from my hand? No! this my hand will rather
      The multitudinous sea incarnadine,
      Making the green one red.”

As the poet Lowell justly asks, could anything be more expressive
than the huddling epithet which here implies the tempest-tossed
soul of the speaker, and at the same time pictures the wallowing
waste of ocean more vividly than does Æschylus its rippling
sunshine? “‘Multitudinous sea,’--what an expression! You feel
the wide weltering waste of confused and tumbling waves around
you in that single word. What beauty and wealth of color too
in ‘incarnadine,’ a word capable of dyeing an ocean! and then,
after these grand polysyllables, how terse and stern comes in
the solid Saxon, as if a vast cloud had condensed into great
heavy drops,--the deep one red.”[20] Is it not plain that if you
substitute any less massive words for the _sesquipedalia verba_,
the sonorous terms “multitudinous” and “incarnadine,” the whole
grandeur of the passage would collapse at once?

Among the British orators of this century few have had a greater
command of language, or used it with nicer discrimination, than
Canning. What can be happier than the blending of the native and
the foreign elements in the following eloquent passage? Most of the
italicized words are Saxon:

  “Our present repose is no more a proof of our inability to act
  than the state of inertness and inactivity in which I have seen
  _those mighty masses that float in the waters above your town_
  is a proof that they are devoid of strength or incapable of
  being fitted for action. You well know, gentlemen, how soon one
  of those stupendous _masses now reposing on their shadows in
  perfect stillness_--how soon, upon any call of patriotism or of
  necessity, it would assume _the likeness of an animated thing,
  instinct with life and motion_--how soon it _would ruffle_, as
  it were, _its swelling plumage--how quickly it would put forth
  all its beauty and its bravery, collect its scattered_ elements
  _of strength, and awake its dormant thunders_. Such as is one
  of those magnificent machines when springing from inaction
  into a display of its strength, such is England itself, while,
  apparently passive and motionless, she silently causes her power
  to be put forth on an adequate occasion.”

In the famous passage in Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy,” which has been
pronounced the most musical in our language, nearly all the words
are Saxon:

  “The accusing spirit that flew up to Heaven’s chancery with the
  oath, blushed as he gave it in, and the recording angel, as he
  wrote it down, dropped a tear upon the word, and blotted it out

On the other hand, in the following passage from Napier’s history
of the Peninsular War,--in which the impetuosity of the style
almost rivals that of the soldiers it describes, and in reading
which we seem almost to hear the tramp and the shouts of the
charging squadrons, and the sharp rattle of the musketry,--how
indispensable to the effect of the description are the Romance
words, which we have italicized:

  “Suddenly and sternly _recovering_, they closed on their
  _terrible_ enemies: and then was seen with what a strength and
  _majesty_ the British _soldier_ fights. In vain did Soult, by
  _voice_ and gesture, _animate_ his Frenchmen; in vain did the
  hardiest _veterans, extricating_ themselves from the crowded
  _columns, sacrifice_ their lives to gain time for the mass to
  open out on such a fair field; in vain did the mass itself
  bear up, and, fiercely striving, fire _indiscriminately_ upon
  friends and foes, while the horsemen hovering on the _flank_
  threatened to _charge_ the _advancing_ line. Nothing could stop
  that _astonishing infantry_; no sudden burst of _undisciplined
  valor_, no nervous _enthusiasm_, weakened the _stability_
  of their _order_; their flashing eyes were bent on the dark
  _columns_ in their _front_; their _measured_ tread shook the
  ground; their dreadful _volleys_ swept away the head of every
  _formation_; their deafening shouts overpowered the _different
  cries_ that broke from all _parts_ of the _tumultuous_ crowd,
  as, foot by foot, and with a _horrid carnage_, it was driven by
  the _incessant vigor_ of the _attack_ to the furthest edge of
  the hill. In vain did the French _reserves_, joining with the
  struggling _multitudes, endeavor to sustain_ the fight; their
  _efforts_ only _increased_ the _irremediable confusion_, and the
  mighty mass, giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down
  the _ascent_. The rain poured after in streams _discolored_ with
  blood, and fifteen hundred unwounded men, the _remnant_ of six
  thousand _unconquerable_ British _soldiers_, stood _triumphant_
  on the _fatal_ field.”

It is true, as we have already said, that the Saxon has the
advantage of being the aboriginal element, the basis, and not the
superstructure, of the language; it is the dialect of the nursery,
and its words therefore, being consecrated to the feelings by early
use, are full of secret suggestions and echoes, which greatly
multiply their power. Its words, though not intrinsically, yet to
us, from association, are more concrete and pictorial than those
derived from the Latin; and this is particularly true of many
beautiful words we have lost. How much more expressive to us is
“sea-robber” than “pirate”; “sand-waste” than “desert”; “eye-bite”
than “fascinate”; “mill-race” than “channel”; “water-fright”
than “hydrophobia”; “moonling” than “lunatic”; “show-holiness”
than “hypocrisy”; “in-wit” than “conscience”; “gold-hoard” than
“treasure”; “ship-craft” than “the art of navigation”; “hand-cloth”
than “towel”; “book-craft” than “literature”! Therefore, as De
Quincey says, “wherever the passion of a poem is of that sort
which _uses, presumes, or postulates_ the ideas, without seeking
to extend them, Saxon will be the ‘cocoon’ (to speak by the
language applied to silk-worms), which the poem spins for itself.
But on the other hand, where the motion of the feeling is _by_
and _through_ the ideas, where (as in religious or meditative
poetry,--Young’s, for instance, or Cowper’s) the pathos creeps and
kindles underneath the very tissues of the thinking,--there the
Latin will predominate; and so much so that, while the flesh, the
blood, and the muscle will be often almost exclusively Latin, the
articulations only, or hinges of connection, will be Anglo-Saxon.”

Let us be thankful, then, that our language has other elements
than the Saxon, admirable as that is. The circumstances under
which this element had its origin were such as to impart strength
rather than beauty or elegance. The language of our continental
forefathers was the language of fierce barbarians, hemmed in by
other barbarous tribes, and having no intercourse with foreign
nations, except when roving as sea wolves to plunder and destroy.
It was the speech of a taciturn people living only in gloomy
forests and on stormy seas, and was naturally, therefore, harsh
and monosyllabic. It was full, nevertheless, of pithy, bold, and
vigorous expressions, and needed only that its hardy stock should
receive the grafts of sunnier and softer climes, to bear abundant
and beautiful fruit. Let us be thankful that this union took place.
Let us be grateful for that inheritance of collateral wealth,
which, by engrafting our Anglo-Saxon stem with the mixed dialect of
Normandy, caused ultimately the whole opulence of Roman, and even
of Grecian thought, to play freely through the veins of our native
tongue. No doubt the immediate result was anything but pleasant.
For a long time after the language was thrown again into the
crucible, Britons, Saxons and Normans talked a jargon fit neither
for gods nor men. It was a chaos of language, hissing, sputtering,
bubbling like a witch’s caldron. But luckily the Saxon element
was yet plastic and unfrozen, so that the new elements could fuse
with its own, thus forming that wondrous instrument of expression
which we now enjoy, fitted fully to reflect the thoughts of the
myriad-minded Shakespeare, yet, at the same time, with enough
remaining of its old forest stamina for imparting a masculine depth
to the sublimities of Milton or the Hebrew prophets, and to the
Historic Scriptures that patriarchal simplicity which is one of
their greatest charms.

We are aware that, in reply to all this, it may be asked, “Are not
ninety-three words out of every hundred in the Bible Anglo-Saxon;
and where are the life, beauty and freshness of our language to be
found in so heaped a measure as in that ‘pure well of English,’ the
Bible?” Nothing can be plainer or simpler than its vocabulary, yet
how rich is it in all that concerns the moral, the spiritual, and
even the intellectual interests of humanity! Is it logic that we
ask? What a range of abstract thought, what an armory of dialectic
weapons, what an enginery of vocal implements for moving the
soul, do we find in the epistles of St. Paul! Is it rhetoric that
we require? “Where,” in the language of South, “do we find such
a natural prevailing pathos as in the lamentations of Jeremiah?
One would think that every letter was written with a tear, every
word was the noise of a breaking heart; that the author was a man
compacted of sorrow, disciplined to grief from his infancy, one who
never breathed but in sighs, nor spoke but in a groan.” Yet, while
our translation owes much of its beauty to the Saxon, there are
passages the grandeur of which would be greatly diminished by the
substitution of Saxon words for the Latin ones. In the following
the Latin words italicized are absolutely necessary to preserve one
of the sublimest rhythms of the Bible: “And I heard, as it were,
the voice of a great _multitude_, and as the voice of many waters,
and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia, for the
Lord God _Omnipotent reigneth_.’”

The truth is, the translators of the Bible, while they have
employed a large percentage of Saxon words, have hit the golden
mean in their version, never hesitating to use a Latin word when
the sense or the rhythm demanded it; and hence we have the entire
volume of revelation in the happiest form in which human wit and
learning have ever made it accessible to man. This an English
Catholic writer, a convert from the Anglican church, has mournfully
acknowledged, in the following touching passage:--“Who will not say
that the uncommon beauty and marvellous English of the Protestant
Bible is one of the great strongholds of heresy in this country? It
lives on the ear, like a music that can never be forgotten, like
the sound of church bells, which the convert hardly knows how he
can forego. Its felicities often seem to be almost things rather
than mere words. It is part of the national mind, and the anchor of
national seriousness.... The memory of the dead passes into it. The
potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses. The
power of all the griefs and trials of a man is hidden beneath its
words. It is the representative of his best moments, and all that
there has been about him of soft and gentle, and pure and penitent
and good, speaks to him forever out of his English Bible. It is
his sacred thing, which doubt has never dimmed, and controversy
never soiled.... In the length and breadth of the land there is
not a Protestant with one spark of religiousness about him, whose
spiritual biography is not in his Saxon Bible.”[21]

It is a very striking and suggestive fact that those very writers
who award the palm for expressiveness to the Saxon part of our
language, cannot extol the Saxon without the help of Latin words.
Dr. Gregory tells us that when, in the company of Robert Hall, he
chanced to use the term “felicity” three or four times in rather
quick succession, the latter asked him: “Why do you say ‘felicity’?
‘Happiness’ is a better word, more musical, and genuine English,
coming from the Saxon.” “Not more musical,” said Dr. Gregory.
“Yes, more musical,--and so are all words derived from the Saxon,
generally. Listen, sir: ‘My heart is smitten, and withered like
grass.’ There is plaintive music. Listen again, sir: ‘Under the
shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.’ There is cheerful music.”
“Yes, but ‘rejoice’ is French.” “True, but all the rest is Saxon;
and ‘rejoice’ is almost out of time with the other words. Listen
again: ‘Thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears,
and my feet from falling.’ All Saxon, sir, except ‘delivered.’ I
could think of the word ‘tear’ till I wept.” But whence did Robert
Hall get the words “musical” and “plaintive music”? Are they not
from the Greek and the French? Is not this stabbing a man with his
own weapons? It is a curious fact, that, in spite of this eulogy on
Saxon words, a more than ordinary percentage of the words used in
Mr. Hall’s writings are of Romanic origin. Again, even Macaulay,
one of the most brilliant and powerful of all English writers,
finds it impossible to laud the Saxon part of the language without
borrowing nearly half the words of his famous panegyric from the
Romanic part of the vocabulary. In his article on Bunyan, in a
passage written in studied commendation of the “pure old Saxon”
English, we find, omitting the particles and wheelwork, one hundred
and twenty-one words, of which fifty-one, or over forty-two per
cent, are classical or alien. In other words, this great English
writer, than whom few have a more imperial command over all the
resources of expression, finds the Saxon insufficient for his
eloquent eulogy on Saxon, and is obliged to borrow four-tenths of
his words, and those the most emphatic ones, from the imported

It is an important fact, that while we can readily frame a sentence
wholly of Anglo-Saxon, we cannot do so with words entirely Latin,
because the determinative particles,--the bolts, pins, and hinges
of the structure,--must be Saxon. Macaulay, in his famous contrast
of Dr. Johnson’s conversational language with that of his writings,
has vividly illustrated the superiority of a Saxon-English to a
highly Latinized diction. “The expressions which came first to his
tongue were simple, energetic, and picturesque. When he wrote for
publication, he did his sentences out of English into Johnsonese.
‘When we were taken up stairs,’ says he in one of his letters from
the Hebrides, ‘a dirty fellow bounced out of the bed on which one
of us was to lie.’ This incident is recorded in his published
Journey as follows: ‘Out of one of the beds on which we were to
repose, started up, at our entrance, a man as black as a Cyclops
from the forge.’ Sometimes,” Macaulay adds, “Johnson translated
aloud. ‘The Rehearsal,’ he said, ‘has not wit enough to keep
it sweet;’ then, after a pause, ‘It has not vitality enough to
preserve it from putrefaction.’” Doubtless Johnson, like Robertson,
Hume, and Gibbon, thought that he was refining the language by
straining it through the lees of Latin and Greek, so as to imbue it
with the tone and color of the learned tongues, and clear it of the
barbarous Saxon; while real purity rather springs from such words
as are our own, and peculiar to our fatherland. Nevertheless, the
elephantine diction of the Doctor proved, in the end, a positive
blessing to the language; for by pushing the artificial or classic
system to an extreme, it brought it into disrepute, and led men to
cultivate again the native idiom.

In conclusion, to sum up our views of the matter, we would say to
every young writer: Give no fantastic preference to either Saxon or
Latin, the two great wings on which our magnificent English soars
and sings, for you can spare neither. The union of the two gives
us an affluence of synonyms and a nicety of discrimination which
no homogeneous tongue can boast. To know how to use each in due
degree, and on proper occasions,--when to aim at vigor and when at
refinement of expression,--to be energetic without coarseness, and
polished without affectation,--is the highest proof of a cultivated
taste. Never use a Romanic word when a Teutonic one will do as
well; for the former carries a comparatively cold and conventional
signification to an English ear. Between the sounding Latin and
the homely, idiomatic Saxon, there is often as much difference in
respect to a power of awakening associations, as between a gong
and a peal of village bells. Pleasant though it be to read the
pages of one who writes in a foreign tongue, as it is pleasant to
visit distant lands, yet there is always the charm of home, with
all its witchery, in the good old Anglo-Saxon of our fathers. Of
the words that we heard in our childhood, there are some which
have stored up in them an ineffable sweetness and flavor, which
make them precious ever after; there are others which are words
of might, of power,--old, brawny, large-meaning words, heavily
laden with associations,--which, when they strike the imagination,
awaken tender and tremulous memories, obscure, subtle, and yet
most powerful. The orator and the poet can never employ these
terms without great advantage; their very sound is often a spell
“to conjure withal.” Our language is essentially Teutonic; the
whole skeleton of it is thoroughly so; all its grammatical forms,
all its most common and necessary words, are still identical with
that old mother tongue whose varying forms lived on the lips of
Arminius and of Hengest, of Harold of Norway, and of Harold of
England, of Alaric, of Alboin, and of Charles the Great. On the
other hand, never scruple to use a Romanic word when the Saxon will
not do as well; that is, do not over-Teutonize from any archaic
pedantry, but use the strongest, the most picturesque, or the most
beautiful word, from whatever source it may come. The Latin words,
though less home-like, must nevertheless be deemed as truly denizen
in the language as the Saxon,--as being no alien interlopers,
but possessing the full right of citizenship. Some of them came
so early into the language, and are, therefore, so thoroughly
naturalized, that we hardly recognize them as foreign words,
unless our attention is particularly called to their origin.
When a person speaks of “paying money” or “paying a debt,” we are
no more sensible of an exotic effect than if he had spoken of
“eating bread,” “drinking water,” or “riding a horse.” That “pay”
is derived from _pacare_, “debt” from _debitum_, or “money” from
(_Juno_) _Moneta_, scarcely suggests itself even to the scholar.
Perhaps of all our writers Shakespeare may be deemed, in this
matter of the choice of words, the student’s best friend. No one
better knows how far the Saxon can go, or so often taxes its utmost
resources; yet no one better knows its poverty and weakness; and,
therefore, while in treating homely and familiar themes he uses
simple words, and shows, by his total abstinence from Latin words
in some of his most beautiful passages, that he understands the
monosyllabic music of our tongue, yet in his loftiest flights it is
on the broad pinions of the Roman eagle that he soars, and we shall
find, if we regard him closely, that every feather is plucked from
its wing.


[20] W. W. Story.

[21] F. W. Faber, in “Dublin Review,” June, 1853.



  Le style c’est de l’homme.--BUFFON.

  Altogether the style of a writer is a faithful representative of
  his mind; therefore if any man wish to write a clear style, let
  him first be clear in his thoughts; and if he would write in a
  noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.--GOETHE.

  No noble or right style was ever yet founded but out of a sincere

It was a saying of the wily diplomatist, Talleyrand, that
language was given to man to conceal his thought. There is a
class of writers at the present day who seem to be of the same
opinion,--sham philosophers for the most part, who have an ambition
to be original without the capacity, and seek to gain the credit
of soaring to the clouds by shrouding familiar objects in mist.
As all objects look larger in a fog, so their thoughts “loom up
through the haze of their style with a sort of dusky magnificence
that is mistaken for sublimity.” This style of writing is sometimes
called “transcendental”; and if by this is meant that it transcends
all the established laws of rhetoric, and all ordinary powers
of comprehension, the name is certainly a happy one. It is a
remark often made touching these shallow-profound authors, “What
a pity that So-and-so does not express thoughts so admirable in
intelligible English!”--whereas, in fact, but for the strangeness
and obscurity of the style, which fills the ear while it famishes
the mind, the matter would seem commonplace. The simple truth is,
that the profoundest authors are always the clearest, and the
_chiaro-oscuro_ which these transcendentalists affect, instead of
shrouding thoughts which mankind cannot well afford to lose, is but
a cloak for their intellectual nakedness,--the convenient shelter
for meagreness of thought and poverty of expression. As the banks
and shoals of the sea are the ordinary resting-place of fogs, so is
it with thought and language; the cloud almost invariably indicates
the shallow.

But, whether language be or be not fitted to _cloak_ our ideas, as
Talleyrand and Voltaire before him supposed, there are few persons
to whom it has not seemed at times inadequate to _express_ them.
How many ideas occur to us in our daily reflections, which, though
we toil after them for hours, baffle all our attempts to seize
them and render them comprehensible? Who has not felt, a thousand
times, the brushing wings of great thoughts, as, like startled
birds, they have swept by him,--thoughts so swift and so many-hued
that any attempt to arrest or describe them seemed like mockery?
How common it is, after reflecting on some subject in one’s study,
or a lonely walk, till the whole mind has become heated and filled
with the ideas it suggests, to feel a descent into the veriest
tameness when attempting to embody those ideas in written or spoken
words! A thousand bright images lie scattered in the fancy, but we
cannot picture them; glimpses of glorious visions appear to us,
but we cannot arrest them; questionable shapes float by us, but,
when we question them, they will not answer. Even Byron, one of the
greatest masters of eloquent expression, who was able to condense
into one word, that fell like a thunderbolt, the power and anguish
of emotion, experienced the same difficulty, and tells us in lines
of splendid declamation:

      “Could I embody and unbosom now
      That which is most within me,--could I wreak
      My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw
      Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,
      All that I would have sought, and all I seek,
      Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe,--into one word,
      And that one word were lightning, I would speak;
      But, as it is, I live and die unheard,
      With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword.”

So, too, that great verbal artist, Tennyson, complains:

      “I sometimes hold it half a sin
      To put in words the grief I feel;
      For words, like Nature, half reveal,
      And half conceal the soul within.”

De Quincey truly remarks that all our thoughts have not words
corresponding to them in our yet imperfectly developed nature, nor
can ever express themselves in acts, but must lie appreciable by
God only, like the silent melodies in a great musician’s heart,
never to roll forth from harp or organ.

      “The sea of thought is a boundless sea,
      Its brightest gems are not thrown on the beach;
      The waves that would tell of the mystery
      Die and fall on the shore of speech.”

“Thought,” says the eloquent Du Ponceau, “is vast as the air; it
embraces far more than languages can express;--or rather, languages
_express_ nothing, they only make thought flash in electric sparks
from the speaker to the hearer. A single word creates a crowd
of conceptions, which the intellect combines and marshals with
lightning-like rapidity.”

The Germans have coined a phrase to characterize a class of persons
who have conception without expression,--gifted, thoughtful men,
lovers of goodness and truth, who have no lack of ideas, but who
hesitate and stammer when they would put them into language. Such
men they term men of “passive genius.” Their minds are like black
glass, absorbing all the rays of light, but unable to give out any
for the benefit of others. Jean Paul calls them “the dumb ones of
earth,” for, like Zacharias, they have visions of high import, but
are speechless when they would tell them. The infirmity of these
dumb ones, is, however, the infirmity, in a less degree, of all
men, even the most fluent; for there are thoughts which mock at all
attempts to express them, however “well-languaged” the thinker may

It is not true, then, that language is, as Vinet characterizes it,
“_la pensée devenue matière_”; for the very expression involves a
contradiction. Words are nothing but symbols,--imperfect, too, at
best,--and to make the symbol in any way a measure of the thought
is to bring down the infinite to the measure of the finite. It
is true that our words mean more than it is in their power to
express,--shadow forth far more than they can define; yet, when
their capacity has been exhausted, there is much which they fail,
not only to express, but even to hint. There are abysses of thought
which the plummet of language can never fathom. Like the line in
mathematics, which continually approaches to a curve, but, though
produced forever, does not cut it, language can never be more than
an _asymptote_ to thought. Expression, even in Shakespeare, has its
limits. No power of language enables man to reveal the features of
the mystic Isis, on whose statue was inscribed: “I am all which
hath been, which is, and shall be, and no mortal hath ever lifted
my veil.”

                                      “Full oft
      Our thoughts drown speech, like to a foaming force
      Which thunders down the echo it creates;
      Words are like the sea-shells on the shore; they show
      Where the mind ends, and not how far it has been.”

Notwithstanding all this, however, there is truth in the lines of

      “Selon que notre idée est plus ou moins obscure,
      L’expression la suit, ou moins nette, ou plus pure;
      Ce que l’on concoit bien s’énonce clairement,
      Et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément.”

In spite of the complaints of those who, like the great poets
we have quoted, have expressed in language of wondrous force
and felicity their feeling of the inadequacy of language, it is
doubtless true, as a general thing, that impression and expression
are relative ideas; that what we clearly conceive we can clearly
convey; and that the failure to embody our thoughts is less the
fault of our mother tongue than of our own deficient genius. What
the flute or the violin is to the musician, his native language
is to the writer. The finest instruments are dumb till those
melodies are put into them of which they can be only the passive
conductors. The most powerful and most polished language must be
wielded by the master before its full force can be known. The
Philippics of Demosthenes were pronounced in the mother tongue
of every one of his audience; but “who among them could have
answered him in a single sentence like his own? Who among them
could have guessed what Greek could do, though they had spoken it
all their lives, till they heard it from his lips?” So with our
English tongue; it has abundant capabilities for those who know
how to use it aright. What subject, indeed, is there in the whole
boundless range of imagination, which some English author has
not treated in his mother tongue with a nicety of definition, an
accuracy of portraiture, a gorgeousness of coloring, a delicacy
of discrimination, and a strength and force of expression, which
fall scarcely short of perfection itself? Is there not something
almost like sorcery in the potent spell which some of these mighty
magicians of language are able to exercise over the soul? Yet the
right arrangement of the right words is the whole secret of the
witchery,--a charm within the reach of any one of equal genius.
Possess yourself of the necessary ideas, and feel them deeply, and
you will not often complain of the barrenness of language. You will
find it abounding in riches,--exuberant beyond the demand of your
intensest thought. “The statue is not more surely included in the
block of marble, than is all conceivable splendor of utterance in
‘Webster’s Unabridged.’” As Goethe says:

      “Be thine to seek the honest gain,
        No shallow-sounding fool;
      Sound sense finds utterance for itself,
        Without the critic’s rule;
      If to your heart your tongue be true,
        Why hunt for words with much ado?”

But we hear some one say,--is this the only secret of apt words? Is
nothing more necessary to be done by one who would obtain a command
of language? Does not Dr. Blair tell us to study the “Spectator,”
if we would learn to write well; and does not Dr. Johnson, too,
declare that “whoever wishes to obtain an English style, familiar
but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his
days and nights to the volumes of Addison?” Yes, and it is a pity
that Johnson did not act upon his own advice. That it is well for
a writer to familiarize himself with the best models of style
(models sufficiently numerous to prevent that mannerism which is
apt to result from unconscious imitation, when he is familiar with
but one) nobody can doubt. A man’s vocabulary depends largely on
the company lie keeps; and without a proper vocabulary no man can
he a good writer. Words are the material that the author works in,
and he must use as much care in their selection as the sculptor
in choosing his marble, or the painter in choosing his colors.
By listening to those who speak well, by profound study of the
masterpieces of literature, by exercises in translation, and, above
all, by frequent and careful practice in speaking and writing, he
may not only enrich his vocabulary, learn the secret of the great
writer’s charm, and elevate and refine his taste as he can in no
other way, but acquire such a mastery of language that it shall
become, at last, a willing and ready instrument, obedient to the
lightest challenge of his thought. Words, apt and telling, will
then flow spontaneously, though the result of the subtlest art,
like the waters of our city fountains, which, with much toil and
at great expense, are carried into the public squares, yet appear
to gush forth naturally. But to suppose that a good style can be
acquired by imitating any one writer, or any set of writers, is one
of the greatest follies that can be imagined. Such a supposition is
based on the notion that fine writing is an addition from without
to the matter treated of,--a kind of ornament superinduced, or
luxury indulged in, by one who has sufficient genius; whereas the
brilliant or powerful writer is not one who has merely a copious
vocabulary, and can turn on at will any number of splendid phrases
and swelling sentences, but he is one who has something to say,
and knows how to say it. Whether he dashes off his compositions
at a heat, or elaborates them with fastidious nicety and care,
he has but one aim, which he keeps steadily before him, and that
is to give forth what is in him. From this very earnestness it
follows that, whatever be the brilliancy of his diction, or the
harmony of his style,--whether it blaze with the splendors of
a gorgeous rhetoric, or take the ear prisoner with its musical
surprises,--he never makes these an end, but has always the charm
of an incommunicable simplicity.

Such a person “writes passionately because he feels keenly;
forcibly, because he conceives vividly; he sees too clearly to
be vague; he is too serious to be otiose: he can analyze his
subject, and therefore he is rich; he embraces it as a whole and
in parts, and therefore he is consistent; he has a firm hold of
it, and therefore he is luminous. When his imagination wells up,
it overflows in ornament; when his heart is touched, it thrills
along his verse. He always has the right word for the right idea,
and never a word too much. If he is brief, it is because few words
suffice; when he is lavish of them, still each word has its mark,
and aids, not embarrasses, the vigorous march of his elocution.
He expresses what all feel, but what all cannot say, and his
sayings pass into proverbs among the people, and his phrases
become household words and idioms of their daily speech, which is
tessellated with the rich fragments of his language, as we see in
foreign lands the marbles of Roman grandeur worked into the walls
and pavements of modern palaces.”[22]

It follows from all this that there is no model style, and that
the kind of style demanded in any composition depends upon the man
and his theme. The first law of good writing is that it should
be an expression of a man’s self,--a reflected image of his own
character. If we know what the man is, we know what his style
should be. If it mirrors his individuality, it is, relatively,
good; if it is not a self-portraiture, it is bad, however polished
its periods, or rhythmical its cadences. The graces and witcheries
of expression which charm us in an original writer, offend us
in a copyist. Style is sometimes, though not very happily,
termed the dress of thought. It is really, as Wordsworth long
ago declared, the _incarnation_ of thought. In Greek, the same
word, Logos, stands for reason and speech,--and why? Because they
cannot be divided; because thought and expression are one. They
each co-exist, not one _with_ the other, but _in_ and _through_
the other. Not till we can separate the soul and the body, life
and motion, the convex and concave of a curve, shall we be able
to divorce thought from the language which only can embody it.
But allowing, for the moment, that style is the verbal clothing
of ideas, who but the most poverty-stricken person would think
of wearing the clothes of another? It is true that there are
certain general qualities, such as clearness, force, flexibility,
simplicity, variety, which all good styles will alike possess, just
as all good clothing will have certain qualities in common. But for
all men to clothe their thoughts in the same manner would be as
foolish as for a giant to array himself in the garments of a dwarf,
a stout man in those of a thin, or a brunette in those of a blonde.
Robert Hall, when preaching in early life at Cambridge, England,
for a short time aped Dr. Johnson; but he soon saw the folly of it.
“I might as well have attempted,” said he, “to dance a hornpipe in
the cumbrous costume of Gog and Magog. My puny thoughts could not
sustain the load of words in which I tried to clothe them.”

It is with varieties of style as with the varieties of the
human face, or of the leaves of the forest; while they are
obvious in their general resemblance, yet there are never two
indistinguishably alike. Sometimes the differences are very
slight,--so minute and subtle, as almost to defy characterization;
yet, like the differences in musical styles which closely resemble
each other, they are _felt_ by the discerning reader, and so
strongly that he will scarcely mistake the authorship, even on a
single reading. Men of similar natures will have similar styles;
but think of Waller aping the gait of Wordsworth, or Leigh
Hunt that of Milton! Can any one conceive of Hooker’s style as
slipshod,--of Dryden’s as feeble and obscure,--of Gibbon’s as mean
and vulgar,--of Burke’s as timid and creeping,--of Carlyle’s as
dainty and mincing,--of Emerson’s as diffuse and pointless,--or of
Napier’s as lacking picturesqueness, _verve_, and fire?

There are some writers of a quiet, even temperament, whose
sentences flow gently along like a stream through a level country,
that hardly disturbs the stillness of the air by a sound; there are
others vehement, rapid, redundant, that roll on like a mountain
torrent forcing its way over all obstacles, and filling the valleys
and woods with the echoes of its roar. One author, deep in one
place, and shallow in another, reminds you of the Ohio, here
unfordable, and there full of sand bars,--now hurrying on with
rapid current, and now expanding into lovely lakes, fringed with
forests and overhung with hills; another, always brimming with
thought, reminds you of the Mississippi, which rolls onward the
same vast volume, with no apparent diminution, from Cairo to New
Orleans. “Sydney Smith, concise, brisk, and brilliant, has a manner
of composition which exactly corresponds to those qualities; but
how would Lord Bacon look in Smith’s sentences? How grandly the
soul of Milton rolls and winds through the arches and labyrinths
of his involved and magnificent diction, waking musical echoes
at every new turn and variation of its progress; but how could
the thought of such a light trifler as Cibber travel through so
glorious a maze, without being lost or crushed in the journey? The
plain, manly language of John Locke could hardly be translated into
the terminology of Kant,--would look out of place in the rapid and
sparkling movement of Cousin’s periods,--and would appear mean in
the cadences of Dugald Stewart.”[23]

Not only has every original writer his own style, which mirrors his
individuality, but the writers of every age differ from those of
every other age. Joubert has well said that if the French authors
of to-day were to write as men wrote in the time of Louis XIV,
their style would lack truthfulness, for the French of to-day have
not the same dispositions, the same opinions, the same manners. A
woman who should write like Madame Sévigné would be ridiculous,
because she is not Madame Sévigné. The more one’s writing smacks
of his own character and of the manners of his time, the more
widely must his style diverge from that of the writers who were
models only because they excelled in manifesting in their works
either the manners of _their_ own age or _their_ own character.
Who would tolerate to-day a writer who should reproduce, however
successfully, the stately periods of Johnson, the mellifluous
lines of Pope, or the faultless but nerveless periods of Addison?
The style that is to please to-day must be dense with meaning and
full of color; it must be suggestive, sharp, and incisive. So
far is imitation of the old masterpieces from being commendable,
that, as Joubert says, good taste itself permits one to avoid
imitating the best styles, for taste, even good taste, changes with
manners,--“_Le bon goût lui-même, en ce cas, permet qu’on s’écarte
du meilleur goût, car le goût change avec les mœurs, même le bon

Let no man, then, aim at the cultivation of style for style’s sake,
independently of ideas, for all such aims will result in failure.
To suppose that noble or impressive language is a communicable
trick of rhetoric and accent, is one of the most mischievous of
fallacies. Every writer has his own ideas and feelings,--his own
conceptions, judgments, discriminations, and comparisons,--which
are personal, proper to himself, in the same sense that his looks,
his voice, his air, his gait, and his action are personal. If
he has a vulgar mind, he will write vulgarly; if he has a noble
nature, he will write nobly; in every case, the beauty or ugliness
of his moral countenance, the force and keenness or the feebleness
of his logic, will be imaged in his language. It follows,
therefore, as Ruskin says, that all the virtues of language are,
in their roots, moral: it becomes accurate, if the writer desires
to be true; clear, if he write with sympathy and a desire to be
intelligible; powerful, if he has earnestness; pleasant, if he has
a sense of rhythm and order.

This sensibility of language to the impulses and qualities of him
who uses it; its flexibility in accommodating itself to all the
thoughts, feelings, imaginations, and aspirations which pass within
him, so as to become the faithful expression of his personality,
indicating the very pulsating and throbbing of his intellect, and
attending on his own inward world of thought as its very shadow;
and, strangest, perhaps, the magical power it has, where thought
transcends the sensuous capacities of language, to suggest the idea
or mood it cannot directly convey, and to give forth an aroma which
no analysis of word or expression reveals,--is one of the marvels
of human speech. The writer, therefore, who is so magnetized by
another’s genius that he cannot say anything in his own way, but
is perpetually imitating the other’s structure of sentence and
turns of expression, confesses his barrenness. The only way to make
another’s style one’s own is to possess one’s self of his mind
and soul. If we would reproduce his peculiarities of diction, we
must first acquire the qualities that produced them. “Language,”
says Goldwin Smith, “is not a musical instrument into which, if
a fool breathe, it will make melody. Its tones are evoked only
by the spirit of high or tender thought; and though truth is not
always eloquent, real eloquence is always the glow of truth.”
As Sainte-Beuve says of the plainness and brevity of Napoleon’s
style,--“_Prétendre imiter le precédé de diction du héros qui sut
abréger Cæsar lui-même_ ... _il convient_ d’avoir fait d’aussi
grandes choses _pour avoir le droit d’être aussi nu_.”

It is not imitation, but general culture,--as another has said,
the constant submission of a teachable, apprehensive mind to
the influence of minds of the highest order, in daily life and
books,--that brings out upon style its daintiest bloom and its
richest fruitage. “So in the making of a fine singer, after the
voice has been developed, and the rudiments of vocalization have
been learned, farther instruction is almost of no avail. But the
frequent hearing of the best music given by the best singers
and instrumentalists,--the living in an atmosphere of art and
literature,--will develop and perfect a vocal style in one who has
the gift of song; and, for any other, all the instruction of all
the musical professors that ever came out of Italy will do no more
than teach an avoidance of positive errors in musical grammar.”[24]

The Cabalists believed that whoever found the mystic word for
anything attained to as absolute mastery over that thing as did
the robbers over the door of their cave in the Arabian tale. The
converse is true of expression; for he who is thoroughly possessed
of his thought becomes master of the _word_ fitted to express
it, while he who has but a half-possession of it vainly seeks to
torture out of language the secret of that inspiration which should
be in himself. The secret of force in writing or speaking lies not
in Blair’s “Rhetoric,” or Roget’s “Thesaurus,”--not in having a
copious vocabulary, or a dozen words for every idea,--but in having
something that you earnestly wish to say, and making the parts
of speech vividly conscious of it. Phidias, the great Athenian
sculptor, said of one of his pupils that he had an inspired thumb,
because the modelling clay yielded to its careless touch a grace
of sweep which it refused to the utmost pains of others. So he who
has thoroughly possessed himself of his thought will not have to
hunt through his dictionary for apt and expressive words,--a method
which is but an outside remedy for an inward defect,--but will find
language eagerly obedient to him, as if every word should say,

      “_Bid_ me discourse; I will enchant thine ear,”

and fit expressions, as Milton says, “like so many nimble and airy
servitors, will trip about him at command, and, in well-ordered
files, fall aptly into their own places.” It was the boast of
Dante that no word had ever forced him to say what _he_ would not,
though he had forced many a word to say what _it_ would not; and so
will every writer, who as vividly conceives and as deeply feels his
theme, be able to conjure out of words their uttermost secret _of_
power or pathos.

The question has been sometimes discussed whether the best style is
a colorless medium, which, like good glass, only lets the thought
be distinctly seen, or whether it imparts a pleasure apart from
the ideas it conveys. There are those who hold that when language
is simply transparent,--when it comes to us so refined of all its
dross, so spiritualized in its substance that we lose sight of it
as a vehicle, and the thought stands out with clearness in all
its proportions,--we are at the very summit of the literary art.
This is the character of Southey’s best prose, and of Paley’s
writing, whose statement of a false theory is so lucid that it
becomes a refutation. There are writers, however, who charm us by
their language, apart from the ideas it conveys. There is a kind
of mysterious perfume about it, a delicious aroma, which we keenly
enjoy, but for which we cannot account. Poetry often possesses a
beauty wholly unconnected with its meaning. Who has not admired,
independently of the sense, its “jewels, five words long, that,
on the stretched forefinger of all time, sparkle forever”? There
are passages in which the mere cadence of the words is by itself
delicious to a delicate ear, though we cannot tell how and why. We
are conscious of a strange, dreamy sense of enjoyment, such as one
feels when lying upon the grass in a June evening, while a brook
tinkles over stones among the sedges and trees. Sir Philip Sidney
could not hear the old ballad of Chevy Chase without his blood
being stirred as by the sound of a trumpet; Boyle felt a tremor at
the utterance of two verses of Lucan; and Spence declares that he
never repeated particular lines of delicate modulation without a
shiver in his blood, not to be expressed. Who is not sensible of
certain magical effects, altogether distinct from the thoughts, in
some of Coleridge’s weird verse, in Keats’s “Nightingale,” and in
the grand harmonies of Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Ruskin,
and De Quincey?

Perspicuity, or transparency of style, is, undoubtedly, the first
law of all composition; but it may be doubted whether _vividness_,
which was the ruling conception of the Greeks with regard to this
property of style, is not quite as essential. Style, it has been
well said, “is not only a medium; it is also a form. It is not
enough that the thoughts be seen through a clear medium; they must
be seen in a distinct shape. It is not enough that truth be visible
in a clear, pure air; the atmosphere must not only be crystalline
and sparkling, but the things in it must be bounded and defined by
sharply cut lines.”[25]

A style may be as transparent as rock-water, and yet the thoughts
be destitute of boldness and originality. The highest degree of
transparency, however, can be attained only by the writer who has
thoroughly mastered his theme, and whose whole nature is stirred
by it. As that exquisite material through which we gaze from our
windows on the beauties of nature, obtains its crystalline beauty
after undergoing the furnace,--as it was melted by fire before the
rough particles of sand disappeared,--so it is with language. It is
only a burning invention that can make it transparent. A powerful
imagination must fuse the harsh elements of composition until all
foreign substances have disappeared, and every coarse, shapeless
word has been absorbed by the heat, and then the language will
brighten into that clear and unclouded style through which the most
delicate conceptions of the mind and the faintest emotions of the
heart are visible.

How many human thoughts have baffled for generations every attempt
to give them expression! How many opinions and conclusions are
there, which form the basis of our daily reflections, the matter
for the ordinary operations of our minds, which were toiled
after perhaps for ages, before they were seized and rendered
comprehensible! How many ideas are there which we ourselves have
grasped at, as if we saw them floating in an atmosphere just above
us, and found the arm of our intellect just too short to reach
them; and then comes a happier genius, who, in a lucky moment, and
from some vantage ground, arrests the meteor in its flight, and,
grasping the floating phantom, drags it from the skies to earth;
condenses that which was but an impalpable coruscation of spirit;
fetters that which was but the lightning-glance of thought; and,
having so mastered it, bestows it as a perpetual possession and
heritage on mankind!

The arrangement of words by great writers on the printed page
has sometimes been compared to the arrangement of soldiers on
the field; and if it is interesting to see how a great general
marshals his regiments, it is certainly not less so to see how the
Alexanders and Napoleons of letters marshal their verbal battalions
on the battle-fields of thought. Foremost among those who wield
despotic sway over the domain of letters, is my Lord Bacon, whose
words are like a Spartan phalanx, closely compacted,--almost
crowding each other, so close are their files,--and all moving
in irresistible array, without confusion or chasm, now holding
some Thermopylæ of new truth against some scholastic Xerxes, now
storming some ancient Malakoff of error, but always with “victory
sitting eagle-winged on their crests.” A strain of music bursts
on your ear, sweet as is Apollo’s lute, and lo! Milton’s dazzling
files, clad in celestial panoply, lifting high their gorgeous
ensign, which “shines like a meteor, streaming to the wind,”
“breathing united force and fixed thought,” come moving on “in
perfect phalanx, to the Dorian mood of flutes and soft recorders.”
Next comes Chillingworth, with his glittering rapier, all
rhetorical rule and flourish, according to the schools,--_passado_,
_montanso_, _staccato_,--one, two, three,--the third in your bosom.
Then stalks along Chatham, with his two-handed sword, striking
with the edge, while he pierces with the point, and stuns with the
hilt, and wielding the ponderous weapon as easily as you would a
flail. Next strides Johnson with elephantine tread, with the club
of logic in one hand and a revolver in the other, hitting right
and left with antithetical blows, and, “when his pistol misses
fire, knocking you down with the butt end of it.” Burke, with
lighted linstock in hand, stands by a Lancaster gun; he touches
it, and forth there burst, with loud and ringing roar, missiles
of every conceivable description,--chain shot, stone, iron darts,
spikes, shells, grenadoes, torpedoes, and balls, that cut down
everything before them. Close after him steals Jeffrey, armed
cap-a-pie,--carrying a tomahawk in one hand and a scalping-knife
in the other,--steeped to the eye in fight, cunning of fence,
master of his weapon and merciless in its use, and “playing it
like a tongue of flame” before his trembling victims. There is
Brougham, slaying half-a-dozen enemies at once with a tremendous
Scotch claymore; Macaulay, running under his opponent’s guard,
and stabbing him to the heart with the heavy dagger of a short,
epigrammatic sentence; Hugh Elliot, cracking his enemies’ skulls
with a sledge-hammer, or pounding them to jelly with his huge
fists; Sydney Smith, firing his arrows, feathered with fancy and
pointed with the steel of the keenest wit; Disraeli, armed with
an oriental scimitar, which dazzles while it kills; Emerson,
transfixing his adversaries with a blade of transcendental temper,
snatched from the scabbard of Plato; and Carlyle, relentless
iconoclast of shams, who “gangs his ain gait,” armed with an
antique stone axe, with which he smashes solemn humbugs as you
would drugs with a pestle and mortar.


[22] “The Idea of a University,” by J. H. Newman.

[23] “Essays and Reviews,” by Edwin P. Whipple.

[24] “Words and Their Uses,” by Richard Grant White.

[25] “Homiletics and Pastoral Theology,” by W. G. Shedd, D.D.


THE SECRET OF APT WORDS--(_continued_).

  “To acquire a few tongues,” says a French writer, “is the task
  of a few years; but to be eloquent in one is the labor of a

  When words are restrained by common usage to a particular sense,
  to run up to etymology, and construe them by a dictionary, is
  wretchedly ridiculous.--JEREMY COLLIER.

      Where do the words of Greece and Rome excel,
      That England may not please the ear as well?
      What mighty magic’s in the place or air,
      That all perfection needs must centre there?--CHURCHILL.

It is an interesting question connected with the subject of style,
whether a knowledge of other languages is necessary to give an
English writer a full command of his own. Among the arguments urged
in behalf of the study of Greek and Latin in our colleges, one of
the commonest is the supposed absolute necessity of a knowledge of
those tongues to one who would speak and write his own language
effectively. The English language, we are reminded, is a composite
one, of whose words thirty per cent are of Roman origin, and
nearly five per cent of Greek; and is it not an immense help, we
are asked, to a full and accurate knowledge of the meanings of the
words we use, to know their entire history, including their origin?
Is not the many-sided Goethe an authority on this subject, and
does he not tell us that “_wer fremde sprache nicht kennt weiss
nichts von seinen eigenen_,”--“He who is acquainted with no foreign
tongues, knows nothing of his own”? Have we not the authority of
one of the earliest of English schoolmasters, Roger Ascham, for
the opinion that, “even as a hawke fleeth not hie with one wing,
even so a man reacheth not to excellency with one tongue”?

In answering the general question in the negative, we do not
mean to question the value or profound interest of philological
studies, or to express any doubt concerning their utility as a
means of mental discipline. The value of classical literature as
an instrument of education has been decided by an overwhelming
majority of persons of culture. We cannot, without prejudice to
humanity, separate the present from the past. The nineteenth
century strikes its roots into the centuries gone by, and draws
nutriment from them. Our whole literature is closely connected
with that of the ancients, draws its inspiration from it, and can
be understood only by constant reference to it. As a means of that
encyclopedic culture, of that thorough intellectual equipment,
which is one of the most imperious demands of modern society, an
acquaintance with foreign, and especially with classic, literature,
is absolutely indispensable; for the records of knowledge and of
thought are many-tongued, and even if a great writer could have
wreaked his thoughts upon expression in another language, it is
certain that another mind can only in a few cases adequately
translate them. It is only by the study of different languages
and different literatures, ancient as well as modern, that we can
escape that narrowness of thought, that Chinese cast of mind, which
characterizes those persons who know no language but their own,
and learn to distinguish what is essentially, universally, and
eternally good and true from what is the result of accident, local
opinion, or the fleeting circumstances of the time. It is useless
to say that we know human nature thoroughly, if we know nothing
of antiquity; and we can know antiquity only by study of the
originals. Mitford, Grote, and Mommsen differ, and the reader who
consults them with no knowledge of Greek or Latin is at the mercy
of the last author he has perused. It has been frequently remarked
that every school of thinkers has its mannerism and its mania, for
which there is no cure but intercourse with those who are free from
them. To study any class of writers exclusively is to bow slavishly
to their authority, to accept their opinions, to make their tastes
our tastes, and their prejudices our prejudices. Only by qualifying
their ideas and sentiments with the thoughts and sentiments of
writers in other ages, shall we be able to resist the intense
pressure which is thus exercised upon our convictions and feelings,
and avoid that mental slavery which is baser than the slavery of
the body.

The question, however, is not about the general educational value
of classical studies, but whether they are indispensable to him
who would write or speak English with the highest force, elegance,
and accuracy. I think they are not. In the first place, I deny
that a knowledge of the etymologies of words,--of their meanings a
hundred or five hundred years ago,--is essential to their proper
use now. How am I aided in the use of the word “villain” by knowing
that it once meant peasant,--in the use of “wince” by knowing that
it meant kick,--in the use of “brat,” “beldam,” and “pedant,”
by knowing that they meant, respectively, child, fine lady, and
tutor,--in the use of “meddle,” by knowing that formerly it had
no offensive meaning, and that one could meddle even with his own
affairs? Am I more or less likely to use “ringleader” correctly
to-day, from learning that Christ is correctly spoken of by an old
divine as “the ringleader of our salvation”? Shall I be helped in
the employment of the word “musket” by knowing that it was once the
name of a small hawk, or fly, or in the use of the word “tragedy”
by knowing that it is connected in some way with the Greek word for
a goat? Facts like these are of deep interest to all, and of high
value to the scholar; but how is the knowledge of them necessary
that one may speak or write well?

The question with the man who addresses his fellow-man by tongue
or pen to-day, is not what ought to be, or formerly was, the
meaning of a word, but, what is it _now_? Indeed, it may be
doubted whether a reference to the roots and derivations,--the
old original meanings of words,--which have grown obsolete by the
fluctuations of manners, customs, and a thousand other causes, does
not, as Archbishop Whately insists, tend to confusion, and prove
rather a hindrance than a help to the correct use of our tongue.
Words not only, for the most part, ride very slackly at anchor
on their etymologies, borne, as they are, hither and thither by
the shifting tides and currents of usage, but they often break
away from their moorings altogether. The knowledge of a man’s
antecedents may help us sometimes to estimate his present self: but
the knowledge of what a word meant three or twenty centuries ago
may only mislead us as to its meaning now. Spenser uses the word
“edify” in the sense of “to build”; but would any one speak of a
house being edified to-day? “Symbol” and “conjecture” are words
that etymologically have precisely the same signification; and the
same is true of “hypostasis,” “substance,” and “understanding,”
derived respectively from the Greek, Latin, and Saxon; yet have
either the two former, or the three latter words, as they are now
used, the least similarity of meaning? Is it desirable to call
a suffering man a “passionate” man,--to say with Bishop Lowth
that “the Emperor Julian very ‘judiciously’ planned the overthrow
of Christianity,”--to speak with Paley of the “judiciousness”
of God,--and with Guizot of the “duplicity” of certain plays of
Shakespeare (meaning their dual structure),--merely because we
find these significations lying at the remote and dead roots of
the words which we now employ in wholly different significations?
The effect of a constant reference to etymology, in the use of
words, is seen in the writings of Milton, whose use of “elate”
for “lifted on high,” “implicit” for “entangled,” “succinct” for
“girded,” “spirited” for “inspired,” and hundreds of other such
perversions of language, may please the scholar who loves to crack
philological nuts, but is fitted only to perplex, confound, and
mislead the ordinary reader. It is seen still more plainly in the
writings of Donne, Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, who not
only imported Latin words by wholesale into the language, only
giving them an anglicized form and termination, but sometimes
employed in a new sense words already adopted into English, and
used in their original sense. Thus Taylor uses “immured” for
“encompassed,” “irritation” for “making void”; and in referring to
“the bruising of the serpent’s head,” he ludicrously speaks of the
“‘contrition’ of the serpent.” Again, he uses the word “excellent”
for “surpassing,” and even perverts the meaning of the word so far
as to speak of “an ‘excellent’ pain!”

Will it be said that words become more vivid and picturesque,--that
we get a firmer and more vigorous grasp of their meaning,--when, as
Coleridge advises, we present to our minds the visual images that
form their primary meanings? The reply is, that long use deadens
us to the susceptibility of such images, and in not one case in a
thousand, probably, are they noticed. How many college graduates
think of a “miser” as being etymologically a “miserable” man, of
a “savage” as one living in “a wood,” or of a “desultory” reader
as one who leaps from one study to another, as a circus rider
leaps from horse to horse? A distinguished poet once confessed
that the Latin _imago_ first suggested itself to him as the root
of the English word “imagination” when, after having been ten
years a versifier, he was asked by a friend to define this most
important term in the critical vocabulary of his art. “We have had
to notice over and over again,” says Mr. Whitney in his late work
on “The Life and Growth of Language,” “the readiness on the part of
language-users to forget origins, to cast aside as cumbrous rubbish
the etymological suggestiveness of a term, and concentrate force
upon the new and more adventitious tie. This is one of the most
fundamental and valuable tendencies in name-making; it constitutes
an essential part of the practical availability of language.”

If a knowledge of Greek and Latin is necessary to him who would
command all the resources of our tongue, how comes it that the
most consummate mastery of the English language is exhibited by
Shakespeare? Will it be said that his writings prove him to have
been a classical scholar; that they abound in facts and allusions
which imply an intimate acquaintance with the masterpieces of
Greek and Roman literature? We answer that this is a palpable
begging of the question. By the same reasoning we can prove that
scores of English authors, who, we know positively, never read a
page of Latin or Greek, were, nevertheless, classical scholars. By
similar logic we can prove that Shakespeare followed every calling
in life. Lawyers vouch for his acquaintance with law; physicians
for his skill in medicine; mad-doctors for his knowledge of the
phenomena of mental disease; naturalists assert positively, from
the internal evidence of his works, that he was a botanist and an
entomologist; bishops, that he was a theologian; and claims have
been put forth for his dexterity in cutting up sheep and bullocks.
Ben Jonson tells us that he had “small Latin and less Greek”;
another contemporary, that he had “little Latin and no Greek.”
“Small Latin,” indeed, it must have been which a youth could
have acquired in his position, who married and entered upon the
duties of active life at eighteen. The fact that translations were
abundant in the poet’s time, and that all the literature of that
day was steeped in classicism, will fully account for Shakespeare’s
knowledge of Greek and Roman history, as well as for the classical
turns of expression which we find in his plays.

But it may be said that Shakespeare, the oceanic, the many-souled,
was phenomenal, and that no rule can be based on the miracles of
a cometary genius who has had no peer in the ages. What shall we
say, then, to Izaak Walton? Can purer, more idiomatic, or more
attractive English be found within the covers of any book than
that of “The Complete Angler”? Among all the controversialists
of England, is there one whose words hit harder,--are more like
cannon-balls,--than those of Cobbett? By universal concession he
was master of the whole vocabulary of invective, and in narration
his pen is pregnant with the freshness of green fields and woods;
yet neither he, nor “honest Izaak,” ever dug up a Greek root,
or unearthed a Latin derivation. Let any one compare a page of
Cobbett with a page of Bentley, the great classical critic, and
he will find that the former writer excels the latter alike in
clearness and precision of terms, in grammatical accuracy, and in
the construction of his periods. Again, what shall we say of Keats,
who could not read a line of Greek, yet who was the most thoroughly
classical of all English authors,--whose soul was so saturated
with the Greek spirit, that Byron said “he was a Greek himself”?
Or what will the classicists do with Lord Erskine, confessedly the
greatest forensic orator since Demosthenes? He learned but the
elements of Latin, and in Greek went scarcely beyond the alphabet;
but he devoted himself in youth with intense ardor to the study of
Milton and Shakespeare, committing whole pages of the former to
memory, and so familiarizing himself with the latter that he could
almost, like Porson, have held conversations on all subjects for
days together in the phrases of the great English dramatist. It was
here that he acquired that fine choice of words, that richness of
thought and gorgeousness of expression, that beautiful _rhythmus_
of his sentences, which charmed all who heard him.

If one must learn English through the Greek and Latin, how shall we
account for the admirable,--we had almost said, inimitable,--style
of Franklin? Before he knew anything of foreign languages he
had formed his style, and gained a wide command of words by the
study of the best English models. Is the essayist, Edwin P.
Whipple, a master of the English language? He was not, we believe,
classically educated, yet few American authors have a greater
command of all the resources of expression. His style varies in
excellence,--sometimes, perhaps, lacks simplicity; but, as a rule,
it is singularly copious, nervous, and suggestive, and clear as a
pebbled rill. What is the secret of this command of our tongue?
It is his familiarity with our English literature. His sleepless
intellect has fed and fattened on the whole race of English
authors, from Chaucer to Currer Bell. The profound, sagacious
wisdom of Bacon, and the nimble, brilliant wit of Sydney Smith;
the sublime mysticism of Sir Thomas Browne, and the rich, mellow,
tranquil beauty of Taylor; Jonson’s learned sock and Heywood’s
ease; the gorgeous, organ-toned eloquence of Milton, and the close,
bayonet-like logic of Chillingworth; the sweet-blooded wit of
Fuller, and Butler’s rattling fire of fun; Spenser’s voluptuous
beauty, and the lofty rhetoric, scorching wit, and crushing
argument of South; Pope’s neatness, brilliancy, and epigrammatic
point, and Dryden’s energy and “full resounding line”; Byron’s
sublime unrest and bursts of misanthropy, and Wordsworth’s deep
sentiment and sweet humanities; Shelley’s wild imaginative melody,
and Scott’s picturesque imagery and antiquarian lore; the polished
witticisms of Sheridan, and the gorgeous periods of Burke,--with
all these writers, and every other of greater or lesser note, even
those in the hidden nooks and crannies of our literature, he has
held converse, and drawn from them expressions for every exigency
of his thought.

To all these examples we may add one, if possible, still more
convincing,--that of the late Hugh Miller, who, as Professor
Marsh justly remarks, had few contemporaneous superiors as a
clear, forcible, accurate, and eloquent writer, and who _uses the
most cumbrous Greek compounds_ as freely as monosyllabic English
particles. His style is literally the despair of all other English
scientific writers; yet it is positively certain that he was wholly
ignorant of all languages but that in which he wrote, and its
Northern provincial dialects.

As to the oft-quoted saying of Goethe, to which the objector is
so fond of referring, we may say with Professor Marsh, that, “if
by knowledge of a language is meant the power of expressing or
conceiving the laws of a language in formal rules, the opinion
may be well founded; but, if it refers to the capacity of
understanding, and skill in properly using our own tongue, all
observation shows it to be very wide of the truth.” Goethe himself,
the same authority declares, was an indifferent linguist; he
apparently knew little of the remoter etymological sources of his
own tongue, or the special philologies of the cognate languages;
and “it is difficult to trace any of the excellencies of his
marvellously felicitous style to the direct imitation, or even the
unconscious influence of foreign models.”[26] But he was a profound
student of the great German writers of the sixteenth century; and
hence his works are a test example in refutation of the theory that
ascribes so exaggerated a value to classical studies.

It is a remarkable fact, which throws a flood of light upon this
subject, that the greatest masters of style in all the ages were
the Greeks, who yet knew no word of any language but their own.
In the most flourishing period of their literature, they had
no grammatical system, nor did they ever make any but the most
trivial researches in etymology. “The wise and learned nations
among the ancients,” says Locke, “made it a part of education to
cultivate their own, not foreign languages. The Greeks counted all
other nations barbarous, and had a contempt for their languages.
And though the Greek learning grew in credit among the Romans,
... yet it was the Roman tongue that was made the study of their
youth; their own language they were to make use of, and therefore
it was their own language they were instructed and exercised in.”
Demosthenes, the greatest master of the Greek language, and one
of the mightiest masters of expression the world has seen, knew
no other tongue than his own. He modelled his style after that of
Thucydides, whose wonderful compactness, terseness, and strength
of diction were derived from no study of old Pelasgic, Phœnician,
Persian, or other primitive etymologies of the Attic speech,--of
which he knew nothing,--but were the product of his own marvellous
genius wreaking itself upon expression.

No riches are without inconvenience. The men of many tongues almost
inevitably lose their peculiar raciness of home-bred utterance, and
their style, like their words, has a certain polyglot character.
It has been observed by an acute Oxford professor that the Romans,
in exact proportion to their study of Greek, paralyzed some of the
finest powers of their own language. Schiller tells us that he was
in the habit of reading as little as possible in foreign languages,
because it was his business to write _German_, and he thought that,
by reading other languages, he should lose his nicer perceptions
of what belonged to his own. Dryden attributed most of Cowley’s
defects to his continental associations, and said that his losses
at home overbalanced his gains from abroad. Thomas Moore, who was
a fine classical scholar, tells us that the perfect purity with
which the Greeks wrote their own language was justly attributed to
their entire abstinence from every other. It is a saying as old as
Cicero that women, being accustomed solely to their native tongue,
usually speak and write it with a grace and purity surpassing
those of men. “A man who thinks the knowledge of Latin essential
to the purity of English diction,” says Macaulay, “either has
never conversed with an accomplished woman, or does not deserve to
have conversed with her. We are sure that all persons who are in
the habit of hearing public speaking must have observed that the
orators who are fondest of quoting Latin are by no means the most
scrupulous about marring their native tongue. We could mention
several members of Parliament, who never fail to usher in their
scraps of Horace and Juvenal with half-a-dozen false concords.”

Mr. Buckle, in his “History of Civilization in England,” does not
hesitate to express the opinion that “our great English scholars
have corrupted the English language by jargon so uncouth that a
plain man can hardly discern the real lack of ideas which their
barbarous and mottled dialect strives to hide.” He then adds that
the principal reason why well educated women write and converse in
a purer style than well educated men, is “because they have not
formed their taste according to those ancient classical standards,
which, admirable as they are in themselves, should never be
introduced into a state of society unfitted for them.” To nearly
the same effect is the declaration of that most acute judge of
style, Thomas De Quincey, who says that if you would read our
noble language in its native beauty, picturesque form, idiomatic
propriety, racy in its phraseology, delicate yet sinewy in its
composition, you must steal the mail-bags, and break open the
women’s letters. On the other hand, who has forgotten what havoc
Bentley made when he laid his classic hand on “Paradise Lost”?
What prose style, always excepting that of the “Areopagitica,” is
worse for imitation than that of Milton, with its long, involved,
half-rhythmical periods, “dragging, like a wounded snake, their
slow length along”? Yet Bentley and Milton, whose minds were
imbued, saturated with Greek literature through and through, were
probably the profoundest classical scholars that England can boast.
Let the student, then, who has a patriotic love for his native
tongue, study it in its most idiomatic writers, and beware lest
while he is wandering in fancy along the banks of the Meander, the
Ilyssus, or the Tiber, or drinking at the fountains of Helicon,
he heedlessly and profanely trample under foot the beautiful,
fragrant, and varied productions of his own land.


[26] “Lectures on the English Language.”



      ’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence;
      The sound must seem an echo to the sense.--POPE.

  Our blunted senses can no more realize the original delicacy
  of the appellative faculty, than they can attain to the keen
  perfection in which they still exist in the savage.--LEPSIUS.

Whatever opinion we have of the onomatopœia theory of the origin
of language, so ably advocated by Farrar, Wedgwood, and Whitney,
and so keenly ridiculed by Max Müller and others, it is impossible
to deny that there is a natural relationship between thought and
articulate sound,--in other words that certain sounds are the
natural expression of certain sensations, and of mental states
that are analogous to those sensations. All languages contain
words which, in their very structure as composite sounds, more or
less nearly resemble in quality, as soft or harsh, the sounds they
designate. Such, in our language, are words representing animal
sounds, as quack, cackle, roar, whinny, bellow, caw, croak, hiss,
screech, etc.; words representing inarticulate human sounds, as
laugh, cough, sob, shriek, whoop, etc.; sounds representing the
collision of hard bodies, as clap, rap, tap, slap, etc.; sounds
representing the collision of softer bodies, as dab, dub, thud,
dub-a-dub; sounds representing motion through the air, as whizz,
buzz, sough, etc.; sounds representing resonance, as clang,
knell, ring, twang, etc.; and sounds representing the motion
of liquids, as clash, splash, dash, etc.[27] Even the various
degrees of intensity in sound are expressed by modifications of the
vowels,--high notes being represented by _i_, low, broad sounds
by _a_, and diminution by the change of _a_ or _o_ to _i_; while
continuance is expressed by a reduplication of syllables, as in
murmur, etc., and by the addition of _r_ and _l_, as in grab,
grapple, wrest, wrestle, crack, crackle, dab, dabble. Animals are
often named, upon the same principle, from their cries, birds
especially, as we see in whip-poor-will, cuckoo, crow, quail,
curlew, chough, owl, peewit, turtle, and many others. Again, we
find that, independently of all confusion between a word and its
associations, words having a harsh signification generally have
a rough, harsh form, while words that denote something soft and
pleasing, or sweet and tender, seem to breathe the very sensation
they describe. The various passions of men naturally find
expression in different sounds. Anger, vehemence, gentleness, etc.,
have each a language, a style of utterance, peculiar to themselves.
Love and sorrow prompt smooth, melodious expressions, while violent
emotions express themselves in words that are hurried, abrupt and

Were further proof wanting of this connection between external
sounds and the processes of the mind, it is supplied in the
strongest form by the fact that the different languages of the
earth are stamped with marks of predominant local influences,--of
the climate, scenery, and other physical conditions amid which
they have been evolved. Rousseau, a century ago, called attention
to the fact that the languages of the rich and prodigal South,
being the daughters of passion, are poetic and musical, while
those of the North, the daughters of necessity, bear a trace of
their hard origin, and express by rude sounds rude sensations.
Who does not discern in the “soft and vowelled undersong” of the
Italian the effect of a climate altogether different from that
which has produced the stridulous, hirrient roughness of the
German, the Dutch, and the Russian tongues? What but different
geographical positions has made the language of the South-Sea
Islanders so different from the dissonant clicks of the Hottentot,
or the guttural polysyllables of the Cherokee? What other cause
has made the language of the Tlascalans, the hardy and independent
mountaineers dwelling in the high volcanic regions between Mexico
and Vera Cruz, so much rougher than the polished Tezucan, or the
popular dialect of the Aztecs, who are of the same family as the
mountaineers? It is because the vocal organs, which are formed with
exceeding delicacy, are affected by the most trifling physical
influences, that English is spoken in Devonshire, England, with
a splutter, and in Suffolk with an attenuated whine; that the
language spoken in the northern counties is harsher than that
spoken in the southern; and that in the mountainous regions we find
a harsher dialect than we hear in the plains.

The manner in which words are formed by means of the imitations
of natural sounds is illustrated by the word “cock” which is
considered by etymologists to be an abbreviated imitation of
chanticleer’s “cock-a-doodle-doo!” From the name of the animal,
which is thus derived from its cry, and then generalized and made
fruitful in derivatives, come, by allusion to the bird’s pride and
strut, the words “coquette,” “cockade,” the “cock” of a gun, to
“cock” one’s eye, to “cock” the head on one side, a “cocked” hat,
a “cock” of hay, a “cock”-swain, a “cock”-boat, the “cock” of a
balance, and so on. It is in all probability by this method more
than by any other, that words were produced in all the earlier
stages of language, while the interjectional or exclamatory
principle was, doubtless, next in importance.

It is sometimes objected to the theory of the extensive use of
onomatopœia in the formation of language, that, were it true, we
should find in the different languages of the earth a greater
identity than actually exists in the terms expressive of physical
facts. We should not find words so unlike as “bang” in English
and _pouf_ in French, employed to denote the sound of a gun; or
γρύλλοϛ in Greek, _quirquirra_ in the Basque, and _sirsor_ in
Chinese, used as names for the grasshopper. Why, if the theory
in question be true, do we find a clap of thunder called in
Sanscrit _vaǵraǵvala_, in Gaelic _tàirneanach_, in Bohemian
_hromobitz_, in Icelandic _thruma_? Why does Coleridge sing of the
nightingale’s “murmurs musical and sweet _jug-jug_,” while Tennyson
says that “_Whit, whit, whit_, in the bush beside me, chirrupt the

The answer to this is, that man in naming things does not attempt
to reproduce the _identical_ sound which he hears, but artistically
to reproduce it, or rather the impression which it has made, just
as a painter often deviates from the actual colors of nature, and
paints a picture more or less ideal, to enhance the effect of his
art. The imitation is not a dull, literal echo of the sound, but an
echo of the impression produced by it on the human intelligence;
not a mere spontaneous repercussion of the perception received, but
a repercussion modified _organically_ by the configurations of the
mouth, and _ideally_ by the nature of the analogy perceived between
the sound and the object it expresses.[28] These repercussions,
moreover, have been greatly blurred by the lapse of ages,--so much
so, in many cases, as to be indistinguishable. Again, we must
remember that the impressions made by the same sounds on different
minds, and even on the same mind in different moods, will greatly
vary; and that in naming objects from other characteristics than
the sound, different characteristics are chosen by different
peoples. According to the mental constitution, the preponderance
of reason or imagination, for example, in the name-giver, or
particular experiences in connection with the object, the
designating quality which is deemed most fit to furnish the name
for it will vary. Thus it happens that in Sanscrit there is a great
variety of names for the elephant, such as the “hand-possessing”
animal, the “toothed,” the “two-tusked,” the “great-toothed,” the
“pounder,” the “roarer,” the “forest-roarer,” the “mailed,” the
“twice-drinking,” the “mountain-born,” the “vagabond,” and many
others. Thus it happens that in Arabic there are five hundred
names for the lion, two hundred for the serpent, and not less than
a thousand for the sword. The nightingale is said to have twenty
distinct articulations; and if this is true, we should expect
that in the different languages of Europe it would have different
names. The old poets all speak of the nightingale’s song as “most
melancholy,” but in modern verse we read of

              “the _merry_ nightingale
      That crowds and hurries and precipitates
      With fast thick warble its delicious notes.”

So with thunder; the impression it makes upon hearers varies with
the varying qualities of their minds. To one man it is a dull
rumble, to another a crackling explosion, and to a third a sudden
flashing of light. As Archdeacon Farrar finely says: “What the eye
sees and the ear hears depends in no small measure on the brain and
the heart. The hieroglyphics of nature, like the inscriptions on
the swords of Vathek, vary with every eye that glances on them; her
voices, like the voice of Helen to the ambushed Greeks, take not
one tone of their own, but the tone that each hearer loves best to

Though a large part of language has been formed in the way I have
named, yet it must be admitted that few words, compared with the
whole number, bear upon their face unmistakable traces of their
origin. The explanation of this lies in the great changes which
phonetic corruption effects in language. No sooner do men coin
a word, than they instinctively and unconsciously seek to rid
it of its superfluous letters, and in other ways to economize
the time and labor expended upon its utterance; and if they are
obliged to use a new or strange word, which conveys no intrinsic
meaning to them, they try to give it a meaning by so changing it
as to remove its arbitrary character. (See “Words of Illusive
Etymology,” in Chapter on the “Curiosities of Language.”) Thus
words, in the course of ages, are rolled and rubbed out of shape,
like the pebbles which are rubbed and rounded into smoothness
by the sea waves on a shingly beach, until at last, though once
plainly imitative, they lose all trace of their sensuous origin.
Who, without knowledge of the intermediate _diurnus_ and _giorno_,
would for a moment suspect that _jour_ could be derived from
_dies_; or would suppose, if he had not traced the etymology
of “musket,” that it is derived from the onomatope, _musso_, “I
buzz”? But, notwithstanding all this, and though in the progress of
scientific culture language becomes more and more abstract,--that
is, words having no natural connection with the thoughts are used
more and more arbitrarily to represent them, just as algebraic
signs represent mathematical relations,--still language never
loses wholly its original imitative character. It will always,
therefore, be a signal excellence of style when thought and emotion
are represented by imitative expressions,--that is, by means of
pictures or images of sensible things and events. The sound then
points to the external object or event, or some sensible property
or characteristic of it, and this, again, to the mental state or
thought which it is taken to represent. It is for this reason
that the poets, from Homer to Tennyson, abound in onomatopes,--in
words and combinations of words in which the sound is an echo
to the sense. These words are not only the most vivid, the most
passionate, and the most picturesque, but they are the only ones
which are instantly intelligible, and which possess an inherently
graphic power. The power of poetry lies largely in the fact that,
as Bunsen says, it “reproduces the original process of the mind in
which language originates. The coinage of words is the primitive
poem of humanity, and the imagery of poetry and oratory is possible
and effective only because it is a continuation of that primitive
process which is itself a reproduction of creation.”

Dyer, in his “Ruins of Rome,” thus exemplifies, in a passage quoted
with praise by Johnson, the beauty and force imparted to style by
the adaptation of the sounds to the object described:

                  “The pilgrim oft
      At dead of night, ’mid his oraison, hears
      Aghast the voice of time; disparting towers
      _Tumbling all precipitate down dashed,_
      _Rattling around, loud thundering to the moon_.”

Not only single words, but an entire sentence, or a series of
sentences, may resemble the sound represented; as in the following
description of the abode of Sleep, in Spenser:

      “And more to lull him in his slumbers soft,
      A trickling stream from high rocks tumbling downe,
      And ever-drizzling rain upon the loft,
      Mixed with a murmuring wind much like the sowne
      Of swarming bees, did cast him in a swoone:
      No other noise, nor people’s troublous cries,
      As still are wont t’ annoy the walléd towne,
      Might there be heard; but careless Quiet lies,
      Wrapped in eternal silence, far from enemies.”

An intelligent writer reminds us that in reading this stanza, we
ought to humor it with a corresponding tone of voice, lowering
or deepening it, “as though we were going to bed ourselves, or
thinking of the rainy night that had lulled us.” He suggests also
that attention to the accent and pause in the last line will make
us feel the depth and distance of the scene. Another illustration
is furnished by the well known lines of Pope:

      “Soft is the stream when Zephyr gently blows,
      And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
      But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
      The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
      When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
      The line too labors, and the words move slow;
      Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
      Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.”

More striking still, in some respects, is Christopher Pitt’s
translation of the corresponding passage in Vida’s “Art of Poetry”:

      “When things are small the terms should still be so,
      For low words please us, when the theme is low.
      _But when some giant, horrible and grim,_
      _Enormous in his gait, and vast in every limb,_
      _Comes towering on_; the swelling words must rise
      In just proportion to the monster’s size.
      If some large weight his huge arms strive to shove,
      The verse too labors; the thronged words scarce move.

             *       *       *       *       *

      But if the poem suffer from delay,
      _Let the lines fly precipitate away_;
      And when the viper issues from the brake,
      _Be quick; with stones and brands and fire attack_
      _His rising crest, and drive the serpent back_.”

The overflowing of the fourth line in this passage, the abrupt
termination of the middle of the next line, the pause at “Be
quick!” and the rapidity of the last four lines, are exceedingly
happy. The illustration of rapid motion is far superior to the
last long and sprawling line of Pope, in which the preponderance
of liquids and sibilants detains the voice too much, while it is
further impeded by the word “unbending,”--one of the most sluggish,
as Johnson truly says, in the language.

How felicitous are “the hoarse Trinacrian shore” of Milton, and his
description of the rapid motion and grating noise with which Hell’s
gates are opened!--

                “On a sudden, open fly
      _With impetuous recoil, and jarring sound,_
      _The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate_
      _Harsh thunder_, that the lowest bottom shook
      Of Erebus.”

What can be more expressive than this representation of the sounds
of a battle in ancient times?--

                “Arms on armor clashing bray’d
      Horrible discord; and the madding wheels
      Of brazen chariots raged.”

How effective is the pause after the word “shook” in these lines!--

                “And over them triumphant Death his dart
      Shook, but delayed to strike.”

Discordant sounds are vividly described in this line from “Lycidas”:

      “Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.”

Two of the most perfect examples of imitative harmony in our
literature are Wordsworth’s couplet,

      “And see the children shouting on the shore,
      And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore,”

and Byron’s vivid description of a storm among the mountains:

                                “Far along
      From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
      Leaps the live thunder!”

The numerous adaptations of sound to sense in Dryden’s “Ode on St.
Cecilia’s Day” are familiar to all. The following verse, from a
song in his “King Arthur,” is less hackneyed:

                “Come, if you dare, our trumpets sound;
                Come, if you dare, our foes rebound;
                _We come, we come, we come, we come,_
      _Says the double, double, double beat of the thundering drum_.”

No modern poet has made a more frequent or a more judicious use of
onomatopœia than Tennyson. “The Bugle Song,” “The Brook,” “Tears,
Idle Tears,” and “Break, Break, Break,” will at once occur to the
poet’s admirers as masterpieces of representative art. The second
stanza of the “Bugle Song” has few equals in ancient or modern

        “‘O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
          And thinner, clearer, farther going;
        O sweet and far, from cliff and scar,
          The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!’
      Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying,
      Blow, bugle; answer echoes, dying, dying, dying.”

What can be more perfect of its kind than the picture of the shock
of a _melée_, when the combatants

      In conflict with the crash of shivering points,
      And thunder ...
      And all the plain,--brand, mace, and shaft, and shield
      Shock’d, _like an iron-clanging anvil banged_
      _With hammers_;”

or the picture of a fleet of glass wrecked on a reef of gold, in
the lines,--

                    “For the fleet drew near,
      _Touched, clinked, and clanked_, and vanished.”

Motion, as well as sound, has been happily imitated in
language,--of which we have signal examples in the progress of
Milton’s fiend, whose wearisome journey is portrayed by this artful
arrangement of words:

                                “The fiend
      O’er bog, or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
      With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
      And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies;”

and in Pope’s translation of the noted passage in the “Odyssey”
describing Sisyphus:

      “With many a step and many a groan,
      _Up the high hill he heaves a huge round stone_;
      The huge round stone, _resulting with a bound,_
      _Thunders impetuous down, and smokes along the ground_.”

In reading the second line, with its frequent recurrence of the
aspirate, one seems to hear the giant pantings and groanings of
Sisyphus; and a similar feeling is experienced in reading the
following line:

      “And when up ten steep slopes you’ve dragged your thighs.”

Crowe, the now forgotten author of “Lewisdon Hill,” fairly rivals
Pope in the closing line of a version of the foregoing passage in
the “Odyssey”:

                          “A sudden force
      Turned the curst stone, and, slipping from his hold,
      _Down again, down the steep rebounding, down it rolled_.”

An able literary critic,--the Rev. Robert A. Willmott,--has
thus contrasted the majestic and easy verse of Dryden with the
“mellifluence” of Pope. “‘The mellifluence of Pope,’ as Johnson
called it, has the defect of monotony. Exquisite in the sweet
rising and falling of its clauses, it seldom or never takes the ear
prisoner by a musical surprise. If Pope be the nightingale of our
verse, he displays none of the irregular and unexpected gush of
the songster. He has no variations. The tune is delicate, but not
natural. It reminds us of a bird, all over brilliant, which pipes
its one lay in a golden cage, and has forgotten the green wood
in the luxury of confinement. But Dryden’s versification has the
freedom and the freshness of the fields.... This is a great charm.
He preserved the simple, unpremeditated graces of the earlier
couplet, its confluence and monosyllabic close, while he added a
dignity and a splendor unknown before. Pope’s modulation is of the
ear; Dryden’s of the subject. He has a different tone for Iphigenia
slumbering under trees, by the fountain side; for the startled
knight, who listens to strange sounds within the glooms of the
wood; and for the courtly Beauty to whom he wafted a compliment.”

In the following lines from “Il Penseroso,” the effect combines
both sound and motion:

      “Oft on a plat of rising ground,
      I hear the far-off curlew sound,
      Over some wide-watered shore,
      _Swinging slow with sullen roar_.”

How admirably does the quick and joyous movement of the following
lines from “L’Allegro” portray the thing described!--

      “Let the merry bells resound
      And the jocund rebecks sound,
      To many a youth, and many a maid,
      Dancing in the chequered shade.”

Huge, unwieldy bulk, implying slowness of movement, has been
happily expressed by Milton in the subjoined passages:

              “O’er all the dreary coasts
      So, stretched out, huge in length, the arch-fiend lay.”

      “But ended foul, in many a scaly fold
      _Voluminous and vast_.”

How inflated with bulky meaning are these lines from Shakespeare’s
“Troilus and Cressida”!--

      “The large Achilles, on his pressed bed lolling,
      From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause.”

The greatest of the Greek and Roman poets have employed those
“echoes of nature,” the onomatopes, as freely as the modern. Every
schoolboy is familiar with the words in which Virgil describes
thunder,--“_Iterum atque iterum fragor intonat ingens_,” as well
as with those in which he represents the rapid clatter of horses’

      “_Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum_,”

and the vivid words in which Homer recalls the snapping of a sword:

      Τριχθά τε καὶ τετραχθὰ διατρύφεν.

Who does not catch the hurtling of battle in the same poet’s

      σκέπτετ’ ὀϊστῶν τε ῥοῖζον καὶ δοῦπον ἀκόντων,

and a murmur of ocean in

      ἐξ ἀκαλαῤῥείταο βαθυῤῥόου Ὠκεανοῖο?

A similar effect is produced by his

      πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης,

the first word of which was perhaps intended to represent the
roaring of the wave as it mounts on the sea-shore, and the second
the hissing sound of a receding billow.

Virgil’s description of the Cyclopses toiling at the anvil; his
picture of the Trojans laboriously hewing the foundations of a
tower on the top of Priam’s palace, and its sudden and violent
fall; Ennius’s imitation of a trumpet blast; and the imitation by
Aristophanes of the croaking of frogs,--will recur to the classic
reader as other examples of the felicitous use of this figure by
the Greek and Roman writers.

Paronomasia and alliteration owe their subtle beauty to the fact
that in using them the writer has reference to words considered as
sounds. Though an excess of either is offensive, yet, charily used,
it adds a surprising force to expression. How much is the grandeur
of the effect enhanced by the repetition of the s in the following
lines from Macbeth!--

      “That shall, to all our days and nights to come,
      Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.”

Dr. Johnson, in speaking of imitative harmony, observes that the
desire of discovering frequent adaptations of the sound to the
sense “has produced many wild conceits and imaginary beauties.”
This is only saying that the poet, like the painter, may exaggerate
the importance of his accessories, while he gives too little heed
to his main theme. But this is no argument against the legitimate
use of any subtle or peculiar beauty in either the pictorial or
the metrical art. There are many cases where it is impossible to
use language which is specific, vivid, and appropriate, without
employing imitative words. For the choice of these words no rules
can be given; only an instinctive and exquisite taste can enable
one to decide when they may be consciously used, and when they
should be shunned. But he who can use onomatopœia with skill and
judgment,--who can call into play, on proper occasions, that swift
and subtle law of association whereby a reproduction of the sounds
at once recalls to the mind the images or circumstances with which
they are connected,--has mastered one of the greatest secrets of
the writer’s art. It was a saying of Shenstone, which experience
confirms, that harmony and melody of style have greater weight
than is generally imagined in our judgments upon writing and
writers; and, as a proof of this, he says that the lines of poetry,
the periods of prose, and even the texts of Scripture we most
frequently recollect and quote, are those which are preëminently
musical. The following magical lines, which owe their interest
to the cadence hardly less than to their imagery, illustrate
Shenstone’s remark:

               YOUTH AND AGE.

      “Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;
        Friendship is a sheltering tree;
      Oh, the joys that came down shower-like,
        Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,
              Ere I was old!
      Ere I was old! Ah, woful Ere!
      Which tells me, Youth’s no longer here!
      O Youth! for years so many and sweet,
        ’Tis known that thou and I were one;
      I’ll think it but a fond conceit--
        It cannot be that Thou art gone!
      The vesper bell hath not yet tolled,
      And thou wert aye a masker bold!
      What strange disguise hast now put on,
      To make believe that thou art gone?
      I see these locks in silvery slips,
        This drooping gait, this altered size:
      But spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,
        And tears take sunshine from thine eyes.
      Life is but thought; so think I will,
      That Youth and I are house-mates still.”


[27] This classification is from Farrar, who has abridged it from
Wedgwood, in Phil. Trans. II., 118.

[28] “Chapters on Language” by Rev. F. W. Farrar, D.D., F.R.S.

[29] “Chapters on Language,” p. 104.



  Gardons-nous de l’équivoque!--PAUL LOUIS COURIER.

  Words are grown so false, I am loathe to prove reason with

  The mixture of those things by speech, which by nature are
  divided, is the mother of all error.--HOOKER.

      One vague inflection spoils the whole with doubt;
      One trivial letter ruins all, left out;
      A knot can choke a felon into clay;
      A knot will save him, spelt without the k;
      The smallest word has some unguarded spot,
      And danger lurks in i without a dot.--O. W. HOLMES.

On some of the great American rivers, where lumbering operations
are carried on, the logs, in floating down, often get jammed up
here and there, and it becomes necessary to find the timber which
is a kind of keystone and stops all the rest. Once detach this, and
away dash the giant trunks, thundering headlong, helter-skelter,
down the rapids. It is just this office which he who defines his
terms accurately performs for the dead-locked questions of the
day. Half the controversies of the world are disputes about words.
How often do we see two persons engage in what Cowper calls “a
duel in the form of a debate,”--tilting furiously at each other
for hours,--slashing with syllogisms, stabbing with enthymemes,
hooking with dilemmas, and riddling with sorites,--with no apparent
prospect of ever ending the fray, till suddenly it occurs to one
of them to define precisely what he means by a term on which
the discussion hinges; when it is found that the combatants
had no cause for quarrel, having agreed in opinion from the
beginning! The juggle of all sophistry lies in employing equivocal
expressions,--that is, such as may be taken in two different
meanings, using a word in one sense in the premises, and in another
sense in the conclusion. Frequently the word on which a controversy
turns is unconsciously made to do double duty, and under a seeming
unity there lurks a real dualism of meaning, from which endless
confusions arise. Accurately to define such a term is to provide
one’s self with a master-key which unlocks the whole dispute.

Who is not familiar with the fierce contests of the Nominalists and
Realists, which raged so long in the Middle Ages? Though turning
upon refinements of abstraction so subtle that one would think
they never could stir in the human bosom the faintest breath of
passion, the dispute roused the combatants on both sides to the
most frenzied fury. Beginning with words, these two metaphysical
sects came at last to blows, and not only shed blood, but even
sacrificed lives for the question, whether an abstract name (as
_man_, for example) represented any one man in particular, or man
in general. Yet, properly understood, they maintained only opposite
poles of the same truth; and were, therefore, both right, and both
wrong. The Nominalists, it has been said, only denied what no one
in his senses would affirm, and the Realists only contended for
what no one in his senses would deny; a hair’s breadth parted those
who, had they understood each other’s language, would have had no
altercation. Again, who can tell how far the clash of opinions
among political economists has been owing to the use in opposite
senses of a very few words? Had Smith, Say, Ricardo, Malthus,
M’Culloch, Mill, begun framing their systems by defining carefully
the meanings attached by them to certain terms used on every page
of their writings,--such as Wealth, Labor, Capital, Value, Supply
and Demand, Over-trading,--it may be doubted whether they would
not, to some extent, have harmonized in opinion, instead of giving
us theories as opposite as the poles.

How many fallacies have grown out of the ambiguity of the word
“money,” which, instead of being a simple and indivisible term,
has at least half-a-dozen different meanings! Money may be either
specie, bank-notes, or both together, or credit, or capital, or
capital offered for loan. A merchant is said to fail “for lack of
money,” when, in fact, he fails because he lacks credit, capital,
or merchandise, money having no more to do with the matter than the
carts or railway wagons by which the merchandise is transported.
Again: money is spoken of as yielding “interest,” which it cannot
do, since wherever it is, whether in a bank, in one’s pocket, or
in a safe, it is dead capital. The confusion of the terms “wealth”
and “money” gave birth to “the mercantile system,” one of the
greatest curses that ever befell Europe. As in popular language
to grow rich is to accumulate “money,” and to grow poor is to
lose “money,” this term became a synonym for “wealth”; and, till
recently at least, all the nations of Europe studied every means
of accumulating gold and silver in their respective countries. To
accomplish this they prohibited the exportation of money, gave
bounties on the importation, and restricted the importation of
other commodities, expecting thus to produce a “favorable balance
of trade,”--a conduct as wise as that of a shop-keeper who should
sell his goods only for money, and hoard every dollar, instead of
replacing and increasing his stock, or putting his surplus capital
at interest. France, under Colbert, acted upon this principle, and
Voltaire extolled his wisdom in thus preferring the accumulation of
imperishable bullion to the exchange of it for articles which must,
sooner or later, _wear out_. The effect of this fallacy has been to
make the nations regard the wealth of their customers as a source
of loss instead of profit, and an advantageous market as a curse
instead of a blessing, by which errors the improvement of Europe
has been more retarded than by all other causes put together.

So with the mortal theological wars in which so much ink has been
shed. Who has not read of the disputes between the Arians and
Semi-Arians and their enemies, when orthodoxy became so nice that a
slip in a single expression, the use or omission of a single word,
sufficed to make a man a heretic,--when every heresy produced a
new creed, and every creed a new heresy? The shelves of our public
libraries groan under the weight of huge folios and quartos once
hurled at each other by the giants of divinity, which never would
have been published but for their confused notions, or failure to
discriminate the meaning, of certain technical and oft-recurring
terms. Beginning with discordant ideas of what is meant by the
words Will, Necessity, Unity, Law, Person,--terms vital in
theology,--the more they argued, the farther they were apart, and
while fancying they were battling with real adversaries, were,
Quixote-like, tilting at windmills, or fighting with shadows, till
at last utter

                        “Confusion umpire sat,
      And by deciding worse embroiled the fray.”

The whole vast science of casuistry, which once occupied the brains
and tongues of the Schoolmen, turned upon nice, hair-splitting
verbal distinctions, as ridiculous as the disputes of the orthodox
Liliputians and the heretical Blefuscudians about the big ends
and the little ends of the eggs. The readers of Pascal will
remember the fierce wars in the Sorbonne between the Jesuits
and the Jansenists, touching the doctrine of “efficacious” and
“sufficient” grace. The question was, “Whether all men received
from God _sufficient grace_ for their conversion.” The Jesuits
maintained the affirmative; the Jansenists insisted that this
_sufficient_ grace would never be _efficacious_, unless accompanied
by _special_ grace. “Then the _sufficient_ grace, which is not
_efficacious_, is a contradiction in terms,” cried the Jesuits;
“and, besides, it is a heresy!” We need not trace the history of
the logomachy that followed, which Pascal has immortalized in his
“Provincial Letters,”--letters which De Maistre denounces as “Les
Menteurs,” but which the Jesuits found to be both “sufficient”
and “efficacious” for their utter discomfiture. The theological
student will recall the microscopic distinctions; the fine-spun
attenuations; the spider-like threads of meaning; the delicate,
infinitesimal verbal shavings of the grave and angelic doctors; how
one subtle disputant, with syllabical penetration, would discover
a heresy in his opponent’s monosyllables, while the other would
detect a schism in his antagonist’s conjunctions, till finally,
after having filled volumes enough with the controversy to form
a library, the microscopic point at issue, which had long been
invisible, was whittled down to nothing.

A controversy not less memorable was that which raged in the church
in the third and fourth centuries between the “Homoousians” and
the “Homoiusians” concerning the nature of Christ. The former
maintained that Christ was of the _same_ essence with the Father;
the latter that he was of _like_ essence,--a dispute which Boileau
has satirized in these witty lines:

      “D’une _syllabe_ impie un saint _mot_ augmenté
      Remplit tous les esprits d’aigreurs si meurtrières--
      Tu fis, dans une guerre et si triste et si longue,
      Périr tant de Chrétiens, _martyrs d’une diphthongue_!”

The determination of the controversy depended on the retention
or rejection of the diphthong _oi_, or rather upon the change
of the letter _o_ into _i_; and hence it has been asserted that
for centuries Christians fought like tigers, and tore each other
to pieces, on account of a single letter. It must be admitted,
however, that the dispute, though it related to a mystery above
human comprehension, was something more than a verbal one; and
though it is easy to ridicule “microscopic theology,” yet it is
evident that if error employs it, truth must do the same, even
if the distinction be as small as the difference between two
animalcules fighting each other among a billion of fellows in a
drop of water.

Another famous theological controversy was that concerning the
doctrine of the Double Procession, which, though mainly a verbal
dispute, tore asunder the Eastern and Western Churches, gave
the chief occasion for the anathemas of the Athanasian creed,
precipitated the fall of the Empire of Constantinople, and, it has
been asserted, sowed the original seed of the present perplexing
Eastern Question.

To how many discussions has that ambiguous phrase, “the Church,”
given rise! It has been shown that in all countries where there is
a religious establishment supported by law, this phrase may have
six different meanings. A Romanist understands by “the Church” his
own communion, with the hierarchy and papal head; a Protestant
includes within “the Church” all sincere and devout Christians of
every denomination. A Romanist, again, understands “priest” to
refer to a sacrificial priesthood; a Presbyterian regards it as
derived from “presbyter,” and to mean simply “elder.”

Disraeli remarks, in his “Curiosities of Literature,” that there
have been few councils or synods where the addition or omission
of a word or a phrase might not have terminated an interminable
logomachy. “At the Council of Basle, for the convenience of the
disputants, John de Secubia drew up a treatise of _undeclined
words_, chiefly to determine the significations of the particles
_from_, _by_, _but_, and _except_, which, it seems, were
perpetually occasioning fresh disputes among the Hussites and
Bohemians.... In modern times the popes have more skilfully freed
the church from the ‘confusion of words.’ His holiness on one
occasion, standing in equal terror of the Court of France, who
protected the Jesuits, and of the Court of Spain, who maintained
the cause of the Dominicans, contrived a phrase, where a comma or
a full stop, placed at the beginning or the end, purported that
his holiness tolerated the opinions which he condemned; and when
the rival parties dispatched deputations to the Court of Rome to
plead for the period, or advocate the comma, his holiness, in this
‘confusion of words,’ flung an unpunctuated copy to the parties;
nor was it his fault, but that of the spirit of party, if the rage
of the one could not subside into a comma, nor that of the other
close by a full period!”

It has been truly said by a Scotch divine that the vehemence of
theological controversy has been generally proportional to the
emptiness of the party phrases used. It is probable that in nine
cases out of ten accurate definitions of the chief terms in dispute
would have made the most celebrated controversies impossible. It
is stated by the biographer of Dr. Chalmers that that eminent
divine and Dr. Stuart met one day in Edinburgh, and engaged in a
long and eager conversation on _saving grace_. Street after street
was paced, and argument after argument was vigorously plied. At
last, his time or his patience exhausted, Chalmers broke off the
interview; but, as at parting he shook his opponent by the hand, he
said: “If you wish to see my views stated clearly and distinctly,
read a tract called ‘Hindrances to Believing the Gospel.’” “Why,”
exclaimed Stuart, “that’s the very tract I published myself!”

As in theology, so in philosophy, words used without precision have
been at the bottom of nearly all controversies. How often such
terms as Nature, Necessity, Freedom, Law, Body, Matter, Substance,
Revelation, Inspiration, Knowledge, Belief, Finite, and Infinite,
are tossed about in the wars of words, as if everybody knew their
meaning, and as if all the disputants used them in exactly the
same sense! Max Müller sensibly observes that people will fight
and call each other very hard names for denying or asserting
certain opinions about the Supernatural, who would consider it
impertinent if they were asked to define what they mean by the
Supernatural, and who have never even clearly perceived the meaning
of Nature. The same writer shows that the words “to know” and “to
believe,” the meanings of which seem so obvious, are each used,
in modern languages, in three distinct senses. When we speak of
our belief in God, or in the immortality of the soul, we want to
express a certainty independent of sense, evidence and reason, yet
more convincing than either. But when we say that we believe Our
Lord suffered under Pontius Pilate, or lived during the reign of
Augustus, we do not mean to say that we believe this with the same
belief as the existence of God, or the immortality of the soul. Our
assent, in this case, is based on historical evidence, which is
only a subdivision of sense evidence, supplemented by the evidence
of reason. When, thirdly, we say, “I believe it is going to rain,”
“I believe” means no more than “I guess.” The same word, therefore,
“conveys the highest as well as the lowest degree of certainty that
can be predicated of the various experiences of the human mind, and
the confusion produced by its promiscuous employment has caused
some of the most violent controversies in matters of religion and

The art of treaty-making appears once to have consisted in a kind
of verbal sleight-of-hand; and the most dexterous diplomatist was
he who had always “an _arrière pensée_, which might fasten or
loosen the ambiguous expression he had so cautiously and so finely
inlaid in the mosaic of treachery.” When the American colonies
refused to be taxed by Great Britain, on the ground that they were
not represented in the House of Commons, a new term, “_virtual_
representation,” was invented to silence their clamors. The sophism
was an ingenious one; but it cost the mother country a hundred
millions sterling, forty thousand lives, and the most valuable of
her colonial possessions.

Hume’s famous argument against miracles is based entirely upon
a _petitio principii_, or begging of the question, artfully
concealed in an ambiguous use of the word “experience.” In all
our experience, he argues, we have never known the laws of nature
to be violated; on the other hand, we have had experience, again
and again, of the falsity of testimony; consequently we ought to
believe that any amount of testimony is false rather than admit
the occurrence of a miracle. But _whose_ experience does Hume
mean? Does he mean the experience of _all_ the men that ever
lived? If so, he palpably begs the very question in dispute.
Does he mean that a miracle is contrary to the experience of
_each individual_ who has never seen one? This would lead to the
absurdest consequences. Not only was the King of Bantam justified
in listening to no evidence for the existence of ice, but no
man would be authorized, on this principle, to expect his own
death. His experience informs him directly, only that _others_
have died; and, as he has invariably recovered when attacked by
disease himself, why, judging by his experience, should he expect
any future sickness to be mortal? If, again, Hume means only
that a miracle is contrary to the experience of _men generally_,
as to what is common and of ordinary occurrence, the maxim will
only amount to this, that false testimony is a thing of common
occurrence, and that miracles are not. This is true enough; but
“too general to authorize of itself a conclusion in any particular
case. In any other individual question as to the admissibility
of evidence, it would be reckoned absurd to consider merely the
average chances for the truth of testimony in the abstract, without
inquiring what the testimony is, in the particular instance before
us. As if, _e.g._, any one had maintained that no testimony could
establish Columbus’s account of the discovery of America, because
it is more common for travellers to lie than for new continents to
be discovered.”[31]

Again, the terms “experience” and “contrary to experience,” imply
a contradiction fatal to the whole argument. It is clear that a
revelation cannot be founded, as regards the external proof of
its reality, upon anything else than miracles; and these events
_must_ be, in a sense, contrary to nature, _as known to us_, by
the very definition of the word. If they entered into the ordinary
operations of nature,--that is, were subjects of experience,--they
would no longer be miracles.

In the very phrase “a violation of nature,” so cunningly used by
sceptics, there lurks a sophism. The expression seems to imply
that there are effects that have no cause; or, at least, effects
whose cause is foreign to the universe. But if miracles disturb or
interrupt the established order of things, they do so only in the
same way that the will of man continually breaks in upon the order
of nature. There is not a day, an hour, or a minute, in which man,
in his contact with the material world, does not divert its course,
or give a new direction to its order. The order of nature allows
an apple-tree to produce fruit; but man can girdle the tree, and
prevent it from bearing apples. The order of nature allows a bird
to wing its flight from tree to tree; but the sportsman’s rifle
brings the bird to the dust. Yet, in spite of this, it is asserted
that the smallest conceivable intervention, disturbing the fated
order of nature, linked as are its parts indissolubly from eternity
in one chain, must break up the entire system of the universe! “If
only the free will of man be acknowledged, then” as an able writer
says, “this entire sophism comes down in worthless fragments. So
long as we allow ourselves to speak _as theists_, then miracles
which we attribute to the _will_, the _purpose_, the _power_ of
God, are not in any sense violations of nature; or they are so in
the same sense in which the entireness of our human existence,--our
active converse with the material world from morning to night of
every day,--is also a violation of nature.” The truth is, however,
that miracles are not properly violations of the laws of nature,
but suspensions of them, or rather intercalations of higher and
immediate operations of God’s power, in place of the ordinary
development of those laws. An eminent scientist finds a rough
illustration of this in the famous Strasburg clock. He stood one
day, and watched it steadily marking the seconds, minutes, hours,
days of the week, and phases of the moon, when suddenly the figure
of an angel turned up his hour-glass, another struck four times,
and Death struck twelve times with metal marrow-bones to indicate
noon; various figures passed in and out of the doorways; the twelve
Apostles marched, one by one, before the figure of their Master,
and a brass cock three times flapped its wings, threw back its
head, and crowed. “All this,” says the scientist, “was as much a
part of the designer’s plan as the ordinary marking of time, and he
had provided for it in advance, and the machinery for its execution
was so arranged as to come into play at a definite moment. So God
may have prepared the universe from the beginning with a view to
miracles, may have ordered its laws in such a manner that at the
predetermined hour in His providence these wonderful phenomena
should appear, and bear convincing testimony to His own power and

A further and not less fatal objection to Hume’s argument is that
it confounds the distinction between testimony and authority,
between the veracity of a witness and his competency. The
miraculous character of an event is not a matter of intuition or
observation, but of inference, and cannot be decided by testimony,
but only by reasoning from the probabilities of the case. The
testimony relates only to the _happening of the event_; the
question concerning the _nature_ of this event, whether it is, or
is not, a violation of physical law, can only be determined by
the judgment, after weighing all the circumstances of the case.
No event whatever, viewed simply as an event, as an external
phenomenon, can be so marvellous that sufficient testimony will
not convince us that it has really occurred. A thousand years ago
the conversion of five loaves of bread into as many hundred, or
the raising of a dead man to life, would not have appeared more
incredible than the transmission of a written message five thousand
miles, without error, within a minute of time, or from Europe
to America, under the waters of the Atlantic; yet these feats,
miraculous as they would once have seemed, have been accomplished
by the electric telegraph. Hume’s argument against miracles,
therefore, which is based entirely upon an appeal to experience and
testimony, without reference to the _competency_ of the conclusion
that the events testified to were supernatural, is altogether

Hume’s argument reminds us of the fallacies that lurk in the word
“Nature,” and the phrase “Law of Nature.” Etymologically, “Nature”
means she who gives birth, or who brings forth. But what is she?
Is she an independent power, a being endowed with intelligence
and will? Or is it not evidently a mere figure of speech, when we
personify Nature, and speak of her works and her laws? “It is
easy,” says Cuvier, “to see the puerility of those philosophers
who have conferred on Nature a kind of individual existence,
distinct from the Creator, from the laws which He has imposed
on the movement, and from the properties and forms which He has
given to His creatures; and who represent Nature as acting on
matter by means of her own power and reason.” Again, the phrase
“Law of Nature” is sometimes used as if it were equivalent to
_efficient cause_. There are persons who attempt to account for
the phenomena of the universe by the mere agency of physical laws,
when there is no such agency, except as a figure of speech. A
“Law of Nature” is only a general statement concerning a large
number of similar individual facts, which it describes, but in no
way _accounts for_, or explains. It is not the Law of Gravitation
which _causes_ a stone thrown into the air to fall to the earth;
but the fact that the stone so falls is classed with many other
facts, which are comprehended under the general statement called
the “Law of Gravitation.” “Second causes,” as physical laws are
sometimes called, “are no causes at all; they are mere fictions of
the intellect, and exist only in thought. A _cause_, in the proper
sense of the word, that is, an _efficient_ cause, as original and
direct in its action, must be a _first_ cause; that through which
its action is transmitted is not a cause, but a portion of the
_effect_,--as it does not act, but is acted upon.”[32]

The changes of meaning which words undergo in the lapse of time,
and the different senses in which the same word is used in
different countries, are a fruitful source of misunderstanding
and error. Hence in reading an old author it is necessary to be
constantly on our guard lest our interpretations of his words
involve a gross anachronism, because his “pure ideas” have become
our “mixed modes.” The titles of “tyrant,” “sophist,” “parasite,”
were originally honorable distinctions; and to attach to them
their modern significations would give us wholly false ideas of
ancient history. When Bishop Watson, in defending Christianity and
the Bible from the attacks of Gibbon and Thomas Paine, entitled
his books “An Apology for Christianity,” and “An Apology for the
Bible,” he used the word “apology” in its primitive sense of “a
defence,” as Plato had used it in his “Apologia Socratis,” and
Quadratus in his “Apology for Christianity” to the Emperor Adrian;
but the author was probably understood by many of his readers
to be offering an _excuse_ for the Christian system and for the
faults of the Scriptures, instead of a vindication of their truth.
“Apology for the Bible!” exclaimed George the Third, on hearing of
the book; “the Bible needs no apology.” When we find an old English
writer characterizing his opponent’s argument as “impertinent,” we
are apt to attach to the word the idea of insolence or rudeness;
whereas the meaning is simply “not pertinent” to the question.
So a magistrate who “‘indifferently’ administered justice” meant
formerly a magistrate who administered justice “impartially.”

Were we to use the word “gravitation” in translating certain
passages of ancient authors, we should assert that the great
discovery of Newton had been anticipated by hundreds of years,
though we know that these authors had never dreamed of the law
which that word recalls to our minds. Most of the terminology of
the Christian church is made up of words that once had a more
general meaning. “Bishop” meant originally overseer; “priest,”
or “presbyter,” meant elder; “deacon” meant administrator; and
“sacrament,” a vow of allegiance. In reading the passage in the
Athanasian Creed where the persons of the Trinity are spoken of
as the Father “incomprehensible,” the Son “incomprehensible,” and
the Holy Ghost “incomprehensible,” almost all persons suppose the
word “incomprehensible” to mean “inconceivable,” or beyond or above
the human understanding. But when the Creed was translated into
English from the Latin, the word meant simply “not comprehended
within any limits,” and corresponded to the term “immense,” used
in the original. In studying the Greek and Latin classics, we
shall be continually led into error, unless we note the difference
between the meanings attached in them to certain terms, and those
we now attach to corresponding terms. Thus the “God” denoted by the
Greek and Latin words which we so translate, was not the eternal
Maker and Governor of the Universe, whom Christians worship, but
a being such as our Pagan forefathers worshipped. In reading the
history of France, an American or Englishman is constantly in
danger of misapprehension by associating with certain words common
to the French and English languages similar ideas. When he reads
of _Parliaments_ or the _Noblesse_, he is apt to suppose that they
resembled the Parliaments and Nobility of England, when their
constitution was altogether different. To confound them is like
confounding a Jacobin and a Jacobite, a French _vicaire_ with an
English vicar, or a French _gouvernante_ with an English governess.
The list is almost endless of words, which, derived from the same
Latin term, connote one class of ideas in French and another in

Mr. J. S. Mill observes that historians, travellers, and all who
write or speak concerning moral and social phenomena with which
they are unacquainted, are apt to confound in their descriptions
things wholly diverse. Having but a scanty vocabulary of words
relating to such phenomena, and never having analyzed the facts
to which these words correspond in their own country, they apply
them to other facts to which they are more or less inapplicable.
Thus, as I have before briefly stated, the first English conquerors
of Bengal carried with them the phrase “landed proprietor” into
a country where the rights of individuals over the soil were
extremely different in degree, and even in nature, from those
recognized in England. Applying the term with all its English
associations in such a state of things, to one who had only a
limited right they gave an absolute right; from another, because
he had not an absolute right, they took away all right; drove
whole classes of men to ruin and despair; filled the country with
banditti; created a feeling that nothing was secure; and produced,
with the best intentions, a disorganization which had not been
produced in that country by the most ruthless of its barbarian

How often, in reading ancient history, are we misled by the
application of modern terms to past institutions and events!
Guizot, in speaking of the towns of Europe between the fifth and
tenth centuries, cautions his readers against concluding that their
state was one either of positive servitude or of positive freedom.
He observes that when a society and its language have lasted a
considerable time, its words acquire a complete, determinate, and
precise meaning,--a kind of legal official signification. Time has
introduced into the signification of every term a thousand ideas,
which are suggested to us every time we hear it pronounced, but
which, as they do not all bear the same date, are not all suitable
at the same time. Thus the terms “servitude” and “freedom” recall
to our minds ideas far more precise and definite than the facts
of the eighth, ninth, or tenth centuries, to which they relate.
Whether we say that the towns in the eighth century were in a state
of “freedom” or in a state of “servitude,” we say, in either case,
too much; for they were a prey to the rapacity of the strong, and
yet maintained a certain degree of independence and importance.

So, again, as the same writer shows, the term “civilization”
comprises more or fewer ideas, according to the sense, popular or
scientific, in which it is used. “The popular signification of a
word is formed by degrees, and while all the facts it represents
are present. As often as a fact comes before us which seems to
answer to the signification of a known term, this term is naturally
applied to it, and thus its signification goes on broadening and
deepening, till, at last, all the various facts and ideas which,
from the nature of things, ought to be brought together and
embodied in the term, are collected and embodied in it. When, on
the contrary, the signification of a word is determined by science,
it is usually done by one or a very few individuals, who, at the
time, are under the influence of some particular fact, which has
taken possession of their imagination. Thus it comes to pass that
scientific definitions are, in general, much narrower, and, on that
very account, much less correct, than the popular significations
given to words.”

It is this continual incorporation of new facts and
ideas,--circumstances originally accidental,--into the permanent
significations of words, which makes the dictionary definition
of a word so poor an exponent of its real meaning. For a time
this definition suffices; but in the lapse of time many nice
distinctions and subtle shades of meaning adhere to the word,
which whoever attempts to use it with no other guide than the
dictionary is sure to confound. Hence the ludicrous blunders made
by foreigners, whose knowledge of a language is gained only from
books; and hence the reason why, in any language, there are so few
exact synonyms.

How many persons who oppose compulsory education, have been
frightened by the word “compulsory,” attaching to it ideas of
tyranny and degradation! How many persons are there in every
community, who, in the language of Milton,

      “Bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,
      And still revolt when the truth would make them free;
      _License_ they mean when they cry _liberty_,
      For who love that, must first be wise and good.”

Who can estimate the amount of mischief which has been done to
society by such phrases as “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,”
and other such “rabble-charming words,” as South calls them,
“which have so much wildfire wrapped up in them”? How many persons
who declaim passionately about “the majesty of the people,” “the
sovereignty of the people,” have ever formed for themselves any
definite conceptions of what they mean by these expressions? Locke
has well said of those who have the words “wisdom,” “glory,”
“grace,” constantly at their tongue’s end, that if they should be
asked what they mean by them, they would be at a stand, and know
not what to answer. Even Locke himself, who has written so ably on
the abuse of words, has used some of the cardinal and vital terms
in his philosophy in different senses. La Harpe says that the
express object of the entire “Essay on the Human Understanding” is
to demonstrate rigorously that _l’entendement est esprit et d’une
nature essentiellement distincte de la matière_; yet the author
has used the words “reflection,” “mind,” “spirit,” so vaguely that
he has been accused of holding doctrines subversive of all moral
distinctions. Even the eagle eye of Newton could not penetrate the
obscurity of Locke’s language, and on reading the “Essay” he took
its author for a Hobbist. De Maistre declares the title a misnomer;
instead of being called an “Essay on the Human Understanding,” it
should be entitled, he thinks, an “Essay on the Understanding of

Again, what an amount of error is wrapped up in what have been
called the regulation-labels of philosophy; as, for example, when
a writer is called a “pantheist” in religion, an “intuitionist” in
ethics, an “absolutist” in politics, etc., etc.! Classifications
of this sort, made, as they generally are, without judgment,
discrimination, or qualification, are the greatest foes of true
knowledge. It is probable that in nine cases out of ten, the
persons who confidently label Mr. Emerson as a “pantheist” or
“intuitionist,” could neither define these terms accurately, nor
put their fingers upon the passages in his writings which are
supposed to justify their use.

Professor Bowen notices a fallacy in a certain use of the word
“tend.” When there is more than an even chance that a given result
will occur, we may properly say that it “tends” to happen; if
there is less than an even chance, it “tends” _not_ to happen.
Thus, _all_ persons who have attained the age of twenty-four
survive, _on an average_, till they are sixty-two years old. But
_no one person_, now aged twenty-four, has a right to expect
that this average will be exemplified in his particular case.
_All_, collectively, “tend” to the average; but no _one_ “tends”
to the average. Mr. Darwin, in his “Origin of Species by Natural
Selection,” bases his theory on a fallacy in the use of the word
“tend.” “He first argues that the specific Marks of Species, both
in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, ‘tend’ to vary, because,
perhaps in one case out of ten thousand, a child is born with six
fingers on one hand, or a cat with blue eyes, or a flower grows out
of the middle of another flower. Collecting many instances of such
sports of nature or monstrosities, he bases his whole theory upon
them, forgetting that the vastly larger number of normal growths
and developments proves that the ‘tendency’ is to _non-variation_.
Then, secondly, because, perhaps, one out of a hundred of these
abnormal Marks is transmitted by inheritance, he assumes that these
freaks of nature _tend_ to perpetuate themselves in a distinct
race, and thus to become permanent Marks of distinct species.
Thirdly, as either of the two preceding points, taken singly,
affords no basis whatever for his doctrine, he assumes that their
_joint_ occurrence is probable, because he has made out what is, in
truth, a very faint probability that each may _separately_ happen.
But if the chance of a variation in the first instance is only one
out of a thousand, and that of the anomaly being handed down by
descent is one out of a hundred, the probability of a variation
established by inheritance is but one out of a hundred thousand.
As the theory further requires the _cumulation_ of an indefinite
number of such variations, one upon another, the formation of a new
species by the Darwinian process may safely be pronounced to be

In treating of the difference between “the disgraceful” and “the
indecent,” Archbishop Whately observes that the Greeks and the
Romans, unfortunately, had not, like ourselves, a separate word
for each; _turpe_ and αἰσχρὸς served to express both. Upon this
ambiguity some of the ancient philosophers, especially the Cynics,
founded paradoxes, by which they bewildered themselves and their
hearers. It is an interesting fact that the Saxon part of our
language, containing a smaller percentage of synonymous words
that are liable to be confounded, is much freer from equivocation
than the Romanic. Of four hundred and fifty words discriminated
by Whately, in his treatise on synonyms, less than ninety are
Anglo-Saxon. On the other hand, it has been noted by the same
writer that the double origin of our language, from Saxon and
Norman, often enables a sophist to seem to render a reason, when
he is only repeating the assertion in synonymous words of a
different family: _e.g._, “To allow every man an unbounded freedom
of speech must be always, on the whole, highly advantageous to
the State; for it is extremely conducive to the interests of the
community that each individual should enjoy a liberty perfectly
unlimited of expressing his sentiments.” So the physician in
Molière accounted for opium producing sleep by saying that it had a
soporific virtue. Again, there is a large class of words employed
indiscriminately, neither because they express precisely the same
ideas, nor because they enable the sophist to confound things that
are essentially different, but because they convey no distinct
ideas whatever, except of the moral character of him who uses them.
“_Il m’appelle_,” says Paul Louis Courier, speaking of an opponent,
“_jacobin, révolutionnaire, plagiaire, voleur, empoissonneur,
faussaire, pestiféré ou pestifère, enragé, imposteur, calomniateur,
libelliste, homme horrible, ordurier, grimacier, chiffonnier, ...
Je vois ce qu’il vent dire; il entend que lui et moi sommes d’avis

It is an old trick of controversialists, noticed in a previous
chapter, to employ “question-begging” words that determine disputes
summarily without facts or arguments. Thus political parties and
religious sects quietly beg the questions at issue between them
by dubbing themselves “the Democrats” and “the Republicans”, or
“the Orthodox” and “the Liberals”; though the orthodoxy of the one
may consist only in opposition to somebody else’s doxy, and the
liberality of the other may differ from bigotry only in the fact
that the bigots are liberal only to _one_ set of opinions, while
the Liberals are bigoted against all. So with the argument of
what is called the Selfish School of Moral Philosophers, who deny
that man ever acts from purely disinterested motives. The whole
superstructure of their degrading theory rests upon a confounding
of the term “self-love” with “selfishness.” If I go out to walk,
and, being overtaken by a shower, spread my umbrella to save myself
from a wetting, never once, all the while, thinking of my friends,
my country, or of anybody, in short, but myself, will it be
pretended that this act, though performed exclusively for self, was
in any sense selfish? As well might you say that the cultivation
of an “art” makes a man “artful”; that one who gets his living by
any “craft” is necessarily “crafty”; that a man skilled in “design”
is a “designing” man; or that a man who forms a “project” is,
therefore, a “projector.”

Derivatives do not always retain the force of their primitives.
Wearing woolen clothes does not make a man sheepish. A
representative does not, and _should_ not, always represent the
will of his constituents (that is, in the sense of voting as
they wish, or being their mere _spokesman_); for they may clamor
for measures opposed to the Constitution, which he has sworn to
support. Self-love, in the highest degree, implies no disregard of
the rights of others; whereas Selfishness is always sacrificing
others to itself,--it contains the germ of every crime, and fires
its neighbor’s house to roast its own eggs.

What towering structures of fallacy conservatives have often built
upon the twofold meaning of the word “old”! Strictly, it denotes
the _length_ of time that any object has existed; but it is often
employed, instead of “ancient,” to denote _distance_ of time.
Because old men are generally the wisest and most experienced,
opinions and practices handed down to us from the “old times” of
ignorance and superstition, when the world was comparatively in
its youth, it is thought must be entitled to the highest respect.
The truth is, as Sydney Smith says, “of living men the oldest
has, _ceteris paribus_, the most experience; of generations,
the oldest has the least experience. Our ancestors, up to the
Conquest, were children in arms; chubby boys in the time of Edward
the First; striplings under Elizabeth; men in the reign of Queen
Anne; and we only are the white-bearded, silver-headed ancients,
who have treasured up, and are prepared to profit by, all the
experience which human life can supply.” Again, how many tedious
books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles have been written to
prove that education should consist of mental discipline,--founded
on an erroneous derivation of the word from _educere_, “to draw
out.” Does education, it is asked, consist in filling the child’s
mind as a cistern is filled with water brought in buckets from
some other source, or in the opening up of its own fountains? The
fact is, education comes not from _educere_, but from _educare_,
which means “to nourish,” “to foster,” to do just what the nurse
does. _Educit obstetrix_, says Cicero, _educat nutrix, instituit
pædagogus_. It is food, above all things, which the growing mind
craves; and the mind’s food is knowledge. Discipline, training,
healthful development is, indeed, necessary, but it should form a
part only, not usurp the lion’s share, of education. In an ideal
system this and the nourishing of the mind by wholesome knowledge
would proceed simultaneously. The school lesson would _feed_ the
mind, while the thorough, patient and conscientious acquisition of
it would _gymnaze_ the intellect and strengthen the moral force.
Why have one class of studies for discipline only, and another
class for nourishment only, when there are studies which at once
fill the mind with the materials of thinking, and develop the power
of thought,--which, at the same time, impart useful knowledge, and
afford an intellectual gymnastic? Is a merchant, whose business
compels him to walk a dozen miles a day, to be told that he must
walk another dozen for the sake of exercise, and for that alone?
Yet not less preposterous, it seems to us, is the reasoning of a
class of educators who would range on one side the practically
useful and on the other the educational, and build high between
them a partition wall.

If a man, by mastering Chillingworth, learns how to reason
logically at the same time that he learns the principles of
Protestantism, must he study logic in Whately or Jevens? One of the
disadvantages of an education of which discipline, pure and simple,
is made the end, is that the discipline, being disagreeable, too
often ends with the school-days; whereas the discipline gained
agreeably, instead of being associated with disgust, would be
continued through life. It is possible that the muscular discipline
which the gymnasium gives is greater while it lasts than that which
is gained by a blacksmith or other laborer in his daily work; but
whose muscles are more developed, the man’s who practises a few
months or years in a gymnasium, or the man’s whose calling compels
him to use his muscles all his life? What would the graduate of the
gymnasium do, if hugged by a London coal-heaver?

Again, the reader of Macaulay’s “History of England” will recollect
the hot and long-protracted debates in Parliament in 1696, upon
the question whether James II had “abdicated” or “deserted” the
crown,--the Lords insisting upon the former, the Commons upon the
latter, term. He will also recall the eloquent and fierce debate by
the Lords upon the motion that they should subscribe an instrument,
to which the Commons had subscribed, recognizing William as
“rightful and lawful king of England.” This they refused to do, but
voted to declare that he had the right by law to the English crown,
and that no other person had any right whatever to that crown.
The distinction between the two propositions, observes Macaulay,
a Whig may, without any painful sense of shame, acknowledge to be
beyond the reach of his faculties, and leave to be discussed by
high churchmen. The distinction between “abdicate” and “desert,”
however, is an important one, obvious almost at a glance. Had
Parliament declared that James had “deserted” the throne, they
would have admitted that it was not only his right, but his duty,
to return, as in the case of a husband who had deserted his wife,
or a soldier who had deserted his post. By declaring that he
had “abdicated” the throne, they virtually asserted that he had
voluntarily relinquished the crown, and forfeited all right to it

Among the ambiguous words which at this day lead to confusion of
thought, one of the most prominent is the word, “unity.” There are
not a few Christians who confound what the Apostles say concerning
“unity” of spirit, faith, etc., with unity of church government,
and infer, because the church,--that is, the church universal,--is
_one_, as having one common Head, one Spirit, one Father, it must,
therefore, be one as a _society_. “Church unity” is a good thing,
so long as it does not involve the sacrifice of a denomination’s
life or principles; but there are cases where it amounts to
absorption. It sometimes resembles too closely that peculiar union
which the boa-constrictor is so fond of consummating between
itself and the goat. It is exceedingly fond of goats; but when the
union is complete, there is not a trace of the goat,--it is all

Hardly any ambiguous word has been more fruitful of controversy
than the word “person,” as used in the phrase, “the three Persons
of the Trinity.” If there are three Persons, or personalities, in
the Trinity, then there must be, it is argued, three Gods. It is
true, the word “person” implies a numerically distinct substance;
but the theological meaning is very different. The word is derived
from the Latin _persona_, which denotes the state, quality, or
condition, whereby one man differs from another, as shown by the
phrases _personam induere, personam agere_, etc. Cicero says:
“_Tres personas unus sustineo; meam, adversarii, judicis_; I, being
one, sustain three characters, my own, that of my client, and that
of the judge.” Archbishop Whately thinks it probable that the Latin
fathers meant by “person” to convey the same idea as did the Greek
theologians by the word “hypostasis,”--that which stands under
(_i.e._, is the subject of) attributes.

The confusion of “opposite” and “contrary” is a source of not a
little fallacious reasoning in ethics and in politics. In every
good system of government there are contrivances and adjustments
by which a force acting in one direction may, at a certain point,
be met and arrested by an opposite force. We see this illustrated
by the “governor” of a steam engine, by which the supply of steam
is checked as the velocity is increased, and enlarged as the
velocity is diminished. This system of “checks and balances,” as
it is termed, is often sneered at by theoretical politicians,
simply because they do not discriminate between things “opposite”
and things “contrary.” Things “opposite” complete each other,
their action producing a common result compounded of the two;
things “contrary” antagonize and exclude each other. The most
“opposite” mental or moral qualities may meet in the same person;
but “contrary” qualities, of course, cannot. The right hand and the
left are “opposites”; but right and wrong are “contraries.” Sweet
and sour are “opposites”; sweet and bitter are “contraries.” As it
has been happily said, “opposites” unfold themselves in different
directions from the same root, as the positive and negative forces
of electricity, and in their very opposition uphold and sustain one
another; while “contraries” encounter one another from quarters
quite diverse, and one subsists only in the exact degree that it
puts out of working the other.

Not a few of our English particles are equivocal in their
signification, especially “and” and “or.” The dual meaning of
the latter particle, which may imply either that two objects
or propositions are equivalent, if not identical, or that they
are unlike, if not contradictory, is a fruitful source of
misunderstanding and confusion. The conjunction “and” is hardly
less indefinite and equivocal. This is illustrated in the case
of _Stradling vs. Stiles_, in “Martinus Scriblerus,” familiar
to the readers of Pope, where, in a supposed will, a testator,
possessed of six black horses, six white horses, and six pied, or
black-and-white horses, bequeathed to A. B. “all my black and white
horses.” The question, thereupon, rose whether the bequest carried
the black horses, and the white horses, or the black-and-white
horses only. The equivocation could have been avoided by writing
“all my black and all my white horses,” or, “all my pied horses”;
still, it is evident that our language needs a new conjunctive.

Sir William Hamilton points out a defect in our philosophical
language, in which the terms “idea,” “conception,” “notion,” are
used as almost convertible to denote objects so different as the
images of sense and the unpicturable notions of intelligence. The
confusion thus produced is avoided in the German, “the richest in
metaphysical expressions of any living tongues,” in which the two
kinds of objects are carefully distinguished.

Again, how many systems of error in metaphysics and ethics have
been based upon the etymologies of words, the sophist assuming
that the meaning of a word must always be that which it, or
its root, originally bore! Thus Horne Tooke tries to prove by
a wide induction that since all particles,--that is, adverbs,
prepositions, and conjunctions,--were originally nouns and verbs,
they must be so still; a species of logic which would prove that
man, if the Darwinian theory be true, is still a reptile. In a
similar way the same writer has reached the conclusion that there
is no eternal truth, since “truth,” according to its etymology, is
simply what one “troweth,” that is, what one thinks or believes.
This theory, it is thought, was suggested to Tooke by a conjecture
that “if” is equivalent to “gif,” an imperative of the verb “to
give”; but as it has been shown, from cognate forms in other
languages, that this particle has no connection with the verb “to
give,” or any other verb, any system founded on this basis is a
mere castle in the air. Truth, argues Tooke, supposes mankind; for
whom, and _by_ whom alone the word is formed, and to whom alone it
is applicable. “If no man, then no truth. There is no such thing
as eternal, immutable, everlasting truth, unless mankind, _such as
they are at present_, be also eternal, immutable, and everlasting.
Two persons may contradict each other, and yet both speak truth,
for the truth of one person may be opposite to the truth of

Even if we admit this derivation of “truth,” the conclusion does
not follow; for whatever the word once meant, it now means that
which is certain, whether we think it or not. If we are to be
governed wholly by etymology, we must maintain that a “beldam” is
a “fine lady,” that “priest” can mean only “advanced in years,”
and that “Pontifex” can only signify “a bridge-builder.” But Horne
Tooke’s etymology has been disputed by the very highest authority.
According to Mr. Garnett, an acute English philologist, “truth” is
derived “from the Sanscrit _dhru_, ‘to be established,’--_fixum
esse_; whence _dhruwa_, ‘certain,’ _i.e._ ‘established’; German,
_trauen_, ‘to rely,’ ‘trust’; _treu_, ‘faithful,’ ‘true’;
Anglo-Saxon, _treow-treowth_ (_fides_); English, ‘true,’ ‘truth.’
To these we may add Gothic, _triggons_; Icelandic, _trygge_;
(_fidus_, _securus_, _tutus_): all from the same root, and all
conveying the same idea of stability or security. ‘Truth,’
therefore, neither means what is _thought_ nor what is _said_,
but that which is _permanent_, _stable_, and is and ought to be
_relied upon_, because, upon sufficient data, it is capable of
being demonstrated or shown to exist. If we admit this explanation,
Tooke’s assertions ... become _Vox et preterea nihil_.”

Some years ago a bulky volume of seven hundred pages octavo was
written by Dr. Johnson, a London physician, to prove that “might
makes right,”--that justice is the result, not of divine instinct,
but purely and simply of arbitrary decree. The foundation for
this equally fallacious and dangerous theory was the fact that
“right” is derived from the Latin, _rego_, “to rule”; therefore
whatever the _rex_, or “ruler,” authorizes or decrees, is _right_!
As well might he argue that only courtiers can be polite, because
“courtesy” is borrowed from palaces, or that there can be no
“heaven” or “hell” in the scriptural sense, because, in its
etymological, the one is the canopy _heaved_ over our heads, and
the other is the _hollow_ space beneath our feet. Indeed, we have
seen an argument, founded on the etymology of the latter word, to
prove that there is “no hell beyond a hole in the ground.” In the
same way, because our primitive vocabulary is derived solely from
sensible images, it has been assumed that the mind has no ideas
except those derived through the senses, and that thought therefore
is only sensation. But neither idealism nor materialism can derive
any support from the phenomena of language, for the names we give
either to outward objects or to our conceptions of immaterial
entities can give us no conception of the things themselves. It is
true that in every-day language we talk of color, smell, thickness,
shape, etc., not only as sensations within us, but as qualities
inherent in the things themselves; but it has long since been shown
that they are only modifications of our consciousness. It has
been justly said that our knowledge of beings is purely indirect,
limited, relative; it does not reach to the beings themselves in
their absolute reality and essences, but only to their accidents,
their modes, their relations, limitations, differences, and
qualities; all which are manners of conceiving and knowing which
not only do not impart to knowledge the absolute character which
some persons attribute to it, but even positively exclude it.
“Even substance is but a purely hypothetical postulated residuum
after the abstraction of all observable qualities.” If, then,
our conception of an object in no way resembles the object,--if
heat, for example, can be, in no sense, like a live coal, nor pain
like the pricking of a pin,--much less can a word by which we
denote an object be other than a mere hieroglyphic, or teach us
a jot or tittle about the world of sense or thought. Again, the
fact that “spirit” once signified “breath,” and _animus_, ἀνεμὸς,
“air,” lends no countenance to materialism. “When we impose on a
phenomenon of the physical order a moral denomination, we do not
thereby spiritualize matter; and because we assign a physical
denomination to a moral phenomenon, we do not materialize spirit.”
Even if the words by which we designate mental conceptions are
derived from material analogies, it does not follow that our
conceptions were themselves originally material; and we shall in
vain try to account by any external source for the relations of
words among themselves. It is told of the metaphysician, Cudworth,
that, in reply to a person who ridiculed the doctrine of innate
ideas, he told him to take down the first book that came to hand in
his library, open at random, and read. The latter opened Cicero’s
“Offices,” and began reading the first sentence, “_Quamquam_ ----”
“Stop!” cried Cudworth, “it is enough. Tell me how through the
_senses_ you acquire the idea of _quamquam_.”

It is a mistake to suppose that a language is no more than a mere
collection of words. The terms we employ are symbols only, which
can never fully express our thought, but shadow forth far more than
it is in their power distinctly to impart. Lastly, there are in
every language, as another has truly said, a vast number of words,
such as “sacrifice,” “sacrament,” “mystery,” “eternity,” which may
be explained by the idea, though the idea cannot be discovered by
the word, as is the case with whatever belongs to the mystery of
the mind; and this of itself is enough to disprove the conclusion
which nominalists would draw from the origin of words, and to
prove that, whatever the derivation of “truth,” its etymology can
establish nothing concerning its essence; and we are still at
liberty to regard it as independent, immutable, and eternal, having
its archetype in the Divine mind.

Among the terms used in literary criticism, few are more loosely
employed than the word “creative” as applied to men of genius.
Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, are said to have “creative power”;
and, as a figure of speech, the remark is true enough: but,
strictly speaking, only Omnipotence can _create_; man can only
_combine_. The genius of a great painter may fill his gallery with
the most fantastic representations, but every piece of which his
paintings are composed exists in nature. Few artists have been
more original than Claude Lorraine; yet all his paintings were
composed of picturesque materials gathered from different scenes
in nature, united with consummate taste and skill, and idealized
by his exquisite imagination. To make a modern statue there is
a great melting down of old bronze. The essence of originality
is not that it creates new material, but that it invents new
combinations of material, and imparts new life to whatever it
discovers or combines, whether of new or old. Shakespeare’s
genius is at no other time so incontestably sovereign as when he
borrows most,--when he adapts or moulds, in a manner so perfect
as to resemble a new creation, the old chronicles and “Italian
originals,” which have been awaiting the _vivida vis_ that makes
them live and move. _Non nova, sed nové_, sums up the whole
philosophy of the subject. “Originality,” says an able writer,
“never works more fruitfully than in a soil rich and deep with the
foliage of ages.”

The word “same” is often used in a way that leads to error. Persons
say “the same” when they mean similar. It has been asked whether
the ship Argo, in which Jason sought the Golden Fleece, and whose
decaying timbers, as she lay on the Greek shore, a grateful and
reverent nation had patched up, till, in process of time, not a
plank of the original ship was left, was still “the same” ship as
of old. The question presents no difficulty, if we remember that
“sameness,” that is “identity,” is an absolute term, and can be
affirmed or denied only in an absolute sense. No man is the same
man to-day that he was yesterday, though he may be very similar to
his yesterday’s self.

A common source of confusion in language is what logicians call
“amphibolous” sentences,--that is, sentences that are equivocal,
not from a double sense in any word, but because they admit of
a double construction. Quintilian mentions several cases where
litigation arose from this kind of ambiguity in the wording of a
will. In one case a testator expressed a wish that a statue should
be erected, and used the following language: _poni statuam auream
hastam in manu tenentem_. The question arose whether it was the
statue, or the spear only, that was to be of gold. It is well known
that punctuation was unknown to the Greeks and Romans; and hence
the ancient oracles were able to deliver responses, which, written
down by the priests and delivered to the inquirers, were adapted,
through the ambiguity thus caused, to save the credit of the
oracle, whether the expected event was favorable or unfavorable.
An example of this is the famous response, _Aio te Æacida Romanos
vincere posse_; which may mean either, “Thou, Pyrrhus, I say, shalt
subdue the Romans;” or, “I say, Pyrrhus, that the Romans shall
subdue thee.” A better illustration is the remarkable response
which was given when an oracle was consulted regarding the success
of a certain military expedition: _Ibis et redibis nunquam peribis
in bello_, which, not being punctuated, might have been translated
either: “Thou shalt go, and shalt never return, thou shalt perish
in battle;” or, “Thou shalt go and return, thou shalt never perish
in battle.” We have an example of amphibolous sentences in English
in the witch prophecy, “The Duke yet lives that Henry shall
depose,” and in the words cited by Whately from the Nicene Creed,
“by whom all things were made,” which are grammatically referable
either to the Father or to the Son.

Among the fallacies in words may be classed those false impressions
which some writers contrive to give, while at the same time
making no single statement that is untrue or exceptionable. Thus
in Gibbon’s famous history, it is not by what he expressly says
regarding Christianity, that he misleads the reader, but by what
he suppresses, hints, and insinuates. As Paley long ago observed,
the subtle error rather lies hid in the sinuous folds than is
directly apparent on the surface of the polished style. Never
openly attacking Christianity, or advancing any opinions which he
might find it difficult to defend, he yet contrives to leave an
_impression_ adverse to the theory of its divine origin. In like
manner, it is not usually by false statements that Hume perverts
the truth of English history; but his unfairness secretes itself so
subtly in the turns of the words, that, when you seek to point it
out, it is gone.

Even the Natural Sciences, in which precision of language is
vital, are disfigured by words which, if closely scrutinized, are
found to be full of error. It is true that as the progress of
inquiry brings fresh facts into view, the words which serve to
illustrate exploded theories are usually rejected; yet names are
sometimes retained after they cease to be correct or expressive.
The word “electricity” suggests thunder-storms, shocks at
scientific soirées, and Morse’s telegraph; yet it means only “the
amber-force.” The explanation of this name is that the observation
of the fact that amber, when rubbed, attracts to itself light
bodies, was the first step taken toward the establishment of this
marvellous science. So the name “oxygen,” or “the acid-producer,”
was given to the gas so called, when it was considered to be the
cause of acidity. In 1774 the gas called “muriatic acid” was
renamed by Scheele, in consequence of certain discoveries made by
him, “dephlogisticated muriatic acid.” By and by the doctrine of
phlogiston was exploded, and Lavoisier, having to modify the name,
changed it to “oxymuriatic,” or “oxygenized muriatic acid.” When,
again, it was found that this pungent gas was a _simple_ body, and
actually entered into the constitution of the muriatic, or, as it
is now called, hydrochloric acid,--that the oxygen merely withdrew
from the latter the second constituent, viz., hydrogen,--the
name had to be altered again, and this time Sir Humphrey Davy
suggested “chlorine,” or “the green gas,” which seems likely to be
permanent. Again, until lately, “caloric” was a term in constant
use among chemists, and designated something that produced heat.
Now this doctrine is abandoned, and heat is said to be the result
of molecular and ethereal vibration. All matter is supposed to
be immersed in a highly elastic medium, which is called “ether.”
But what is this “ether,” of which heat, light, electricity, and
sound, are only so many different modes or manifestations? “‘Ether’
is a myth,--an abstraction, useful, no doubt, for the purpose of
physical speculation, but intended rather to mark the present
horizon of our knowledge, than to represent anything which we can
grasp either with our senses or our reason.”[34]

The form of cerebral congestion known as “sunstroke,” was
erroneously so named from the popular belief that it is caused
by a sudden concentration of the sun’s rays upon a focal point.
It is now well known that persons may be attacked by this disease
who have not been exposed to the sun’s rays,--that it occurs
often at night,--and that its cause is not extreme heat only, but
the exhaustion consequent upon over-exertion--especially of the
brain--anxiety, and worry.


[30] “Lectures on the Science of Language,” Second Series, pp. 592-6.

[31] Whately’s Logic.

[32] Bowen’s “Logic,” p. 432.

[33] “Logic,” Book IV., Chap. 5.

[34] Max Müller’s “Science of Language,” Vol. II, p. 600.


THE FALLACIES IN WORDS--(_continued_).

      I never learned rhetorike certain;
      Things that I speke, it mote be bare and plain.--CHAUCER.

  Here is our great infelicity, that, when single words signify
  complex ideas, one word can never distinctly manifest all the
  parts of a complex idea.--ISAAC WATTS.

  If reputation attend these conquests which depend on the fineness
  and niceties of words, it is no wonder if the wit of men so
  employed should perplex and subtilize the signification of

It has been remarked by Archbishop Whately that the words whose
ambiguity is the most frequently overlooked, and produces the
greatest amount of confusion of thought and fallacy, are the
commonest,--the very ones whose meaning is supposed to be best
understood. “Familiar acquaintance is perpetually mistaken for
accurate knowledge.” Such a word is “luxury.”

A favorite theme for newspaper declamations in these days is the
luxury and extravagance of the American people, especially of the
_nouveaux riches_ whose fortunes have been of mushroom growth.
It is easy to declaim thus against luxury,--that is, against the
use of things which, at any particular period, are not deemed
indispensable to life, health, and comfort; but what do those who
indulge in this cheap denunciation mean by the term? Is not luxury
a purely _relative_ term? Is there a single article of dress,
food or furniture which can be pronounced an absolute luxury,
without regard to the wealth or poverty of him who enjoys it? Are
not the luxuries of one generation or country the necessaries of
another? Persons who are familiar with history know that Alfred
the Great had not a chair to sit down upon, nor a chimney to carry
off his smoke; that William the Conquerer was unacquainted with
the luxury of a feather bed, if it can be called one; that the
early aristocracy of England lived on the ground floor, without
drainage; that in the Middle Ages shirts were deemed a useless
superfluity, and men were even put in the pillory for wearing them;
that night-shirts were esteemed a still more needless luxury,
and persons of all ranks and classes slept in the first costume
of Adam; that travelling carriages are an ingenious invention of
modern effeminacy; that the men who first carried umbrellas in
the streets, even in the severest rain-storms, were hooted at
as dandies and coxcombs; that the nobles and dames of the most
brilliant epochs of England’s annals ate with their fingers,
generally in couples, out of one trencher on a bare table; and
that when forks were introduced, they were long hotly opposed as
an extravagance, and even denounced by many as a device of Satan,
to offer an affront to Providence, who had provided man with
fingers to convey his food to his mouth. In the introduction to
Hollinshed’s “Chronicles,” published in 1577, there is a bitter
complaint of the multitude of chimneys lately erected, of the
exchange of straw pallets for mattresses or flock beds, and of
wooden platters for earthenware and pewter. In another place, the
writer laments that oak only is used for building, instead of
willow as heretofore; adding, that “formerly our houses indeed were
of willow, but our men were of oak; but now that our houses are of
oak, our men are not only of willow, but some altogether of straw,
which is a sore alteration.”

Erasmus tells us that salt beef and strong ale constituted the
chief part of Queen Elizabeth’s breakfast, and that similar
refreshments were served to her in bed for supper. There is not
a single able-bodied workingman in the United States who does
not enjoy fare which would have been deemed luxurious by men of
high station in the iron reign of the Tudors; hardly a thriving
shopkeeper who does not occupy a house which English nobles in
1650 would have envied; hardly a domestic servant or factory girl
who does not on Sundays adorn herself with apparel which would
have excited the admiration of the duchesses in Queen Elizabeth’s
ante-rooms. Xenophon accounts for the degeneracy of the Persians
by their luxury, which, he says, was carried to such a pitch that
they used gloves to protect their hands. Tea and coffee were once
denounced as idle and injurious luxuries; and throughout the larger
part of the world tooth-brushes, napkins, suspenders, bathing-tubs,
and a hundred other things now deemed indispensable to the health
or comfort of civilized man, would be regarded as proofs of
effeminacy and extravagance.

Luxury has been a favorite theme of satire and denunciation by
poets and moralists from time immemorial. But it may be doubted
whether in nations or individuals its effects, even when it rages
most fiercely, are half so pernicious as those springing from that
indifference to comforts and luxuries which is sometimes dignified
with the name of contentment, but which is only another name for
sheer laziness. While thousands are ruined by prodigality and
extravagance, tens of thousands are kept in poverty by indifference
to the comforts and ornaments of life,--by a too feeble development
of those desires to gratify which the mass of men are striving. It
is a bad sign when a man is content with the bare necessities of
life, and aspires to nothing higher; and equally ominous is it when
a nation, however rich or powerful, is satisfied with the capital
and glories it has already accumulated. Cry up as we may the
virtues of simplicity and frugality, it is yet quite certain that a
people content to live upon garlic, macaroni, or rice, are at the
very lowest point in the scale both of intellect and morality. A
civilized man differs from a savage principally in the multiplicity
of his wants. The truth is, man is a constitutionally lazy being,
and requires some stimulus to prick him into industry. He must have
many difficulties to contend with, many clamorous appetites and
tastes to gratify, if you would bring out his energies and virtues;
and it is because they are always grumbling,--because, dissatisfied
amid the most enviable enjoyments, they clamor and strive for
more and more of what Voltaire calls _les superflues choses, si
nécessaires_,--that the English people have reached their present
pinnacle of prosperity, and accumulated a wealth which almost
enables them to defy a hostile world.

Among the familiar words that we employ, few have been more
frequently made the instrument of sophistry than “nature” and
“art.” There are many persons who oppose the teaching of elocution,
because they like a “natural” and “artless” eloquence, to which,
they think, all elaborate training is opposed. Yet nothing is more
certain than that nature and art, between which there is supposed
to be an irreconcilable antagonism, are often the very same thing.
What is more natural than that a man who lacks vocal power should
cultivate and develop his voice by vocal exercises; or that,
if he is conscious of faults in his manner of speaking,--his
articulation, gestures, etc.,--he should try, by the help of a good
teacher, to overcome them? So with the style of a writer; what is
more natural than for one who feels that he has not adequately
expressed his thought, to blot the words first suggested and try
others, and yet others, till he despairs of further improvement?
There are subjects so deep and complex, ideas so novel and
abstruse, that the most practised writer cannot do justice to
them without great labor. A conscientious author is, therefore,
continually transposing clauses, reconstructing sentences,
substituting words, polishing and repolishing paragraphs; and this,
unquestionably, is “art,” or the application of means to an end.
But is this art inconsistent with nature?

Similar to the fallacy which lurks in the words “nature” and
“natural,” as thus employed, is that which lurks in a popular use
of the word “simplicity.” It has been happily said that while some
men talk as if to speak naturally were to speak like a natural,
others talk as if to speak with simplicity meant to speak like a
simpleton. But what is true “simplicity,” as applied to literary
composition? Is it old, worn-out commonplace,--“straw that has been
thrashed a hundred times without wheat,” as Carlyle says,--the
shallowest ideas expressed in tame and insipid language? Or is it
not rather

                    “Nature to advantage dressed,
      What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,”--

in other words, a just and striking thought expressed in the aptest
and most impressive language? Those persons who declaim against
the employment of art in speaking and writing, forget that we are
all exceedingly artificial, conventional beings. Without training,
a speaker is almost sure to be awkward in gesture and unnatural
in utterance. The very preacher who in the street forgets himself
and uses the most natural gesticulation and tones, will become
self-conscious the moment he ascends the pulpit, and speak in a
falsetto key. It is to get rid of these artificial habits that
“art” (which is the employment of proper means) is needed.

How many controversies about the “transmutation of Species,”
and the “fixity of Species,” would have been avoided, had the
scientists who use these phrases fully pondered their meaning,
or rather no-meaning! Some writers have tried to explain the
law of constancy in transmission, and its independence of
the law of variation, by maintaining that it is the Species
only, not the individual, which is reproduced. “Species,” says
Buffon, “are the only beings in nature.” A sheep, it is said, is
always and everywhere a sheep, and a man a man, reproducing the
_specific type_, but not necessarily reproducing any individual
peculiarities. This hypothesis is a striking example of the
confusion which results from the introduction of old metaphysical
ideas into science. It is evident, as a late writer has clearly
shown, that Species cannot reproduce itself, for Species does not
exist. It is an entity, an abstract idea, not a concrete fact.

The _thing_ Species no more exists than the thing Goodness or the
thing Whiteness. “Nature only knows individuals. A collection of
individuals so closely resembling each other as all sheep resemble
each other, are conveniently classed under one general term,
Species; but this general term has no objective existence; the
abstract or typical sheep, apart from all concrete individuals, has
no existence out of our systems. Whenever an individual sheep is
born, it is the offspring of two individual sheep, whose structures
and dispositions it reproduces; it is not the offspring of an
abstract idea; it does not come into being at the bidding of a
type, which as a Species sits apart, regulating ovine phenomena....
If, therefore, ‘transmutation of Species’ is absurd, ‘fixity of
Species’ is not a whit less so. That which does not exist can
neither be transmuted nor maintained in fixity. Only individuals
exist; they resemble their parents, and they differ from their
parents. Out of these resemblances we create Species; out of
these differences we create Varieties; we do so as conveniences
of classification, and then believe in the reality of our own

A popular fallacy, which is partly verbal, is the notion, so
tenaciously held by many, that exposure to hardship, and even want,
in youth, is the cause of the bodily vigor of those men who have
lived to a good age in countries with a rocky soil and a bleak
climate. What is more natural, it is argued, than that _hardships_
should _harden_ the constitution? Look at the Indians; how many of
them live till eighty or ninety! Yet no person who reasons thus
would think, if engaged in cattle-breeding, of neglecting to feed
and shelter his animals in their youth; nor if a dozen men, out
of a hundred who had faced a battery, should survive and live to
a good age, would he think of regarding the facing of batteries
as conducive to longevity. The truth is, that early hardships,
by destroying all the weak, merely prove the hardiness of the
survivors,--which latter is the cause, not the effect, of their
having lived through such a training. So “loading a gun-barrel to
the muzzle, and firing it off, does not _give_ it strength; though
it proves, if it escape, that it was strong.”

The revelations of travellers have dissipated the illusions
which once prevailed concerning the hardiness and health of the
Indians and other savages. The savage, it is now known, lives in
a condition but one degree above starvation. If he sink below it,
he disappears instantaneously, as if he had never been. A certain
amount of hardship he can endure; but it has limits, which if he
passes, he sinks unnoticed and unknown. There is no registrar or
newspaper to record that a unit has been subtracted from the amount
of human existence. It is true that severe diseases are rarely seen
by casual visitors of savage tribes,--and why? Because death is
their doctor, and the grave their hospital. When patients are left
wholly to nature, nature presses very hard for an immediate payment
of her debt.

An ambiguous word, which has been a source of not a little error,
is the adjective “light,” which is used sometimes in a literal,
sometimes in a figurative sense. When writers on Agricultural
Chemistry declare that what are called _heavy_ soils are always
specifically the _lightest_, the statement looks like a paradox.
By “heavy” soils are meant, of course, not those which are the
weightiest, but those which are ploughed with difficulty,--the
effect being like that of dragging a heavy weight. So some articles
of food are supposed to be _light of digestion_ because they
are _specifically light_. Again, there is a popular notion that
_strong_ drink must make men _strong_; which is a double fallacy,
since the word “strong” is applied to alcoholic liquors and to the
human body in entirely different senses, and it is assumed that an
effect must be like its cause, which is not true.

Another ambiguous term, at least as popularly used, is “murder.”
There are persons who assert that the _coup d’état_ of Louis
Napoleon, in 1851, was murder in the strictest sense of the term.
To send out into the streets of a peaceful town a party of men
dressed in uniform, with muskets and bayonets in their hands, and
with orders to kill and plunder, is just as essentially murder and
robbery, it is said, as to break into a house with half-a-dozen
companions out of uniform, and do the same things. Was not Orsini’s
crime, they ask, as truly a murder as when a burglar kills a man
with a revolver in order to rob him? So, again, there are Christian
moralists, who, when asked for proof that suicide is sinful, adduce
the Scriptural injunction, “Thou shalt do no murder,” assuming
that suicide, because it is called self-_murder_, is a species
of “murder” in the primary sense of the word. It is evident,
however, that most, if not all, of these assertions are founded
on palpable fallacies. “Murder” is a technical term, and means
the wilful, deliberate killing, without just cause, and without
certain specified excuses, of a man who belongs to a settled state
of society, in which security is afforded to life and property. In
all that is said about the atrocity of murder, there is a latent
reference to this state of things. Were the “Vigilance Committee”
of San Francisco murderers, when they executed criminals illegally?
Are the men who “lynch” horse-thieves on our western frontiers,
murderers? Were the rebels who, in our late Civil War, shot down
Union soldiers, murderers?

The common sentiment of the civilized world recognizes a vast
difference between the rights and duties of sovereigns and
subjects, and the relations of nations to each other, on the one
hand, and the rights and duties of private individuals on the
other; and hence the rules of public and those of private morality
must be essentially different. According to legal authority, it
is not murder to kill an alien enemy in time of war; nor is it
murder to take away a man’s life by perjury. Revolutions and _coups
d’état_ most persons will admit to be sometimes justifiable; and
both, when justifiable, justify a certain degree of violence to
person, to property, or to previous engagements. The difficulty
is to tell just when, and how far, violence may justify and be
justified. It has been well said by an acute and original writer
that “it is by no means the same thing whether a man is plundered
and wounded by burglars, or by the soldiers of an absolute king
who is trying to maintain his authority. The sack of Perugia
shocked the sensibilities of a great part of Europe; but if the
Pope had privately poisoned one of his friends or servants from
any purely personal motive, even the blindest religious zeal
would have denounced him as a criminal unfit to live. A man must
be a very bitter Liberal indeed, who really maintains that the
violation by a sovereign of his promissory oath of office stands
on precisely the same footing as deliberate perjury in an ordinary
court of justice.” Suicide, it is evident, lacks the most essential
characteristic of murder, namely, its _inhumanity_,--the injury
done to one’s neighbor and to others by the _insecurity_ they are
made to feel. Can a man rob himself? If not, how can he, in the
proper sense of the word, murder himself?

Take another case. When Napoleon Bonaparte was at the climax of
his power, and the entire continent lay at his feet, he aimed a
blow at the naval supremacy of England, which, had it taken effect,
would have fatally crippled her resources. By a secret article in
the Treaty of Tilsit, it was stipulated that he and Alexander, the
czar of Russia, should take possession of the fleets of the Neutral
Powers. Mr. Canning, the British Prime Minister, saw the peril,
and instantly, upon learning of the intrigue, dispatched a naval
force under Nelson to Copenhagen, which captured the Danish fleet,
the object of the confederates, and conveyed it to Portsmouth. The
violation of the law of nations involved in this act was vehemently
denounced in the pulpit, in parliament, and on the hustings; and
to-day there are many persons who regard the audacious measure as
little better than piracy. The world, however, has not sustained
the charge. Problems arise in the life of both men and nations,
for the solution of which the ordinary rules of ethics are
insufficient. It is possible to kill without being guilty of
murder, to rob without being a thief, and to break the law of
nations without being a buccaneer. The justification of the British
Minister lay in the fact that Denmark was powerless to resist the
Continental powers, and that her coveted fleet, if not seized by
England, would have been used against her.

There is hardly any word which is oftener turned into an instrument
of the fallacy of ambiguity than “theory.” There is a class of men
in every community, of limited education and narrow observation,
who, because they have mingled in the world and dealt with
affairs, claim to be preëminently _practical_ men, and ridicule
the opinions of thinkers in their closets as the speculations of
“mere _theorists_.” Not discriminating carefully between the word
“general” and the word “abstract,” and regarding as _abstract_
principles what are in nearly all cases _general_ principles, they
regard all theorizing as synonymous with visionary speculation;
while that which they call “practical knowledge,” and which they
fancy to be wholly devoid of supposition or guesswork, but which
is nothing else than a heap of hasty deductions from scanty and
inaccurately observed phenomena, they deem more trustworthy
than the discoveries of science and the conclusions of reason.
Yet, when correctly defined, this very practical knowledge, so
boastfully opposed to theory, in reality presupposes it. True
practical knowledge is simply a ready discernment of the proper
modes and seasons of applying to the common affairs of life those
general truths and principles which are deduced from an extensive
and accurate observation of facts, by minds stored with various
knowledge, accustomed to investigation, and trained to the art
of reasoning; or, in other words, by _theorists_. Every man who
attempts to trace the causes or effects of an occurrence that falls
under his personal observation, theorizes. The only essential
distinction, in most cases, between “practical” men and those whom
they denounce as visionary, is, not that the latter alone indulge
in speculation, but that the theories of the former are based on
the facts of their own experience,--those that happen within a
narrow sphere, and in a single age; while the conclusions of the
latter are deduced from the _facts of all ages and countries_,
minutely analyzed and compared.

Thus the “practical” farmer does not hesitate to consult the
neighboring farmers, and to make use of the results of their
experience concerning the best soils for certain crops, the best
manures for those soils, etc.; yet if another farmer, instead
of availing himself of his neighbors’ experiences only, consults
a book or books containing the digested and classified results
of a thousand farmers’ experiences touching the same points, he
is called, by a strange inconsistency, “a book-farmer,” “a mere
theorist.” The truth is, the “practical” man, so called, extends
his views no farther than the fact before him. Even when he is so
fortunate as to learn its cause, the discovery is comparatively
useless, since it affords no light in new and more complex cases.
The scientific man, unsatisfied with the observation of one fact,
collects many, and by tracing the points of resemblance, deduces
a comprehensive truth of universal application. “Practical” men
conduct the details of ordinary business with a masterly hand.
As Burke said of George Grenville, they do admirably well so
long as things move on in the accustomed channel, and a new and
troubled scene is not opened; but they are not fitted to contend
successfully with the difficulties of an untried and hazardous
situation. When “the high roads are broken up, and the waters
are out,” when a new state of things is presented, and “the line
affords no precedent,” then it is that they show a mind trained in
a subordinate sphere, formed for servile imitation, and destined
to borrow its lights of another. “Expert men,” says Bacon, “can
execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the
general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come
best from those that are learned.”

Among the current phrases of the day, by which men are led into
error, one of the commonest is the expression “doing good.”
Properly understood, “to do good” is to do right; but the phrase
has acquired a technical sense which is much narrower. It
means, not discharging faithfully the duties of one’s calling,
but stepping aside from its routine to relieve the poor, the
distressed, and the ignorant; or to reform the sinful. The lawyer
who, for a fee, conscientiously gives advice, or pleads in the
courts, is not thought to be doing good; but he is so regarded if
he gratuitously defends a poor man or a widow. A merchant who sells
good articles at fair prices, and pays his notes punctually, is not
doing good; but he is doing good, if he carries broth and blankets
to beggars, teaches in a Sunday School, supports a Young Men’s
Christian Association, or distributes tracts to the irreligious.
Charitable and philanthropic societies of every kind are all
recognized as organs for doing good; but the common pursuits
of life,--law, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, trading,
etc.,--are not.

The incorrectness of this view will be seen if we for a moment
reflect what would become of society, including its charitable
institutions and philanthropists, should its different members
refuse to perform their respective functions. Society is a body
corporate, which can exist,--at least, in a healthy state,--only
on condition that each man performs the specific work which
Providence, or his own sense of his fitness for it, has assigned
to him. Thus one man tills the ground; another engages in
manufacturing; a third gathers and distributes the produce of
labor in its various forms; a fourth loans or exchanges money; a
fifth makes or executes laws; and each of these persons, as he
is contributing to the general good, is doing good as truly as
the most devoted clergyman who labors in the cure of souls, or
philanthropist who carries loaves of bread to hovels. To deny this,
it has been well said, is to say that a commissariat or transport
corps has nothing to do with carrying on a war, and that this
business is discharged entirely by the men who stand in line of
battle or mount the breach.

The popular theory proceeds upon two assumptions, both of which are
false; first, that the motives which urge men to diligence in their
callings are mean and paltry,--that selfishness is the mainspring
which causes all the wheels in the great machine of society to
revolve; and, secondly, that pursuits which benefit those who
prosecute them are necessarily selfish. The truth is, the best
work, and a very large part of the work, done in every calling,
is done not from a mean and sordid hunger for its emoluments,
whether of money, rank, or fame, but from a sincere love for it,
and pride in performing its duties well and creditably. The moment
a man begins to lose this _esprit de corps_, this high-minded
professional pride, and to find his reward in his pay and not in
his work, that moment his work begins to deteriorate, and he ceases
to meet with the highest success. If pursuits which benefit those
who follow them are necessarily selfish, then philanthropy itself
is selfish, for its rewards, in popular estimation, are of the
noblest kind. No sane man will depreciate the blessings that result
from the labors of the Howards, the Frys, and the Nightingales; but
they bear the same relation to the ordinary pursuits of life that
medicine bears to food. Doctors and surgeons are useful members of
society; but their services are less needed than those of butchers
and bakers. Let the farmer cease to sow and reap, let the loom and
the anvil be forsaken, and the courts of justice be closed, and
not only will the philanthropist starve, but society will speedily
become a den of robbers, if it does not utterly cease to exist.

Mr. Mill notices an ambiguity in the word “right,” which has been
made the occasion of an ingenious sophism. A man asserts that he
has a right to publish his opinions, which may be true in one
sense, namely, that it would be wrong in any _other_ person to
hinder or prevent their publication; but it does not follow that,
in publishing his opinions, he is _doing right_, for this is an
entirely distinct proposition from the other. Its truth depends
upon two things; first, whether he has taken due pains to ascertain
that the opinions are true, and second, whether their publication
in this manner, and at this time, will probably be beneficial to
the interests of truth on the whole. Another sophism, based on the
ambiguity of the same word, is that of confounding a right of any
kind with a right to enforce that right by resisting or punishing
any violation of it, as in the case of a people whose right to good
government is ignored by tyrannical rulers. The right or liberty
of the people to turn out their rulers is so far from being the
same thing as the other, that “it depends upon an immense number
of varying circumstances, and is altogether one of the knottiest
questions in practical ethics.”

Montaigne complains with good reason that too many definitions,
explanations, and replies to difficult questions, are purely
verbal. “I demand what ‘nature’ is, what ‘pleasure,’ ‘circle,’ and
‘substitution’ are? The question is about words, and is answer’d
accordingly. A stone is a body; but if a man should further urge,
and ‘what is body?’ ‘Substance;’ ‘and what is substance?’ and
so on, he would drive the respondent to the end of his calepin.
We exchange one word for another, and ofttimes for one less
understood. I better know what man is, than I know what animal
is, or mortal, or rational. To satisfie one doubt, they pop me in
the mouth with three; ’tis the Hydra’s head.”[36] There was a time
when it was said that the essence of gold and its substantial form
consisted in its _aureity_, and this explanation was supposed to
answer all questions, and solve all doubts.

From all this it will be seen that our words are, to a large
extent, carelessly employed,--the signs of crude and indefinite
generalizations. But even when the greatest care is taken in the
employment of words, it is nearly impossible to choose and put
them together so exquisitely that a sophist may not wrest and
pervert their meaning. Those persons who have ever had a lawsuit
need not be told how much ingenious argument may hang on a shade
of meaning, to be determined objectively without reference to the
fancied intentions of the legislator or the writer. Hardly a week
passes, but a valuable bequest is successfully contested through
some loophole of ambiguous phraseology. If, in ordinary life, words
represent impressions and ideas, in legal instruments they are
_things_; they dispose of property, liberty, and life; they express
the will of the lawgiver, and become the masters of our social
being. Yet so carelessly are they used by lawyers and legislators,
that half the money spent in litigation goes to determine the
meanings of words and phrases. O’Connell used to assert that he
could drive a coach-and-six through an Act of Parliament. Many of
our American enactments yawn with chasms wide enough for a whole
railway train. But even when laws have been framed with the most
consummate skill, the subtlety of a Choate or a Follett may twist
what appears to be the clearest and most unmistakable language
into a meaning the very opposite to that which the common sense of
mankind would give it.

I have heard Judge Story make the following statement to show
the extreme difficulty of framing a statute so as to avoid all
ambiguity in its language. Being once employed by Congress to draft
an important law, he spent six months in trying to perfect its
phraseology, so that its sense would be clear beyond a shadow of
a doubt, leaving not the smallest loophole for a lawyer to creep
through. Yet, in less than a year, after having heard the arguments
of two able attorneys, in a suit which came before him as a Judge
of the United States Supreme Court, he was utterly at a loss to
decide upon the statute’s meaning!

A signal illustration of the ambiguity that lurks in the most
familiar words, is furnished by a legal question that was fruitful
of controversy and “costs” not long ago in England. An English
nobleman, Lord Henry Seymour, who lived in Paris many years,
executed a will in 1856, wherein he made a bequest of property
worth seventy thousand pounds to the hospitals of London and Paris.
No sooner was it known that he was dead, than the question was
raised, “What does ‘London’ mean? Where are its limits, and what
is its area? What does it contain, and what does it exclude?” Four
groups of claimants appeared, each to some extent opposed by the
other three. Group the first said, “The gift is obviously confined
to the _City_ proper of London,”--that is, “London within the
walls,” comprising little more than half of a square mile. “Not
so,” protested group the second; “it extends to all the hospitals
within the old bills of mortality,”--that is, London, Westminster,
Southwark, and about thirty out-parishes, but excluding Marylebone,
St. Pancras, Paddington, Chelsea, and everything beyond. Group
the third insisted that “London” included “all the area within the
metropolitan boroughs”; while group the fourth, for cogent reasons
of their own, were positive that the testator meant, and the
true construction was, nothing less than the whole area included
within the Registrar-General’s and the Census Commissioner’s
interpretation of the word “Metropolis.” The Master of the Rolls
decided that the testator meant to use the word “London” in its
full, complete, popular sense, as including all the busily occupied
districts of what is usually called the Metropolis, as it existed
in the year when the will was made. No sooner, however, was this
vexed question settled, than another, hardly less puzzling,
arose,--namely, What is a “Hospital”? Nearly every kind of
charitable institution put in its claim; but it was finally decided
that only such charities should share in the bequest as fell within
the definition of the French word _hospice_ used in the will.

Another perplexing question which came before the English courts
some years ago, and which not less vividly shows the importance
of attention to the words we use, related to the meaning of the
word “team,” as used by writers generally, and used in a written
agreement. A certain noble duke made an agreement with one of his
tenants in Oxfordshire concerning the occupancy of a farm, and a
portion of the agreement was couched in the following terms: “The
tenant to perform each year for the Duke of ----, at the rate of
one day’s team-work, with two horses and one proper person, for
every fifty pounds of rent, when required (except at hay or corn
harvest), without being paid for the same.” In other words, the
rent of the farm was made up of two portions, the larger being a
money payment, and the former a certain amount of farm service.
All went on quietly and smoothly in reference to this agreement,
until one particular day, when the duke’s agent or bailiff desired
the farmer to send a cart to fetch coals from a railway station to
the ducal mansion. “Certainly not,” said the farmer. “I’ll send
the horses and a man, but you must find the cart.” “Pooh, pooh!
what do you mean? Does not your agreement bind you to do team-work
occasionally for his Grace?” “Yes, and here’s the team; two horses
and a careful man to drive them.” “But there can’t be a team
without a cart or wagon.” “O yes, there can, the horses are the
team.” “No, the horses and cart together are the team.”

The question which the court was called on to decide in the lawsuit
which followed, was,--What is a “team”? The case was at first tried
at Oxford, before a common jury, who gave a verdict substantially
for the duke. A rule was afterward obtained, with a view to bring
the question of definition before the judges at the Court of
Queen’s Bench. The counsel for the duke contended that as team-work
cannot be done by horses without a cart or wagon, it is obvious
that a team must include a vehicle as well as the horses by which
it was to be drawn. Mr. Justice A. said that, in the course of his
reading, he had met with some lines which tend to show that the
team is separate from the cart,--

      “Giles Jelt was sleeping, in his cart he lay;
      Some waggish pilf’rers stole his team away.
      Giles wakes and cries, ‘Ods Bodikins, what’s here?
      Why, how now; am I Giles or not?
      If he, I’ve lost six geldings to my smart;
      If not, Ods Bodikins, I’ve found a cart.’”

Mr. Justice B. quoted a line from Wordsworth,--

      “My jolly team will work alone for me,”

as proving the farmer’s interpretation, seeing that, though horses
might possibly be jolly, a cart cannot. The counsel for His Grace
urged that the dictionaries of Johnson and Walker both speak of a
team as “a number of horses drawing the same carriage.” “True,”
said Justice A. “do not these citations prove that the team and the
carriage are distinct things?” “No,” replied the counsel on the
duke’s side; “because a team without a cart would be of no use.”
He cited the description given by Cæsar of the mode of fighting in
chariots adopted by the ancient Britons, and of the particular use
and meaning of the word _temanem_. From Cæsar he came down to Gray,
the English poet, and cited the lines,--

      “Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
        Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe hath broke;
      How jocund did they drive their team afield,
        How bowed the wood beneath their sturdy stroke;”

and from Gray he came down to the far-famed “Bull Run” affair in
the recent American civil war, a graphic account of which told that
“the teamsters cut the traces of the horses.”

The counsel for the farmer, on the other hand, referred to
Richardson’s English dictionary, and to Bosworth’s Anglo-Saxon
dictionary, for support to the assertion that a team implies only
the horses, not the vehicle also; and he then gave the following
citations to the same effect: From Spenser,--

      “Thee a ploughman all unmeeting found,
      As he his toilsome team that way did guide.
      And brought thee up a ploughman’s state to bide.”

From Shakespeare,--

      “We fairies that do run,
      By the triple Hecat’s team,
      From the presence of the sun,
      Following darkness like a dream.”

Again from Shakespeare,--

          “I am in love, but a team of horse shall
      Not pluck that from me, nor who ’tis I love.”

From Dryden,--

      “He heaved with more than human force to move
      A weighty straw, the labor of a team.”

Again from Dryden,--

            “Any number, passing in a line;
      Like a long team of snowy swans on high,
      Which clap their wings and cleave the liquid sky.”

Spenser, Roscommon, Martineau, and other authorities, were also
cited to the same purport, and all the light which English
literature could throw upon the point was converged upon it. The
learned judges were divided in their opinions, one deciding that
the word “team” clearly implied the cart as well as the horses, two
other judges deciding that it was enough if the farmer sent the
horse and the driver to be put to such service as the duke’s agent
might please. The arguments by which each supported his conclusion
were so acute, cogent, and weighty, that their disagreement seems
to have been inevitable.

The English historian, Hallam, says of the language of Hobbes that
it is so lucid and concise that it would be almost as improper
to put an algebraical process in different terms as some of his
metaphysical paragraphs. Having illustrated his precept by his
practice, Hobbes speaks with peculiar authority on the importance
of discrimination in the use of words. In a memorable passage
of the “Leviathan,” from which we have already quoted, he says:
“Seeing that truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in
our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise truth had need to
remember what every name he useth stands for, and to place it
accordingly; or else he will find himself entangled in words as
a bird in limetwigs,--the more he struggles, the more belimed.
Words are wise men’s counters,--they do but reckon by them; but
they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of
an Aristotle, a Cicero, a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever.”
Fuller quaintly suggests that the reason why the Schoolmen wrote
in so bald a style was, “that the vermin of equivocation might not
hide themselves in the nap of their words.” The definition of words
has been often regarded as a mere pedagogue’s exercise; but when we
call to mind the persecutions, proscriptions, tortures, and even
massacres, which have resulted from mistakes about the meaning of
certain words, the office of the lexicographer assumes a grave and
dignified aspect. It is not enough, however, in guarding against
error, to discriminate our words, so as to understand their exact
force. We must also keep constantly in mind the fact that language,
when used with the utmost precision, is at best but an imperfect
representation of thought. Words are properly neither the “names of
things,” as modern writers have defined them, nor, as the ancients
viewed them, the “pictures of ideas.” The most they can do is to
express the _relations_ of things; they are, as Hobbes said, “the
signs of our conceptions,” serving as a mark to recall to ourselves
the likeness of a former thought, and as a sign to make it known to

Even as the signs of our conceptions, they are at best imperfect
and unsatisfactory, representing only approximately what we
think, and never coordinating with the conceptions they are
used to represent. “Seizing on some characteristic mark of the
conception, they always express too little or too much. They
are sometimes distinctly metaphorical, sometimes indefinitely
assertive; sometimes too concrete, sometimes too abstract.” Our
sentences are not images of thought, reflected in a perfect
mirror, nor photographs which lack coloring only; they are but
the merest skeleton of expression, hints of meaning, tentative
signs, which can put another only into a partial possession of our
consciousness. To apprehend perfectly the thought of another man,
even one who uses language with the utmost nicety and accuracy, we
need to know his individuality, his entire past history; we must
interpret and supplement his meaning by all that we know of his
intellectual and moral constitution, his ways of thinking, feeling,
and speaking; we must be _en rapport_ with him; and even then we
may fail to penetrate to the central meaning of his words, the very
core of his thought.

The soul of every man is a mystery which no other man can fathom;
we are, as one has said, spirits in prison, able only to make
signals to each other, but with a world of things to think and
say which our signals cannot describe at all. There is hardly an
abstract term in any language which conveys precisely the same
meaning to two different minds; every word is sure to awaken in
one mind more or less different associations from those it awakens
in another. Words mean the same thing only to persons who are
psychologically the same, and who have had the same experiences.
It is obvious that no word can explain any sensation, pleasant or
painful, to one who has never felt the sensation. When Saunderson,
who was born blind, tried to define “red,” he compared that color
to the blowing of a trumpet, or the crowing of a cock. In like
manner Massieu, the deaf-mute, in trying to describe the sound of
a trumpet, said that it was “red.” The statement that words have
to two persons a common meaning only when they suggest ideas of a
common experience, is true even of the terms we stop to ponder; how
much more true, then, of words whose full and exact meaning we no
more pause to consider, than we reflect that the gold eagle which
passes through our hands is a thousand cents. Try to ascertain the
meaning of the most familiar words which are dropping from men’s
lips, and you find that each has its history, and that many are an
epitome of the thoughts and observations of ages.

What two persons, for example, attach the same meaning to the words
“democracy,” “conservatism,” “radicalism,” “education”? What is the
meaning of “gentleman,” “comfortable,” “competence”? De Quincey
says that he knew several persons in England with annual incomes
bordering on twenty thousand pounds, who spoke of themselves, and
seemed seriously to think themselves, “unhappy paupers.” Lady
Hester Stanhope, with an income of two thousand seven hundred
pounds a year, thought herself an absolute pauper in London, and
went to live in the mountains of Syria; “for how, you know,” she
would say pathetically, “could the humblest of spinsters live
decently on that pittance?” Do the chaste and the licentious, the
amiable and the revengeful, mean the same thing when they speak
of “love” or “hate”? With what precious meaning are the words
“home” and “heaven” flooded to some persons, and with what icy
indifference are they heard by others!

So imperfect is language that it is doubtful whether such a thing
as a self-evident verbal proposition, the absolute truth of which
can never be contested, is possible; for it can never be absolutely
certain what is the meaning of the words in which the proposition
is expressed, and the assertion that it is founded on partial
observation, or that the words imperfectly express the observation
on which it is founded, or are incomplete metaphors, or are
defective in some other respect, must always be open to proof.

Even words that designate outward, material objects, cognizable by
the senses, do not always call up similar thoughts in different
minds. The meaning they convey depends often upon the mental
qualities of the hearer. Thus the word “sun” uttered to an
unlettered man of feeble mental powers, conveys simply the idea of
a ball of light and heat, which rises in the sky in the morning,
and goes down at evening; but to the man of vivid imagination, who
is familiar with modern scientific discoveries, it suggests, more
or less distinctly, all that science has revealed concerning that
luminary. If we estimate words according to their etymological
meaning, we shall still more clearly see how inadequate they are
in themselves to involve the mass of facts which they connote,--as
inadequate as is a thin and worthless bit of paper, which yet may
represent a thousand pounds. In no case is the whole of an object
expressed or characterized by its appellation, but only some
salient feature or phenomenon is suggested, which is sometimes
real, at others only apparent. Take the name of an animal, and it
may probably express some trivial fact about its nose or its tail,
as in “rhinoceros” we express nothing but the horn in its nose,
and in “squirrel” we note only its shady tail; but each of these
animals has other important characteristics, and other animals may
have the very characteristics which these names import. The Latin
word _Homo_ means, etymologically, a creature made of earth, which
is but metaphorically true; but for what an infinity, almost, of
complex conceptions and relations does it stand! The Sanskrit has
four names for “elephant,” from different petty characteristics
of the animal, and yet how few of its qualities do they describe!
“Take a word expressive of the smallest possible modification
of matter,--a word invented in the most expressive language in
the world, and invented by no less eminent a philosopher than
Democritus, and that, too, with great applause,--the word ‘atom,’
meaning that which cannot be cut. Yet simple as is the notion to
be expressed, and great as were the resources at command, what a
failure the mere _word_ is! It expresses too much and too little,
too much as being applicable to other things, and consequently
ambiguous; too little, because it does not express all the
properties even of an atom. Its inadequacy cannot be more forcibly
illustrated than by the fact that its precise Latin equivalent is
by us confined to the single acceptation ‘insect’!”[37]

But if words are but imperfect symbols for designating material
objects, how much more unequal must they be to the task of
expressing that which lies above and behind matter and sensation,
especially as all abstract terms are metaphors taken from sensible
objects! How many feelings do we have, in the course of our lives,
which beggar description! How many apprehensions, limitations,
distinctions, opinions are clearly present, at times, to our
consciousness, which elude every attempt to give them verbal
expression! Even the profoundest thinkers and the most accurate,
hair-splitting writers, who weigh and test to the bottom every term
they use, are baffled in the effort so to convey their conclusions
as to defy all misapprehension or successful refutation. Beginning
with definitions, they find that the definitions themselves need
defining; and just at the triumphant moment when the structure of
argument seems complete and logic-proof, some lynx-eyed adversary
detects an inaccuracy or a contradiction in the use of some
keystone term, and the whole magnificent pile, so painfully reared,
tumbles into ruins.

The history of controversy, in short, in all ages and nations,
is a history of disputes about words. The hardest problems, the
keenest negotiations, the most momentous decisions, have turned on
the meaning of a phrase, a term, or even a particle. A misapplied
or sophistical expression has provoked the fiercest and most
interminable quarrels. Misnomers have turned the tide of public
opinion; verbal fallacies have filled men’s souls with prejudice,
rage, and hate; and “the sparks of artful watchwords, thrown among
combustible materials, have kindled the flames of deadly war and
changed the destiny of empires.”


[35] “Westminster Review,” September, 1856.

[36] “Essays,” Cotton’s edition.

[37] “Chapters on Language,” by F. W. Farrar.



  “Imago animi, vultus, vitae, nomen est.”

  L’étude des noms propres n’est point sans intérêt pour la morale,
  l’organization politique, la legislation, et l’histoire même de
  la civilization.--SALVERTE.

Among the crotchets of Sterne’s dialectician, Walter Shandy, was a
theory regarding the importance of Christian names in determining
the future behavior and destiny of the children to whom they are
given. He solemnly maintained the opinion that there is a strange
kind of magic bias which good or bad names, as he called them,
irresistibly impress upon men’s character or conduct. “How many
Cæsars and Pompeys,” he would say, “by mere inspiration of their
names, have been rendered worthy of them? And how many there are,”
he would add, “who might have done exceedingly well in the world,
had not their characters and spirits been utterly depressed and
Nicodemused into nothing!” Of all the names in the universe the
one to which the philosopher had the most unconquerable aversion
was “Tristram.” He would break off in the midst of one of his
disputes on the subject of names, and demand of his antagonist
whether he would say he had ever remembered, or whether he had ever
heard tell of a man called “Tristram” performing anything great
or worth recording. “No,” he would say; “_Tristram!_ the thing is

In these observations of Mr. Shandy there may be some
exaggeration, but they contain substantial truth. The power of
names in elevating or degrading both the things and persons to
whom they are applied, is known to all thoughtful observers. Give
to a conscious being a significant and graphic appellation, and
it tends to make the character gravitate in the direction of the
name. There are names that seem to act like promissory notes, which
the bearer does all in his power to redeem at maturity; names that
tend to verify themselves by swaying men _toward_ the qualities
they denote, while they too often lead to the exclusion of others
no less important. It is difficult to say which is the greater
misfortune, for a man to have a positively mean name, or one that
is grandiose. Lord Lytton, in “Kenelm Chillingly,” speaking of
the moral responsibilities of parents for the names they give
their children, regards as equally to be deprecated the names
which stamp a child with mediocrity, and those which stamp him
with an impress of absurd and overweening ambition. Inflict upon
a man, he says, the burden of a great name which he must utterly
despair of equalling, and you crush him beneath the weight. If a
poet were called John Milton, or William Shakespeare, he would
not dare publish even a sonnet. On the other hand, call a child
Peter Snooks or Lazarus Rust, and though he have the face and form
of the god of the silver bow, and the eloquence of a Chatham, he
will find it hard, if not impossible, to achieve distinction,--the
name will be such a dead weight on his intellectual energies. Can
Tabitha be a name to conjure with; can Jerusha be musical on the
lips of love, or Higginbotham fill the trump of fame? Think of
Washington having the name of Jenkins, and toasts being drunk to
the immortal Jenkins, “first in war, first in peace, and first in
the hearts of his countrymen!” The true choice of a name lies
between extremes,--the two extremes of ludicrous insignificance
and oppressive renown. It is questionable whether a good deal of
the mediocrity of the reigning families in Europe is not due to
the labyrinth of names in which the heir to a throne is hidden
at birth, like a moth in a silk cocoon. Some years ago an infant
prince of Saxony was enveloped in sixteen names. About forty years
ago the Queen of Naples gave birth to a princess whose names
numbered thirty-two, or a dozen more than the names of Susan Brown,
of whom we are told that

      “The patronymical name of the maid
      Was so completely overlaid
        With a long prenomical cover,
      That if each additional proper noun
      Was laid by the priest intensively down,
      Miss Susan was done uncommonly Brown,
        The moment the christening was over!”

Think of an infant’s being smothered for years in such a
superfetation of names as that of the Neapolitan princess. It must
require more mental energy than many babies can command, to break
one’s way out of such a verbal palace prison as that.

“_Notre nom propre_,” says a French writer, “_c’est nous mêmes_.”
The name of a man instantly recalls him to recollection, with his
physical and moral qualities, and the remarkable events, if any,
in his career. The few syllables forming it “suffice to reopen the
fountain of a bereaved mother’s tears; to cover with blushes the
face of the maiden who believes her secret about to be revealed; to
agitate the heart of the lover; to light up in the eyes of an enemy
the fire of rage, and to awaken in the breast of one separated by
distance from his friend the liveliest emotions of hope or regret.”
What would history or biography be without proper names; or what
stimulus would men have, inciting them to the performance of great
and noble deeds, if they could not live a second life in their
names? Among most nations the imposition of names has been esteemed
of such moment, that it has been attended with religious rites.
The Jews accompanied it with circumcision; the Greeks and Romans
with religious ceremonies and sacrifices; the Persians, after a
religious service, chose at a venture from names written on slips
of paper, and laid upon the Koran; while many Christians sanctify
the rite by baptism.

It is a well established fact that all proper names were originally
significant, though in the lapse of years the meaning of many of
them has been obscured or obliterated. Thus, the oldest known name,
Adam, meant “red,” indicating that his body was fashioned from
the red earth; while Moses signified “drawn from the water.” So
the fore-names of the Saxons were significant,--as Alfred, “all
peace”; Biddulph, “the slayer of wolves”; Edmund, “truth-mouth,” or
“the speaker of truth”; Edward, “truth-keeper”; Goddard, “honored
of God.” It is said that Mr. Freeman, the English historian,
has grown, in the course of his studies, so in love with the
Old-English period, that he has named three of his children Ælfred,
Eadward, and Æthelburgh. According to Verstegan, William was a
name not given to children, but a title of honor given for noble
or worthy deeds. When a German had killed a Roman, the golden
helmet of the vanquished soldier was placed upon his head, and the
victor was honored with the title Gildhelm, or “golden helmet,”--in
French, _Guillaume_.

In the early ages of the world a single name sufficed for each
person. It was generally descriptive of some quality he had, or
which his parents hoped he might in future have. In the course
of time, to distinguish a man from others bearing the same
appellative, a second name became necessary. The earliest approach
to the modern system of nomenclature, was the addition of the name
of a man’s son to his own name; as Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, or
Joshua, the son of Nun,--a practice which survives in our own day
in such names as Adamson and Fitzherbert. The Romans, to mark the
different _gentes_ and _familiæ_, and to distinguish individuals
of the same race, had three names,--the _Prænomen_, the _Nomen_,
and the _Cognomen_. The first denoted the individual; the second
was the generic name, or term of clanship; and the third indicated
the family. Military commanders, and other persons of the highest
eminence, sometimes were honored with a fourth name, or _Agnomen_;
as Coriolanus, Africanus, Germanicus, borrowed from the name of
a hostile country, which had been the scene of their exploits. A
person was usually addressed only by his prænomen, which, Horace
tells us, “delicate ears loved”:

            “Gaudent prænomine molles

Archdeacon Hare has well observed that by means of their names
political principles, political duties, political affections were
impressed on the minds of the Romans from their birth. Every member
of a great house had a determinate course marked out for him, the
path in which his forefathers had trod; his name admonished him
of what he owed to his country. “_Rien_,” says Desbrosses, “_n’a
contribué davantage à la grandeur de la république que cette
methode de succession nominale, qui, incorporant, pour ainsi dire,
à la gloire de l’état, la gloire des noms héréditaires, joignit le
patriotisme de race au patriotisme national_.”

After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the old Pagan names
were commonly discarded, and Scriptural names, or names derived
from church history, took their place. About the close of the tenth
century, distinctive appellations, describing physical and moral
qualities, habits, professions, etc., were added for the purpose
of identification; but as these sobriquets were imposed upon many
who bore the same baptismal names, an entire change in the system
of names became necessary, and hereditary surnames were adopted.
These, it is said, were at first written, “not in a direct line
after the Christian name, but above it, between the lines,” and
thus were literally _supra nomina_, or “surnames.”

Our English names, most of which have originated since the Norman
Conquest, are borrowed, to some extent, from nearly all the races
and languages of the earth. The Hebrew is represented in Ben, which
means “son,” and the Syriac in Bar, as in Barron and Bartholomew.
The desire to disguise Old Testament names has shortened Abraham
into “Braham,” and Moses into “Mosely” or “Moss.” In like manner
Solomon becomes “Sloman”; Levi, “Lewis”; and Elias, “Ellis.”

The three most common patronymics of Celtic origin, now used by
the English, are _O_, _Mac_, and _Ap_. The Highlanders of Scotland
employed the _sire_-name with Mac, and hence the Macdonalds and
Mac Gregors, meaning “the son of Donald” and “the son of Gregor.”
The Irish used the prefix of _Oy_ or _O_, signifying grandson; as,
O’Hara, O’Neale. They use the word Mac also; and the two names
together are so essential notes of the Irish, that

      “Per Mac atque O, tu veros cognoscis Hibernos,
      His duobus ademptis, nullus Hibernus adest.”

Mr. Lower, in his interesting work on personal names,[38] states
that among the archives of the corporation of Galway, there is an
order dated 1518, declaring that “neither O ne Mac shoulde strutte
ne swagger through the streetes of Galway.”

The old Normans prefixed to their names the word _Fitz_ a
corruption of _fils_, derived from the Latin _filius_; as
Fitz-William, “the son of William.” Camden states that there is not
a village in Normandy that has not surnamed some family in England.
The French names thus introduced from Normandy may generally be
known by the prefixes _De_, _Du_, _De la_, _St._, and by the
suffixes _Font_, _Beau_, _Age_, _Mont_, _Bois_, _Champ_, _Ville_,
etc., most of which are parts of the proper names of places; as De
Mortimer, St. Maure (Seymour), Montfort, etc. The Russian peasantry
employ the termination _witz_, and the Poles _sky_ in the same
sense; as Peter Paulowitz, “Peter, the son of Paul,” and James
Petrowsky, “James, the son of Peter.”

In Wales, till a late period, no surnames were used, except _Ap_,
or _Son_; as Ap Richard, now corrupted into Prichard; Ap Owen,
now Bowen; Ap Roderick, now Broderick and Brodie. Not over a
century has passed since one might have heard in Wales of such
“yard-long-tailed” combinations as Evan-ap-Griffith-ap-David-ap
Jenken, and so on to the seventh or eighth generation, the
individual carrying his pedigree in his name.[38] To ridicule this
absurd species of nomenclature, a wag of the seventeenth century
described cheese as being

      “Adam’s own cousin-german by its birth,

Mr. Lower says that the following anecdote was related to him by
a native of Wales: An Englishman riding one dark night among the
mountains, heard a cry of distress, uttered apparently by a man
who had fallen into a ravine near the highway, and, on listening
more attentively, heard the words: “Help, master, help!” in a voice
truly Cambrian. “Help! what, who are you?” inquired the traveller.
“Jenkin-ap-Griffith-ap-Robin-ap-William-ap-Rees-ap-Evan,” was the
reply. “Lazy fellows that ye be,” rejoined the Englishman, putting
spurs to his horse, “to lie rolling in that hole, _half a dozen of
ye_; why, in the name of common sense, don’t ye _help one another

In the twelfth century it was considered a mark of disgrace to have
no surname. A wealthy heiress is represented as saying in respect
to her suitor, Robert, natural son of King Henry I, who had but one

      “It were to me a great shame,
      To have a lord withouten his twa name;”

whereupon the King, to remedy the fatal defect, gave him the
surname of Fitz-Roy.

The early Saxons had as a rule but one name, which was always
significant of some outward or other peculiarity, and was doubtless
often given to children with the belief or hope that the meaning
of the word might exert some mysterious influence on the bearer’s
future destiny. Ere long, however, surnames came into fashion with
them, too, and were derived from the endless variety of personal
qualities, natural objects, occupations and pursuits, social
relations, localities, offices, and even from different parts of
the body (as Cheek, Beard, Shanks), from sports (as Ball, Bowles,
Whist, Fairplay), from measures (as Gill, Peck), and from diseases
(as Cramp, Toothacher, Akenside), from a conjunction (as And),
and from coins (as Penny, Twopenny, Moneypenny, Grote, Pound). On
a person with the first of these pecuniary names, the following
epitaph was written:

      “Reader, if cash thou art in want of any,
      Dig four feet deep, and thou shalt find a Penny.”

The prefix _atte_ or _at_ softened to _a_ or _an_ has helped to
form many names. A man living on a moor would call himself Attemoor
or Atmoor; if near a gate, Attegate or Agate. John Atten Oak was
oftentimes condensed into John-a-Noke, and then into John Noaks.
Nye is thus a corruption of Atten-Eye, “at the island.” From
Applegarth, “an orchard,” are derived Applegate and Appleton.
Beckett means literally “a little brook”; Chase, “a forest”; Cobb,
“a harbor”; Craig, “a rock” or “precipice”; Holme and Holmes, “a
meadow surrounded with water”; Holt, “a grove”; Holloway, “a deep
road between high banks”; Lee and Leigh, “a pasture”; Peel, “a
pool”; Slack, “low ground,” or “a pass between mountains.” The root
of the ubiquitous Smith is _smitan_, “to smite,” and like the Latin
_faber_, the name was originally given to all “smiters,” whether
workers in wood or workers in metal. Soldiers were sometimes called
War-Smiths. Among all the forty thousand English surnames, no one
has been more prolific of jests and witticisms, especially John
Smith, which, from its commonness, is practically no name, though
the rural Englishman seems to have thought otherwise, who directed
a letter, “For Mr. John Smith, London,--with spead.” As there are
hundreds of John Smiths in the London Directory, the letter might
as well have been addressed to the Man in the Moon. There is a well
known story of a wag at a crowded theatre, who secured a seat by
shouting “Mr. Smith’s house is on fire!”

Many words obsolete in English are preserved in surnames; as
Sutor, which is the Latin and Saxon for “shoemaker;” Latimer,
from Latiner, “a writer of Latin;” Chaucer, from _chausier_, “a
hose-maker”; Lorimer, “a maker of spurs, and bits for bridles.” An
Arkwright was “a maker of meal-chests”; Lander is from _lavandier_,
“a washerwoman”; Banister, is “a keeper of the Bath”; Crocker, “a
potter”; Shearman, “one who shears worsteds, etc.”; Sanger, “a
singer”; Notman, “a cowherd.” Generally all names ending in _er_
indicate some employment or profession. Such names as Baxter and
Brewster are the feminine of Baker and Brewer, as is Webster of
Webber, or “weaver,” which shows that these trades were anciently
carried on by women, and that when men began to follow them, they
retained for some time the feminine names, as do men-milliners now.
The name of the poet Whittier, however, is a corruption of “White
church.” The termination _ward_ indicates “a keeper”; as Hayward,
“keeper of the town cattle”; Woodward, “forest-keeper.” Rush is
“subtle”; Bonner, “kind”; Eldridge, “wild,” “ghastly.” Numerous
surnames are derived from the chase, showing the passion of the
early English for field-sports; as Bowyer, Fowler, Fletcher (from
the French _flèche_, an arrow), Hartman. Tod is the Scotch word
for fox; hence Todhunter (the name of a celebrated mathematician
who died recently at Cambridge, Eng.) is “a fox-hunter.” Among the
names derived from offices are Chalmers, “a chamberlain;” Foster,
“a nourisher,” one who had care of the children of great men; and
Franklin, a person next in dignity to an esquire. Palmer comes from
the professional wanderer of the ancient time, who always carried
a _palm_-branch as a pledge of his having visited the Holy Land.
Landseer was a “land-steward,” or bailiff.

Some names, denoting mean occupations which only bondmen would
follow, have been disguised by a new orthography, “mollified
ridiculously,” as Camden says, “lest their bearers should
seem vilified by them.” Carter, Tailor, and Smith have been
metamorphosed into Carteer, Tayleure, Smyth, Smeeth, or Smythe. Mr.
Hayward, ashamed of being called “cattle-keeper,” has transformed
himself into Howard, as if he hoped to smuggle himself among the
connections of the greatest of ducal houses. Dean Swift, speaking
of these devices to change the vulgar into the genteel by the
change of a letter, says: “I know a citizen who adds or alters a
letter in his name with every plum he acquires; he now wants only
the change of a vowel to be allied to a sovereign prince, Farnese,
in Italy, and that perhaps he may contrive to be done by a mistake
of the graver upon his tombstone.” Mr. Lower tells a good story of
a Tailor who had been thus dignified, and who haughtily demanded of
a farmer the name of his dog. The answer was: “Why, sir, his proper
name is Jowler, but since he’s a consequential kind of puppy, we
calls him Jowleure!”

Of the Saxon patronymics the most fruitful is _son_, with which
is mingled inseparably the genitive letter _s_. Thus from the
Christian name _Adam_ are derived Adams, Adamson, Addison; from
_Andrew_, Andrews, Anderson; from _Dennis_, Dennison, Jennison;
from _Henry_, Henrison, Harris, Harrison, Hawes, Hawkins; from
_John_, Johns, Jones, Jonson, Johnson, Jennings, Jenks, Jenkinson,
Jackson, Jockins; from _William_, Williamson, Williams, Wilson,
Wills, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wells; from _Walter_, Watson, Watts,
Watkins. From the Old Saxon derivation _ing_, signifying offspring,
it is said that we get over two thousand proper names. Browning
and Whiting are dark and white offspring. The termination _kin_,
derived from the ancient _cyn_, meaning “race,” is found in a yet
greater number of names; while from the termination _ock_ (as
in Pollock, from Paul, and contracted into Polk) are obtained
comparatively few names. Scandinavian mythology has contributed
a few names to our English list. From _Thor_ we have Thoresby,
Thursby, and Thurlow.

Among the surnames derived from personal qualities, we have
Russell, “red”; Gough, also “red”; Snell, “agile” or “hardy”;
Read, Reid, or Reed, an old spelling of “red”; Duff, “black”;
Vaughan, “little”; Longfellow, Moody, Goodenough, Toogood, and
hundreds of others. Farebrother is a Scottish name for “uncle”;
Waller means a “pilgrim,” or “stranger.” Of Puritan surnames
derived from the virtues, Be-courteous Cole, Search-the-Scriptures
Moreton, Fly-fornication Richardson, Kill-sin Pemble,
Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith White, are examples. Surnames
have even been derived from oaths, and other such exclamations.
Profane swearing was a common vice in the early times, and when
men habitually interlarded their conversations with oaths, they
became sobriquets by which they were known. Just as Say-Say became
the title of an old gentleman who always began a remark with “I
say-say, old boy,” so a profane exclamation, repeatedly uttered,
became a proper name. Godkin, Blood, and _Sacré_ are said to be
clipped oaths. Parsall is corrupted from _Par Ciel_, “By Heaven,”
Pardoe from _Par Dieu_, and Godsall and Godbody from “By the soul
and body of God!” the shocking but favorite oath of Edward III.

There are names which in the social circle will provoke a smile,
in spite of every attempt to preserve one’s gravity; others that
excite horror, hate, or contempt; and others which, inviting cheap
puns and gibes, irritate the minds of the calmest men. Shenstone
thanked God that his name was not liable to a pun. There is a
large class of names indicative of personal blemishes or moral
obliquities, such as Asse, Goose, Lazy, Leatherhead, Addlehead,
Milksop, Mudd, Pighead, Trollope, Hussey, Silliman, Cruickshank,
Blackmonster, etc. In many countries Devil is a surname. Kennard,
once Kaynard, means “you dog,” also a “rascal.” The Romans had
their Plauti, Pandi, Vari, and Scauri, that is, the Splay-foots,
the Bandy-legs, the In-knees, and the Club-foots. Cocles means
“one-eyed”; Flaccus, one of the names of Horace, “flap-eared”;
and Naso points to a long “nose.” Cæsar, from whose name come
the German _Kaiser_ and the Russian _Czar_, was so called (or,
at least, the first Roman with the name was so called) from his
coming into the world with long hair (_cæsaries_), or from his
unnatural mode of birth (_a_ CÆSO _matris utero_). Who would
introduce Mr. Shakelady into the circle of his friends, and what
worthy deeds could be expected from a Doolittle? Who can blame Dr.
Jacob Quackenboss for dropping a couple of syllables and the quack
at the same time from his name, and becoming Jacob Bush, M.D.? Who
can help sympathizing with Mr. Death, who asked the Legislature
of Massachusetts to change his name to one less sepulchral; or
with Mr. Wormwood, who petitioned for liberty to assume the name
of Washington, declaring that the intense sufferings of so many
years of wormwood existence deserved the compensation of a great
and glorious name? Louis XI was less justified in changing the
name of his barber, Olivier le Diable, into Olivier le Mauvais,
then to Olivier le Malin, and then into Olivier le Daim, at the
same time forbidding his former names ever to be mentioned. On
the other hand, the ill-omened name of Maria Theresa’s noble
minister, Thunichtgut, “Do-no-good,” was rightfully changed by the
Empress into Thugut, “Do-good.” The original name of the great
French writer, Balzac, was Guez, “a beggar.” Men who inherit names
originally given in contempt and scorn have this compensation,
that, as many a hump-backed and ugly-looking man has found in his
deformity “a perpetual spur to rescue and deliver him from scorn,”
so the inheritors of mean or degrading names are provoked and
stimulated, as we see in the case of Brutus, “stupid,” to redeem
them from their degradation by noble deeds, and make them for
centuries the watchwords of humanity.

The dislike to vulgar and cacophonous names led some scholars and
others, at an early period, to adopt Greek or Latin forms. The
native name of Erasmus was Gherærd Gherærds. The root of Gherærd
is a verb meaning “to desire,” and so the great scholar Latinized
his Christian name into Desiderius, and Græcized his surname into
Erasmus, both signifying the same thing. The name of Luther’s
friend, the celebrated theologian and reformer, Melanchthon, is a
translation of the German Schwarzerde, or “Black Earth.”

Considering the great variety of English proper
names,--representing, as they do, nearly all the nationalities
of Europe,--it is not strange that they have suffered much from
corruption. The causes of this corruption have been the wear and
tear of time and usage; the repetition of foreign sounds by alien
lips; the falling of those sounds upon a dull or deafened ear;
their disguisement by too thick or too thin an utterance; incorrect
spelling; the practice of pronouncing the words as they were
written; and the fluctuations of orthography. Many Norman names
have been so mutilated, that their owners, if they could see them,
would find them unintelligible. Thus we have Darcy from Adrecy,
Boswell from Bosseville, Loring from Lorraine, and Taille-bois has
been changed into Tallboys! Paganus became first Painim, and then
Payne. But the most unhappy victims of this corrupting tendency
were four Normans, whose names were anglicized from honorable
into the most ill-omened and repulsive appellations. One, called
De Ath, became Death; another, De-Ville, was transformed into a
Devil; and the third, Scardeville, is now Skarfield, and--_horresco

It is natural to suppose that all families bearing English names
are of English extraction; but there are examples of the contrary.
The descendant of a German family, whose name in the Old World was
Brückenbauer, calls himself in this country Bridgebuilder. A German
called Feuerstein (“firestone,” or “flint”), having settled among a
French population in the West, changed his name to Pierre à Fusil;
but, the Anglo-American population becoming after a while the
leading one, Pierre à Fusil was transformed into the pithy Peter

Mr. Lower gives an interesting account of the origin of certain
famous historical names. The name of Fortescue was bestowed on
Sir Richard le Forte, a leader in the Conqueror’s army, because
he protected his chief at the battle of Hastings by bearing
before him a massive _escu_, or shield. The name of Lockhart was
originally given to a follower of Lord Douglas, who accompanied
him to the Holy Land with the heart of King Robert Bruce. Hence
some of the family bear a padlock enclosing a heart in their arms.
The illustrious surname of Plantagenet, borne by eight kings
of England, originally belonged to Fulke, the Count of Anjou,
in the twelfth century. To expiate certain flagrant crimes of
which he had been guilty, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,
and wore in his cap, as a mark of humility, a _planta genista_,
or “broom-plant,” and hence was surnamed Plantagenet. Another
version of the story is that he suffered himself to be beaten with
“broom-twigs,” _plantagananstæ_. The Scottish name, Turnbull, is
said to have been given to a strong man, one Ruel, who “turned” by
the head, a wild “bull” which ran violently against King Robert
Bruce in Stirling Park. The celebrated and numerous Scottish
family of Armstrong derive their surname from an ancestor who
was an armor-bearer, and by whom an ancient King of Scotland was
remounted, after his horse had been killed under him in battle.
The Halidays were named from their war cry, “A holy day”; every
day being holy, in their estimation, that was spent in ravaging
the enemy’s country. A poor child, picked up at Newark-upon-Trent,
was called by the inhabitants Tom Among Us. Becoming eminent, he
was employed in several embassies, and changed his name to the
dignified one of Dr. Thomas Magnus. Though the earliest names were
short and simple, yet there appears to have prevailed, even in
the olden times, a taste for long and sounding names. In a note
to Coleridge’s “Literary Biography,” mention is made of an author
whose name is of fearful length,--Abul Waled Mohammed Ebn Ashmed
Ebn Mohammed Ebn Raschid. Think of the time wasted in speaking and
writing such an appellation, which, unless he was blessed with a
very tenacious memory, its owner himself must have been sometimes
puzzled to recollect! The polytitled Arab, whose name thus “drags,
like a wounded snake, its slow length along,” was born at Corinth
about 1150, and died in Morocco in 1206. The Spaniards have been
noted, beyond all other peoples, for a passion for voluminous and
dignified names; and to enlarge them, they often add their places
of residence. This is amusingly illustrated by a story told by
Fuller in his “Worthies.” A rich citizen, of the name of John
Cuts, was ordered by Queen Elizabeth to receive and entertain the
Spanish ambassador; but the don was greatly displeased, feeling
that he was disparaged by being placed with a man whose name was
so ridiculously short, and who, consequently, could never have
achieved anything great or honorable; but when he found that the
hospitality of his host had nothing monosyllabic about it, but
more than made up for the brevity of his name, he was reconciled.
Lucian tells of one Simon, who, coming to a considerable fortune,
aggrandized his name to Simonides. Diocles, becoming emperor,
lengthened his name to Dioclesian; and Bruna, Queen of France,
tried to give regal pomp to her name by transforming it to

Oddities, eccentricities, and happy accidents of names are common
to all languages, and open a wide field of playful speculation and
research. What queer yet felicitous conjunctions are Preserved
Fish, Virginia Weed, Dunn Browne, Mahogany Coffin, and Return
Swift? Especially remarkable is the extent to which the occupations
of men harmonize with their surnames. In London, Gin & Ginman,
and Alehouse are publicans. Portwine and Negus are licensed
victuallers, one in Westminster, the other in Bishopsgate street.
Seaman is the host of the Ship Hotel, and A. King keeps the Crown
and Sceptre. Pye is a pastry cook, and Fitall and Treadaway are
shoemakers. Mr. Weinmann sells sherries, madeiras, etc., in
Chicago, and Mr. Silverman is a noted banker. It is a striking
fact that Mr. Loud and Mr. Thunder were, some years ago, both
organists in the same American town; and we must acknowledge that
few names could harmonize better, or accord more happily with the
double diapason and the swell to which their professional duties
accustomed them. What name could be more picturesque for a pot-boy
than Corker, for a dentist than Tugwell, or for an editor of
“Punch” than Mark Lemon? What happier appellation for the owner of
a line of stage-coaches than Jehu Golightly, the name of a southern
proprietor, which the incredulous passenger refused to believe

Sometimes the name harmonizes ill with, or is positively
antagonistic to, the occupation or character. The amiable and witty
banker-poet, Horace Smith, even declares that “surnames ever go by
contraries,” and, as proof, says:

      “Mr. Barker’s as mute as a fish in the sea,
        Mr. Miles never moves on a journey,
      Mr. Go-to-bed sits up till half-past three,
        Mr. Makepeace was bred an attorney.

      Mr. Gardener can’t tell a flower from a root,
        Mr. Wild with timidity draws back;
      Mr. Rider performs all his travels on foot,
        Mr. Foote all his journeys on horseback.”

Ward and Lock, who should sell bank safes, are book publishers.
Neal and Pray was the title of a house in New England, that
was by no means given to devotion. Butcher, Death, Slaughter,
Churchyard, and Coffin were the names of so many London surgeons
and apothecaries. Partnerships often show a curious conjunction of
names; as Lamb & Hare, Holland & Sherry, Carpenter & Wood, Spinage
& Lamb, Flint & Steel, Foot & Stocking, hosiers, Rumfit & Cutwell,
tailors, Robb & Steel, and, above all, I. Ketchum & U. Cheatham,
the immortal names of two New York brokers. Not only business but
hymeneal partnerships reveal some singular combinations; as when
Mr. Good marries Miss Evil, when George Virtue is united to Susan
Vice, and when Benjamin Bird, aged sixty, is wedded to Julia Chaff,
aged twenty, showing that, in spite of the old saw, “an old bird”
may be “caught by chaff.”

Punning upon names has always been a favorite amusement with those

            “Who think it legitimate fun
      To be blazing away at every one
      With a regular double-loaded gun.”

When the defender of a certain extortioner, whom Lutatius Catulus
accused, attempted by a sarcasm to disconcert his vehement
adversary, saying, “Why do you bark, little dog?” (“_Quid latras,
Catule?_”) “Because I saw a thief,” retorted Catulus. Shakespeare
makes Falstaff play upon his swaggering ancient’s name, telling
Pistol he will double charge him with sack, or dismissing him
with--“No more, Pistol; I would not have you go off here; discharge
yourself of our company, Pistol.” When a man named Silver was
arraigned before Sir Thomas More, he said: “_Silver_, you must be
_tried by fire_.” “Yes,” replied the prisoner, “but you know, my
lord, that Quick _Silver_ cannot abide the fire.” The man’s wit
procured his discharge. An old gentleman by the name of Gould,
having married a very young wife, wrote to a friend informing him
of his good fortune, concluding with

      “So you see, my dear sir, though I’m eighty years old,
      A girl of eighteen is in love with old Gould.”

To this his friend replied:

      “A girl of eighteen may love, it is true,
      But believe me, dear sir, it is Gold without U.”

When a Bishop Goodenough was appointed to his office, a certain
dignitary who had hoped, but failed, to get the appointment, was
asked the secret of his disappointment, and replied: “Because I was
not Goodenough.”

Fuller, in his “Grave Thoughts,” tells an anecdote which shows
that where the punning propensity exists, no occasion or subject,
however solemn, will prevent it from finding expression: “When
worthy Master Hern, famous for his living, preaching, and writing,
lay on his deathbed (rich only in goodness and children), his wife
made such womanish lamentations, what should become of her little
ones? ‘Peace! sweet-heart,’ said he; ‘that God who feedeth the
ravens will not starve the herns;’ a speech censured as light by
some, observed by others as prophetical; as indeed it came to pass
that they were all well disposed of.” It is said that John Huss,
when burning at the stake, fixed his eyes steadfastly upon the
spectators, and said with much solemnity: “They burn a _goose_, but
in a hundred years a _swan_ will arise out of the ashes;” words
which many years afterward were regarded as predicting the great
Protestant reformer,--Huss signifying “a goose,” and Luther, “a

There are occasions, however, when, as Sir William F. Napier once
wrote to a friend, in excusing himself for making some bad puns, “a
bitter feeling turns to humor to avoid cursing;” and it is certain
that it was from no desire to display his wit, that Æschylus
devoted twelve lines of “a splendid and passionate chorus” to a
denunciation of

                            “Sweet Helen,
      _Hell in_ her name, but Heaven in her looks.”

Even Dr. Johnson, a professed hater of puns, could not resist
the temptation, when introduced to Mrs. Barbauld, of growling,
“_Bare-bald!_ why, that’s the very _pleonasm of baldness_!”

At the beginning of this chapter some remarks were made on the
names of children, and with a few words further on the same
theme I will end. Too often the boy or girl is named after the
father or mother, taking the names, however ugly, ill-sounding,
or uneuphonious, that have been handed down in the family from
generation to generation, without a thought of the cruelty
inflicted on the unconscious babe by fastening Ebenezer or Tabitha
on it for life. Where this folly is avoided by parents, they
often outrage their sons by baptizing them George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, or Andrew Jackson, or worse
still, loading them with classical names, like those of which
Ex-President Grant is a conspicuous victim. The whims, freaks,
and eccentricities which dictate the names of children are as
inexplicable as they are multifarious. At a United States census
some years ago, record was obtained of a man who had named his five
children Imprimis, Finis, Appendix, Addendum, and Erratum. It has
been suggested that had there been a sixth, he would probably have
been Supplement. Everybody is familiar with the story of a worthy
lady, who, having named four sons successively Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John, insisted on calling the fifth Acts,--a perversity
equalled by that of the father of ten children, who, having been
blessed with three more, named them Moreover, Nevertheless, and
Notwithstanding. No doubt these last appellatives are mythical; but
it is positively certain that names are often given to children,
which, being utterly incongruous with their looks, descent, or
character, rendering them targets for coarse jests, or raising
expectations that are sure to be falsified, are productive to their
bearers, if they are at all sensitive, of an incalculable amount
of suffering. In naming a child his individuality should, first of
all, be recognized. Instead of being invested with the cast-off
appellation of some dead ancestor, as musty as the clothes he
wore,--a ghostly index-finger forever pointing to the past,--he
should have a fresh name, free from all ridiculous or unpleasant
associations, congruous with his probable destiny, and suggestive
of a history to be filled, a life of usefulness to be lived. If
such a name cannot be invented, let him bear the plain, honest
one of John, Edward, or Robert, which affords no opportunity for
gibes, and consequent heart-burnings, promises nothing, disappoints
nobody, and yet may be transfigured and glorified by the noblest
and most illustrious deeds.


[38] “An Essay on English Surnames,” by Mark Antony Lower, M.A.,
F.S.A., a work full of interesting information on the subject of
which it treats, and to which I am much indebted.



  The word “nick” in nickname is cognate with the German word
  _necken_, to mock, to quiz, and the English word “nag,” to tease,
  or provoke.--W. L. BLACKLEY, _Word-Gossip_.

  A good name will wear out, a bad one may be turned: a nickname
  lasts forever.--ZIMMERMAN.

  J’ai été toujours étonné que les Familles qui portent un Nom
  odieux ou ridicule, ne le quitteut pas.--BAYLE.

Among the books that need to be written, one of the most
instructive would be a treatise on the history and influence of
nicknames. Philosophers who study the great events in the world’s
history, are too apt, in their eagerness to discover adequate
causes, to overlook the apparently trifling means by which mankind
are influenced. They are eloquent enough upon the dawning of a
new idea in the world, when its effects are set forth in all the
pomp of elaborate histories and disquisitions; but they would do
a greater service by showing how and when, by being condensed
into a pithy word or phrase, it wins the acceptance of mankind.
The influence of songs upon a people in times of excitement and
revolution is familiar to all. “When the French mob began to sing
the Marseillaise, they had evidently caught the spirit of the
revolution; and what a song is to a political essay, a nickname is
to a song.” In itself such a means of influence may seem trivial;
and yet history shows that it is no easy thing to estimate the
force of these ingenious appellations.

The name of a man is not a mere label, which may be detached, as
one detaches a label from a piece of lifeless furniture. As Goethe
once feelingly said, it is not like a cloak, which only hangs about
a man, and at which one may at any rate be allowed to pull and
twitch; but it is a close-fitting garment, which has grown over
and over him, like his skin, and which one cannot scrape and flay
without injuring himself. Names not only represent certain facts
or thoughts, but they powerfully mould the facts and thoughts
which they represent. Men have borne names which they have felt
to be stigmas, an active cause of discouragement and failure to
their dying day; and they have borne names, inherited from their
ancestors, which have lifted them above themselves, by bringing
them into fellowship with a past of high effort or generous

In politics, it has long been observed that no orator can compare
for a moment in effect with him who can give apt and telling
nicknames. Brevity is the soul of wit, and of all eloquence a
nickname is the most concise and irresistible. It is a terse,
pointed, short-hand mode of reasoning, condensing a volume of
meaning into an epithet, and is especially popular in these days
of steam and electric telegraphs, because it saves the trouble of
thinking. There is a deep instinct in man which prompts him, when
engaged in any controversy, whether of tongue or pen, to assume to
himself some honorable name which begs the whole matter in dispute,
and at the same time to fasten on his adversary a name which shall
render him ridiculous, odious, or contemptible. By facts and logic
you may command the assent of the few; but by nicknames you may
enlist the passions of the million on your side. Who can doubt
that when, in the English civil wars, the parliamentary party
styled themselves “the Godly” and their opponents “the Malignants,”
the question at issue, wherever entrance could be gained for these
words, was already decided? Who can estimate how much the Whig
party in this country was damaged by the derisive sarcasm, “All the
decency,” or its opponents by the appellation of “Locofocos”? Is it
not certain that the odious name “Copperheads,” which was so early
in our late civil war affixed to the northern sympathizers with
the South, had an incalculable influence in gagging them, and in
preventing their numbers from multiplying?

It has been truly said that in the distracted times of early
revolution, any nickname, however vague, will fully answer a
purpose, though neither those who are blackened by the odium,
nor those who cast it, can define the hateful appellative. The
historian Hume says that when the term “Delinquents” came into
vogue in England, it expressed a degree and species of guilt not
easily known or ascertained. It served, however, the end of those
revolutionists who had coined it, by involving any person in, or
coloring any action by, “delinquency”; and many of the nobility and
gentry were, without any questions being asked, suddenly discovered
to have committed the crime of “delinquency.” The degree in which
the political opinions of our countrymen were influenced, and their
feelings embittered, some forty years ago, by the appellation
“Federalist,” cannot be easily estimated. The fact that many who
heard the derisive title knew not its origin, and some not even
its meaning, did not lessen its influence,--as an incident related
by Judge Gaston of North Carolina well illustrates. In travelling
on his circuit through the backwoods of that state, he learned
that the people of a certain town had elected a Democrat, in
place of a Whig, to serve them in the legislature. When asked the
reason of this change, his informant, an honest, rough-looking
citizen, replied: “Oh, we didn’t reëlect Mr. A., because he is
a _fetheral_.” “A fetheral!” exclaimed the judge, “what is a
fetheral?” “I don’t know,” was the reply, “but _it ain’t a human_.”

There is no man so insignificant that he may not blast the
reputation of another by fastening upon him an odious or ludicrous
nickname. Even the most shining character may thus be dragged down
by the very reptiles of the race to the depths of infamy. A parrot
may be taught to call names, and, if you have a spite against your
neighbor, may be made to give him a deal of annoyance, without
much wit either in the employer or the puppet. Goethe felt this
when he made the remark above quoted, which was provoked by a
coarse pun made on his name by Herder. Though no man could better
afford to despise such a jest, it rankled, apparently, even in
his great mind; for, forty years later, after Herder’s death, he
spoke of it bitterly, in the course of a very kindly criticism upon
that writer, as an instance of the sarcasm which often rendered
him unamiable. Hotspur would have had a starling taught to speak
nothing but “Mortimer” in the ears of his enemy. An insulting or
degrading epithet will stick to a man long after it has been proved
malicious or false. Who could dissociate with the name of Van Buren
the idea of craft or cunning, after he had become known as the
“Kinderhook Fox”; or who ever venerated John Tyler as the Chief
Magistrate of the nation, after he had been politically baptized as
“His Accidency”? Who can tell how far General Scott’s prospects
for the Presidency were damaged by the contemptuous nickname of
“Old Fuss and Feathers”; especially after he had nearly signed his
own political death-warrant by that fatal allusion to “a hasty
plate of soup,” which convulsed the nation with laughter from the
St. Croix to the Rio Grande? The hero of Chippewa found it hard to
breast the torrent of ridicule which this derisive title brought
down upon him. It would have been easier far to stand up against
the iron shock of the battle-field. Who, again, has forgotten how
a would-be naval bard of America was “damned to everlasting fame”
by a verbal tin-pail attached to his name in the form of one of
his own verses?[39] “I have heard an eminent character boast,”
says Hazlitt, “that he did more to produce the war with Bonaparte
by nicknaming him ‘The Corsican,’ than all the state papers and
documents on the subject put together.” “Give a dog a bad name,”
says the proverb, “and you hang him.” It was only necessary to
nickname Burke “The Dinner Bell,” to make even _his_ rising to
speak a signal for a general emptying of the house.

The first step in overthrowing any great social wrong is to fix
upon it a name which expresses its character. From the hour when
“taxation without representation” came to be regarded by our
fathers as a synonym for “tyranny,” the cause of the colonies was
safe. Had the southern slaves been called by no other name than
that used by their masters,--namely, “servants,”--they would have
been kept in bondage till they had won their freedom by the sword.

The French Revolution of 1789 was fruitful of examples showing the
ease with which ignorant men are led and excited by words whose
real import and tendency they do not understand, and illustrating
the truth of South’s remark, that a plausible and insignificant
word in the mouth of an expert demagogue is a dangerous and
destructive weapon. Napoleon was aware of this, when he declared
that “it is by epithets that you govern mankind.” Destroy men’s
reverence for the names of institutions hoary with age, and you
destroy the institutions themselves. “Pull down the nests,” John
Knox used to say, “and the rooks will fly away.” The people of
Versailles insulted with impunity in the streets, and at the gates
of the Assembly, those whom they called “Aristocrats”; and the
magic power of the word was doubled, when aided by the further
device of calling the usurping Commons the “National Assembly.”
When the title of _Frondeurs_, or “the Slingers,” was given to
Cardinal de Retz’s party, he encouraged its application, “for we
observed,” says he, “that the distinction of a name healed the
minds of the people.” The French showman, who, when royalty and its
forms were abolished in France, changed the name of his “_Royal_
Tiger,” so called,--the pride of his menagerie,--to “_National_
Tiger,” showed a profound knowledge of his countrymen and of the
catchwords by which to win their patronage.

A nickname is the most stinging of all species of satire,
because it gives no chance of reply. Attack a man with specific,
point-blank charges, and he can meet and repel them; but a nickname
baffles reply by its very vagueness; it presents no tangible
or definite idea to the mind, no horn of a dilemma with which
the victim can grapple. The very attempt to defend himself only
renders him the more ridiculous; it looks like raising an ocean to
drown a fly, or firing a cannon at a wasp, to meet a petty gibe
with formal testimony or elaborate argument. Or, if your defence
is listened to without jeers, it avails you nothing. It has no
effect,--does not tell,--excites no sensation. The laugh is against
you, and all your protests come like the physician’s prescription
at the funeral, too late.

The significance of nicknames is strikingly illustrated by the
fact that, as a late writer suggests, you cannot properly hate a
man of different opinions from your own till you have labelled him
with some unpleasant epithet. In theological debates, a heretic
may be defined as a man with a nickname. Till we have succeeded in
fastening a name upon him, he is confounded among the general mass
of the orthodox; his peculiarities are presumably not sufficient to
constitute him into a separate species. But let the name come to us
by a flash of inspiration, and how it sticks to the victim through
his whole life! There is a refinement of cruelty in some nicknames
which resembles the barbarity of the old heathen persecutors, who
wrapped up Christians in the skins of wild beasts, so that they
might be worried and torn in pieces by dogs. “Do but paint an angel
black,” says an old divine, “and that is enough to make him pass
for a devil.” On the other hand, there are loving nicknames, which
are given to men by their friends,--especially to those who are of
a frank, genial, companionable nature. The name of Charles Lamb was
ingeniously transformed into the Latin diminutive _Carlagnulus_;
and the friends of Keats, in allusion to his occasional excess of
fun and animal spirits, punned upon his name, shortening it from
John Keats into “Junkets.”

That prince of polemics, Cobbett, was a masterly inventor of
nicknames, and some of his felicitous epithets will not be
forgotten for many years to come. Among the witty labels with which
he ticketed his enemies were “Scorpion Stanley,” “Spinning Jenny
Peel,” “the pink-nosed Liverpool,” “the unbaptized, buttonless
blackguards” (applied to the Quakers), and “Prosperity Robinson.”
The nickname, “Old Glory,” given by him, stuck for life to Sir
Francis Burdett, his former patron and life-long creditor. “Æolus
Canning” provoked unextinguishable laughter among high and low; and
it is said that of all the devices to annoy the brilliant but vain
Lord Erskine, none was more teasing than being constantly addressed
by his second title of “Baron Clackmannon.” One of the literary
tricks of Carlyle is to heap contemptuous nicknames upon the
objects he dislikes; as, “The Dismal Science” of Political Economy,
“The Nigger Question,” “Pig Philosophy,” “Horse-hair and Bombazine
Procedure,” etc.

The meaning of nicknames, as of many other words, is often a
mystery. Often they are apparently meaningless, and incapable
of any rational explanation; yet they are probably due, in such
cases, to some subtle, imperceptible analogy, of which even their
authors were hardly conscious, When the English and French armies
were encamped in the Crimea, they, by common consent, called the
Turks “Bono Johny;” but it would not be easy to tell why. A late
French prince was called “Plomb-plomb”; yet there is no such
word in the French language, and different accounts have been
given of its origin. To explain, again, why nicknames have such
an influence,--so magical an effect,--is equally difficult; one
might as well try to explain why certain combinations of colors or
musical sounds impart an exquisite pleasure. All we know, upon both
these points, is, that certain persons are doomed to be known by
a nickname; at the time of life when the word-making faculty is in
the highest activity, all their acquaintances are long in labor to
hit off the fit appellation; suddenly it comes like an electric
spark, and it is felt by everybody to be impossible to think of
the victim without his appropriate designation. In vain have his
godfathers and godmothers called him Robert or Thomas; “Bob,” or
“Tom,” or something wholly unrelated to these, he is fated to be to
the end of his days.

Many of the happiest of these headmarks, which stick like a burr
from the moment they are invented, are from sources utterly
unknown; they appear, they are on everybody’s lips, but whence they
came nobody can tell. One of the commonest ways in which nicknames
are suggested is by some egregious blunder which one makes. Thus,
I knew a schoolboy to be asked who demolished Carthage, and upon
his answering “Scorpio Africanus,” to be promptly nicknamed “Old
Scorp.” Another way is by a glaring contradiction between a
man’s name and his character,--when he is ridiculed as sailing
under false colors, or claiming a merit which does not belong to
him. There is in all men, as Trench has observed, a sense of the
significance of names,--a feeling that they ought to be, and in a
world of absolute truth would be, the utterance of the innermost
character or qualities of the persons that bear them; and hence
nothing is more telling in a personal controversy than the exposure
of a striking incongruity between a name and the person who owns
it. I have been told that the late President Lincoln, on being
introduced to a very stout person by the name of Small, remarked,
“Small, Small! Well, what strange names they do give men, to be
sure! Why, they’ve got a fellow down in Virginia whom they call
_Wise_!” In the same spirit, Jerome, one of the Fathers of the
Church, being engaged in controversy with one Vigilantius, _i.e._,
“the Watchful,” about certain vigils which the latter opposed,
stigmatized him as Dormitantius, or “the Sleeper.” But more
frequently the nickname is suggested by the real name where there
is no such antagonism between them,--where the latter, as it is,
or by a slight change, can be made to contain a confession of the
ignorance or folly of the bearer. Thus, Tiberius Claudius Nero, in
allusion to his drunkenness, was called “Biberius Caldius Mero”;
and the Arians were nicknamed “Ariomanites.” What can be happier in
this way than the “Brand of Hell,” applied to Pope Hildebrand; the
title of “Slanders,” affixed by Fuller to Sanders, the foul-mouthed
libeller of Queen Elizabeth; the “Vanity” and “Sterility,” which
Baxter coined from the names of Vane and Sterry; and the term
“Sweepnet,” which that skilful master of the passions, Cicero, gave
to the infamous Prætor of Sicily, whose name, Verres (_verro_), was
prophetic of his “sweeping” the province,--declaring that others
might be partial to the _jus verrinum_ (which might mean verrine
law or boar sauce), but not he? On the other hand, the nickname
_Schinokephalos_, or “onion-head,” which the Athenians gave to
Pericles on account of the shape of his head, was unredeemed by wit
or humor.

The people of Italy are exceedingly fond of nicknames; and it is
an odd peculiarity of many which they give that the persons so
characterized are known only by their nicknames. In the case of
many celebrated persons the nickname has wholly obliterated the
true name. Thus _Guercino_ “Squint Eye,” _Masaccio_ “Dirty Tom,”
_Tintoretto_ “The Little Dyer,” _Ghirlandaio_ “The Garland-Maker,”
_Luca del Robbia_ “Luke of the Madder,” _Spagnoletto_ “The Little
Spaniard,” and _Del Sarto_ “The Tailor’s Son,” would scarcely be
recognized under their proper names of Barbieri, Guido, Robusti,
Barbarelli, Corradi, Ribera, and Vannachi. The following, too,
are all nicknames of eminent persons derived from their places
of birth: Perugino, Veronese, Aretino, Pisano, Giulio Romano,
Correggio, Parmegiano.[40]

There is probably no country, unless it be our own, in which
nicknames have flourished more than in England. Every party there
has had its watchwords with which to rally its members, or to set
on its own bandogs to worry and tear those of another faction; and
what is quite extraordinary is, that many of the names of political
parties and religious sects were originally nicknames given in the
bitterest scorn and party hate, yet ultimately accepted by the
party themselves. Thus “Tory” originally meant an Irish freebooting
bog-trotter,--an outlaw who favored the cause of James II; and
“Whig” is derived from the Scotch name for sour milk, which was
supposed aptly to characterize the disposition of the Republicans.
“Methodists” was a name given in 1729, first to John and Charles
Wesley at Oxford, on account of their close observance of system
and method in their studies and worship, and afterward to their
followers. So in other countries, the “Lutherans” received their
name, in which they now glory, from their antagonists. “Capuchin”
was a jesting name given by the boys in the streets to certain
Franciscan monks, on account of the peaked and pointed hood
(_capuccio_) which they wore. The Dominicans gloried all the more
in their name when it was resolved by their enemies into _Domini
canes_; they were proud to acknowledge that they were, indeed,
“the Lord’s watchdogs,” who barked at the slightest appearance of
heresy, and strove to drive it away. Finally, the highest name
which any man can bear was originally a nickname given by the idle
and witty inhabitants of Antioch, in Asia Minor. In the early days
of Christianity, when the new faith was preached with all the
vigor of intense conviction, and the enthusiasm attendant upon a
fresh experiment in private and social morality; when the apostles
were said to be “turning the world upside down,” and were, indeed,
promulgating a religion which was soon to revolutionize civilized
society; there was, for a long time, great difficulty in finding a
name for the new faith and its professors. The apostles, indeed,
had no name for it whatever; they spoke of the nascent religion
simply as “the way,” or “this way.” Paul says that he “persecuted
_this way_ unto the death,” and at Ephesus, it is said, “there
arose no small stir about _the way_.” By the Jews the converts
to the new religion were called “Nazarenes,” a term of contempt
which they could not, of course, adopt. The Jews believed in the
coming of a Messiah, though they rejected the true one; but the
appearance of any Christ was a wholly new and original idea to the
pagan world, and the constant repetition of the striking name of
Christ in the discourses of the missionaries at Antioch, would have
naturally suggested to the keen-witted Greek pagans around them
to call them after the name of their Master. The Antiochenes were
famous in all antiquity for their nicknames, for inventing which
they had a positive genius; and it is altogether probable,--indeed,
there is hardly a doubt,--that the name “Christian” was originally
a term of ridicule or of reproach, given by them to the first
converts from paganism. It was, in fact, a nickname, designed to
intimate that the teachers and the taught, who talked continually
about their Christ, were a set of fanatics who deserved only to be
laughed at for their infatuation. But what was thus meant as an
insult was instantly accepted by the believers in Christ as a title
of honor, implying that devotion to Christ was not an accident,
but the very essence and soul of their religion. “Nothing else,”
says Canon Liddon, “expressed so tersely the central reason for
the fierce antagonism of the pagans to the new religion: it was
the religion of the divine, but crucified Christ; nothing else
expressed so adequately the Christian sense of what Christianity
was and is,--a religion not merely founded by Christ, but centring
in Christ, so that, apart from Him, it has, properly speaking, no
existence, so that it exists only as an extension and perpetuation
of His life.”

The Dutch people long prided themselves on the humiliating nickname
of _Les Gueulx_, “the Beggars,” which was given in 1566 to the
revolters against the rule of Philip II. Margaret of Parma, then
governor of the Netherlands, being somewhat disconcerted at the
numbers of that party, when they presented a petition to her,
was reassured by her minister, who remarked to her that there
was nothing to be feared from a crowd of beggars. “Great was the
indignation of all,” says Motley, “that the state councillor (the
Seigneur de Berlaymont) should have dared to stigmatize as beggars
a band of gentlemen with the best blood of the land in their veins.
Brederode, on the contrary, smoothing their anger, assured them
with good humor that nothing could be more fortunate. ‘They call
us “beggars!”’ said he; ‘let us accept the name. We will contend
with the Inquisition, but remain loyal to the king, till compelled
to wear the beggar’s sack.... Long live the beggars!’ he cried, as
he wiped his beard, and set the bowl down; ‘_Vivent les gueulx!_’
Then, for the first time, from the lips of those reckless nobles
rose the famous cry, which was so often to ring over land and sea,
amid blazing cities, on blood-stained decks, through the smoke and
carnage of many a stricken field. The humor of Brederode was hailed
with deafening shouts of applause. The shibboleth was invented.
The conjuration which they had been anxiously seeking was found.
Their enemies had provided them with a spell, which was to prove,
in after days, potent enough to start a spirit from palace or
hovel, as the deeds of the ‘wild beggars’ the ‘wood beggars,’ and
the ‘beggars of the sea,’ taught Philip at last to understand the
nation which he had driven to madness.”

In like manner the French Protestants accepted and gloried in the
scornful nickname of the “Huguenots,” as did the two fierce Italian
factions in those of “Guelphs,” or “Guelfs,” and “Ghibellines.” It
was in the twelfth century, at the siege of Weinsberg, a hereditary
possession of the Welfs, that the war-cries, “Hurrah for Welf!”
“Hurrah for Waibling!” which gave rise to the party names, “Welfs”
and “Waiblings” (Italicé, “Guelfs” and “Ghibellines”), were
first heard. Even the title of the British “Premier,” or “Prime
Minister,” now one of the highest dignity, was at first a nickname,
given in pure mockery,--the statesman to whom it was applied
being Sir Robert Walpole, as will be seen by the following words
spoken by him in the House of Commons in 1742: “Having invested
me with a kind of mock dignity, and styled me a ‘Prime Minister,’
they (the opposition) impute to me an unpardonable abuse of the
chimerical authority which _they_ only created and conferred.” It
is remarkable that the nickname Cæsar has given the title to the
heads of two great nations, Germany and Russia (_kaiser_, _czar_).

It is a fortunate thing when men who have been branded with names
intended to make them hateful or ridiculous, can thus turn the
tables on their _dénigreurs_, by accepting and glorying in their
new titles. It was this which Lord Halifax did when he was called
“a trimmer.” Instead of quarrelling with the nickname, he exulted
in it as a title of honor. “Everything good,” he said, “trims
between extremes. The temperate zone trims between the climate in
which men are roasted, and the climate in which men are frozen. The
English Church trims between the Anabaptist madness and the Papist
lethargy. The English constitution trims between Turkish despotism
and Polish anarchy. Virtue is nothing but a just temper between
propensities, any one of which, indulged to excess, becomes vice.
Nay, the perfection of the Supreme Being himself consists in the
exact equilibrium of attributes, none of which could preponderate
without disturbing the whole moral and physical order of the

The nicknames “Quaker,” “Puritan,” “Roundhead,” unlike those we
have just named, were never accepted by those to whom they were
given. “Puritan” was first heard in the reign of Queen Elizabeth,
and was given to a party of purists who would have reformed the
Reformation. They were also ridiculed, from their fastidiousness
about trivial matters, as “Precisians”; Drayton characterizes them
as persons that for a painted glass window would pull down the
whole church. The distinction between “Roundhead” and “Cavalier”
first appeared during the civil war between Charles I and his
Parliament. A foe to all outward ornament, the “Roundhead” wore his
hair cropped close, while the “Cavalier” was contra-distinguished
by his chivalrous tone, his romantic spirit, and his flowing locks.

All readers of history are familiar with “The Rump,”--the
contemptuous nickname given to the Long Parliament at the close of
its career. The “Rump,” Mr. Disraeli remarks, became a perpetual
whetstone for the loyal wits, till at length its former admirers,
the rabble themselves, in town and country, vied with each other in
burning rumps of beef, which were hung by chains on a gallows with
a bonfire underneath, and proved how the people, like children,
come at length to make a plaything of that which was once their

A member of the British Parliament in the reign of George III is
known as “Single-speech Hamilton,” and is referred to by that
designation as invariably as if it were his baptismal name. He
made one, and but one, good speech during his parliamentary
career. “Boot-jack Robinson” was the derisive title given to a
mediocre politician, who, during a crisis in the ministry of
the Duke of Newcastle, was made Home Secretary and ministerial
leader of the House of Commons. “Sir Thomas Robinson lead us!”
indignantly exclaimed Pitt to Fox; “the duke might as well send
his boot-jack to lead us!” It is said that Mr. Dundas, afterward
Lord Melville, got his nickname from a new word which he introduced
in a speech in the House of Commons, in 1775, on the American
war. He was the first to use the word “starvation” (a hybrid
formation, in which a Saxon root was united with a Latin ending),
which provoked shouts of contemptuous laughter in the House; and
he was always afterward called by his acquaintances, “Starvation
Dundas.” This poor specimen of word-coining was long resisted by
the lexicographers; and one modern philological dictionary omits
it even now; but it has long been sanctioned by usage. One of the
most fatal nicknames ever given to a politician was one fastened by
Sheridan upon Addington, the Prime Minister of England, in a speech
made in Parliament in 1803. Addington was the son of an eminent
physician, and something in his air and manner had given him, to a
limited extent, the name of “the Doctor.” Sheridan, alluding to the
personal dislike of Addington felt by many, quoted the well known
epigram of Martial:

      “Non amo te, Sabine, nec possum dicere quare;
      Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te;”

and added the English parody:

      “I do not like thee, _Doctor_ Fell,
      The reason why I cannot tell;
      But this, I’m sure, I know full well,
      I do not like thee, _Doctor_ Fell.”

His droll emphasis on the word “Doctor,” and the repetition of it
in the course of the speech, drew forth peals of laughter; and
henceforth the butt of his ridicule was generally known as “The
Doctor.” The Opposition newspapers caught up the title, and rang
innumerable changes upon it, till finally the Prime Minister was
fairly overwhelmed by the laughter of his enemies, and forced to
resign his office.

Everybody has heard of “Ditto to Mr. Burke”; the victim of this
title was a Mr. Conger, who was elected with Burke to represent
the city of Bristol. Utterly bewildered as to how to thank the
electors after his associate’s splendid speech, he condensed his
own address into these significant words: “Gentlemen, I say ditto
to Mr. Burke, ditto to Mr. Burke!” “Chicken Taylor” was the name
which, in the early part of the century, long stuck to Mr. M. A.
Taylor; he contended against a great lawyer in the House, and then
apologized that he, “a chicken in the law, should venture on a
fight with the cock of Westminster.” “Adullamites,” or “Dwellers in
the Cave,” the name given by Mr. Bright to Mr. Lowe and some of his
Liberal friends,--a name derived from the Scripture story of David
and his followers retiring to a cave,--will probably long continue
to be applied to the members of a discontented faction.

Who does not remember the nickname, “The Spasmodic School of
Poetry,” which was given to three or four young poets some thirty
years ago? It was in the brain of Professor Aytoun that this title
originated, and immediately these writers, whose salient faults
were thus felicitously hit off, were everywhere recognized as
“spasmodists.” For years after, no one of these minstrels could
strike his lyre in public, even in the most humdrum, old-fashioned
way, but the cry of “spasmodist” was raised so loudly that he was
glad to retreat into his wonted obscurity. Even Ben Jonson, the
sturdy old dramatist, did not escape a nickname. His envious rivals
dubbed him “The Limestone and Mortar Poet,” in allusion to his lack
of spontaneity as a poet, and his having begun life as a bricklayer.

Among the other memorable English nicknames, that of “Jemmy
Twitcher,” taken from the chief of Macheath’s gang in “The Beggar’s
Opera,” and applied to Lord Sandwich,--that of “Orange Peel,” given
to Sir Robert Peel by the Irish, the inveterate foes of the House
of Orange,--“the stormy Petrel of debate,” given to Mr. Bernal
Osborne,--“Finality Russell,” fastened upon Lord John Russell
because he wished a certain Reform measure to be final,--“The Dandy
Demagogue,” given to Mr. T. S. Duncombe, the able parliamentary
advocate of the people, who was distinguished by the remarkable
elegance and finish of his attire,--the unique “Dizzy,” into
which his enemies condensed the name of the celebrated Jewish
premier,--and the “Who? Who? Ministry,” applied to Lord Derby’s
Cabinet in 1852,--are preëminently significant and telling. Among
the hundreds of American political nicknames, there are many which
are not remarkably expressive; others, like “Old Bullion” and “Old
Hickory,” are steeped in “the very brine of conceit,” and sum up a
character as if by inspiration.

It is a curious fact that some of the most damaging nicknames
have been terms or epithets which were originally complimentary,
but which, used sarcastically, have been associated with more
ridicule or odium than the most opprobrious epithets. Men hate to
be continually reminded of any one virtue of a fellow-man,--to hear
the changes rung continually upon some one great action or daring
feat he has performed. It seems, indeed, as if a man whose name is
continually dinned in our ears, coupled with some complimentary
epithet, some allusion to a praiseworthy deed which he once did,
or some excellent trait of character, must be distinguished for
nothing else. Unless this is his only virtue, why all this fuss and
pother about it? The Athenians banished Aristides, because they
were tired of hearing him called “the Just.”

Some parents have so great a dread of nicknames that they tax
their ingenuity to invent for their children a Christian name that
may defy nicking or abbreviation. With Southey’s Doctor Dove,
they think “it is not a good thing to be Tom’d or Bob’d, Jack’d
or Jim’d, Sam’d or Ben’d, Natty’d or Batty’d, Neddy’d or Teddy’d,
Will’d or Bill’d, Dick’d or Nick’d, Joe’d or Jerry’d, as you go
through the world.” The good doctor, however, had no such antipathy
to the shortening of female names. “He never called any woman Mary,
though _Mare_, he said, being the sea, was in many respects too
emblematic of the sex. It was better to use a synonym of better
omen, and Molly was therefore preferred, as being soft. If he
accosted a vixen of that name in her worst temper, he Mollyfied
her! On the contrary, he never could be induced to substitute Sally
for Sarah. Sally, he said, had a salacious sound, and, moreover,
it reminded him of rovers, which women ought not to be. Martha he
called Patty, because it came pat to the tongue. Dorothy remained
Dorothy, because it was neither fitting that women should be made
Dolls, nor I-dols! Susan with him was always Sue, because women
were to be sued, and Winnifred, Winny, because they were to be

The annoyance which may be given to a man, even by an apparently
meaningless nickname, which sticks to him wherever he goes, is well
illustrated by a story told by Hazlitt in his “Conversations with
Northcote,” the painter. A village baker got, he knew not how,
the name of “Tiddy-doll.” He was teased and worried by it till
it almost drove him crazy. The boys hallooed it after him in the
streets, and poked their faces into his shop-windows; the parrots
echoed the name as he passed their cages; and even the soldiers
took it up (for the place was a military station), and marched to
parade, beating time with their feet, and singing “Tiddy-doll,
Tiddy-doll,” as they passed by his door. He flew out upon them at
the sound with inextinguishable fury, was knocked down and rolled
into the kennel, and got up in an agony of rage, his white clothes
drabbled and bespattered with mud. A respectable and friendly
gentleman in the neighborhood, who pitied his weakness, called him
into his house one day, and remonstrated with him on the subject.
He advised him to take no notice of his persecutors. “What,” said
he, “does it signify? Suppose they _do_ call you ‘Tiddy-doll?’ What
harm?” “_There,--there it is again!_” burst forth the infuriated
baker; “you’ve called me so _yourself_. You called me in on purpose
to insult me!” And, saying this, he vented his rage in a torrent
of abusive epithets, and darted out of the house in a tempest of

The readers of Boswell will remember, in connection with this
subject, an amusing anecdote told of Dr. Johnson. Being rudely
jostled and profanely addressed by a stout fish-woman, as he was
passing through Billingsgate, he looked straight at her, and said
deliberately, “You are a triangle!” which made her swear louder
than before. He then called her “a rectangle! a parallelogram!” but
she was more voluble still. At last he screamed out, “You are a
miserable, wicked _hypothenuse_!” and she was struck dumb. Curran
had a similar ludicrous encounter with a fish-woman at Cork. Taking
up the gauntlet, when assailed by her on the quay, he speedily
found that he was overmatched, and that he had nothing to do but
to beat a retreat. “This, however, was to be done with dignity;
so, drawing myself up disdainfully, I said, ‘Madam, I scorn
all further discourse with such an _individual_!’ She did not
understand the word, and thought it, no doubt, the very hyperbole
of opprobrium. ‘Individual, you wagabond!’ she screamed, ‘what do
you mean by that? I’m no more an individual than your mother was!’
Never was victory more complete. The whole sisterhood did homage to
me, and I left the quay of Cork covered with glory.”


[39] “The sun has gone down with his battle-stained eye.”

[40] “Roba di Roma,” by W. W. Story.

[41] Macaulay’s “History of England,” Vol. II.

[42] “The Doctor,” Vol, VII.



  Language is the depository of the accumulated body of experience,
  to which all former ages have contributed their part, and which
  is the inheritance of all yet to come.--J. S. MILL.

  Often in words contemplated singly there are boundless stores of
  moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination,
  laid up.--TRENCH.

A thoughtful English writer tells us that, when about nine years
old, he learned with much surprise that the word “sincere” was
derived from the practice of filling up flaws in furniture with
wax, whence _sine cera_ came to mean pure, not vamped up or
adulterated. This explanation gave him great pleasure, and abode
in his memory as having first shown him that there is a reason
in words as well as things. There are few cultivated persons who
have not felt, at some time in their lives, a thrill of surprise
and delight like that of this writer. Throughout our whole lives,
from the cradle to the grave, the stream of our history, inner and
outer, runs wonderfully blended with the texture of the words we
use. Dive into what subject we will, we never touch the bottom.
The simplest prattle of a child is but the light surface of a
deep sea containing many treasures. It would be hard, therefore,
to find in the whole range of inquiry another study which at once
is so fascinating, and so richly repays the labor, as that of the
etymology or primitive significations of words.

It is an epoch in one’s intellectual history when he first learns
that words are living and not dead things,--that in these children
of the mind are incarnated the wit and wisdom, the poetic fancies
and the deep intuitions, the passionate longings and the happy or
sad experiences of many generations. The discovery is “like the
dropping of scales from his eyes, like the acquiring of another
sense, or the introduction into a new world;” he never ceases
wondering at the moral marvels that everywhere reveal themselves
to his gaze. To eyes thus opened, dictionaries, instead of seeming
huge masses of word-lumber, become vast storehouses of historical
memorials, than which none are more vital in spirit or more
pregnant with meaning. It is not in oriental fairy-tales only
that persons drop pearls every time they open their mouths; like
Molière’s _Bourgeois Gentilhomme_, who had been speaking prose all
his life without knowing it, we are dropping gems from our lips in
almost every hour of the day. Not a thought, or feeling, or wish
can we utter without recalling, by an unconscious sign or symbol,
some historic fact, some memory of “auld lang syne,” some bygone
custom, some vanished superstition, some exploded prejudice, or
some ethical divination that has lost its charm. Even the homeliest
and most familiar words, the most hackneyed phrases, are connected
by imperceptible ties with the hopes and fears, the reasonings and
reflections, of bygone men and times.

Every generation of men inherits and uses all the scientific
wealth of the past. “It is not merely the great and rich in the
intellectual world who are thus blessed, but the humblest inquirer,
while he puts his reasonings into words, benefits by the labors of
the greatest. When he counts his little wealth, he finds he has in
his hands coins which bear the image and superscription of ancient
and modern intellectual dynasties, and that in virtue of this
possession acquisitions are in his power, solid knowledge within
his reach, which none could ever have attained to, if it were not
that the gold of truth once dug out of the mine circulates more
and more widely among mankind.” Emerson beautifully calls language
“fossil poetry.” The etymologist, he adds, finds the deadest word
to have been once a brilliant picture. “As the limestone of the
continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules,
so language is made up of images or tropes, which now, in their
secondary use, have long since ceased to remind us of their poetic

Not only is this true, but many a single word, as Archbishop Trench
remarks, is itself a concentrated poem, in which are treasured
stores of poetical thought and imagery. Examine it closely, and
it will be found to rest upon some palpable or subtle analogy of
things material and spiritual, showing that, however trite the
image now, the man who first coined the word was a poet. The older
the word, the profounder and more beautiful the meanings it will
often be found to inclose; for words of late growth speak to the
head, not to the heart; thoughts and feelings are too subtle for
new words, and are conveyed only by those about which cluster
many associations. It is the use of words when new and fresh from
the lips of their inventors, before their vivid and picturesque
meanings have faded out or been obscured by their many secondary
significations, that gives such pictorial beauty, pith, and
raciness, to the early writers; “and hence to recall language,
to restore its early meanings, to re-mint it in novel forms, is
the secret of all effective writing and speaking,--of all verbal
expression which is to leave, as was said of the eloquence of
Pericles, stings in the minds and memories of the hearers.”

Language is not only “fossil poetry,” but it is also fossil
philosophy, fossil ethics, and fossil history. As in the
pre-Adamite rock are bound up and preserved the vegetable and
animal forms of ages long gone by, so in words are locked up
truths once known but now forgotten,--the thoughts and feelings,
the habits, customs, opinions, virtues and vices of men long since
in their graves. Language is, in short, “the depository of the
accumulated body of experience, to which all former ages have
contributed their part, and which is the inheritance of all yet to
come.”[43] It is “like amber, circulating the electric spirit of
truth, and preserving the relics of ancient wisdom.”[44] Compared
with this memorial of the past, these records of ancient and
modern intellectual dynasties, how poor are all other monuments of
human power, perseverance, skill, or genius! Unlike the works of
individual genius, or the cuneiform inscriptions which are found
in oriental countries on the crumbling fragments of half-calcined
stone, language gives us the history not only of individuals, but
of nations; not only of nations, but of mankind. It is, indeed,
“an admirable poem on the history of all ages; a living monument
on which is written the genesis of human thought. Thus ‘the ground
on which our civilization stands is a sacred one, for it is the
deposit of thought. For language, as it is the mirror, so it is the
product of reason, and, as it embodies thought, so it is the child
of thought. In it are embodied the sparks of that celestial fire
which from a once bright centre of civilization has streamed forth
over the inhabited earth, and which now already, after less than
three myriads of years, forms a galaxy round the globe, a chain of
light from pole to pole.’”

How pregnant with instruction is often the history of a single
word! Coleridge, who keenly appreciated the significance of words,
says that there are cases where more knowledge of more value may
be conveyed by the history of a word than by the history of a
campaign. Sometimes the germ of a nation’s life,--the philosophy of
some political, moral, or intellectual movement in a country,--will
be found coiled up in a single word, just as the oak is found in
an acorn. The word “ostracize” gives us a vivid picture of the
Athenian democracy, and of the period when oyster-shells were used
for ballots. It calls up the barbarity which held an election of
candidates for banishment; the arbitrary power which enabled the
vilest of the citizens, from mere envy of the reputation of the
best man in the city, to make him an exile; and the utter lack
and desecration of liberty, while its forms were fetiches for the
popular worship. The fact that the Arabs were the arithmeticians,
the astronomers, the chemists, and the merchants of the Middle
Ages, is shown by the words we have borrowed from them,--“algebra,”
“almanac,” “cypher,” “zero,” “zenith,” “alkali,” “alcohol,”
“alchemy,” “alembic,” “magazine,” “tariff,” “cotton,” “elixir”; and
so that the monastic system originated in the Greek, and not in the
Latin church, is shown by the fact that the words expressing the
chief elements of the system, as “monk,” “monastery,” “anchorite,”
“cenobite,” “ascetic,” “hermit,” are Greek, not Latin. What an
amount of history is wrapped up in the word “Pagan”! The term, we
learn from Gibbon, is remotely derived from Πάγη, in the Doric
dialect, signifying a fountain; and the rural neighborhood which
frequented the same derived the common appellation of _Pagus_ and
“Pagans.” Soon “Pagan” and “rural” became nearly synonymous, and
the meaner peasants acquired that name which has been corrupted
into “peasant” in the modern languages of Europe. All non-military
people soon came to be branded as Pagans. The Christians were the
soldiers of Christ; their adversaries, who refused the “sacrament,”
or military oath of baptism, might deserve the metaphorical name
of Pagans. Christianity gradually filled the cities of the empire;
the old religion retired and languished, in the time of Prudentius,
in obscure villages. From _Pagus_, as a root, comes _pagius_,
first a villager, then a rural laborer, then a servant, lastly a
“page.” _Pagina_, first the inclosed square of cultivated land near
a village, graduated into the “page” of a book. _Pagare_, from
denoting the “field service” that compensated the provider of food
and raiment, was applied eventually to every form in which the
changes of society required the benefited to “pay” for what they
received. Again, when a Scotchman speaks of his “shacklebone,” he
not only conveys an idea of his wrist, but discovers by this very
term that slavery, or vassalage, continued so long in Scotland as
to impress itself indelibly on the language of the country.

Often where history is utterly dumb concerning the past, language
speaks. The discovery of the foot-print on the sand did not more
certainly prove to Robinson Crusoe that the island of which he
had fancied himself the sole inhabitant contained a brother man,
than the similarity of the inflections in the speech of different
peoples proves their brotherhood. Were all the histories of England
swept from existence, the study of its language,--developing the
fact that the basis of the language is Saxon, that the names of
the prominent objects of nature are Celtic, the terms of war and
government Norman-French, the ecclesiastical terms Latin,--would
enable us to reconstruct a large part of the story of the past,
as it even now enables us to verify many of the statements of
the chroniclers. Humboldt, in his “Cosmos,” eulogizes the study
of words as one of the richest sources of historical knowledge;
and it is probable that what comparative philology, yet in its
infancy, has already discovered, will compel a rewriting of the
history of the world. Even now it has thrown light on many of the
most perplexing problems of religion, history, and ethnography;
and it seems destined to triumphs of which we can but dimly
apprehend the consequences. On the stone tablets of the universe
God’s own finger has written the changes which millions of years
have wrought on the mountain and the plain; and in the fluid
air, which he coins into spoken words, man has preserved forever
the grand facts of his past history and the grand processes of
his inmost soul. “Nations and _languages_ against dynasties and
treaties,” is the cry which is remodelling the map of Europe; and
in our country, comparative philologists,--to their shame be it
said,--have labored with Satanic zeal to prove the impossibility
of a common origin of languages and races, in order to justify, by
scientific arguments, the theory of slavery. It has been said that
the interpretation of one word in the Vedas fifty years earlier
would have saved many Hindoo widows from being burned alive; and
now that the philologists of Germany and England have shown that
the iron network of _caste_, which for centuries has hindered the
development of India, is not a religious institution, and has no
authority in their sacred writings, but is the invention of an
arrogant and usurping priesthood,--or, at best, an erroneous
tradition, due to the half-knowledge or to the imposture of the
native pundits,--the British government will be able to inflict
penalties for the observance of the rules of _caste_, and thus to
relieve India from the greatest clog on its progress.


Language, as it daguerreotypes human thought, shares, as we have
seen, in all the vicissitudes of man. It mirrors all the changes
in the character, tastes, customs, and opinions of a people, and
shows with unerring faithfulness whether, and in what degree, they
advance or recede in culture or morality. As new ideas germinate in
the mind of a nation, it will demand new forms of expression; on
the other hand, a petrified and mechanical national mind will as
surely betray itself in a petrified and mechanical language. It is
by no accident or caprice that

          “Words, whilom flourishing,
      Pass now no more, but banished from the court,
      Dwell with disgrace among the vulgar sort;
      And those which eld’s strict doom did disallow,
      And damn for bullion, go for current now.”

Often with the lapse of time the meaning of a word changes
imperceptibly, until after some centuries it becomes the very
opposite of what it once was. To disinter these old meanings out
of the alluvium and drift of ages affords as much pleasure to the
linguist as to disinter a fossil does to the geologist.

An exact knowledge of the changes of signification which words have
undergone is not merely a source of pleasure; it is absolutely
indispensable to the full understanding of old authors. Thus,
for example, Milton and Thomson use “horrent” and “horrid” for
bristling, _e.g._,

      “With dangling ice all _horrid_.”

Milton speaks of a “savage” (meaning woody, _silva_) hill, and of
“amiable” (meaning lovely) fruit. Again, in the well known lines of
the “Allegro,” where, Milton says, amongst the cheerful sights of
rural morn,

      “And every shepherd tells his tale
      Under the hawthorn in the vale,”--

the words “tells his tale” do not mean that he is romancing or
making love to the milkmaid, but that he is _counting his sheep_
as they pass the hawthorn,--a natural and familiar occupation of
shepherds on a summer’s morning. The primary meaning of “tale” is
to count or number, as in the German _zahlen_. It is thus used in
the Book of Exodus, which states that the Israelites were compelled
to deliver their “tale of bricks.” In the English “tale” and in
the French _conte_ the secondary meaning has supplanted the first,
though we still speak of “keeping tally,” of “untold gold,” and
say, “Here is the sum twice-told.”

Again, Milton’s use of the word “jolly” in the following lines
from his “Sonnet to the Nightingale,” strikingly illustrates the
disadvantages under which poetry in a living, and consequently
ever-changing, language, labors:

      “Thou with fresh hope the lover’s heart doth fill,
      While the jolly hours lead on propitious May.”

Though we may know the meaning which the word bore a little more
than two and a half centuries ago, yet it is impossible entirely to
banish from the mind the vulgar associations which have gathered
round it since.

It has been said that one of the arts of a great poet or
prose-writer, who wishes to add emphasis to his style,--to bring
out all the latent forces of his native tongue,--will often
consist in reconnecting a word with its original derivation, in
not suffering it to forget itself and its father’s house, though
it would. This Milton does sometimes with signal effect; but in
the great majority of cases his meaning becomes obscure to the
unlearned reader. In a great number of cases we must interpret his
words rather by their classical meanings than by their English
use. Thus in “Paradise Lost,” when Satan speaks of his having been
pursued by “Heaven’s _afflicting_ thunder,” the poet uses the word
“afflicting” in its original primary sense of striking down bodily.
Properly the word denotes a state of mind or feeling only, and is
not used to-day in a concrete sense. So when Milton, at the opening
of the same poem, speaks of

                “The _secret_ top
      Of Oreb or of Sinai,”

the meaning of the word “secret” is not that of the English
adjective, but is remote, apart, lonely, as in Virgil’s
_secretosque pios_. The absurdity of supposing the word to be the
same as our ordinary adjective led Bentley, among many ridiculous
“improvements” of Milton’s language, to change it to “sacred.”
Again, the word “recollect” is used in its etymological sense in
these lines from “Paradise Lost”:

                    “But he, his wonted pride
      Soon recollecting, with high words,” etc.

So Milton uses the word “astonished” in its etymological sense of
“thunderstruck,” _attonitus_, as when he makes Satan say that his

      “Lie thus _astonished_ on the oblivious pool.”

Holland, in his translation of Livy, speaks of a knave who threw
some heavy stones upon a certain king, “whereof the one smote the
king upon his head, the other astonished his shoulder.”

Shakespeare, also, not unfrequently uses words in their classical
sense. Thus when Cleopatra speaks of

      “Such gifts as we greet _modern_ friends withal,”

“modern” is used in the sense of “modal” (from _modus_, a fashion
or manner); a modern friend, compared with a true friend, being
what the fashion of a thing is, compared with the substance.
So,--as De Quincey, to whom we owe this explanation, has
shown,--when in the famous picture of life, “All the World’s a
Stage,” the justice is described as

      “Full of wise saws and modern instances,”

the meaning is not “full of wise sayings and modern illustrations,”
but full of proverbial maxims of conduct and of trivial arguments;
_i.e._, of petty distinctions that never touch the point at issue.
“Instances” is from _instantia_, which the monkish and scholastic
writers always used in the sense of an argument. When in “Julius
Cæsar” we read,--

                            “And come down
      With fearful bravery, thinking by this face
      To fasten in our thoughts that they have courage,”

we must not attach to “bravery” its modern sense; and the same
remark applies to the word “extravagant” in the following passage
from “Hamlet”:

      “Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
      The extravagant and erring spirit hies
      To his confine,” etc.

“Courage” is “good heart.” “Anecdote,”--from the Greek ἀν (not),
ἐκ (out), and δότα (given),--meant once a fact not given out
or published; now it means a short, amusing story. Procopius, a
Greek historian in the reign of Justinian, is said to have coined
the word. Not daring, for fear of torture and death, to speak of
some living persons as they deserved, he wrote a work which he
called “Anecdotes,” or a “Secret History.” The instant an anecdote
is published, it belies its title; it is no longer an anecdote.
“Allowance” formerly was used to denote praise or approval; as when
Shakespeare says in “Troilus and Cressida,”

      “A stirring dwarf we do _allowance_ give
      Before a sleeping giant.”

“To prevent,” which now means to hinder or obstruct, signified,
in its Latin etymology, to anticipate, to get the start of, and
is thus used in the Old Testament. “Girl” once designated a young
person of either sex. “Widow” was applied to men as well as women.
“Sagacious” once meant quick-smelling, as in the line

      “The hound sagacious of the tainted prey.”

“Rascal,” according to Verstegan, primarily meant an “il-favoured,
lean, and worthelesse deer.” Thus Shakespeare:

      “Horns! the noblest deer hath them as huge as the rascal.”

Afterward it denoted the common people, the _plebs_ as
distinguished from the _populus_. A “naturalist” was once a
person who rejected revealed truth, and believed only in natural
religion. He is now an investigator of nature and her laws, and
often a believer in Christianity. “Blackguards” were formerly
the scullions, turnspits, and other meaner retainers in a great
household, who, when a change was made from one residence to
another, accompanied and took care of the pots, pans, and other
kitchen utensils, by which they were smutted. Webster, in his play
of “The White Devil,” speaks of “a lousy knave, that within these
twenty years rode with the ‘black guard’ in the Duke’s carriage,
amongst spits and dripping-pans.” “Artillery,” which to-day means
the heavy ordnance of modern warfare, was two or three centuries
ago applied to any engines for throwing missiles, even to the bow
and arrow. “Punctual,” which now denotes exactness in keeping
engagements, formerly applied to space as well as to time. Sir
Thomas Browne speaks of “a ‘punctual’ truth”; and we read in other
writers of “a ‘punctual’ relation,” or “description,” meaning a
particular or circumstantial relation or description.

“Bombast,” now swelling talk, inflated diction without substance,
was originally cotton padding. It is derived from the Low Latin,
_bombax_, cotton. “Chemist” once meant the same as alchemist.
“Polite” originally meant polished. Cudworth speaks of “polite
bodies, as looking-glasses.” “Tidy,” which now means neat, well
arranged, is derived from the old English word “tide,” meaning
time, as in eventide. “Tidy” (German, _zeitig_) is timely,
seasonable. As things in right time are apt to be in the right
place, the transition in the meaning of the word is a natural one.
“Caitiff” formerly meant captive, being derived from _captivus_
through the Norman-French. The change of signification points
to the tendency of slavery utterly to debase the character,--to
transform the man into a cowardly miscreant. In like manner
“miscreant,” once simply a misbeliever, and applied to the most
virtuous as well as to the vilest, points to the deep-felt
conviction that a wrong belief leads to wrong living. Thus Gibbon:
“The emperor’s generosity to the ‘miscreant’ [Soliman] was
interpreted as treason to the Christian cause.” “Thought,” in
early English, was anxious care; _e.g._, “Take no ‘thought’ for
your life” (Matt, vi, 25). “Thing” primarily meant discourse, then
solemn discussion, council, court of justice, cause, matter or
subject of discourse. The “husting” was originally the house-thing,
or domestic court.

“Coquets” were once male as well as female. “Usury,” which now
means taking illegal or excessive interest, denoted, at first, the
taking of any interest, however small. A “tobacconist” was formerly
a smoker, not a seller, of tobacco. “Corpse,” now a body from which
the breath of life has departed, once denoted the body of the
living also; as in Surrey,

      “A valiant _corpse_, where force and beauty met.”

We have already spoken of the striking change which the word
“incomprehensible” has undergone within the last three centuries.

“Wit,” now used in a more limited sense, at first signified the
mental powers collectively; _e.g._, “Will puts in practice what the
wit deviseth.” Later it came to denote quickness of apprehension,
beauty or elegance in composition, and Pope defined it as

                  “Nature to advantage dressed,
      What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

Another meaning was a man of talents or genius. The word “parts,”
a hundred years ago, was used to denote genius or talents. Horace
Walpole, in one of his letters, says of Goldsmith that “he was an
idiot, with once or twice a fit of ‘parts.’” The word “loyalty”
has undergone a marked change within a few centuries. Originally
it meant in English, as in French, fair dealing, fidelity to
engagements; now it means, in England, fidelity to the throne, and,
in the United States, to the Union or the Constitution. “Relevant,”
which formerly meant relieving or assisting, is now used in the
sense of “relative” or “relating” to, with which, from a similarity
of sound, though without the least etymological connection, it
appears to have been confounded. The word “exorbitant” once meant
deviating from a track or orbit; it is now used exclusively in the
sense of excessive.

The word “coincide” was primarily a mathematical term. If one
mathematical point be superposed upon another, or one straight line
upon another between the same two points, the two points in the
first case and the two lines in the latter are said to coincide.
The word was soon applied figuratively to identity of opinion,
but, according to Prof. Marsh, was not fully popularized, at
least in America, till 1826. On the Fourth of July in that year,
the semi-centennial jubilee of the Declaration of Independence,
Thomas Jefferson, the author of that manifesto, and John Adams,
its principal champion on the floor of Congress, both also
Ex-Presidents, died; and this fact was noticed all over the world,
and especially in the United States, as a remarkable “coincidence.”
The death of Ex-President Monroe, also, on the Fourth of July five
years after, gave increased currency to the word. Our late civil
war has led to some striking mutations in the meaning of words.
“Contraband,” from its general signification of any article whose
importation or exportation is prohibited by law, became limited to
a fugitive slave within the United States’ military lines. “Secede”
and “secession,” “confederate” and “confederacy,” have also
acquired new special meanings.


Another striking characteristic of words is their tendency
to contract in form and degenerate in meaning. Sometimes
they are ennobled and purified in signification; but more
frequently they deteriorate, and from an honorable fall into a
dishonorable meaning. I will first note a few examples of the
former:--“Humility,” with the Greeks and Romans, meant meanness
of spirit; “Paradise,” in oriental tongues, meant only a royal
park; “regeneration” was spoken by the Greeks only of the
earth in the springtime, and of the recollection of forgotten
knowledge; “sacrament” and “mystery” are words “fetched from the
very dregs of paganism” to set forth the great truths of our
redemption. On the other hand, “thief” (Anglo-Saxon, _theow_)
formerly signified only one of the servile classes; and “villain”
or “villein,” meant peasant,--the serf who, under the feudal
system, was _adscriptus glebæ_. The scorn of the landholders, the
half-barbarous aristocracy, for these persons, led them to ascribe
to them the most hateful qualities, some of which their degrading
situation doubtless tended to foster. Thus the word “villein”
became gradually associated with ideas of crime and guilt, till at
length it became a synonym for knaves of every class in society. A
“menial” was one of the many; “insolent” meant unusual; “silly,”
blessed,--the infant Jesus being termed by an old English poet
“that harmless ‘silly’ babe”; “officious” signified ready to do
kindly offices. “Demure” was used once in a good sense, without
the insinuation which is now almost latent in it, that the external
shows of modesty and sobriety rest on no corresponding realities.
“Facetious,” which now has the sense of buffoonish, originally
meant urbane. “Idiot,” from the Greek, originally signified only
a private man, as distinguished from an office-holder. “Homely”
formerly meant secret and familiar; and “brat,” now a vulgar and
contemptuous word, had anciently a very different signification, as
in the following lines from an old hymn by Gascoigne:

      “O Israel, O household of the Lord,
      O Abraham’s brats, O brood of blessed seed,
      O chosen sheep that loved the Lord indeed.”

“Imp” once meant graft; Bacon speaks of “those most virtuous and
goodly young imps, the Duke of Sussex and his brother.” A “boor”
was once only a farmer; a “scamp” a camp deserter. “Speculation”
first meant the sense of sight; as in Shakespeare:

      “Thou hast no speculation in those eyes.”

Next it was metaphorically transferred to mental vision, and
finally denoted, without a metaphor, the reflections and theories
of philosophers. From the domain of philosophy it has finally
travelled downward to the offices of stock-jobbers, share-brokers,
and all men who get their living by their wits, instead of by the
sweat of their brows. So “craft” at first meant ability, skill, or
dexterity. The origin of the term, according to Wedgewood, is seen
in the notion of seizing, expressed by the Italian, _graffiare_,
Welsh, _craff_, a hook, brace, holdfast. The term is then applied
to seizing with the mind, as in the Latin term “apprehend,”
“comprehend,” from _prehendere_, to seize in a material way.
“Cunning” once conveyed no idea of sinister or crooked wisdom.
“The three Persons of the Trinity,” says a reverent writer of the
fifteenth century, “are of equal cunning.” Bacon, a century later,
uses the word in its present sense of fox-like wisdom; and Locke
calls it “the ape of wisdom.” “Vagabond” is a word whose etymology
conveys no reproach. It denoted at first only a wanderer. But
as men who have no homes are apt to become loose, unsteady, and
reckless in their habits, the term has degenerated into its present

“Paramour” meant originally only lover; a “minion” was a favorite;
and “knave,” the lowest and most contemptuous term we can use when
insulting another, signified originally, as _knabe_ still does
in German, a boy. Subsequently, it meant servant; thus Paul, in
Wicliffe’s version of the New Testament, reverently terms himself
“a ‘knave’ of Jesus Christ.” A similar parallel to this is the
word “varlet,” which is the same as “valet.” “Retaliate,” from the
Latin _re_ (back) and _talis_ (such), naturally means to pay back
in kind, or such as we have received. But as, according to Sir
Thomas More, men write their injuries in marble, the kindnesses
done them in sand, the word “retaliate” is applied only to offences
or indignities, and never to favors. The word “resent,” to feel in
return, has undergone a similar deterioration. A Frenchman would
say, “_Il ‘ressentit’ une vive douleur_,” for “He felt acute pain”;
whereas we use the word only to express the sentiment of anger.

So “animosity,” which etymologically means only spiritedness, is
now applied to only one kind of vigor and activity, that displayed
in enmity and hate. “Defalcation,” from the Latin, _falx_, a
sickle or scythe, is properly a cutting off or down, a pruning or
retrenchment. Thus Addison: “the tea-table is set forth with its
usual bill of fare, and without any defalcation.” To-day we read of
a “defalcation in the revenue,” or “in a treasurer’s accounts,” by
which is meant a decrease in the amount of the revenue, or in the
moneys accounted for, irrespective of the cause,--a falling off.
This erroneous use of the word is probably due to a confusion of
it with the expression “fall away,” and with the noun “defaulter.”
Between the first word and either of the last two, however, there
is not the slightest etymological relationship. “Chaffer,” to
talk much and idly, primarily meant to buy, to make a bargain,
to higgle or dispute about a bargain. “Gossip” (God-akin) once
meant a sponsor in baptism. “Simple” and “simplicity” have sadly
degenerated in meaning. A “simple” fellow, once a man _sine
plica_ (without fold, free from duplicity), is now one who lacks
shrewdness, and is easily cheated or duped.

There are some words which, though not used in an absolutely
unfavorable sense, yet require a qualifying adjective to be
understood favorably. Thus, if a man is said to be noted for his
“curiosity,” a prying, impertinent, not a legitimate, curiosity
is supposed to be meant. So “critic” and “criticise” are commonly
associated with a carping, fault-finding spirit. “Lust” has
undergone a signal deterioration. In Chaucer it is used both as a
noun and a verb, and signifies wish, desire, pleasure, enjoyment,
without any evil connotation. “Parson” (_persona ecclesiæ_) had
originally no undertone of contempt. In the eighteenth century
it had become a nickname of scorn; and it was at a party of a
dozen parsons that the Earl of Sandwich won his wager, that no
one among them had brought his prayer-book or forgotten his
corkscrew. “Fellow” was originally a term of respect,--at least,
there was in it no subaudition of contempt; now it is suggestive
of worthlessness, if not of positively bad morals. Shakespeare did
not mean to disparage Yorick, the jester, when he said that “he was
a ‘fellow’ of infinite jest”; Pope, on the other hand, tells us, a
century or more later, that

      “Worth makes the man, and want of it the _fellow_.”

“By a ‘fast’ man, I presume you mean a ‘loose’ one,” said Sir
Robert Inglis to one who was describing a rake. Of all the words
which have degenerated from their original meaning, the most
remarkable is the term “dunce,” of the history of which Archbishop
Trench has given a striking account in his work on “The Study of
Words.” In the Middle Ages certain theologians, educated in the
cathedral and cloister schools founded by Charlemagne and his
successors, were called Schoolmen. Though they were men of great
acuteness and subtlety of intellect, their works, at the revival
of learning, ceased to be popular, and it was considered a mark of
intellectual progress and advance to have thrown off their yoke.
Some persons, however, still clung to these Schoolmen, especially
to Duns Scotus, the great teacher of the Franciscan order; and many
times an adherent of the old learning would seek to strengthen
his position by an appeal to its great doctor, familiarly called
Duns; while his opponents would contemptuously rejoin, “Oh, you
are a ‘Duns-man,’” or, more briefly, “You are a ‘Duns.’” As the
new learning was enlisting more and more of the scholarship of
the age on its side, the title became more and more a term of
scorn; and thus, from that long extinct conflict between the old
and the new learning, the mediæval and the modern theology, we
inherit the words “dunce” and “duncery.” The lot of poor Duns, as
the Archbishop observes, was certainly a hard one. That the name
of “the Subtle Doctor,” as he was called, one of the keenest and
most subtle-witted of men,--according to Hooker, “the wittiest of
the school divines,”--should become a synonym for stupidity and
obstinate dulness, was a fate of which even his bitterest enemies
could never have dreamed.


“Bit” is that which has been bit off, and exactly corresponds
to the word “morsel,” used in the same sense, and derived from
the Latin, _mordere_, to bite. “Bankrupt” means literally broken
bench. It was the custom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries
for the Lombard merchants to expose their wares for sale in the
market-place on benches. When one of their number failed, all
the other merchants set upon him, drove him from the market, and
“broke” his “bench” to pieces. _Banco rotto_, the Italian for
bench-broken, becomes _banqueroute_ in French, and in English
“bankrupt.” To the Lombard merchants, who flocked to England in
the thirteenth century, we owe also the words “bank,” “debtor,”
“creditor,” “usance” (the old word for interest), “journal,”
“diary,” “ledger,” “ditto,” and “£. s. d.,” which derives its
origin from _Lire_, _Soldi_, and _Denari_. “Alligator” is from
the Spanish _el lagarto_, the lizard, being the largest of the
lizard species. “Stipulation” is from _stipulum_, a straw, which
the Romans broke when they made a mutual engagement. “Dexterity”
is simply righthandedness. “Mountebank” means a quack-medicine
vendor,--from the Italian _montare_, to mount, and _banco_,
a bench; literally, one who mounts a bench to boast of his
infallible skill in curing diseases. “Quandary” is a corruption of
the French, _qu’en dirai (je)_? “what shall I say of it?”--and
expresses that feeling of uncertainty which would naturally prompt
such a question. “Faint” is from the French, _se feindre_, to
pretend; so that originally fainting was a pretended weakness or
inability. We have an example of the thing originally indicated by
the word, in the French theatres, where professional fainters are
employed, whose business it is to be overcome and to sink to the
floor under the powerful acting of the tragedians.

“Topsy-turvy” is said to be a contraction or corruption of
“top-side t’other way.” “Helter-skelter” is either from _hilariter
et celeriter_, “gaily and quickly,” or, more probably, from helter,
to hang, and _skelter_, order, _i.e._, “hang order.” “Hip! hip!
hurrah!” is said to have been originally a war-cry adopted by the
stormers of a German town, wherein a great many Jews had taken
refuge. The place being sacked, the Jews were all put to the sword,
amid the shouts of “_Hierosolyma est perdita!_” From the first
letters of these words (h. e. p.) an exclamation was contrived.
When the wine sparkles in the cup, and patriotic or other
soul-thrilling sentiments are greeted with a “Hip! hip! hurrah!”
it is well enough to remember the origin of a cry which reminds us
of the cruelty of Christians toward God’s chosen people. “Sexton”
is a corruption of “sacristan,” which is from _sacra_, the sacred
things of a church. The sacristan’s office was to take care of the
vessels of the service and the vestments of the clergy. Since the
Reformation, his duties in this respect have been greatly lessened,
and he has dug the graves,--so that the term now commonly means
grave-digger, though it still retains somewhat of its old meaning.

“Toad-eater” is a metaphor supposed to be taken from a mountebank’s
boy eating toads, in order to show his master’s skill in expelling
poison. It is more probable, however, that the phrase is a version
of the French, _avaler des couleuvres_, which means putting up with
all sorts of indignities without showing resentment. The propriety
of the term rests on the fact that dependent persons are often
forced to do the most nauseous things to please their patrons.
The same trick of pretending to eat reptiles, such as toads, is
held by some etymologists to be the origin of the terms “buffoon,”
“buffoonery,” from the Latin, _bufo_, a toad. Wedgwood derives it
from the French, bouffon, a jester, from the Italian, _buffa_,
a puff, a blast or a blurt with the mouth made at one in scorn.
A puff with the mouth indicates contempt; it is emblematically
_making light_ of an object. In “David Copperfield” we read:
“‘And who minds Dick? Dick’s nobody! Whoo!’ He blew a slight,
contemptuous breath, as if he blew himself away.”

“Cant” (Gaelic, _cainnt_, speech) is properly the language spoken
by thieves and beggars among themselves, when they do not wish
to be understood by bystanders. Subsequently it came to mean the
peculiar terms used by any other profession or community. Some
etymologists derive the word from the Latin, _cantare_, to sing,
and suppose it to signify the whining cry of professional beggars,
though it may have obtained its beggar sense from some instinctive
notion of the quasi-religious one. It has been noted that the whole
class of words comprising “enchant,” “incantation,” etc., were
primarily referable to religious ceremonies of some kind; and as
once an important part of a beggar’s daily labor was invoking, or
seeming to invoke, blessings on those who gave him alms, this,
with the natural tendency to utter any oft-repeated phrases in a
sing-song, rhythmical tone, gave to the word “cant” its present
signification. In Scotland the word has a peculiar meaning. About
the middle of the seventeenth century, Andrew and Alexander Cant,
of Edinburgh, maintained that all refusers of the covenant ought
to be excommunicated, and that all excommunicated might lawfully
be killed; and in their grace after meat they “praid for those
phanaticques and seditious ministers” who had been arrested and
imprisoned, that the Lord would pity and deliver them. From these
two Cants, Andrew and Alexander, it is said, all seditious praying
and preaching in Scotland is called “Canting.”

The tendency to regard money as the source of true happiness is
strikingly illustrated in the word “wealth,” which is connected
with “weal,” just as in Latin _beatus_ meant both blessed and rich,
and ὄλβιος the same in Greek. “Property” and “propriety” come from
the same French word, _propriété_; so that the Frenchman in New
York was not far out of the way, when in the panic of 1857 he said
he “should lose all his _propriety_.” The term “blue-stocking,”
applied to literary ladies, has a curious origin. Originally,
in England in 1760, it was conferred on a society of literary
persons of both sexes. The society derived its name from the
blue worsted stockings always worn by Benjamin Stillingfleet, a
distinguished writer, who was one of the most active promoters of
this association. This term was subsequently conferred on literary
ladies, from the fact that the accomplished and fascinating
Mrs. Jerningham wore blue stockings at the social and literary
entertainments given by Lady Montague. “Woman” is the _wif_ or
_web_-man, who stays at home to spin, as distinguished from the
weap-man, who goes abroad to use the weapon of war. The term
“man” is, of course, generic, including both male and female.
“Lady” primarily signifies bread keeper. It is derived from the
Anglo-Saxon, _hlæfdige_, _i.e._, she who looks after the loaf; or
else is a corruption of _hlâfweardige_, from _hlâf_, bread, loaf,
and _weardian_, to keep, look after. “Waist” is the same as waste;
that part of the figure which wastes,--that is, diminishes.

“Canard” has a very curious origin. M. Quêtelet, a French writer,
in the “Annuaire de l’Académie Française,” attributes the first
application of this term to Norbert Cornelïssen, who, to give a
sly hit at the ridiculous pieces of intelligence in the public
journals, stated that an interesting experiment had just been made
calculated to prove the voracity of ducks. Twenty were placed
together; and one of them having been killed and cut up into the
smallest possible pieces, feathers and all, was thrown to the other
nineteen, and most gluttonously gobbled up. Another was then taken
from the nineteen, and, being chopped small like its predecessor,
was served up to the eighteen, and at once devoured like the other;
and so on to the last, who thus was placed in the position of
having eaten his nineteen companions. This story, most pleasantly
narrated, ran the round of all the journals of Europe. It then
became almost forgotten for about a score of years, when it went
back from America with amplifications; but the word remained in its
novel signification.

“Abominable” was once supposed to have been derived from the Latin
words _ab_, from, and _homo_, a man, meaning repugnant to humanity.
It really comes from _abominor_, which again is from _ab_ and
_omen_; and it conveys the idea of what is in a religious sense
profane and detestable,--in short, of evil omen. Milton always
applies it to devilish, profane, or idolatrous objects. “Poltroon”
is _pollice truncus_, _i.e._, with the thumb cut off,--_pollex_,
Latin, meaning thumb, and _truncus_, maimed or mutilated. When
the Roman empire was about falling in pieces, the valor of the
citizens had so degenerated, that, to escape fighting, many cut off
their right thumbs, thus disabling themselves from using the pike.
“Farce” is derived from _farcire_, a Latin word meaning to stuff,
as with flour, herbs, and other ingredients in cooking. A farce is
a comedy with little plot, stuffed with ludicrous incidents and
expressions. “Racy” is from “race,” meaning family, breed, and
signifies having the characteristic flavor of origin, savoring of
the source.

“Trivial” may be from _trivium_, in the sense of _tres viæ_, a
place where three roads meet, and thus indicate that which is
commonplace, or of daily occurrence. But it is more probably from
_trivium_, in the sense in which the word was used in the Middle
Ages, when it meant the course of three arts, grammar, logic, and
rhetoric, which formed the common curriculum of the universities,
as distinguished from the _quadrivium_, which embraced four more,
namely, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Trivial
things in this sense may mean things that occur ordinarily, as
distinguished from higher or more abstruse things. The word “quiz”
has a remarkable origin, unless the etymologists who give its
derivation are themselves quizzing their readers. It is said that
many years ago, when one Daly was patentee of the Irish theatres,
he spent the evening of a Saturday in company with many of the wits
and men of fashion of the day. Gambling was introduced, when the
manager staked a large sum that he would have spoken, all through
the principal streets of Dublin, by a certain hour next day,
Sunday, a word having no meaning, and being derived from no known
language. Wagers were laid, and stakes deposited. Daly repaired to
the theatre, and dispatched all the servants and supernumeraries
with the word “Quiz,” which they chalked on every door and every
shop window in town. Shops being all shut next day, everybody
going to and coming from the different places of worship saw the
word, and everybody repeated it, so that “Quiz” was heard all
through Dublin; the circumstance of so strange a word being on
every door and window caused much surprise, and ever since, should
a strange story be attempted to be passed current, it draws forth
the expression “You are ‘quizzing’ me.” Some person who has a just
aversion to practical jokes, wittily defines a “quizzer” as “one
who believes me to be a fool because I will not believe him to be a

“Huguenot” is a word whose origin is still a _vexata quæstio_
of etymology. Of the many derivations given, some of which are
ridiculously fanciful, _Eignots_, which Voltaire and others give
from the German, _Eidgenossen_, confederates, is the one generally
received. A plausible derivation is from _Huguenot_, a small
piece of money, which, in the time of Hugo Capet, was worth less
than a denier. At the time of Amboisi’s conspiracy, some of the
petitioners fled through fear; whereupon some of the countrymen
said they were poor fellows, not worth a Huguenot,--whence the
nickname in question. “Pensive” is a picturesque word, from
_pensare_, the frequentative of _pendere_, to weigh. The French
have _pensée_, a thought, the result of mental weighing. A pensive
figure is that in which a person appears to be holding an invisible
balance of reflection. “Bumper” is a corruption of _le bon père_,
meaning “the Holy Father,” or Pope, who was once the great toast
of every feast. As this was commonly the first toast, it was
considered that the glasses would be desecrated by being again used.

“Nice” is derived by some etymologists from the Anglo-Saxon,
_hnesc_, soft, effeminate; but there is good reason for believing
that it is from the Latin, _nescius_, ignorant, “Wise, and
nothing nice,” says Chaucer; that is, no wise ignorant. If so,
it is a curious instance of the extraordinary changes of meaning
which words undergo, that “nice” should come to signify accurate
or fastidious, which implies knowledge and taste rather than
ignorance. The explanation is, that the diffidence of ignorance
resembles the fastidious slowness of discernment. “Gibberish”
is from a famous sage, Giber, an Arab, who sought for the
philosopher’s stone, and used, perhaps, senseless incantations.
“Alert” is a picturesque word from the Italian, _all’ erte_,--on
the mound or rampart. The “alert” man is one who is wide-awake and
watchful, like the warder on the watch-tower, or the sentinel upon
the rampart. “By-laws” are not, etymologically, laws of inferior
importance, but the laws of “byes” or towns, as distinguished from
the general laws of a kingdom. “By” is Danish for town or village;
as “Whitby,” White Town, “Derby,” Deer Town, etc.

A writer in “Notes and Queries” suggests that the word “snobs”
may be of classical origin, derived from _sine obola_, without
a penny. It is not probable, however, that it was meant as a
sneer at poverty only. A more ingenious suggestion is that, as
the higher classes were called “nobs,”--_i.e._, _nobilitas_, the
nobility,--the “s-nobs” were those _sine nobilitate_, without any
blue blood in their veins, or pure aristocratic breeding. “Humbug”
is an expressive word, about the origin of which etymologists are
disagreed. An ingenious explanation, not given in the dictionaries,
is, that it is derived from “Hume of the Bog,” a Scotch laird, so
called from his estate, who lived during the reign of William and
Anne. He was celebrated in Edinburgh circles for his marvellous
stories, which, in the exhausting draughts they made on his
hearer’s credulity, out-Munchausened Munchausen. Hence, any tough
story was called “a regular Hume of the Bog,” or, by contraction,
“Humbug.” Another etymology of “humbug” is a piece of Hamburg
news; _i.e._, a Stock Exchange canard. Webster derives the word
from “hum,” to impose on, deceive, and “bug” a frightful object, a
bugbear. Wedgwood thinks it may come from the union of “hum” and
“buzz,” signifying sound without sense. He cites a catch, set by
Dr. Arne in “Notes and Queries”:

      “‘Buzz,’ quoth the blue fly,
        ‘Hum,’ quoth the bee,
      ‘Buzz’ and ‘hum’ they cry.
        And so do we.”

“Imbecile” is from the Latin, _in_ and _bacillum_, a walking
stick; one who through infirmity leans for support upon a stick.
“Petrels” are little Peters, because, like the apostles, they
can walk on the water. “Hocus pocus” is a corruption of _Hoc est
corpus_, “this is the body,” words once used in necromancy or
jugglery. “Chagrin” is primarily a hard, granulated leather, which
chafes the limbs; hence, secondarily, irritation or vexation.
“Canon” is from a Greek word meaning “cane”; first a hollow rule or
a cane used as a measure, then a law or rule. The word is identical
with “cannon,” so called from its hollow, tube-like form. Hence
it has been wittily said that the world in the Middle Ages was
governed first by canons, and then by cannons,--first, by Saint
Peter, and then by saltpetre.

“Booby” primarily denotes a person who gapes and stares about,
wondering at everything. From the syllable “ba,” representing the
opening of the mouth, are formed the French words _baier_, _béer_,
to gape, and thence in the patois of the Hainault, _baia_, the
mouth, and figuratively one who stands staring with open mouth,
_boubié_. Webster thinks the word is derived from the French,
_boubie_, a waterfowl. “Pet,” a darling, is from the French,
_petit_, which comes from the Latin, _petitus_, sought after. “My
pet” means literally “my sought after or desired one.” “Petty” is
also from the French, _petit_, little. “Assassin” is derived from
the Persian, _hashish_, an intoxicating opiate. “The Assassins”
were a tribe of fanatics, who lived in the mountains of Lebanon,
and executed with terror and subtlety every order entrusted to
them by their chief, the “Old Man of the Mountain.” They made a
jest of torture when seized, and were the terror alike of Turk
and Christian. They resembled the Thugs of India. “Blunderbuss”
(properly thunder-buss) is from the German _büchse_, applied
to a rifle, a box; hence “arquebuss” and “Brown Bess.” “Bosh”
is derived, according to some etymologists, from a Turkish word
meaning “empty,”--according to others, from the German, _bosse_, a
joke or trifle. Mr. Blackley, in his “Word-Gossip,” says it is the
pure gypsy word for “fiddle,” which suggests the semi-sanctioned
“fiddle-de-dee!” “Person” primarily meant an actor. The Roman
theatres, which could hold thirty to forty thousand spectators,
were so large that the actors wore masks containing a contrivance
to render the voice louder. Such a mask was called _persona_ (_per
sonare_, to sound through), because the voice sounded through it.
By a common figure of speech, the word meaning “mask” (_persona_)
was afterward applied to its wearer; so _persona_ came to signify
“actor.” But as all men are actors, playing each his part on the
stage of life, the word “person” came afterward to signify a man or
woman. “Parson” the “chief person” of a parish, is another form of
the same word. “Curmudgeon” is probably from “corn-merchant,” one
who tries to enrich himself by hoarding grain and withholding it
from others; or it may be from the French, _cœur_, the heart, and
_méchant_, wicked. “Haberdasher” is from the German, _Habt ihr das
hier?_ _i.e._, Have you this here? “Hoax” is from the Anglo-Saxon,
_husc_, mockery or contempt; or, perhaps it is from “hocuspocus,”
which was at one time used to ridicule the Roman Catholic doctrine
of transubstantiation.

“Right” is from the Latin _rectus_, ruled, proceeding in a straight
line; “wrong” is the perfect participle of “wring,” that which has
been “wrung” or wrested from the right; just as in French _tort_ is
from _torqueo_, that which is twisted. “Humble-pie” is properly
“umble-pie.” The umbles were the entrails or coarser parts of the
deer, the perquisite of the keeper or huntsman. “Pantaloon” is
from the Italian, _piante leone_ (_panta-leone_, _pantaloon_),
“the Planter of the Lion”; _i.e._, the Standard-Bearer of Venice.
The Lion of St. Mark was the standard of Venice. “Pantaloon” was
a masked character in the Italian comedy, the butt of the play,
who wore breeches and stockings that were all of one piece. The
Spanish language has _pañalon_, a slovenly fellow whose shirt
hangs out of his breeches. “Cheat” is from the Latin, _cadere_, to
fall. The word “escheats” first denoted lands that “fell” to the
crown by forfeiture. The “escheatours,” who certified these to the
Exchequer, practised so much fraud, that, by a natural transition,
the “escheatour” passed into “cheater,” and “escheat” into “cheat.”

“Salary” is from the Latin, _sal_, salt, which in the reign of the
Emperor Augustus comprised the provisions, as well as the pay, of
the Roman military officers. From “salary” came, probably, the
expression, “He is not worth his ‘salt,’” that is, his pay or
wages. “Kidnap” is from the German _kind_, or Provincial English,
_kid_, meaning “child,” and _nap_ or _nab_, “to steal,”--to steal
children. “Hawk,” in Anglo-Saxon, _hafoc_, points to the havoc
which that bird makes among the smaller ones; as “raven” expresses
the greedy or “ravenous” disposition of the bird so named. “Owl” is
said to be the past participle of “to yell” (as in Latin _ulula_,
the screech-owl, is from _ululare_), and differs from “howl” only
in its spelling. “Solecism” is from _Soli_, a town of Cilicia,
the people of which corrupted the pure Greek. “Squirrel” is from
two Greek words, σκία, a shade, and οὐρά, a tail. “Sycophant” is
primarily a “fig-shower”; one who informed the public officers
of Attica that the law against the exportation of figs had been
violated. Hence the word came to mean a common informer, a mean
parasite. “Parasite,” from the Greek παρά, beside, and σῖτος, food,
means literally one who eats at the table of another,--a privilege
which is apt to be paid for by obsequiousness and flattery.

“Sarcasm,” from the Greek, σάρξ, flesh, and κάζω, I tear, is
literally a tearing of the flesh. “Tribulation” is from the Latin
_tribulum_, a kind of sledge or heavy roller, which did the work
of the English flail, by hard grinding and wearing, instead of by
repeated light strokes. Troubles, afflictions and sorrows being
the divinely appointed means for separating the chaff from the
wheat of men’s natures,--the light and trivial from the solid and
valuable,--the early Christians, by a rustic but familiar metaphor,
called these sorrows and trials “tribulations,” threshings of the
inner spiritual man, by which only could he be fitted for the
heavenly garner. As Wither beautifully sings:

      “Till the mill the grains in pieces tear,
      The richness of the flour will scarce appear;
      So till men’s persons great afflictions touch,
      If worth be found, their worth is not much;
      Because, like wheat in straw, they have not yet
      That value, which in threshing they may get.”

“Tabby,” a familiar name of cats, is the French _tabis_, which
comes from the Persian _retabi_, a rich watered silk, and
denotes the wavy bars upon their coats. “Schooner” has a curious
derivation. In 1713 Captain Andrew Robinson launched the first
vessel of this kind, with gaffs instead of the lateen yards until
then in use, and the luff of the sail bent to hoops on the mast.
As she slipped down the ways a bystander exclaimed, “Oh, how she
‘scoons’!”--whereupon the builder, catching at the word, replied,
“A ‘scooner’ let her be!” Originally the word was spelled without
the _h_. “Supercilious,” from _supercilium_, the eyebrow, is
literally knitting the eyebrows in pride. “Slave” chronicles the
contest between the Teutonic and Sclavonic or Slavonic races.
When a German captured a Russian or Bohemian, he would call him
a “sclave” or “slave,” whereby the word became associated with
the idea of servitude. In Oriental France, in the eighth century,
princes and bishops were rich in these captives.

“Servant” is from _servus_, which the Justinian code derives from
_serrare_, to preserve,--because the victor preserved his captives
alive, instead of killing them.

“Scrupulous” is from the Latin, _scrupulus_, a small, sharp
stone, such as might get into a Roman traveller’s open shoe, and
distress him, whence the further meaning of doubts, or a source
of doubt and hesitation. Afterward the word came to express a
measure of weight, the twenty-fourth part of an ounce; and hence
to be scrupulous is to pay minute, nice, and exact attention to
matters often in themselves of small weight. “Plagiarism” is
literally “man-stealing.” As books are one’s mental offspring,
the word came naturally to mean, first, the stealing of a book or
manuscript which the thief published as his own; secondly, quoting
from another man’s writings without acknowledgment. “Parlor,”
from _parler_, to speak, is, therefore, the “talking room,” as
“boudoir,” from _bouder_, to pout, is literally the “pouting-room.”
“Egregious” is from the Latin _ex_, from, and _grege_, flock or
herd. An “egregious” lie is one distinguished from the common
herd of lies, such as one meets with in every patent-medicine
advertisement and political newspaper. “Negotiate” is from
_negotior_, compounded of _ne ego otior_, I am not idle.

The origin of the word “caucus” has long been a vexed question
with etymologists. Till recently it was supposed by many to be a
corruption of “caulkers,” being derived from an association of
these men in Boston, who met to organize resistance to England just
before the revolutionary war. Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull, of Hartford,
Connecticut, has suggested a new and ingenious derivation of the
term, which is more satisfactory, and probably correct. Strachey,
in his “Historie of Travaile into Virginia,” 1610-12 (printed by
the Hakluyt Society, 1849), says that the Chechahamanias, a free
people, acknowledging the supremacy of Powhatan, were governed,
not by a _weroance_, commander, sent by Powhatan, but by their
priests, with the assistance of their elders; and this board was
called _cawcawwas_. Captain John Smith writes _cockerouse_ for
_cawcawwas_, in the sense of “captain”; but the English generally
understood it in the sense of “counsellor,” and adopted it from
the Indians, as Beverley states that it designates “one that has
the honor to be of the king’s or queen’s council,” a provincial
councillor, just as northern politicians now use the word _sachem_,
and formerly used _mugwomp_. The verb from which _cawcawwas_,
or _cockerouse_ comes, means primarily “to talk to,”--hence to
“harangue,” “advise,” “encourage,” and is found in all Algonquin
dialects, as Abnaki _kakesoo_, to incite, and Chippeway _gaganso_
(_n_ nasal), to exhort, urge, counsel. _Cawcawwas_, representing
the adjective form of this verb, is “one who advises, promotes,”--a
caucuser. “Manumit” is from _manus_, hand, and _mittere_, to
dismiss,--to dismiss a slave with a slap of the hand, on setting
him free. “Hypocrite” comes from a Greek word signifying one who
feigns or plays a part on the stage. “Kennel,” a dog house, is from
the Italian, _canile_, and this from the Latin, _canis_, a dog.
“Kennel,” in the sense of gutter, with its kindred words, “can,”
“cane,” and “channel,” is derived from _canna_, a cane, which is
like a tube.

“Apple-pie order” is a popular phrase of which few persons know
the meaning. Does it signify in order, or in disorder? A writer in
the “North British Review” favors the latter interpretation. He
thinks it has nothing to do with “apple” or “pie,” in the common
sense of those words. He believes that it is a typographical term,
and that it was originally “Chapel pie.” A printing house was,
and is to this day, called a chapel,--perhaps from the Chapel at
Westminster Abbey, in which Caxton’s earliest works are said to
have been printed; and “pie” is type after it is “distributed” or
broken up, and before it has been re-sorted. “‘Pie’ in this sense
came from the confused and _perplexing rules of the ‘Pie,’ that
is, the order for finding the lessons, in Catholic times_, which
those who have read, or care to read, the Preface to the ‘Book of
Common Prayer,’ will find there expressed and denounced. Here is
the passage: ‘Moreover the number and hardness of the rules called
the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause
that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that
many times there was more business to find out what should be read
than to read it when it was found out.’ To leave your type in ‘pie’
is to leave it unsorted and in confusion, and ‘apple-pie order,’
which we take to be ‘chapel-pie order,’ is to leave anything in a
thorough mess. Those who like to take the other side, and assert
that ‘apple-pie order’ means in perfect order, may still find
their derivation in ‘chapel-pie’; for the ordering and sorting of
the ‘pie’ or type is enforced in every ‘chapel’ or printing-house
by severe fines, and so ‘chapel-pie order’ would be such order of
the type as the best friends of the chapel would wish to see.” “The
bitter end,” a phrase often heard during the late civil war, has a
remarkable etymology. A ship’s cable has always two ends. One end
is fastened to the anchor and the other to the “bits,” or “bitts,”
a frame of two strong pieces of timber fixed perpendicularly in
the fore part of the ship, for the express purpose of holding the
cables. Hence the “bitter,” or “bitter end,” is the end fastened to
the bitts; and when the cable is out to the “bitter end,” it is all
out; the extremity has come.

Few persons who utter the word “stranger,” suspect that it has
its root in the single vowel _e_, the Latin preposition for
“from,” which it no more resembles than a bird resembles an egg.
The links in the chain are,--_e_, _ex_, _extra_, _extraneus_,
_étranger_, _stranger_. When a boy answers a lady, “Yes’m,” he does
not dream that his “m” is a fragment of the five syllables, _mea
domina_ (“madonna,” “madame,” “madam,” “ma’am” “’m”). The French
word _même_ is a striking illustration of what philologists call
“phonetic change,” which sometimes “eats away the whole body of a
word, and leaves nothing behind but decayed fragments.” Who would
believe that _même_ contains the Latin _semetipsissimus_? The words
“thrall” and “thraldom” have an interesting history. They come to
us from a period when it was customary to “thrill” (or drill) the
ear of a slave in token of servitude; and hence the significance of
Sir Thomas Browne’s remark, “Bow not to the omnipotency of gold,
nor ‘bore’ thy ear to its servitude.” The expression “‘signing’
one’s name” takes us back to an age when most persons made their
mark or “sign.” We must not suppose that this practice was then,
as now, a proof of the ignorance of the signer. Among the Saxons,
not only illiterate persons made this sign, but, as an attestation
of the good faith of the person signing, the mark of the cross
was required to be attached to the name of those who could write.
From its holy association, it was the symbol of an oath; and hence
the expression “God save the mark!” which so long puzzled the
commentators of Shakespeare, is now understood to be a form of
ejaculation resembling an oath. It is said that Charlemagne, being
unable to write, was compelled to dip the forefinger of his glove
in ink, and smear it over the parchment when it was necessary that
the imperial sign-manual should be fixed to an edict. “Window” is a
corruption of “wind-door,”--door to let in the wind.

The word “handkerchief” is curiously fashioned. “Kerchief,” the
first form of the word, is from the French _couvre-chef_, “a
head-covering.” If to “kerchief”, we prefix “hand,” we have a
“hand-head-covering,” or a covering for the head held in the hand,
which is palpably absurd; but when we qualify this word by “neck”
or “pocket,” we reach the climax beyond which confusion can no
farther go. How a covering for the “head” is to be held in the
“hand,” and yet carried in the “pocket,” it requires a more than
ordinarily vivid imagination to conceive. “Constable” is derived
from _comes stabuli_, or “Count of the stable,” who formerly had
charge of the king’s horses. “Bib” is from _bibere_, to drink, the
tucker being used to save the child’s clothes from whatever may be
spilt when it is bibbing.

“Dollar” is the German _thaler_, which is an abbreviation of
_Joachemsthaler_, the valley where it was coined.

“Host,” an army, or a multitude, is from _hostis_; “host,” an
entertainer, is from _hospes_; “host,” a sacrifice, is from
_hostia_. The word “rostrum” is from the Latin _rostra_, the
beak of a ship. After the submission of the Latins, 334 B.C.,
the vessels of Antium having been burnt, their beaks were made
to adorn the tribune in the Forum. From that time the _rostra_
became the indispensable decoration of the Forum, and hence the
name “rostrum” to denote a platform for orators. “Verdict” is from
_veredictum_, truly said. “Palliate” is from _pallium_, a cloak.
“Carat” is from the Arabic _kaura_, a bean, the standard weight for
diamonds. “Salmon” is from _saliendo_, which points to the “leaps”
it makes. A “cur,” from the Latin _curtus_, is a curtailed dog,
whose tail has been cut off for straying in the woods; a “terrier”
is from _terrarius_, an earth-dog; a “spaniel” is a Spanish dog;
a “mongrel” is a dog of mingled breed; and the mastiff guards
the _maison_, or house. A horse is called a “pony” when puny; a
“hack” from “hackney;” and the lady’s horse was called a “palfrey,”
because it was led _par le frein_, or by the rein.

A “palace” is so called from _Collis Palatinus_, one of the seven
hills of Rome, which was itself called Palatinus, from _Pales_,
a pastoral deity. On this hill stood the “Golden House” of Nero,
which was called the _Palatium_, and became the type of the palaces
of all the kings and emperors of Europe. The word “court” had its
origin in the same locality and in the same distant age. It was
on the hills of Latium that _cohors_ or _cors_ was first used in
the sense of a “hurdle,” an “enclosure,” a “cattle yard.” The
_cohortes_, or divisions of the Roman army, were thus named, so
many soldiers forming a pen or a court. _Cors_, _cortis_, became
in mediæval Latin _curtis_, and was used to denote a farm, or a
castle built by a Roman settler in the provinces, and finally
a royal residence, or palace. That a word originally meaning
“cow-pen,” or “cattle-yard,” should assume the meaning of “palace,”
and give rise to such derivatives as “courteous,” “courtesy,” and
“to court,” that is, to pay attentions, or to propose marriage,
is a striking example of the strange transformations which words
undergo in the course of ages. The “Court of the Star Chamber,” so
odious in English history, derived its name from the ceiling of
the room where it sat, which was dotted with stars. “Pontiff” has
an almost equally humble origin. It is from the _Pons Sublicius_,
which Ancus Marcus placed on wooden joists, and which was rebuilt
by the censor Æmilius Lepidus in the reign of the second of the
Cæsars,--the bridge which Horatius Cocles defended, and whose
construction, preservation, and maintenance were confided to the
college of priests,--that the word “pontiff” is derived. The word
“exchequer” comes, according to Blackstone, from the “checked”
cloth that covered the table behind which the money-changers sat.
“Suffrage” is from _suffragium_, a broken piece or potsherd, used
by the ancients in voting in their assemblies. “Easter” is from
the Anglo-Saxon, _Eastre_ (German, _Ostara_), a heathen goddess
whose feast was celebrated in the spring. Remains of the old pagan
worship have survived in Easter eggs, yule logs, and, on the
Continent of Europe, Whitsun fires.

“Mystery,” something secret or unknown, comes from _mu_, the
imitation of closing the lips; but “mystery,” in the Mystery Plays,
such as continue to be performed at Ammergan, in Bavaria, is a
corruption of _ministerium_; it meant a religious ministry, or
service, had nothing to do with mystery, and should be spelled
with an _i_, and not with a _y_. “Puny” is from the French
_puis-né_, “since born,” hence, by metaphor, sickly, inferior,
diminutive. From the same source is derived “puisne” (that is,
younger, or inferior) judge. The phrase “True Blue,” applied to the
Presbyterians, is said by Dean Stanley to be owing to the distinct
dress of the Scotch Presbyterian clergy, which at one time was a
blue gown and a broad blue bonnet. The Episcopal clergy either wore
no distinctive dress in public services, or wore a black gown.
The Rev. Dr. Murray, however, in an address before the Assembly
of the Free Church of Scotland, gave a different explanation of
the phrase: “A Scotchman once told me that when we were persecuted
as a denomination, the minister was wont to go to the mountains,
and when there was to be a communion a blue flag was held up as a
signal or notice, and also as an invitation to attend, and some
regard this as the origin of the term; but on a visit to Pompeii,
a few years ago, I spent some time in inspecting the splendid
frescoes of variegated hues. I found all colors had faded except
the blue, and that was as bright as when first put on, though
nearly two thousand years previously. The ‘true blue’ never gives
out,--never changes. So, when we say of a man ‘he is true blue,’ it
is equivalent to saying he is firm in and true to his principles.”
“France” owes its name to the Franks, who conquered her native
Celts. The word _Franc_ comes, according to a German philologist,
either from the Teutonic _franhô_, “bold,” “frank,” or from
_franca_, a sharp, double-edged battle-axe, which the Franks hurled
with great dexterity in attacking their enemies. From _Franc_ are
derived our words “franchise” and “enfranchisement.”

One of the most interesting classes of common words with curious
derivations is that of the names of things or acts which were
once names of persons. Language teems in this way with honors to
the great and good men who have been benefactors of their race;
and it also avenges the wrongs of humanity by impaling the very
names of the wrong-doers in a perpetual crucifixion. Many words of
this class betray their origin at once. It is easy to recognize
Tantalus in “to tantalize,” Epicurus in “epicure,” Mesmer in
“mesmerism,” Gordius in the “gordian” knot which Alexander cut,
Galvani in “galvanism,” Volta in the “voltaic” pile, Daguerre in
“daguerreotype,” and McAdam and Burke in “to macadamize” and “to
burke.” But when we read or hear of a work on “algebra,” or of
a person who has uttered “gibberish,” we get no hint, at first,
of Giber or Geber, the famous Arabian sage, who sought for the
philosopher’s stone, and used, perhaps, senseless incantations.
“Artesian,” applied to a well, does not inform us that such a well
was first cut through the chalk basin of the province of Artois.
We speak of a “dun” without suspecting that the word came from the
name of a stern bailiff in the time of Henry VII, one Dun, who was
eminently successful in collecting debts. We hear of a “maudlin”
speech without thinking of Mary Magdalen; of a “lazaretto,” without
being reminded of Lazarus; of “simony” without a suggestion of
Simon Magus; and of “silhouettes,” without a suspicion that it
was the unpopular French minister of finance, M. de Silhouette,
whose persistent economy doomed his name to be affixed to the
slight and cheap outline portraits thus named. “Martinet” does
not recall the rigid disciplinarian in the army of Louis XIV, nor
does a “tram-road” point very plainly to Outram, the inventor. In
“saunterer” we do not readily detect _La Sainte Terre_, “the Holy
Land,” the pilgrims to which took their own time to get there; nor
would a “pander” ever remind us of the Trojan general Pandarus, or
“tawdry” of the fair of St. Etheldreda, or St. Awdry, where gaudy
finery was sold. “Music,” “museum,” and “mosaic,” do not inevitably
suggest the Muses, nor does a “pasquinade” tell us about the statue
of an ancient gladiator which was exhumed at Rome, in the peculiar
physiognomy of which the wits of that city detected a resemblance
to Pasquino, a snappish cobbler, who lived near by, and on the
pedestal of which it became a practice to post lampoons. Few men
think of Jaque, of Beauvais, as they put on “jackets”; of Blacket,
who first manufactured the article, when they lie under “blankets”;
or of Hermes Trismegistus, the Egyptian priest, when they
“hermetically” seal a bottle or fruit can. Excepting the readers of
Pascal, it is probable that not many Frenchmen detect in the word
_escobarder_, “to equivocate,” the name of the great casuist of the
Jesuits, Escobar, whose subtle devices for the evasion of the moral
law have been immortalized in the “Provincial Letters.”

Vulcan is still at his forge in “volcanoes,” and has even descended
so low as to “vulcanize” rubber; and though “Great Pan is dead,”
he comes to life again in every “panic.” A “sandwich” calls to
mind Lord Sandwich, the inveterate gamester, who begrudged the
time necessary for a meal; and the “spencer” recalls Lord Spencer,
who in hunting lost one skirt of his coat, and tore off the
other,--which led some inventive genius to make half-coats, and
call them “spencers.” Of the two noble lords it has been said that

      “The one invented half a coat,
        The other half a dinner.”

Epic and dramatic poetry, and fiction generally, have added
much to the force and suggestiveness of speech. What apt and
expressive terms are “utopian”[45] (from the name given by Sir
Thomas More to his imaginary island), and “quixotic”! With what
other words could we supply the place of Dean Swift’s “liliputian”
and “brobdingnagian,” Kenny’s “Jeremy Diddler,” or Dickens’s
“pickwickian” and “Circumlocution Office”? What convenient terms
are “thrasonical,” from Thraso, the braggart of the Roman comedy,
and “rodomontade,” from Rodamonte, a hero of Boiardo, who, strange
to say, does not brag and bluster, as the word based on his name
seems to imply! It is said that Boiardo, when he had hit upon the
name of his hero, had the village bells rung for joy. To Homer we
are indebted for “stentorian,” that is, loud-voiced, from Stentor,
the Greek herald, whose voice surpassed the united shout of fifty
men; and for the word “to hector,” founded on the big talk of the
Trojan hero.

The language of savages teems with expressions of deep interest
both to the philologist and the student of human nature. Speech
with them is a perpetual creation of utterances to image forth the
total picture in their minds. The Indian “does not analyze his
thoughts or separate his utterances; his thoughts rush forth in a
troop. His speech is as a kindling cloud, not as radiant points
of light.” The Lenni Lenape Indians express by one polysyllable
what with us requires seven monosyllables and three disyllables,
viz.: “Come with the canoe and take us across the river.” This
polysyllable is _nadholineen_, and it is formed by taking parts
of several words and cementing them into one. In the Iroquois
language one word of twenty-one letters expresses this sentence
of eighteen words: “I give some money to those who have arrived,
in order to buy them more clothes with it.” The apparent wealth
of synonyms and of grammatical forms in savage languages is due,
not to the mental superiority of the races that speak them, but to
their inferiority,--their deficiency in the power of abstraction.
“The more barbarous a language,” says Herder, “the greater is the
number of its conjugations.” We must not suppose that simplicity
in language precedes complexity: simplicity is the triumph of
science, not the spontaneous result of intelligence. The natives
of the Society Isles have one word for the tail of a dog, another
for the tail of a bird, and a third for the tail of a sheep, while
for “tail” itself, “tail” in the abstract, they have no word
whatever. The Mohicans have words for wood-cutting, cutting the
head, etc., yet no verb meaning simply to cut. Even the Anglo-Saxon
language, which had a sufficiency of words for all shades of green,
red, blue, yellow, had to borrow from the Latin the abstract word
“color,” and, while possessing abundant names for every sort of
crime, derived from the same source the abstract words “crime” and

Some Indian tribes call a squirrel by a name signifying that he
“can stick fast in a tree”; a mole, by a word signifying “carrying
the right hand on the left shoulder”; and they have a name for a
horse which means “having only one toe.” Among the savages of the
Pacific, “to think” is “to speak in the stomach.”


In the lapse of ages words undergo great changes of form, so that
it becomes at last difficult or impossible to ascertain their
origin. Terms, of which the composition was originally clear, are
worn and rubbed by use like the pebbles which are fretted and
rounded into shape and smoothness by the sea waves or by a rapid
stream. Like the image and superscription of a coin, their meaning
is often so worn away that one cannot make even a probable guess
at their origin. One of the commonest causes of the corruptions of
words, by which their sources and original meanings are disguised,
is the instinctive dislike we feel to the use of a word that is
wholly new to us, and the consequent tendency to fasten upon it
a meaning which shall remove its seemingly arbitrary character.
Foreign words, therefore, when adopted into a language, are
especially liable to these changes, being corrupted both in
pronunciation and orthography. By thus anglicizing them, we not
only avoid the uncouth, barbarous sounds which are so offensive
to the ear, but we help the memory by associating the words with
others already known.

The mistakes which have been made in attempting to trace the origin
of words thus disguised, have done not a little, at times, to
bring philology into contempt. The philologist, unless he has much
native good sense, and rules his inclinations with an iron rod,
is apt to become a verbomaniac. There is a strange fascination in
word-hunting, and his hobby-horse, it has been aptly said, is a
strong goer that trifles never balk. “To him the British Channel is
a surface drain, the Alps and Apennines mere posts and rails, the
Mediterranean a simple brook, and the Himalayas only an outlying
cover.” Cowper justly ridicules those word-hunters who, in their
eagerness to make some startling discovery, never pause to consider
whether there is any historic connection between two languages, one
of which is supposed to have borrowed a word from another,--

            “Learned philologists, who chase
      A panting syllable through time and space,
      Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,
      To Gaul,--to Greece,--and into Noah’s ark.”

A fundamental rule, to be kept constantly in sight by those who
would not etymologize at random, is, that no amount of resemblance
between words in different languages is sufficient to prove their
relationship, nor is any amount of seeming unlikeness in sound or
form sufficient to disprove their consanguinity. Many etymologies
are true which appear improbable, and many appear probable which
are not true. As Max Müller says: “Sound etymology has nothing to
do with sound. We know words to be of the same origin which have
not a single letter in common, and which differ in meaning as
much as black and white.” On the other hand, two words which have
identically the same letters may have no etymological connection.
An instance of the last case is the French _souris_, a smile,
and _souris_, a mouse, from the Latin _subridere_ and _sorex_
respectively. Fuller amusingly says that “we are not to infer
the Hebrew and the English to be cognate languages because one
of the giants, son of Anak, was called _A-hi-man_;” yet some of
his own etymologies, though witty and ingenious, are hardly more
correct than this punning derivation. Thus “compliments,” he says,
is derived from _à completè mentiri_, because compliments are in
general completely mendacious; and he quotes approvingly Sir John
Harrington’s derivation of the old English “elf” and “goblin,” from
the names of two political factions of the Empire, the Guelphs and
the Ghibellines.

Archbishop Trench speaks of an eminent philologist who deduced
“girl” from _garrula_, girls being commonly talkative.
“Frontispiece” is usually regarded as a piece or picture in front
of a book; whereas it means literally “a front view,” being from
the Low Latin, _frontispicium_, the forefront of a house. The
true origin of many words is hidden by errors in the spelling.
“Bran-new” is brand-new, _i.e._, “burnt new.” “Grocer” should be
“grosser,” one who sells in the gross; “pigmy” is properly “pygmy,”
as Worcester spells it, and means a thing the size of one’s fist
(πυγμή). “Policy,” state-craft, is rightly spelled; but “policies
of insurance” ought to have the _ll_, the word being derived from
_polliceor_, to promise or assure. “Island” looks as if it were
compounded of “isle” and “land”; but it is the same word as the
Anglo-Saxon _ealand_, water-land, compounded of _ea_, water, and
“land.” So Jers_ey_ is literally “Cæsar’s island.” “Lieutenant”
has been pronounced “leftenant,” from a notion that this officer
holds the “left” of the line while the captain holds the right. The
word comes from the French, _lieu-tenant_, one holding the place of

“Wiseacre” has no connection with “acre.” The word is a corruption,
both in spelling and pronunciation, of the German _weissarger_,
a “wise-sayer,” or sayer of wise maxims. “Gooseberry,” Dr.
Johnson explains as “a fruit eaten as a sauce for goose.” It is,
however, a corruption of the German, _krausbeere_,--from _kraus_
or _gorse_, crisp; and the fruit gets its name from the upright
hairs with which it is covered. “Shame-faced” does not mean having
a face denoting shame. It is from the Anglo-Saxon, _sceamfaest_,
protected by shame. “Surname” is from the French, _surnom_,
meaning additional name, and should not, therefore, be spelled
“sirname,” as if it meant the name of one’s sire. “Freemason” is
not half Saxon, but is from the French, _frèremaçon_, brother
mason. “Foolscap” is a corruption of the Italian, _foglio capo_,
a full-sized sheet of paper. “Country-dance” is a corruption of
the French _contre-danse_, in which the partners stand in opposite

“Bishop,” which looks like an Anglo-Saxon word, is from the Greek.
It means primarily an overseer, in Latin _episcopus_, which the
Saxons broke down into “biscop,” and then softened into “bishop.”
There was formerly an adjective “bishoply”; but as, after the
Norman Conquest, the bishops, and those who discussed their
rights and duties, used French and Latin rather than English,
“episcopal” has taken its place. Among the foreign words most
frequently corrupted are the names of plants, which gardeners, not
understanding, change into words that sound like the true ones,
and with which they are familiar. In their new costume they often
lose all their original significance and beauty. To this source
of corruption we owe such words as “dandelion,” from the French,
_dent de lion_, lion’s tooth; “rosemary,” from _ros marinus_;
“quarter-sessions rose,” the meaningless name of the beautiful
_rose des quatre saisons_; “Jerusalem artichoke,” into which, with
a ludicrous disregard for geography, we have metamorphosed the
sunflower artichoke, _articiocco girasole_, which came to us from
Pery, through Italy; and “sparrow-grass,” which we have substituted
for “asparagus.”

Animals have fared no better than plants; the same dislike of
outlandish words, which are meaningless to them, leads sailors to
corrupt Bellerophon into “Billy Ruffian,” and hostlers to convert
Othello and Desdemona into “Odd Fellow and Thursday morning,”
and Lamprocles into “Lamb and Pickles.” The _souris dormeuse_,
or sleeping mouse, has been transformed into a “dormouse”; the
hog-fish, or _porcpisce_, as Spenser terms him, is disguised as
a “porpoise”; and the French _écrevisse_ turns up a “crayfish”
or “crawfish.” The transformations of the latter word, which has
passed through three languages before attaining its present form,
are among the most surprising feats of verbal legerdemain. Starting
on its career as the old High German _krebiz_, it next appears
in English as “crab,” and in German as _krebs_, or “crab,” from
the grabbing or clutching action of the animal. Next it crosses
the Rhine, and becomes the French _écrevisse_; then crosses the
Channel, and takes the form of _krevys_; and, last of all, with
a double effort at anglicizing, it appears in modern English as
“crawfish” or “crayfish.” The last two words noticed illustrate
the tendency which is so strong, in the corruption of words, to
invent new forms which shall be appropriate as well as significant,
other examples of which we have in “wormwood” from _wermuth_,
“lanthorn” from _laterna_, “beefeater” from _buffetier_, “rakehell”
from _racaille_, “catchrogue” from the Norman-French _cachreau_,
a bum-bailiff, and “shoot” for _chute_, a fall or rapid. So
the French, _beffroi_, a stronghold or tower,--a movable tower
of several stories used in besieging,--has been corrupted into
“belfry,” though there is no such French word as “bell.”

Often the corrupted form gives birth to a wholly false explanation.
Thus in the proverbial _dormir comme une taupe_, which has been
twisted into the phrase “to sleep like a top,” there is no
trace of the mole; and the corruption of _acheter_, to buy, into
“achat,”--which in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was in
London the word for trading, and was first pronounced and then
written “acat,”--led to the story that Whittington, the famous
Lord Mayor, obtained his wealth by selling and re-selling “a cat.”
There is no hint in “somerset” of its derivation from the Italian,
_soprasalto_, an overleap, through the French, _sobresault_, and
the early English, to “somersault”; nor would the shrewdest guesser
ever discover in _faire un faux pas_, to commit a blunder, the
provincial saying, “to make a fox’s paw.” The word “ceiling,” from
the old French _seel_, “a seal,” was formerly written “seeling,”
and meant a wainscoating, a covering with boards for the purpose
of sealing up chinks and cracks. The spelling was changed from an
opinion that the word is derived from _ciel_, which means “heaven”
and “a canopy.”

Among the most frequent corruptions are the names of places and
persons. Thus Penne, Coombe, and Ick, the former name of Falmouth,
has been transformed into “Penny-come-quick”; and the corruption of
_Chateau Vert_ into “Shotover” has led to the legend that Little
John “shot over” the hill of that name near Oxford, England.
_Leighton-beau-desert_ has been converted into “Leighton-Buzzard”;
Bridge-Walter, in Somersetshire, into “Bridgewater.” The
_Chartreuse_ has become the “Charter-House.” Sheremoniers Lane,
so called because the artisans dwelt there whose business it was
to sheer or cut bullion into shape for the die, became first
“Sheremongers Lane,” and then, from its nearness to St. Paul’s
Cathedral, and an analogy with Amen Corner and Paternoster Row,
passed into “Sermon Lane.” The origin of the well known legend
of Bishop Hatto, who forestalled the corn from the poor, and
was devoured in his fortress on the Rhine by rats, is owing, it
is said, to a corruption of the name of the _maut-thurm_, or
custom-house, into the _mäuse-thurm_, or “Mouse-tower.” The Cologne
myth of the eleven thousand virgins is supposed by an English
philologist to have sprung from the name of St. Undecemilla, a
virgin martyr. “The insertion of a single letter in the calendar
has changed this name into the form ‘_Undecem millia Virg. Mart._’
The bones of the eleven thousand, which are reverently shown to
the pious pilgrim, have been pronounced by Professor Owen to
comprise the remains of almost all the quadrupeds indigenous to the
district.” The name “Gypsies” is a misnomer springing out of an
error in ethnology. When they first appeared in Europe, nearly five
centuries ago, their dark complexion and their unknown language led
men to suppose that they were Egyptians, which word was corrupted
into “Gypsies.” Boulogne Mouth was corrupted by the British sailors
into “Bull and Mouth”; and Surajah Dowlah, the name of the Bengal
prince who figured in the famous Black Hole atrocity, the British
soldiers persisted in anglicizing into “Sir Roger Dowlas”! “Bedlam”
is a corruption of Bethlehem, and gets its meaning from a London
priory, St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, which was converted into a lunatic

“To curry favor” is said to be a corrupt translation of the French
proverbial phrase _étriller Fauveau_, “to curry the chestnut
horse.” It was usual to make a proper name of the color of a
horse, as Bayard, Dun, Ball, Favel, etc. Hence the proverbs, “To
have Ball in the stable,” “Dun in the mire,” “To curry Favel,” in
which last some unknown Bentley substituted “favor” for Favel when
the meaning of the latter had ceased to be understood. Another
striking illustration of the freaks of popular usage by which the
etymology of words is obscured, is the word “causeway.” Mr. W. W.
Skeat, in a late number of “Notes and Queries,” states that the old
spelling of the word was “calcies.” The Latin was _calceata via_,
a road made with lime; hence the Spanish, _calzada_, a paved way,
and the modern French, _chaussée_. “The English Word,” Mr. Skeats
says, “used to be more often spelled ‘causey,’ as, for instance,
by Cotgrave; and popular etymology, always on the alert to infuse
some sort of meaning into a strange word, turned ‘causey’ into
‘causeway,’ with the trifling drawback that, while we all know what
‘way’ means, no one can extract any sense out of ‘cause.’”

Words from the dead languages have naturally undergone the most
signal corruptions, many of them completely disguising the
derivation. Sometimes the word is condensed, as in “alms,” from
the Greek ἐλεημοσύνη in early English, “almesse,” now cut down
to four letters; “summons,” a legal term, abbreviated (like
the _fi. fa._ of the lawyers) from _submoneas_; “palsy,” an
abridgment of “paralysis,” literally a relaxation; “quinsy,” in
French _esquinancie_, which, strange to say, is the same word as
“synagogue,” coming, like this last, from σύν together, and ἄγω,
to draw. “Megrim” is a corruption of “hemicrany,” a pain affecting
half of the head. “Treacle,” now applied only to molasses or sirup,
was originally viper’s flesh made into a medicine for the viper’s
bite. It is called in French _thériaque_, from a corresponding
Greek word; in early English, “triacle.” “Zero” is a contraction
of the Italian _zephiro_, a zephyr, a breath of air, a nothing.
Another name for it is “cipher,” from the Arabic, _cifr_, empty.


Among the curious phenomena of language one of the most singular
is the use of the same word in two distinct senses, directly
opposed to each other. Ideas are associated in the mind not only
by resemblance but by contrast; and thus the same root, slightly
modified, may express the most opposite meanings. A striking
example of this, is the word “fast,” which is full of contradictory
meanings. A clock is called “fast,” when it goes too quickly; but a
man is told to stand “fast,” when he is desired to stand still. Men
“fast” when they have nothing to eat; and they eat “fast” after a
long abstinence. “Fast” men, as we have already seen, are apt to be
very “loose” in their habits. When “fast” is used in the sense of
“abstinence,” the idea may be, as in the Latin, _abstineo_, holding
back from food; or the word may come from the Gothic, _fastan_,
“to keep” or “observe,”--that is, the ordinance of the church. The
verb “to overlook” is used in two contradictory senses; as, he
overlooked the men at work, he overlooked the error.

The word “nervous” may mean either possessing or wanting nerve.
A “nervous” writer is one who has force and energy; a “nervous”
man is one who is weak, sensitive to trifles, easily excited. The
word “post,” from the Latin _positum_, placed, is used in the most
various senses. We speak of a “post”-office, of “post”-haste, of
“post”-horses, and of “post”-ing a ledger. The contradiction in
these meanings is more apparent than real. The idea of “placing”
is common to them all. Before the invention of railways, letters
were transmitted from place to place (or post to post) by relays
of horses stationed at intervals so that no delay might occur.
The “post”-office used this means of communication, and the horses
were said to travel “post”-haste. To “post” a ledger is to place or
register its several items.

The word “to let” generally means to permit; but in the Bible,
in Shakespeare, and in legal phraseology, it often has the very
opposite meaning. Thus Hamlet says, “I’ll make a ghost of him
that lets me,” that is, interferes with or obstructs me; and in
law books “without let or hindrance” is a phrase of frequent
occurrence. It should be remarked, however, that “to let,” in
the first sense, is from the Saxon, _laetan_; in the second,
from _letjan_. The word “to cleave” may mean either to adhere to
closely, as when Cowper says, “Sophistry cleaves close and protects
sin’s rotten trunk”; or it may mean to split or to rend asunder,
as in the sentence, “He cleaved the stick at one blow.” According
to Mätzner, the word in the first sense is from the Anglo-Saxon,
_cleofan_, _clufan_; in the last sense, it is from _clifan_,
_clifian_. The word “dear” has the two meanings of “prized” because
you have it, and “expensive” because you want it. The word “lee”
has very different acceptations in “lee”-side and “lee”-shore.

The word “mistaken” has quite opposite meanings. “You are mistaken”
may mean “You mistake,” or “You are misunderstood,” or “taken for
somebody else.” In the line

      “_Mistaken_ souls that dream of heaven,”

in a popular hymn, the word is used, of course, in the former
sense. The adjective “mortal” means both “deadly” and “liable to
death.” Of the large number of adjectives ending in “able” or
“ible,” some have a subjective and others an objective sense. A
“terrible” sight is one that is able to inspire terror; but a
“readable” book is one which you can read. It is said that the word
“wit” is used in Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” with at least seven
different meanings.

The prefixes “un” and “in” are equivocal. Commonly they have a
negative force, as in “unnecessary,” “incomplete.” But sometimes,
both in verbs and adjectives, they have a positive or intensive
meaning, as in the words “intense,” “infatuated,” “invaluable.”
To “invigorate” one’s physical system by exercise, is not to
lessen, but to increase one’s energy. The verb “unloose” should,
by analogy, signify “to tie,” just as “untie” means “to loose.”
“Inhabitable” should signify “not habitable,” according to the
most frequent use of “in.” To “unravel” means the same as “to
ravel”; to “unrip” the same as “to rip.” Johnson sanctions the
use of the negative prefix in these two words, but Richardson and
Webster condemn it as superfluous. Walton, in his “Angler,” tells
an amusing anecdote touching the two words. “We heard,” he says,
“a high contention amongst the beggars, whether it was easiest to
‘rip’ a cloak or ‘unrip’ a cloak. One beggar affirmed it was all
one; but that was denied, by asking her, if doing and undoing were
all one. Then another said, ’twas easiest to unrip a cloak, for
that was to let it alone; but she was answered by asking how she
could _unrip_ it, if she let it alone.”

This opposition in the meanings of a word is a phenomenon not
altogether peculiar to the English language. In Greek, θοάζειν
has the seemingly contradictory meanings of “to move hastily,”
and “to sit”; χρεία means both “use” and “need”; and λάω means
both “to wish” and “to take.” In Latin, _sacer_ means “set apart”
or “tabooed,” and _unicus_ implies singularity,--_unitas_,
association. Many other examples might be cited to show that “as
rays of light may be reflected and refracted in all possible
ways from the primary direction, so the meaning of a word may be
deflected from its original bearing in a variety of manners; and
consequently we cannot well reach the primitive force of the term
unless we know the precise gradations through which it has gone.”

Several writers on our language have noticed a singular tendency
to limit or narrow the signification of certain words, whose
etymology would suggest a far wider application. Why should we not
“retaliate” (that is, pay back in kind, _res, talis_) kindnesses as
well as injuries? Why should we “resent” (feel again) insults, and
not affectionate words and deeds? Why should our hate, animosity,
hostility, and other bad passions, be “inveterate” (that is, gain
strength by age), but our better feelings, love, kindness, charity,
never? Byron showed a true appreciation of the better uses to which
the word might be put, when he subscribed a letter to a friend,
“Yours inveterately, BYRON.”

In some of our nouns there is a nice distinction of meaning between
the singular and the plural. A “minute” is a fraction of time;
“minutes” are notes of a speech, conversation, etc. The “manner”
in which a man enters a drawing-room may be unexceptionable, while
his “manners” are very bad. When the “Confederates” threatened to
pull down the American “colors” at New Orleans, they did it under
“color” of right. A person was once asked whether a certain lawyer
had got rich by his practice. “No,” was the sarcastic reply, “but
by his practices.”


[43] Mill’s “Logic.”

[44] Coleridge.

[45] From οὔ and τόπος, “no-place.”



      In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
      Alike fantastic if too new or old;
      Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
      Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.--POPE.

  If a gentleman be to study any language, it ought to be that of
  his own country.--LOCKE.

  Aristocracy and exclusiveness tend to final overthrow, in
  language as well as in politics.--W. D. WHITNEY.

  People who write essays to prove that though a word in fact means
  one thing, it _ought_ to mean another, or that though all well
  educated Englishmen do conspire to use this expression, they
  _ought_ to use that, are simply bores.--EDINBURGH REVIEW.

One of the most gratifying signs of the times is the deep interest
which both our scholars and our people are beginning to manifest
in the study of our noble English tongue. Perhaps nothing has
contributed more to awaken a public interest in this matter, and to
call attention to some of the commonest improprieties of speech,
than the publication of “The Queen’s English” and “The Dean’s
English,” and the various criticisms which have been provoked in
England and in the United States by the Moon-Alford controversy.
Hundreds of persons who before felt a profound indifference to this
subject, have had occasion to thank the Dean for awakening their
curiosity in regard to it; and hundreds more who otherwise would
never have read his dogmatic small-talk, or Mr. Moon’s trenchant
dissection of it, have suddenly found themselves, in consequence
of the newspaper criticisms of the two books, keenly interested
in questions of grammar, and now, with their appetites whetted,
will continue the study of their own language, till they have
mastered its difficulties, and familiarized themselves with all
its idioms and idiotisms. Of such discussions we can hardly have
too many, and just now they are imperiously needed to check the
deluge of barbarisms, solecisms, and improprieties, with which our
language is threatened. Not only does political freedom make every
man in America an inventor, alike of labor-saving machines and of
labor-saving words, but the mixture of nationalities is constantly
coining and exchanging new forms of speech, of which our busy
Bartletts, in their lists of Americanisms, find it impossible to
keep account.

It is not merely our spoken language that is disfigured by these
blemishes; but our written language,--the prose of the leading
English authors,--exhibits more slovenliness and looseness of
diction than is found in any other literature. That this is due in
part to the very character of the language itself, there can be no
doubt. Its simplicity of structure and its copiousness both tend
to prevent its being used with accuracy and care; and it is so
hospitable to alien words that it needs more powerful securities
against revolution than other languages of less heterogeneous
composition. But the chief cause must be found in the character of
the English-speaking race. There is in our very blood a certain
lawlessness, which makes us intolerant of syntactical rules,
and restive under pedagogical restraints. “Our sturdy English
ancestors,” says Blackstone, “held it beneath the condition of a
freeman to appear, or to do any other act, at the precise time
appointed.” The same proud, independent spirit which made the
Saxons of old rebel against the servitude of punctuality, prompts
their descendants to spurn the yoke of grammar and purism. In
America this scorn of obedience, whether to political authority or
philological, is fostered and intensified by the very genius of our
institutions. We seem to doubt whether we are entirely free, unless
we apply the Declaration of Independence to our language, and carry
the Monroe doctrine even into our grammar.

The degree to which this lawlessness has been carried will be seen
more strikingly if we compare our English literature with the
literature of France. It has been justly said that the language of
that country is a science in itself, and the labor bestowed on the
acquisition of it has the effect of vividly impressing on the mind
both the faults and the beauties of every writer’s style. Method
and perspicuity are its very essence; and there is hardly a writer
of note who does not attend to these requisites with scrupulous
care. Let a French writer of distinction violate any cardinal rule
of grammar, and he is pounced upon instantly by the critics, and
laughed at from Calais to Marseilles. When Boileau, who is a marvel
of verbal and grammatical correctness, made a slip in the first
line of his Ninth Satire,

      “C’est _à_ vous, mon Esprit, _à_ qui je veux parler,”

the grammatical sensibility of the French ear was shocked to a
degree that we, who tolerate the grossest solecisms, find it hard
to estimate. For two centuries the blunder has been quoted by every
writer on grammar, and impressed on the memory of every schoolboy.
Indeed, such is the national fastidiousness on this subject, that
it has been doubted whether a single line in Boileau has been so
often quoted for its beauty, as this unfortunate one for its lack
of grammar. When did an English or an American writer thus offend
the critical ears of his countrymen, even though he were an Alison,
sinning against Lindley Murray on every page?

We are no friends to hypercriticism, or to that finical niceness
which cares more for the body than for the soul of language,
more for the outward expression than for the thought which it
incarnates. Too much rigor is as unendurable as laxity. It is, no
doubt, possible to be so over-nice in the use of words and the
construction of sentences as to sap the vitality of our speech.
We may so refine our expression, by continual straining in our
critical sieves, as to impair both the strength and the flexibility
of our noble English tongue. There are some verbal critics, who,
apparently go so far as to hold that every word must have an
invariable meaning, and that all relations of thoughts must be
indicated by absolute and invariable formulas, thus reducing verbal
expression to the rigid inflexibility of a mathematical equation.
If we understand Mr. Moon’s censures of Murray and Alford, some
of them are based on the assumption that an ellipsis is rarely,
if ever, permissible in English speech. We have no sympathy with
such extremists, nor with the verbal purists who challenge all
words and phrases that cannot be found in the “wells of English
undefiled,” that have been open for more than a hundred years.
We must take the good with the bad in the incessant changes and
masquerades of language. “The severe judgment of the scholar may
condemn as verbiage that undergrowth of words which threatens
to choke up and impoverish the great roots that have occupied
the soil from the earliest times; he may apprehend wreck and
disaster to the fixedness of language when he sees words loosened
from their etymons, and left to drift upon the ocean at the mercy
of wind and tide; and he is justified in every seasonable and
reasonable attempt he makes to reconcile current and established
significations with the sanction of authority.” But it must not be
forgotten that language is a living, organic thing, and by the very
law of its life must always be in a fluctuating state. To petrify
it into immutable forms, to preserve it as one preserves fruits
and flowers in spirits of wine and herbariums, is as hopeless as
it would be undesirable, if we would have it a medium for the
ever-changing thoughts of man.

Language is a growing thing, as truly as a tree; and as a tree,
while it casts off some leaves, will continually put forth others,
so a language will be perpetually growing and expanding with the
discoveries of science, the extension of commerce, and the progress
of thought. Such events as the growth of the Roman Empire, the
introduction of Christianity, the rise of the scholastic and of the
mystic theology in the middle ages, the irruption of the northern
barbarians into Italy, the establishment, of the Papacy, the
introduction of the feudal system, the Crusades, the Reformation,
the French Revolution, the American Civil War, give birth to new
ideas, which clamor for new words to express them. Every age thus
enriches language with new accessions of beauty and strength.
Not only are new words coined, but old ones continually take on
new senses; and it is only in the transition period, before they
have established themselves in the general favor of good speakers
and writers, that purity of style requires them to be shunned.
Those who are so ignorant of the laws of language as to resist
its expansion,--who declare that it has attained at any time the
limit of its development, and seek by philological bulls to check
its growth,--will find that, like a vigorous forest tree, it will
defy any shackles that men may bind about it; that it will reck
as little of their decrees as did the advancing ocean of those of
Canute. The critics who make such attempts do not see that the
immobility of language would be the immobility of history. They
forget that many of the purest words in our language were at one
time startling novelties, and that even the dainty terms in which
they challenge each new-comer, though now naturalized, had once
to fight their way inch by inch. Shakespeare ridicules “element”;
Fulke, in the seventeenth century, objects to such ink-horn
terms as “rational,” “scandal,” “homicide,” “ponderous,” and
“prodigious”; Dryden censures “embarrass,” “grimace,” “repartee,”
“foible,” “tour,” and “rally”; Swift denounces “hoax” as low
and vulgar; Pope condemns “witless,” “welkin,” and “dulcet”;
and Franklin, who could draw from the clouds the electric fluid
which now carries language with the speed of lightning from land
to land, vainly struggled against the introduction of the words
“to advocate” and “to notice.” In the “New World of Words,” by
Edward Phillips, published in 1678, there is a long list of words
which he declared should be either used warily or rejected as
barbarous. Among these words are the following, which are all in
good use to-day: autograph, aurist, bibliograph, circumstantiate,
evangelize, ferocious, holograph, inimical, misanthropist,
misogynist, and syllogize.

The word “Fatherland” seems so natural that we are apt to regard it
as an old word; yet the elder Disraeli claims the honor of having
introduced it. Macaulay tells us that the word “gutted,” which was
doubtless objected to as vulgar, was first used on the night in
which James II fled from London: “The king’s printing-house ...
was, to use a coarse metaphor, which then, for the first time, came
into fashion, completely _gutted_.” How much circumlocution is
saved by the word “antecedents” (formerly a grammatical term only),
in its new sense, denoting a man’s past history; with reference to
which Punch says it would be more satisfactory to know something
of a suspected man’s _relatives_ than of his _antecedents_! What
a happy, ingenious use of an old word is that of “telescope” to
describe a railway accident, when the force of a collision causes
the cars to run or fit into each other, like the shortening slides
of a telescope! The term is so picturesque and so convenient in
avoiding a periphrasis, that it cannot fail to be stamped with the
seal of good usage. How admirably was a real void in the vocabulary
filled by the word “squatter,” when it was first coined! The man
who first uttered it gave vivid expression to an idea which had
existed vaguely in the brains of thousands; and it was hardly
spoken before it was on every tongue. Coleridge observes truly
that any new word expressing a fact or relationship, not expressed
by any other word in the language, is a new organ of thought;
and how true is this of the terms “solidarity” (as in the phrase
“solidarity of the peoples”), and “international,” both of which
express novel and characteristic conceptions of our own century.
The latter word is a coinage of Jeremy Bentham, to whom we are
also indebted for “codify,” “maximise,” and “minimise.” The little
word “its” had to force its way into the language, against the
opposition of “correct” speakers and writers, on the ground of its
apparent analogy with the other English possessives.

Dr. Johnson objected to the word “dun” in Lady Macbeth’s famous
soliloquy, declaring that the “efficacy of this invocation is
destroyed by the insertion of an epithet now seldom heard but in
the stable:--”

                          “Come, thick night,
      And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell.”

It was a notion of the great critic and lexicographer, with which
his mind was long haunted, that the language should be refined
and fixed so as finally to exclude all rustic and vulgar elements
from the authorized vocabulary of the lettered and polite. Dryden
had hinted at the establishment of an academy for this purpose,
and Swift thought the Government “should devise some means for
ascertaining and _fixing the language forever_,” after the
necessary alterations should be made in it.

If it were possible to exclude needed new words from a language,
the French Academy would have succeeded in its attempts to do so,
consisting as it did of the chief scholars of France. Not content
with crushing political liberty, Richelieu sought to become
autocrat of the French language. No word was to be uttered anywhere
in the realm until he had countersigned it. But in spite of all
the efforts of his Academy to exercise a despotic authority over
the French tongue, new words have continually forced their way in,
and so they will continue to do while the French nation maintains
its vitality, in spite of the protests of all the purists and
academicians in France. “They that will fight custom with grammar,”
says Montaigne, “are fools”; and, with the limitations to be
hereafter stated, the remark is just, and still more true of those
who triumphantly appeal against custom to the dictionary, which is
not merely a home for living words, but a cemetery for the dead.

Even slang words, after long knocking, will often gain admission
into a language, like pardoned outlaws received into the body of
respectable citizens. We need not add to these, words coined in
his lofty moods by the poet, who is a _maker_ by the very right
of his name. That creative energy which distinguishes him,--“the
high-flying liberty of conceit proper to the poet,”--will, of
course, display itself here, and the all-fusing imagination will
at once, as Trench has remarked, suggest and justify audacities in
speech which would not be tolerated from creeping prose-writers.
Great liberties may be allowed, too, within certain bounds, to the
idiosyncrasies of all great writers. We love the rugged, gnarled
oak, with the grotesque contortions of its branches, better than
the smoothly clipped uniformity of the Dutch yew tree. Carlyleisms
may therefore be tolerated from the master, though not from
the _umbræ_ that spaniel him at the heels, and feebly echo his
singularities and oddities. A style that has no smack or flavor of
the man that uses it is a tasteless style. But there is a limit
even to the liberty of great thinkers in coining words. It must not
degenerate into license. Coleridge was a skilful mint-master of
words, yet not all his genius can reconcile us to such expressions
as the following, in a letter to Sir Humphrey Davy: “I was a well
meaning sutor who had ultra-crepidated with more zeal than wisdom.”

No one would hesitate to place Isaac Barrow among the greatest
masters of the English tongue; yet the weighty thoughts which his
words represented did not prevent many of the trial-pieces which
he coined in his verbal mint from being returned on his hands. Who
knows the meaning of such words as “avoce,” “acquist,” “extund”?
Sir Thomas Browne abounds in such hyperlatinistic expressions as
“bivious,” “quodlibetically,” “cunctation,” to which even his
gorgeous rhetoric does not reconcile the reader. Charles Lamb
has “agnise” and “bourgeon.” Coleridge invents “extroitive,”
“retroitive,” “influencive”; Bentley, “commentitious,” “negoce,”
“exscribe.” Sydney Smith was continually coining words, some
of them compounds from the homely Saxon idiom, others big-wig
classical epithets, devised with scholar-like precision, and
exceedingly ludicrous in their effect. Thus he speaks of
“frugiverous” children, of “mastigophorous” schoolmasters,
of “fugacious” or “plumigerous” captains; of “lachrymal and
suspirious” clergymen; of people who are “simious,” and people
who are “anserous”; he enriches the language with the expressive
hybrid, “Foolometer”; and he characterizes the September sins of
the English by the awful name of “perdricide.” In the early ages
of our literature, when the language was less fixed, and there
were few recognized standards of expression, writers coined words
without license, supplying the place of correct terms, when they
did not occur to their minds, by analogy and invention. But a bill
must not only be drawn by the word-maker; it must also be accepted.
The Emperor Tiberius was very properly told that he might give
citizenship to men, but not to words. All innovations in speech,
every new term introduced, should harmonize with the general
principles of the language. No new phrase should be admitted which
is not consonant with its peculiar genius, or which does violence
to its fundamental integrity. Nor should any form of expression
be tolerated that violates the universal laws of language. As
Henry lingers has well said, a philosophical mind will consider
that, whatever deflection may have taken place in the original
principles of a language, whatever modification of form it may have
undergone, it is, at each period of its history, the product of a
slow accumulation and countless multitude of associations, which
can neither be hastily formed nor hastily dismissed; that these
associations extend even to the modes of spelling and pronouncing,
of inflecting and combining words; and that anything which does
violence to such associations impairs, for the time, at least, the
power of the language.

Even good usage itself is but a proximate and strongly presumptive
test of purity. Custom is not an absolute despotism, though it
approaches very nearly to that character. Its decisions are
generally authoritative; but, as there are extreme measures which
even oriental despots cannot put into execution without endangering
the safety of their possessions, so there are things which custom
cannot do without endangering the fixity and purity of language. If
grammatical monstrosities exist in a language, a correct taste will
shun them, as it does physical deformities in the arts of design.
Dean Alford defends some of his own indefensible expressions by
citing the authority of the Scripture; but authority for the most
vicious forms of speech can be found in all our writers, not
excepting King James’s translators,--as Mr. Harrison has shown by
hundreds of examples in his work on “The English Language.” Take,
for example, the following sentence, or part of a sentence, from so
great a writer as Dean Swift: “Breaking a constitution by the very
same errors, _that_ so many have been _broke_ before.” Here, in a
sentence of only fifteen words, we have three grammatical errors,
glaring, and, in such a writer, unpardonable. We smile at the
rustic ignorance which has engraved on a Hampshire tombstone such
lines as

      “_Him_ shall never come again to _we_;
      But _us_ shall one day surely go to _he_;”

but is this couplet a whit more ungrammatical than Scott’s “I
know not _whom_ else are expected,” in “the Pirate”; or Southey’s
sentence in “the Doctor,” “Gentle reader, let you and _I_, in
like manner, endeavor to improve the enclosure of the Carr;” or
Professor Aytoun’s

      “But it were vain for you and _I_
      In single fight our strength to try.”

A writer in “Blackwood” affirms that, “with the exception of
Wordsworth, there is not one celebrated author of this day who has
written two pages consecutively without some flagrant impropriety
in the grammar;” and the statement, we believe, is undercharged.
The usage, therefore, of a good writer is only _prima facie_
evidence of the correctness of a disputed word or phrase; for he
may have used the word carelessly or inadvertently, and it is
altogether probable that, were his attention called to it, he
would be prompt to admit his error. It has been remarked that
“nowadays” and “had have” meet all the conditions of good usage,
being reputable, national, and present; but one is a solecism,
the other a barbarism. Again, if the writer is an old writer,
like Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, or Addison, his authority must
always be received with caution, and with increasing caution as
we recede from the age in which he flourished. The great changes
which our language has undergone within even a hundred years, show
that the writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are
unsafe guides for the nineteenth, unless they are corroborated
by contemporary usage. Let the English language he enriched in
the spirit, and according to the principles of which we have
spoken, and it will be, not a tank, but a living stream, casting
out everything effete and impure, refreshed by new sources of
inspiration and wealth, keeping pace with the stately march of
the ages, and still retaining much of its original sweetness,
expression and force.

It is our intention in this chapter, not to notice all the
improprieties of speech that merit censure,--to do which would
require volumes,--but to criticise some of those which most
frequently offend the ear of the scholar in this country. The term
_impropriety_ we shall use, not merely in the strictly rhetorical
sense of the word, but in the popular meaning, to include in it
all inaccuracies of speech, whether offences against etymology,
lexicography, or syntax. To pillory such offences, to point out
the damage which they inflict upon our language, and to expose the
moral obliquity which often lurks beneath them, is, we believe,
the duty of every scholar who knows how closely purity of speech,
like personal cleanliness, is allied to purity of thought and
rectitude of action. To say that every person who aspires to
be esteemed a gentleman should carefully shun all barbarisms,
solecisms, and other faults in his speech, is to utter the merest
truism. The man who habitually deviates from the custom of his
country in expressing his thoughts, is hardly less ridiculous than
one who walks the streets in a Spanish cloak or a Roman toga. An
accurate knowledge and a correct and felicitous use of words are,
of themselves, almost sure proofs of good breeding. No doubt it
marks a weak mind to care more for the casket than for the jewel it
contains,--to prefer elegantly turned sentences to sound sense;
but sound sense always acquires additional value when expressed
in pure English. Moreover, he who carefully studies accuracy of
expression, the proper choice and arrangement of words in any
language, will be also advancing toward accuracy of thought,
as well as toward propriety and energy of speech; “for divers
philosophers hold,” says Shakespeare, “that the lip is parcel of
the mind.” Few things are more ludicrous than the blunders by
which even persons moving in refined society often betray the
grossest ignorance of very common words. A story is told in England
of an over-classical Member of Parliament, who, not knowing or
forgetting that “omnibus” is the plural of the Latin “_omnis_,” and
means “for all,”--that is, a vehicle in which people of all ranks
may sit together,--spoke of “two omnibi.” There are hundreds of
educated persons who speak of the “banister” of a staircase, when
they mean “balustrade,” or “baluster”; there is no such word as
“banister.” There are hundreds of others who never _eat_ anything,
not even an apple, but always _partake_, even though they consume
all the food before them; and even the London “Times,” in one of
its issues, spoke of a jury “immersing” a defendant in damages. We
once knew an old lady in a New England village, quite aristocratic
in her feelings and habits, who complained to her physician that
“her blood seemed to have all _stackpoled_;” and we have heard of
another descendant of Mrs. Malaprop, who, in answer to the question
whether she would be sure to keep an appointment, replied, “I will
come,--_alluding_ it does not rain.”

Goldsmith is one of the most charming writers in our language; yet
in his “History of England,” the following statement occurs in a
chapter on the reign of Elizabeth. Speaking of a communication to
Mary, Queen of Scots, he says: “This they effected by conveying
their letters to her by means of a brewer, _that supplied the
family with ale through a chink in the wall of her apartment_.” A
queer brewer that, to supply his ale through a chink in the wall!
Again, we read in Goldsmith’s “History of Greece”: “_He_ wrote to
that distinguished philosopher in terms polite and flattering,
begging of _him_ to come and undertake _his_ education, and bestow
on _him_ those useful lessons of magnanimity and virtue which every
great man ought to possess, and which _his_ numerous avocations
rendered impossible for _him_.” In this sentence the pronoun _he_
is employed six times, under different forms; and as, in each case,
it may refer to either of two antecedents, the meaning, but for our
knowledge of the facts, would be involved in hopeless confusion.
First, the pronoun stands for Philip, then for Aristotle, then for
Alexander, again for Alexander, and then twice for Philip. A still
greater offender against clearness in the use of pronouns is Lord
Clarendon; _e.g._, “On which, with the king’s and queen’s so ample
promises to _him_ (the Treasurer) so few hours before, conferring
the place upon another, and the Duke of York’s manner of receiving
_him_ (the Treasurer), after _he_ (the Chancellor) had been shut
up with _him_ (the Duke), as _he_ (the Treasurer) was informed
might very well excuse _him_ (the Treasurer) from thinking _he_
(the Chancellor) had some share in the effront _he_ (the Treasurer)
had undergone.” It would be hard to match this passage even in the
writings of the humblest penny-a-liner; it is “confusion, worse

Solecisms so glaring as these may not often disfigure men’s
writing or speech; and some of the faults we shall notice
may seem so petty and microscopic that the reader may deem us
“word-catchers that live on syllables.” But it is the little
foxes that spoil the grapes, in the familiar speech of the people
as well as in Solomon’s vineyards; and, as a garment may be
honey-combed by moths, so the fine texture of a language may be
gradually destroyed, and its strength impaired, by numerous and
apparently insignificant solecisms and inaccuracies. Nicety in
the use of particles is one of the most decisive marks of skill
and scholarship in a writer; and the accuracy, beauty, and force
of many a fine passage in English literature depend largely on
the use of the pronouns, prepositions, and articles. How emphatic
and touching does the following enumeration become through the
repetition of one petty word! “_By_ thine agony and bloody sweat;
_by_ thy cross and passion; _by_ thy precious death and burial;
_by_ thy glorious resurrection and ascension; and _by_ the coming
of the Holy Ghost.” How much pathos is added to the prayer of the
publican by the proper translation of the Greek article,--“God be
merciful to me _the_ sinner!”

De Quincey strikingly observes: “People that have practised
composition as much, and with as vigilant an eye as myself, know
also, by thousands of cases, how infinite is the disturbance
caused in the logic of a thought by the mere position of a word
as despicable as the word _even_. A mote that is in itself
invisible, shall darken the august faculty of sight in a human
eye,--the heavens shall be hid by a wretched atom that dares
not show itself,--and the station of a syllable shall cloud the
judgment of a council. Nay, even an ambiguous emphasis falling
to the right-hand word, or the left-hand word, shall confound a
system.” It is a fact well known to lawyers, that, the omission
or misplacement of a monosyllable in a legal document has rendered
many a man bankrupt. Fifteen years ago an expensive lawsuit arose
in England, on the meaning of two phrases in the will of a deceased
nobleman. In the one he gives his property “to my brother and
_to_ his children in succession”; in the other, “to my brother
and his children in succession.” This diversity gives rise to
quite different interpretations. In another case, by omitting the
letter _s_ in a legal document, an English attorney is said to have
inflicted on a client a loss of £30,000.

In language, as in the fine arts, there is but one way to attain to
excellence, and that is by study of the most faultless models. As
the air and manner of a gentleman can be acquired only by living
constantly in good society, so grace and purity of expression must
be attained by a familiar acquaintance with the standard authors.
It is astonishing how rapidly we may by this practice enrich
our vocabularies, and how speedily we imitate and unconsciously
reproduce in our language the niceties and delicacies of expression
which have charmed us in a favorite author. Like the sheriff whom
Rufus Choate satirized for having “overworked the participle,” most
persons make one word act two, ten or a dozen parts; yet there
is hardly any man who may not, by moderate painstaking, learn to
express himself in terms as precise, if not as vivid, as those of
Pitt, whom Fox so praised for his accuracy.[46] The account which
Lord Chesterfield gives of the method by which he became one of the
most elegant and polished talkers and orators of Europe, strikingly
shows what miracles may be achieved by care and practice. Early
in life he determined not to speak one word in conversation which
was not the fittest he could recall; and he charged his son never
to deliver the commonest order to a servant, but in the best
language he could find, and with the best utterance. For years
Chesterfield wrote down every brilliant passage he met with in his
reading, and translated it into French, or, if it was in a foreign
language, into English. By this practice a certain elegance became
habitual to him, and it would have given him more trouble, he says,
to express himself inelegantly than he had ever taken to avoid
the defect. Lord Bolingbroke, who had an imperial dominion over
all the resources of expression, and could talk all day just as
perfectly as he wrote, told Chesterfield that he owed the power to
the same cause,--an early and habitual attention to his style. When
Boswell expressed to Johnson his surprise at the constant force and
propriety of the Doctor’s words, the latter replied that he had
long been accustomed to clothe his thoughts in the fittest words he
could command, and thus a vivid and exact phraseology had become

It has been affirmed by a high authority that a knowledge
of English grammar is rather a matter of convenience as a
nomenclature,--a medium of thought and discussion _about_ the
language,--than a guide to the actual use of it; and that it is
as impossible to acquire the complete command of our own tongue
by the study of grammatical precept, as to learn to walk or swim
by attending a course of lectures on anatomy. “Undoubtedly I have
found,” says Sir Philip Sydney, “in divers smal learned courtiers
a more sound stile than in some possessors of learning; of which
I can ghesse no other cause, but that the courtier following that
which by practice he findeth fittest to nature, therein (though he
know it not) doth _according_ to art, though not _by_ art; where
the other, using art to shew art, and not to hide art (as in these
cases he should doe), flieth from nature, and indeed abuseth art.”

Let it not be inferred, however, from all this that grammatical
knowledge is unnecessary. A man of refined taste may detect many
errors by the ear; but there are other errors, equally gross,
that have not a harsh sound, and consequently cannot be detected
without a knowledge of the rules that are violated. Besides, it
often happens, as we have already seen, that even the purest
writers inadvertently allow some inaccuracies to creep into
their productions. The works of Addison, Swift, Bentley, Pope,
Young, Blair, Hume, Gibbon, and even Johnson, that leviathan of
literature, are disfigured by numberless instances of slovenliness
of style. Cobbett, in his “Grammar of the English Language,” says
that he noted down about two hundred improprieties of language in
Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets” alone; and he points out as many
more, at least, in the “Rambler,” which the author says he revised
and corrected with extraordinary care. Sydney Smith, one of the
finest stylists of this century, has not a few flagrant solecisms;
and, strange to say, some of them occur in a passage in which
he is trying to show that the English language “may be learned,
practically and _unerringly_,” without a knowledge of grammatical
rules. “When,” he asks, “do we ever find a well educated Englishman
_or_ Frenchman embarrassed by an ignorance of the grammar of
_their_ respective languages? _They_ first learn it practically
and unerringly; and then, if _they_ chose (choose?) to look back
and smile at the idea of having proceeded by a number of rules,
without knowing one of them by heart, or being conscious that
they had any rule at all, this is a philosophical amusement; but
who ever _thinks_ of learning the grammar of _their_ own tongue,
before _they_ are very good grammarians!” The best refutation of
the reasoning in this passage is found in the bad grammar of the
passage itself.

Even the literary detectives, who spend their time in hunting
down and showing up the mistakes of others, enjoy no immunity
from error. Harrison, in his excellent work on “The English
Language,” written expressly to point out some of the most
prevalent solecisms in its literature, has such solecisms as the
following: “The _authority_ of Addison, in matters of grammar;
of Bentley, who never made the English grammar his study; of
Bolingbroke, Pope, and others, _are_ as nothing.” Breen, who
in his “Modern English Literature: its Blemishes and Defects,”
has shown uncommon critical acumen, writes thus: “There is _no_
writer so addicted to this blunder as Isaac D’Israeli.” Again,
in criticising a faulty expression of Alison, he sins almost as
grievously himself by saying: “It would have been correct to say:
‘Suchet’s administration was incomparably less oppressive than
that of _any_ of the French generals in the Peninsula.’” This
reminds one of the statement that “Noah and his family outlived all
who lived before the flood,”--that is, they outlived themselves.
Latham, in his profound treatise on “The English Language,” has
such sentences as this: “The logical and historical _analysis_ of
a language generally in some degree _coincides_.” Here the syntax
is correct; but the sense is sacrificed, since a coincidence
implies at least two things. In the London “Saturday Review,”
which “is nothing if not critical,” we find such a cacophonous
sentence as the following: “In personal relations Mr. Bright is
probab_ly_ general_ly_ kind_ly_.” Blair’s “Rhetoric” has been used
as a text-book for half a century; yet it swarms with errors of
grammar and rhetoric, against almost every law of which he has
sinned. Moon, in his review of Alford, has pointed out hundreds of
faults in “The Dean’s English,” as censurable as any which he has
censured; and newspaper critics, at home and abroad, have pointed
out scores of obscurations, as well as of glaring faults, in Moon.

It has been well observed by Professor Marsh that most men would
be unable to produce a good caricature of their own individual
speech, and that the shibboleth of our personal dialect is unknown
to ourselves, however ready we may be to remark the characteristic
phraseology of others. “It is a mark of weakness, of poverty of
speech, or, at least, of bad taste, to continue the use of pet
words, or other peculiarities of language, after we have once
become conscious of them as such.” There are certain stock phrases,
also, which, though not objectionable in themselves, have been
so worn to shreds by continual repetition in speech and in the
press, that a man of taste will shun using them as instinctively
as he shuns a solecism. A few examples are the following: “History
repeats itself,” “The irony of fate,” “That goes without saying,”
“Ample scope and verge enough,” “We are free to confess,”
“Conspicuous by its absence,” “The courage of his convictions.”

We proceed to notice some of the common improprieties of speech.
Many of them are of recent origin, others are old offenders that
have been tried and condemned at the bar of criticism again and

_But_, for that, or if. Example: “I have no doubt but he will come
to-night.” “I should not wonder but that was the case.”

_Agriculturalist_, for agriculturist, is an impropriety of the
grossest sort. Nine-tenths of our writers on agriculture use the
former expression. They might as well say geologicalist, instead of
geologist, or chemicalist, instead of chemist.

_Deduction_, for induction. _Induction_ is the mental process by
which we ascend to the discovery of general truths; _deduction_ is
the process by which the law governing particulars is derived from
a knowledge of the law governing the class to which particulars

_Illy_ is a gross barbarism, quite common in these days, especially
with newly fledged poets. There is no such word as _illy_ in the
language. The noun, adjective, and adverb, are _ill_.

_Plenty_, for plentiful. Stump politicians tell us that the
adoption of a certain measure “will make money plenty in every
man’s pocket.”

_I have got_, for I have. Hardly any other word in the language is
so abused as the word _get_. A man says, “I have got a cold”; he
means simply, “I have a cold.” Another says that a certain lady
“has got a fine head of hair,” which may be true if the hair is
false, but it is probably intended as a compliment. A third says:
“I have got to leave the city for New York this evening,” meaning
only that he _has_ to leave the city, etc. Nine out of ten ladies
who enter a dry-goods store, ask, “Have you got” such or such an
article? If such a phrase as “I have possess” were used, all noses
would turn up together; but “I have got,” when used to signify
“I have,” is equally a departure from propriety. A man may say,
“I have got more than my neighbor has, because I have been more
industrious”; but he cannot with propriety say, “I have got a long
nose,” however long his nose may be, unless it be an artificial
one. Even so able a writer as Prof. Whitney expresses himself thus:
“Who ever yet got through learning his mother tongue, and could
say, ‘The work is done’?”

_Recommend._ This word is used in a strange sense by many persons.
Political conventions often pass resolutions beginning thus:
“Resolved, that the Republicans (or Democrats) of this county be
recommended to meet,” etc.

_Differ with_ is often used, in public debate, instead of
_differ from_. Example: “I differ with the learned gentleman,
entirely,”--which is intended to mean, that the speaker holds views
different from those of the gentleman; not that he agrees with the
gentleman in differing from the views of a third person. _Different
to_ is often spoken and written in England, and occasionally in
this country, instead of _different from_. An example of this
occurs in Queen Victoria’s book, edited by Mr. Helps.

_Corporeal_, for corporal, is a gross vulgarism, the use of which
at this day should almost subject an educated man to the kind of
punishment which the latter adjective designates. _Corporeal_
means, having a body corporal, or belonging to a body.

_Wearies_, for is wearied. Example: “The reader soon wearies of
such stuff.”

_Any how_ is an exceedingly vulgar phrase, though used even by
so elegant a writer as Blair. Example: “If the damage can be any
how repaired,” etc. The use of this expression, _in any manner_,
by one who professes to write and speak the English tongue with
purity, is unpardonable.

_It were_, for it is. Example: “It were a consummation devoutly
to be wished for.” Dr. Chalmers says: “It were an intolerable
spectacle, even to the inmates of a felon’s cell, did they behold
one of their fellows in the agonies of death.” For _were_ put
_would be_, and for _did_ put _should_.

_Doubt_ is a word much abused by a class of would-be laconic
speakers, who affect an Abernethy-like brevity of language. “I
doubt such is the true meaning of the Constitution,” say our “great
expounders,” looking wondrous wise. They mean, “I doubt whether,”

_Lie_, _lay_. Gross blunders are committed in the use of these
words; _e.g._, “He laid down on the grass,” instead of “he laid
himself down,” or, “he lay down.” The verb _to lie_ (to be in a
horizontal position) is _lay_ in the preterite. The book does not
_lay_ on the table; it _lies_ there. Some years ago an old lady
consulted an eccentric Boston physician, and, in describing her
disease, said: “The trouble, Doctor, is that I can neither lay nor
set.” “Then, Madam,” was the reply, “I would respectfully suggest
the propriety of roosting.”

“_Like I did_,” is a gross western and southern vulgarism for “as
I did.” “You will feel like lightning ought to strike you,” said
a learned Doctor of Divinity at a meeting in the East. Even so
well informed a writer as R. W. Dale, D.D., says: “A man’s style,
if it is a good one, fits his thought _like_ a good coat fits his
figure.” _Like_ is a preposition, and should not be used as a

_Less_, for fewer. “Not less than fifty persons.” _Less_ relates to
quantity; _fewer_, to number.

_Balance_, for remainder. “I’ll take the balance of the goods.”

_Revolt_, for are revolting to. “Such doctrines revolt us.”

_Alone_, for only. Quackenboss, in his “Course of Composition and
Rhetoric,” says, in violation of one of his own rules: “This means
of communication, as well as that which follows, is employed by
man alone.” _Only_ is often misplaced in a sentence. Miss Braddon
says, in the prospectus of “Belgravia,” her English magazine,
that “it will be written in good English. In its pages papers of
sterling merit will only appear.” A poor beginning this! She means
that “only papers of sterling merit will appear.” Bolingbroke
says: “Believe me, the providence of God has established such an
order in the world, that, of all that belongs to us, the least
valuable parts can alone fall under the will of others.” The last
clause should be, “only the least valuable parts can fall under the
will of others.” The word _merely_ is misplaced in the following
sentence from a collegiate address on eloquence: “It is true of men
as of God, that words merely meet no response,--only such as are
loaded with thought.”

_Likewise_, for also. _Also_ classes together things or qualities,
whilst _likewise_ couples actions or states of being. “He did it
likewise,” means he did it in like manner. An English Quaker was
once asked by a lawyer whether he could tell the difference between
_also_ and _likewise_. “O, yes,” was the reply, “Erskine is a great
lawyer; his talents are universally admired. You are a lawyer also,
but not like-_wise_.”

_Avocation_, for vocation, or calling. A man’s _avocations_ are
those pursuits or amusements which engage his attention when he is
“called away from” his regular business or profession,--as music,
fishing, boating.

_Crushed out_, for crushed. “The rebellion has been crushed out.”
Why _out_, rather than _in_? If you tread on a worm, you simply
crush him,--that is all. It ought to satisfy the most vengeful
foe of “the rebels” that they have been crushed, without adding
the needless cruelty of crushing them _out_, which is to be as
vindictive as Alexander, of whom Dryden tells us that

      “Thrice he routed all his foes,
      And thrice he slew the slain.”

_Of_, for from. Example: “Received of John Smith fifty dollars.”
Usage, perhaps, sanctions this.

_At all_ is a needless expletive, which is employed by many writers
of what may be called the forcible-feeble school. For example: “The
coach was upset, but, strange to say, not a passenger received the
slightest injury at all.” “It is not at all strange.”

_But that_, for that. This error is quite common among those who
think themselves above learning anything more from the dictionary
and grammar. Trench says: “He never doubts but that he knows their
intention.” A worse error is _but what_, as in the reply of Mr.
Jobling, of “Bleak House”: “Thank you, Guppy, I don’t know but what
I will take a marrow pudding.” “He would not believe but what I was

_Convene_ is used by many persons in a strange sense. “This road
will convene the public.”

_Evidence_ is a word much abused by learned judges and
attorneys,--being continually used for _testimony_. _Evidence_
relates to the convictive view of any one’s mind; _testimony_, to
the knowledge of another concerning some fact. The evidence in a
case is often the reverse of the testimony.

_Had have._ _E.g._ The London “Times” says “Sir Wilfred Lawson
_had_ better _have_ kept to his original proposal.” This is a very
low vulgarism, notwithstanding it has the authority of Addison. It
is quite common to say “Had I have seen him,” “Had you have known
it,” etc. We can say, “I have been,” “I had been,” but what sort of
a tense is _had have_ been?

_Had ought_, _had better_, _had rather_. All these expressions
are absurdities, no less gross than _hisn_, _tother_, _baint_,
_theirn_. No doubt there is plenty of good authority for _had
better_ and _had rather_; but how can future action be expressed by
a verb that signifies past and completed possession?

_At_, for by. _E.g._, “Sales at auction.” The word auction
signifies a _manner_ of sale; and this signification seems to
require the preposition _by_.

_The above_, as an adjective. “The above extract is sufficient to
verify my assertion.” “I fully concur in the above statement” (the
statement above, or the foregoing statement). Charles Lamb speaks
of “the above boys and the below boys.”

_Then_, as an adjective. “The then King of Holland.” This error,
to which even educated men are addicted, springs from a desire of
brevity; but verbal economy is not commendable when it violates the
plainest rules of language.

_Final completion._ As every completion is final, the adjective
is superfluous. A similar objection applies to _first beginning_.
Similar to these superabundant forms of expression is another, in
which _universal_ and _all_ are brought into the same construction.
A man is said to be “universally esteemed by all who know him.” If
_all_ esteem him, he is, of course, _universally_ esteemed; and the
converse is equally true.

_Party_, for man or woman. This error, so common in England, is
becoming more and more prevalent here. An English witness once
testified that he saw “a short party” (meaning person) “go over
the bridge.” Another Englishman, who had looked at a portrait of
St. Paul in a gallery at Florence, being asked his opinion of the
picture, said that he thought “the party was very well executed.”
It is hardly necessary to say that it takes several persons to make
a party.

_Celebrity_ is sometimes applied to celebrated persons, instead
of being used abstractly; _e.g._, “Several celebrities are at the
Palmer House.”

_Equanimity of mind._ As equanimity (_æquus animus_) means evenness
of mind, why should “of mind” be repeated? “Anxiety of mind” is
less objectionable, but the first word is sufficient.

_Don’t_ for doesn’t, or does not. Even so scholarly a divine as the
Rev. Dr. Bellows, of New York, employs this vulgarism four times in
an article in the “Independent.” “A man,” he says, “who knows only
his family and neighbors, don’t know them; a man who only knows the
present don’t know that.... Many a man, with a talent for making
money, don’t know whether he is rich or poor, because he don’t
understand bookkeeping,” etc.

_Predicate_, for found. _E.g._, “His argument was predicated on the
assumption,” etc.

_Try_, for make. _E.g._, “Try the experiment.”

_Superior_, for able, virtuous, etc. _E.g._, “He is a superior
man.” Not less vulgar is the expression, “an inferior man,” for a
man of small abilities.

_Deceiving_, for trying to deceive. _E.g._, a person says to
another, “You are deceiving me,” when he means exactly the
opposite, namely, “You are trying to deceive me, but you cannot
succeed, for your trickery is transparent.”

_The masses_, for the people generally. “The masses must be
educated.” The masses of what?

_In our midst._ This vulgarism is continually heard in
prayer-meetings, and from the lips of Doctors of Divinity,
though its incorrectness has been exposed again and again. The
second chapter in Prof. Schele De Vere’s excellent “Studies in
English” begins thus: “When a man rises to eminence in our midst,”
etc.,--which is doubtless one of the few errors in his book _quas
incuria fudit_. The possessive pronoun can properly be used only to
indicate possession or appurtenance. “The midst” of a company or
society is not a thing belonging or appurtenant to the company, or
to the individuals composing it. It is a mere term of relation of
an adverbial, not of a substantive character, and is an intensified
form of expression for _among_. Would any one say, “In our middle”?

_Excessively_, for exceedingly. Ladies often complain that the
weather is “excessively hot,” thereby implying that they do not
object to the heat, but only to the excess of heat. They mean
simply that the weather is _very_ hot.

_Either_ is applicable only to two objects; and the same remark
is true of _neither_ and _both_. “Either of the three” is wrong;
so is this,--“Ten burglars broke into the house, but neither of
them could be recognized.” Say, “_none_ of them,” or “_not one_
of them could be recognized.” _Either_ is sometimes improperly
used for _each_; _e.g._, “On either side of the river was the tree
of life,”--Rev. xxi, 2. Here it is not meant that if you do not
find that the tree of life was on _this_ side, it was on _that_;
but that the tree of life was on each side,--on this side, and on
that. The proper use of _either_ was vindicated some years ago
in England, by the Court of Chancery. A certain testator left
property, the disposition of which was affected by “the death of
either” of two persons. One learned counsel contended that the word
“either” meant both; in support of this view he quoted Richardson,
Webster, Chaucer, Dryden, Southey, the history of the crucifixion,
and a passage from the Revelation. The learned judge suggested that
there was an old song in the “Beggar’s Opera,” known to all, which
took the opposite view:

      “How happy could I be with either,
      Were t’other dear charmer away.”

In pronouncing judgment, the judge dissented entirely from the
argument of the learned counsel. “Either,” he said, “means one of
two, and does not mean both.” Though occasionally, by poets and
some other writers, the word was employed to signify _both_, it did
not in the case before the court.

_Whether_ is a contraction of _which of either_, and therefore
cannot be correctly applied to more than two objects.

_Never_, for ever. _E.g._, “Charm he never so wisely”; “Let the
offence be of never so high a nature.” Many grammarians approve
of this use of _never_; but its correctness, to say the least, is
doubtful. In such sentences as these, “He was deaf to the voice
of the charmer, charm he ever so wisely,” “Were it ever so fine a
day, I would not go out,” the word _ever_ is an adverb of degree,
and has nothing to do with time. “If I take ever so little of this
drug, it will kill me,” is equivalent to “however little,” or “how
little soever I take of this drug, it will kill me.” Harrison well
says on this point: “Let any one translate one of these phrases
into another language, and he will find that ‘ever’ presents
itself as a term expressive of degree, and not of time at all.
‘Charm he ever so wisely’: Quamvis incantandi sit _peritus_ aut

_Seldom, or never_ is a common vulgarism. Say “seldom, if ever.”

_Sit_, _sat_, are much abused words. It is said that the brilliant
Irish lawyer, Curran, once carelessly observed in court, “an
action lays,” and the judge corrected him by remarking: “Lies,
Mr. Curran,--hens lay;” but when afterward the judge ordered a
counsellor to “set down,” Curran retaliated, “Sit down, your
honor,--hens set.” The retort was characterized by more wit than
truth. Hens do not set; they sit. It is not unusual to hear persons
say, “The coat sets well”; “The wind sets fair.” _Sits_ is the
proper word. The preterite of _sit_ is often incorrectly used for
that of _set_; _e.g._, “He sat off for Boston.”

_From thence_, _from whence_. As the adverbs _thence_ and _whence_
literally supply the place of a noun and preposition, there is a
solecism in employing a preposition in conjunction with them.

_Conduct._ In conversation, this verb is frequently used without
the personal pronoun; as, “he conducts well,” for “he conducts
himself well.”

_Least_, for less. “Of two evils, choose the least.”

_A confirmed invalid._ Can weakness be strong? If not, how can a
man be a _confirmed_, or strengthened, invalid?

_Proposition_, for proposal. This is not a solecism, but, as a
univocal word is preferable to one that is equivocal, _proposal_,
for a thing offered or proposed, is better than _proposition_.
Strictly, a proposal is something offered to be done; a proposition
is something submitted to one’s consideration. _E.g._, “He rejected
the proposal of his friend;” “he demonstrated the fifth proposition
in Euclid.”

_Previous_, for previously. “Previous to my leaving America.”

_Appreciates_, for rises in value. “Gold appreciated yesterday.”
Even the critical London Athenæum is guilty of this solecism. It
says: “A book containing personal reminiscences of one of our great
schools appeals to a public limited, no doubt, but certain, and
sure _to appreciate_.”

_Proven_ for proved, and _plead_ for pleaded, are clearly

_Bound_, for ready or determined. “I am bound to do it.” We may
say properly that a ship is “bound to Liverpool”; but in that case
we do not employ, as many suppose, the past participle of the verb
_to bind_, but the old northern participial adjective, _buinn_,
from the verb, _at bua_, signifying “to make ready, or prepare.”
The term is strictly a nautical one, and to employ it in a sense
that unites the significations both of _buinn_ and the English
participle _bound_ from _bind_, is a plain abuse of language.

_No_, for not. _E.g._, “Whether I am there or no.” Cowper writes:

      “I will not ask Jean Jacques Rousseau,
      Whether birds confabulate or no.”

By supplying the ellipsis, we shall see that _not_ is here the
proper word. “Whether birds confabulate, or do not confabulate,”
“whether I am there, or not there.” _No_ never properly qualifies a

_Such_ for so. _E.g._, “I never saw such a high spire.” This
means, “I never saw a high spire of such a form,” or “of such
architecture” whereas the speaker, in all probability, means only
that he never saw _so_ high a spire. _Such_ denotes quality; _so_,

_Incorrect orthography._ Orthography means “correct writing, or
spelling.” “Incorrect orthography” is, therefore, equivalent to
“incorrect correct writing.”

_How_ for that. “I have heard _how_ some critics have been pacified
with claret and a supper.”

_Directly_, for as soon as. “Directly he came, I went away with

_Equally as well_, for equally well. _E.g._, “It will do equally as

_Supplement_, used as a verb. There is considerable authority for
this use of the word; but it is a case where usage is clearly
opposed to the very principles of the language.

_Greet_ and _greeting_ are often improperly used. A greeting is a
salutation; to say, therefore, as newspaper reporters often do,
that a speaker in the Legislature, or on the platform, was “greeted
with hisses,” or “with groans,” is a decided “malapropism.”

_To a degree_ is a phrase often used by English writers and
speakers. _E.g._, “Mr. Gladstone is sensitive to a degree.” To what

_Farther_ for _further_. “Farther” is the comparative of far,
and should be used in speaking of bodies relatively at rest; as,
“Jupiter is farther from the earth than Mars.” “_Further_” is
the comparative of “forth,” and should be used when motion is
expressed; as “He ran further than you.”

_Quite_ for very. _E.g._, In Mrs. Stowe’s “Sunny Memories of
Foreign Lands,” we read: “The speeches were _quite_ interesting”;
“we had _quite_ a sociable time up in the gallery”; and we are told
that at Mrs. Cropper’s, “in the evening, _quite_ a circle came in,”
etc., etc. The true meaning of “quite” is _completely_, _entirely_.

_Effluvium._ The plural of this word is often used as if it meant
bad odors; whereas an “effluvium” may be a stream either of pure
air or of foul air,--of pure water or of impure, etc.

_None_ is a contraction of _no one_, and therefore to say “none
are,” or “none were,” is just as improper as to say “no one are,”
or “no one were.”

_I watched him do it._ This is an impropriety of speech rarely
heard in this country, but often in England.

_Looks beautifully._ In spite of the frequency with which this
impropriety has been censured, one hears it almost daily from the
lips of educated men and women. The error arises from confounding
_look_ in the sense of to direct the eye, and look in the sense of
to seem, to appear. In English, many verbs take an adjective with
them to form the predicate, where in other languages an adverb
would be used; _e.g._, “he fell ill”; “he feels cold”; “her smiles
amid the blushes lovelier show.” No cultivated person would say,
“she is beautifully,” or “she seems beautifully,” yet these phrases
are no more improper than “she looks beautifully.” We qualify what
a person does by an adverb; what a person _is_, or _seems to be_,
by an adjective; _e.g._, “she looks coldly on him”; “she looks

_Leave_, as an intransitive verb. _E.g._, “He left yesterday.”
Many persons who use this phrase are misled by what they deem the
analogous expression, _to write_, _to read_. These verbs express an
occupation, as truly as _to run_, _to walk_, _to stand_. In answer
to the question, “What is A. B. doing?” it is sufficient to say,
“He is reading.” Here a complete idea is conveyed, which is not
true of the phrase, “He left yesterday.”

_Myself_, for I. _E.g._, “Mrs. Jones and myself will be happy to
dine with you”; “Prof. S. and myself have examined the work.” The
proper use of _myself_ is either as a reflective pronoun, or for
the sake of distinction and emphasis; as when Juliet cries, “Romeo,
doff thy name, and for that name, which is no part of thee, take
all myself”; or, in Milton’s paradisiacal hymn: “These are thy
glorious works, Parent of Good, Almighty! Thine this universal
frame thus wondrous fair! Thyself how wondrous then!”

_Restive._ This word, which means _inclined to rest_, _obstinate_,
_unwilling to go_, is employed, almost constantly, in a sense
directly the reverse of this; that is, for restless.

_Quantity_, for number. _E.g._, “A quantity of books”; “a quantity
of postage stamps.” In speaking of a collection, or mass, it is
proper to use _quantity_; but in speaking of individual objects,
however many, we must use the word number. “A quantity of meat,”
or “a quantity of iron” is good English, but not “a quantity of
bank-notes.” We may say “a quantity of wood,” but we should say a
“number of sticks.”

_Carnival._ This word literally means “Farewell to meat,” or, as
some etymologists think, “Flesh, be strong!” In Catholic countries
it signifies a festival celebrated with merriment and revelry
during the week before Lent. In this country, especially in
newspaper use, it is employed in the sense of fun, frolic, spree,
festival; and that so generally as almost to have banished some of
these words from the language. If many persons are skating, that is
a carnival; so, if they take a sleigh-ride, or if there is a rush
to Long Branch in the summer. As we have a plenty of legitimate
words to describe these festivities, the use of this outlandish
term has not a shadow of justification.

_All of them._ As _of_ here means _out of_, corresponding with the
Latin preposition _e_, or _ex_, it cannot be correct to say _all
of them_. We may say, “take one of them” or “take two of them,”
or “take them all”; but the phrase we are criticising is wholly

_To allude._ Among the improprieties of speech which even those
sharp-eyed literary detectives, Alford, Moon, and Gould have failed
to pounce upon and pillory, are the misuses of the word that heads
this paragraph. Once the verb had a distinct, well defined meaning,
but it is now rapidly losing its true signification. _To allude_ to
a thing,--what is it? Is it not to speak of it _darkly_,--to _hint_
at it playfully (from _ludo_, _ludere_,--to play), without any
direct mention? Yet the word is used in a sense directly opposite
to this. Suppose you lose in the street some package, and advertise
its loss in the newspapers. The person who finds the package is
sure to reply to your advertisement by speaking of “the package
you alluded to in your advertisement,” though you have alluded
to nothing, but have told your story in the most distinct and
straightforward manner possible, without an approximation to a hint
or innuendo. Newspaper reporters, by their abuse of this unhappy
word, will transform a bold and daring speech in Congress, in
which a senator has taken some bull by the horns,--in other words,
dealt openly and manfully with the subject discussed,--into a heap
of dark and mysterious innuendoes. The honorable gentleman _alluded
to_ the currency--to the war--to Andrew Johnson--to the New Orleans
massacre; he _alluded to_ the sympathizers with the South, though
he denounced them in the most caustic terms; he _alluded to_ the
tax-bill, and he _alluded to_ fifty other things, about every one
of which he spoke out his mind in emphatic and unequivocal terms.
An English journal tells a ludicrous story of an M.P. who, his
health having been drunk by name, rose on his legs, and spoke of
“the flattering way in which he had been alluded to.” Another
public speaker spoke of a book which had been _alluded to_ by name.
But the climax of absurdity in the use of this word was attained by
an Irish M.P., who wrote a life of an Italian poet. Quoting Byron’s
lines about “the fatal gift of beauty,” he then goes on to talk
about “the fatal gift which has been already alluded to!”

_Either alternative._ _E.g._, “You may take either alternative.”
“Two alternatives were presented to me.” _Alternative_ evidently
means a choice,--one choice,--between two things. If there be only
one offered, we say there is _no alternative_. _Two alternatives_
is, therefore, a palpable contradiction in terms; yet some speakers
talk of “several alternatives” having been presented to them.

_Whole_, for all. The “Spectator” says: “The Red-Cross Knight runs
through the whole steps of the Christian life.” Alison, who is one
of the loosest writers in our literature, declares, in his “History
of the French Revolution,” that “the whole Russians are inspired
with the belief that their mission is to conquer the world.” This
can only mean that those Russians who are entire,--who have not
lost a leg, an arm, or some other part of the body,--are inspired
with the belief of which he speaks. _Whole_ refers to the component
parts of a single body, and is therefore singular in meaning.

_Jeopardize._ There is considerable authority for this word, which
is beginning to supplant the good old English word _jeopard_. But
why is it more needed than _perilize_, _hazardize_?

_Preventative_, for preventive; _conversationalist_, for converser;
_underhanded_, for underhand; _casuality_, for casualty;
_speciality_, for specialty; _leniency_, for lenity; _firstly_,
for first; are all base coinages, barbarisms which should be
excommunicated by “bell, book, and candle.”

_Dangerous_, for in danger. A leading Boston paper says of a
deceased minister: “His illness was only of a week’s duration, and
was pleurisy and rheumatism. He was not supposed to be dangerous.”

_Nice._ One of the most offensive barbarisms now prevalent is
the use of this as a pet word to express almost every kind of
approbation, and almost every quality. Strictly, _nice_ can be
used only in a subjective, not in an objective, sense; though both
of our leading lexicographers approve of such expressions as “a
nice bit of cheese.” Of the vulgarity of such expressions as “a
nice man” (meaning a good or pleasing man), “a nice day,” “a nice
party,” etc., there cannot be a shadow of doubt. “A nice man”
means a fastidious man; a “nice letter” is a letter very delicate
in its language. Some persons are more nice than wise. Archdeacon
Hare complains that “this characterless domino,” as he stigmatizes
the word _nice_, is continually used by his countrymen, and that
“a universal deluge of _niaserie_ (for the word was originally
_niais_) threatens to whelm the whole island.” The Latin word
_elegans_ seems to have had a similar history; being derived from
_elego_, and meaning primarily _nice_ or _choice_, and subsequently

_Mutual_, for common, or reciprocal. Dean Alford justly protests
against the stereotyped vulgarism, “a mutual friend.” Mutual is
applicable to sentiments and acts, but not to persons. Two friends
may have a mutual love, but for either to speak of a third person
as being “their mutual friend,” is sheer nonsense. Yet Dickens
entitled one of his novels, “Our Mutual Friend.”

_Stopping_, for staying. “The Hon. John Jones is stopping at
the Sherman House.” In reading such a statement as this, we are
tempted to ask, When will Mr. Jones stop stopping? A man may stop a
dozen times at a place, or on a journey, but he cannot _continue_
stopping. One may stop at a hotel without becoming a guest. The
true meaning of the word _stop_ was well understood by the man who
did not invite his professed friend to visit him: “If you come, at
any time, within ten miles of my house, just stop.”

_Trifling minutiæ._ Archbishop Whately, in his “Rhetoric,” speaks
of “trifling minutiæ of style.” In like manner, Henry Kirke White
speaks of his poems as being “the juvenile efforts of a youth,”
and Disraeli, the author of “The Curiosities of Literature,”
speaks of “the battles of logomachy,” and of “the mysteries of
the arcana of alchemy.” The first of these phrases may be less
palpably tautological than the other three; yet as _minutiæ_ means
nearly the same things as _trifles_, a careful writer would be as
adverse to using such an expression as Whately’s, as he would be to
talking, like Sir Archibald Alison, of representative institutions
as having been reëstablished in our time “by the influence of
English _Anglo_mania.”

_Indices_, for indexes. “We have examined our indices,” etc., say
the Chicago abstract-makers. _Indices_ are algebraic signs; tables
of contents are indexes.

_Rendition_, for rendering. _E.g._, “Mr. Booth’s rendition of
Hamlet was admirable.” _Rendition_ means surrender, giving up,
relinquishing to another; as when we speak of the rendition of
a beleaguered town to the besieger, or of a pledge upon the
satisfaction of a debt.

_Extend_, for give. Lecture committees, instead of simply inviting
a public speaker, or giving him an invitation, almost universally
_extend_ an invitation; perhaps, because he is generally at a
considerable distance. Richard Grant White says pertinently; “As
extend (from _ex_ and _tendo_) means merely to stretch forth, it is
much better to say that a man put out, offered, or stretched forth
his hand than that he extended it. Shakespeare makes the pompous,
pragmatical _Malvolio_ say: ‘I extend my hand to him thus’; but
‘Paul stretched forth the hand, and answered for himself.’ This,
however, is a question of taste, not of correctness.”

_Except_, for unless. _E.g._, “No one, except he has served an
apprenticeship, need apply.” The former word is a preposition, and
must be followed by a noun or pronoun, and not by a proposition.

_Couple_, for a pair or brace. When two persons or things are
joined or linked together, they form a _couple_. The number
of things that can be coupled is comparatively small, yet the
expression is in constant use; as “a couple of books,” “a couple of
partridges,” “a couple of weeks,” etc. One might as well speak of
“a pair of dollars.”

_Every._ _E.g._, “I have every confidence in him”; “they rendered
me every assistance.” _Every_ denotes all the individuals of a
number greater than two, separately considered. Derived from the
Anglo-Saxon, _œfer_, ever, _œlc_, each, it means each of all,
not all in mass. By “every confidence” is meant simply perfect
confidence; by “every assistance,” all possible assistance.

_Almost_, as an adjective. Prof. Whitney, in his able work on
“Language, and the Study of Language,” speaks of “the almost
universality of instruction among us.”

_Condign._ _E.g._, “He does not deserve the condign punishment
he has received.” As the meaning of _condign_ is that which is
deserved, we have here a contradiction in terms, the statement
being equivalent to this: “he does not deserve the deserved
punishment he has received.”

_Paraphernalia._ This is a big, sounding word from the Greek,
which some newspaper writers are constantly misusing. It is
strictly a law-term, and means whatever the wife brings with her
at marriage in addition to her dower. Her dress and her ornaments
are _paraphernalia_. To apply the term to an Irishman’s sash on St.
Patrick’s day, or to a Freemason’s hieroglyphic apron, it has been
justly said, is not only an abuse of language, but a clear invasion
of woman’s rights.

_Setting-room_, for sitting-room, is a gross vulgarism, which is
quite common, even with those who deem themselves _nice_ people.
“I saw your children in the setting-room, as I went past,” said a
well-dressed woman in our hearing, in a horse-car. How _could_ she
go _past_? It is not difficult to go _by_ any object; but to go
_past_ is a contradiction in terms.

_An innumerable number_ is an absurd expression, which is used by
some persons,--not, it is to be hoped, “an innumerable number” of

_Seraphim_, for seraph; the plural for the singular. Even Addison
says: “The zeal of the seraphim breaks forth,” etc. This is as
ludicrous as the language of the Indiana justice, who spoke of “the
first claw of the statute,” or the answer of the man who, when
asked whether he had no politics, replied, “Not a single politic.”

_People_, for persons, “Many people think so.” Better, persons;
people means a body of persons regarded collectively, a nation.

_Off of_, for off. “Cut a yard off of the cloth.”

_More perfect_, _most perfect_. What shall be said of these and
similar forms of expression? Doubtless they should be discouraged,
though used by Shakespeare and Milton. It may be argued in
their favor, that, though not logically correct, yet they are
rhetorically so. It is true that, as “twenty lions cannot be more
twenty than twenty flies,” so nothing can be more perfect than
perfection. But we do not object to say that one man is _braver_
than another, or _wiser_, though, if we had an absolute standard
of bravery or wisdom,--that is, a clear idea of them,--we should
pronounce either of the two persons to be simply brave or not
brave, wise or not wise. We say that Smith is a _better_ man than
Jones, though no one is absolutely good but God. These forms are
used because language is inadequate to express the intensity of the
thought,--as in Milton’s “most wisest, virtuousest, discreetest,
best,” or the lines,

      “And _in the lowest deep a lower deep_,
      Still threatening to devour me, opens wide,
      To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

Milton abounds in these illogical expressions, as do the best Greek
poets; and one of the happiest verses in the poems of W. W. Story
is a similar intentional contradiction, as

      “Of every noble work the silent part is best;
      Of all expression, that which cannot be expressed.”

_Ugly_, for ill-tempered. A leading New York divine is reported as
saying of an ill-tempered child, that “he wants all he sees, and
screams if he does not get it; ugly as he can be, no matter who is
disturbed by it.”

_Is_, for are. One of the most frequent blemishes in English prose
is the indiscriminate use of singulars and plurals. _E.g._, Junius
writes: “Both minister and magistrate is compelled to choose
between his duty and his reputation.” Even Lindley Murray writes:
“Their general scope and tendency is not remembered at all”; and
Milton sings:

      “For their mind and spirit remains invincible.”

Some grammarians defend these forms of expression on the ground
that when two or more nouns singular represent a _single_ idea, the
verb to which they are the nominative may be put in the singular.
The answer to this is, that if the nouns express the _same_ idea,
one of them is superfluous; if _different_ ideas, then they form
a plural, and the verb should be plural also. Another quibble
employed to justify such expressions, is that the verb, which is
expressed after the last noun, is considered as understood _after_
the first. But we are not told how this process of subaudition can
go on in the mind of the reader, _before_ he knows what the verb
is to be; and while ellipsis not only is in many cases permissible,
but gives conciseness and energy to style, yet there is a limit
beyond which it cannot be pushed without leading to literary

_Caption_, for heading. _E.g._, “The caption of this newspaper
article.” _Caption_ means that part of a legal instrument which
shows where, when, and by what authority it was taken, found, or

_To extremely maltreat._ This phrase from Trench is an example of
a very common solecism. _To_, the sign of the infinitive, should
never be separated from the verb. Say “to maltreat extremely,” or
“extremely to maltreat.”

_Accord_, for grant. “He accorded them (or to them) all they asked
for.” _To accord with_ means properly to agree or to suit; as, “He
accorded with my views.”

_Enthuse_, a word used by some clergymen, is not to be found either
in Worcester’s Dictionary or in Webster’s “Unabridged.”

_Personalty._ This word is supposed by some persons to mean
articles worn on one’s person. Some years ago, a lady, in England,
who had made this mistake, and who wished to leave to her servant
her clothing, jewels, etc., described them as her _personalty_, and
unwittingly included in her bequest ten thousand pounds.

_Do._ This verb is often used incorrectly as a substitute for other
verbs; as, “I did not say, as some have done.” We may properly say,
“I did not say, as some do” (_say_), for here the ellipsis of the
preceding verb may be supplied.

_On to_, for on, or upon. “He got on to an omnibus;” “He jumped on
to a chair.” The preposition _to_ is superfluous. Say, “He got upon
an omnibus,” etc. Some persons speak of “continuing on,” which is
as objectionable as “He went to Boston for to see the city.”

_Older_, for elder. _Older_ is properly applied to objects, animate
and inanimate; _elder_, to rational beings.

_Overflown_, for overflowed. “The river has overflown.” _Flowed_ is
the participle of “to flow”; _flown_, of “to fly.”

_Spoonsful_, for spoonfuls, and _effluvia_ for effluvium, are very
common errors. “A disagreeable effluvia” is as gross a mistake as
“an inexplicable phenomena.”

_Scarcely_, for hardly. _Scarcely_ pertains to quantity; _hardly_,
to degree; as, “There is scarcely a bushel”; “I shall hardly finish
my job by night-fall.”

_Fare thee well_, which has Byron’s authority, is plainly wrong.

_Community_, for the community; as “Community will not submit to
such outrages.” Prof. Marsh has justly censured this vulgarism. Who
would think of saying, “Public is interested in this question”?
When we _personify_ common nouns used definitely in the singular
number, we may omit the article, as when we speak of the doings
of Parliament, or of Holy Church. “During the Revolution,” says
Professor M., “while the federal government was a body of doubtful
authority and permanence, ... the phrase used was always ‘_the_
Congress,’ and such is the form of expression in the Constitution
itself. But when the Government became consolidated, and Congress
was recognized as the paramount legislative power of the Union, ...
it was personified, and the article dropped, and, in like manner,
the word Government is often used in the same way.”

_Folks_ for folk. As _folk_ implies plurality, the _s_ is needless.

_Mussulmen._ Mussulman is not a compound of man, and, therefore,
like _German_, it forms its plural by adding _s_.

_Drive_, for ride. A lady says that “she is going to drive in the
park,” when she intends that her servant shall drive (not her, but)
the horses.

_Try and_, for try to. _E.g._, “Try and do it.”

_Whole_, _entire_, _complete_, and _total_, are words which are
used almost indiscriminately by many persons. That is _whole_,
from which nothing has been taken; that is _entire_, which has not
been divided; that is _complete_, which has all its parts. _Total_
refers to the aggregate of the parts. Thus we say, a _whole_ loaf
of bread; an _entire_ set of spoons; a _complete_ harness; the
_total_ cost or expense.

_Succeed_, for give success to, or cause to succeed. _E.g._, “If
Providence succeed us in this work.” Both Webster and Worcester
justify this use of _succeed_ as a transitive verb; but if not now
grammatically objectionable, as formerly, it is still to be avoided
on the ground of ambiguity. In the phrase quoted, _succeed_ may
mean either cause to succeed, or follow.

_Tartar_ should be, strictly, _Tatar_. When the Tatar hordes, in
the thirteenth century, burst forth from the Asiatic steppes, this
fearful invasion was thought to be a fulfilment of the prediction
of the opening of the bottomless pit, as portrayed in the ninth
chapter of Revelations. To bring the name into relation with
Tartarus, _Tatar_ was written, as it still continues to be written,

The following is an example of a very common error in the
arrangement of words:

      “Dead in sins and in transgressions
        Jesus cast his eyes on me,
      And of his divine possessions
        Bade me then a sharer be;” etc.

Though such is not the writer’s intention, he really speaks of
Jesus as being “dead in sins and in transgressions”; for the syntax
of the verse admits of no other meaning.

_Numerous_, for many. To speak of “our numerous friends” is to say
that each friend is numerous.

_That of_; as, “He chose for a profession _that of_ the law.” This
is equivalent to saying: He chose for a profession the profession
of law; or, he chose a profession for a profession. Why not say,
“He chose law for a profession”?

_Fellow countrymen._ What is the difference between “countrymen”
and “fellow countrymen?”

_Distinguish_, for discriminate. To distinguish is to mark broad
and plain differences; to discriminate is to notice minute and
subtle shades of difference.

_Transpire_, for to happen. “Transpire” meant originally to emit
insensible vapor through the pores of the skin. Afterward it was
used metaphorically in the sense of to become known, to pass from
secrecy into publicity. But to say that a certain event “transpired
yesterday,” meaning that it occurred then, is a gross vulgarism.

_Ventilate_, for discuss.

_Hung_, for hanged. “Hang,” when it means to take away life by
public execution, is a regular verb.

_Bid_, for bade. _E.g._, The London “Times” says: “He called his
servants, and _bid_ them procure fire-arms.”

_Dare_, for durst. “Neither her maidens nor the priest _dare_ speak
to her for half an hour,” says the Rev. Charles Kingsley, in one of
his novels.

_In_, for within. _E.g._, “Is Mr. Smith in?”

_Notwithstanding_, for although. _E.g._, “_Notwithstanding_
they fought bravely, they were defeated.” “Notwithstanding” is a
preposition, and cannot be correctly used as a conjunction.

_Two good ones._ “Among all the apples there were but two good
ones.” Two _ones_?

_Raising the rent_, for increasing the rent. A landlord notified
his tenant that he should raise his rent. “Thank you,” was the
reply; “I find it very hard to raise it myself.”

_Was_, for is. “Two young men,” says Swift, “have made a discovery,
that there was a God.” That there _was_ a God? When? This year, or
last year, or ages ago? All general truths should be expressed by
the use of verbs in the present tense.

_Shall_ and _will_. There are, perhaps, no two words in the
language which are more frequently confounded or used inaccurately,
than _shall_ and _will_. Certain it is, that of all the rocks on
which foreigners split in the use of the Queen’s English, there
is none which so puzzles and perplexes them as the distinction
between these little words. Originally both words were employed
for the same purpose in other languages of the same stock with
ours; but their use has been worked out by the descendants of the
Anglo-Saxons, until it has attained a degree of nicety remarkable
in itself, and by no means easy of acquisition even by the subjects
of Victoria or by Americans. Every one has heard of the Dutchman
who, on falling into a river, cried out, “I will drown, and nobody
shall help me.” The Irish are perpetually using _shall_ for _will_,
while the Scotch use of _will_ for _shall_ is equally inveterate
and universal. Dr. Chalmers says: “I am not able to devote as
much time and attention to other subjects as I will be under the
necessity of doing next winter.” The use of _shall_ for _will_,
in the following passage, has led some critics strongly to suspect
that the author of the anonymous work, “Vestiges of Creation,” is
a Scotchman: “I do not expect that any word of praise which this
work may elicit shall ever be responded to by me; or that any word
of censure shall ever be parried or deprecated.” This awkward use
of _shall_, we have seen, is not a Scotticism; yet it is curious to
see how a writer who pertinaciously shrouds himself in mystery, may
be detected by the blundering use of a monosyllable. So the use of
the possessive neuter pronoun _its_ in the poems which Chatterton
wrote and palmed off as the productions of one Rowlie, a monk in
the fifteenth century, betrayed the forgery,--inasmuch as that
little monosyllable, _its_, now so common and convenient, did not
find its way into the language till about the time of Shakespeare.
Milton never once uses it, nor, except as a misprint, is it to be
found anywhere in the Bible.

Gilfillan, a Scotch writer, thus uses _will_ for shall: “If we
look within the rough and awkward outside, we will be richly
rewarded by its perusal.” So Alison, the historian: “We know to
what causes our past reverses have been owing, and we will have
ourselves to blame if they are again incurred.” Macaulay observes
that “not one Londoner in a thousand ever misplaces his _will_
and _shall_. Doctor Robinson could, undoubtedly, have written a
luminous dissertation on the use of those words. Yet, even in his
latest work, he sometimes misplaced them ludicrously.” But Doctor
Johnson was a Londoner, and he did not always use his _shalls_ and
_wills_ correctly, as will be seen by the following extract from a
letter to Boswell in 1774: “You must make haste and gather me all
you can, and do it quickly, or I _will_ and _shall_ do without
it.” In this anti-climax Johnson meant to emphasize the latter of
the auxiliaries. But _shall_ (Saxon, _sceal_ = _necesse est_) in
the first person, simply foretells; as, “I shall go to New York
to-morrow.” On the other hand, _will_, in the first person, not
only foretells, but promises, or declares the resolution to do
a thing; as, “I will pay you what I owe you.” The Doctor should
have said: “I shall and will do without it.” putting the strongest
term last. The confusion of the two words is steadily increasing
in this country. Formerly the only Americans who confounded them
were Southerners; now, the misuse of the word is stealing through
the North. _E.g._, “I will go to town to-morrow, and shall take
an early opportunity of calling on your friend there.” “We will
never look on his like again.” A writer in a New York paper says:
“None of our coal mines are deep, but the time is coming when we
will have to dig deeper in search of both coal and metallic ores.”
Again, we hear persons speak thus: “Let us keep a sharp lookout,
and we will avoid all danger.”

Shakespeare rarely confounded the two words; for example, in

      “_Cor._ Shall remain!
              Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you
              His absolute _shall_?”

Again, in Antony and Cleopatra:

      “_Meno._ Wilt thou be lord of the whole world?

      _Senator._ He shall to the market-place.”

Wordsworth, too, who is one of the most accurate writers in our
literature, nicely discriminates in his use of _shall_ and _will_:

      “This child I to myself will take;
      She shall be mine, and I will make
      A lady of my own.
      The stars of midnight shall be dear
      To her; and she shall lean her ear
      In many a secret place
      Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
      And beauty born of murmuring sound
      Shall pass into her face.”

In the last passage determination is expressed, and therefore
_shall_ is properly used.

When the Bible was translated, the language was in a state of
transition; hence we read in Kings ii: “Ahab shall slay me,”
for _will_. In Genesis xliii, 3-5, the two words are nicely
discriminated. The distinction between them, strange to say, is
entirely ignored in the Revised Version; as _e.g._, Peter is told,
“Thou shalt deny me thrice”; and we read: “One of you shall betray
me,” where futurity only is expressed in the Greek.

According to Grimm, “shall” is derived from _skalan_, the
Scandinavian word for the pain of death, which is also the source
of our word “kill.” The predominant idea in “shall” is that of
doom. When choosing a term to express the inevitable future,
the founders of our language chose a term the most expressive
possible of a fatal, inevitable future. As “shall” contains the
idea of doom, “will” conveys the idea of choice. The general rule
to be followed in the use of the two words is, that when the
simple idea of future occurrence is to be expressed, unconnected
with the speaker’s resolve, we must use _shall_ in the first
person, and _will_ in the second and third; as, “I shall die,
you will die, he will die”; but when the idea of compulsion or
necessity is to be conveyed,--a futurity connected with the will
of the speaker,--_will_ must be employed in the first person,
and _shall_ in the second and third; as, “I will go, you shall
go, he shall go.” “I shall attain to thirty at my next birthday”
merely foretells the age to which the speaker will have reached at
his next birthday; “I will attain to thirty at my next birthday”
would imply a determination to be so old at the time mentioned.
“You shall have some money to-morrow” would imply a promise to
pay it; “you will have some money to-morrow” would only imply an
expectation that the person addressed would receive some money.

Similar to the misuse of _shall_ and _will_, is that of _would_
for should; as, “You promised that it would be done;” “But for
reinforcements we would have been beaten.” Mr. Brace, in his work
on Hungary, makes the people of that country say of Kossuth: “He
ought to have known that we would be ruined,”--which can only mean
“we wished to be ruined.”

The importance of attending to the distinction of _shall_ and
_will_, and to the nice distinctions of words generally, is
strikingly illustrated by an incident in Massachusetts. In
1844, Abner Rogers was tried in that state for the murder of
the warden of the penitentiary. The man who had been sent to
search the prisoner, said in evidence: “He (Rogers) said, ‘I have
fixed the warden, and I’ll have a rope round my neck.’ On the
strength of what he said, I took his suspenders from him.” Being
cross-examined, the witness said his words were: “I will have a
rope,” not “I shall have a rope.” The counsel against the prisoner
argued that he declared an intention of suicide, to escape from the
penalty of the law, which he knew he had incurred. On the other
hand, _shall_ would, no doubt, have been regarded as a betrayal
of his consciousness of having incurred a felon’s doom. The
prisoner was acquitted on the ground of insanity. Strange that the
fate of an alleged murderer should turn upon the question which
he used of two little words that are so frequently confounded,
and employed one for the other! It would be difficult to conceive
of a more pregnant comment on the importance of using words with
discrimination and accuracy.

It would be impossible, in the limits to which we are restricted,
to give all the nice distinctions to be observed in the use of
_shall_ and _will_. For a full explanation of the subject we
must refer the unlearned reader to the various English grammars,
and such works as Sir E. W. Head’s treatise on the two words,
and the works on Synonyms by Graham, Crabb, and Whately. Prof.
Schele DeVere, in his late “Studies in Language,” expresses the
opinion that this double future is a great beauty of the English
language, but that it is impossible to give any rule for its use,
which will cover all cases, and that the only sure guide is “that
instinct which is given to all who learn a language with their
mother’s milk, or who acquire it so successfully as to master
its spirit as well as its form.” His use of _will_ for _shall_,
in this very work, verifies the latter part of this statement,
and shows that a foreigner may have a profound knowledge of the
genius and constitution of a language, and yet be sorely puzzled
by its niceties and subtleties. “If we go back,” he says, “for
the purpose of thus tracing the history of nouns to the oldest
forms of English, we _will_ there find the method of forming them
from the first and simplest elements” (page 140). The “Edinburgh
Review” denounces the distinction of _shall_ and _will_, by their
neglect of which the Scotch are so often bewrayed, as one of the
most capricious and inconsistent of all imaginable irregularities,
and as at variance not less with original etymology than with
former usage. Prof. Marsh regards it as a verbal quibble, which
will soon disappear from our language. It is a quibble just as any
distinction is a quibble to persons who are too dull, too lazy,
or too careless to apprehend it. With as much propriety might the
distinction between the indicative and subjunctive forms of the
verb, or the distinction between _farther_ and _further_, _strong_
and _robust_, _empty_ and _vacant_, be pronounced a verbal quibble.
Sir Edmund W. Head has shown that the difference is not one which
has an existence only in the pedagogue’s brain, but that it is as
real and legitimate as that between _be_ and _am_, and dates back
as far as Wicliffe and Chaucer, while it has also the authority of

We conclude this chapter with the following lines by an English

      “Beyond the vague Atlantic deep,
      Far as the farthest prairies sweep,
      Where forest glooms the nerves appall,
      Where burns the radiant western fall,
      One duty lies on old and young,--
      With filial piety to guard,
      As on its greenest native sward,
      The glory of the English tongue.
      That ample speech! That subtle speech!
      Apt for the need of all and each:
      Strong to endure, yet prompt to bend
      Wherever human feelings tend.
      Preserve its force,--conserve its powers;
      And through the maze of civic life,
      In letters, commerce, even in strife,
      Forget not it is yours and ours.”


[46] See page 26.


  JOSEPH ANGUS. _Hand-Book of the English Tongue._ London, 1863.

  ARISTOTLE. _Rhetoric._ Translated by John Gillies. London, 1823.

  SAMUEL BAILEY. _Discourses on Various Subjects._ London, 1862.

  W. L. BLACKLEY. _Word-Gossip._ London, 1869.

  FRANCIS BOWEN. _Treatise on Logic._ Boston, 1874.

  BREEN. _Modern English Literature._ London.

  JOHN EARLE. _Philology of the English Tongue._ Oxford, 1871.

  WILLIAM C. FOWLER. _The English Language in its Elements and Forms._
                            New York, 1860.

  F. W. FARRAR. _The Origin of Language._ London, 1860.

       “        _Chapters on Language._ London, 1873.

       “        _Families of Speech._ London, 1873.

  I. PLANT FLEMING. _Analysis of the English Language._ London, 1869.

  G. F. GRAHAM. _A Book about Words._ London, 1869.

  RICHARD GARNETT. _Philological Essays._ London, 1859.

  MATTHEW HARRISON. _The Rise, Progress, and Present Structure of the
                            English Language._ London, 1848.

  EDWARD N. HOARE. _Exotics, or English Words Derived from Latin Roots._
                            London, 1863.

  EDMUND W. HEAD. _“Shall” and “Will.”_ London, 1858.

  R. G. LATHAM. _The English Language._ London, 1873.

  GEORGE C. LEWIS. _Remarks on the Use and Abuse of Some Political
                            Terms._ Oxford, 1877.

  MARK A. LOWER. _An Essay on Family Nomenclature._ (Two Volumes.)
                            London, 1875.

  GEORGE P. MARSH. _Lectures on the English Language._ New York, 1860.

         “         _The Origin and History of the English Language._
                            New York, 1862.

  J. S. MILL. _A System of Logic._ New York, 1869.

  MAX MÜLLER. _Lectures on the Science of Language._ (First and Second
                            Series.) New York, 1865.

  J. H. NEWMAN. _The Idea of a University._ London, 1873.

  NOTES AND QUERIES. London, 1852.

  ERNEST RENAN. _De l’Origine du Langage._ Paris, 1864.

  W. T. SHEDD. _Homiletics and Pastoral Theology._ New York, 1867.

  ARCHDEACON SMITH. _Common Words with Curious Derivations._ London,

  JOHN STODDARD. _The Philosophy of Language._ London, 1854.

  WILLIAM THOMSON. _Outline of the Necessary Laws of Thought._ London,

  JOHN HORNE TOOKE. _The Diversions of Purley._ London, 1860.

  RICHARD CHENEVIX TRENCH. _On the Study of Words._ London, 1869.

              “            _English, Past and Present._ 6th ed. London,

              “            _Select Glossary of English Words._ 3d ed.
                            London, 1865.

  RICHARD WHATELY. _Elements of Logic._ New York, 1865.

          “        _Elements of Rhetoric._ New York, 1866.

  HENSLEIGH WEDGWOOD. _Etymological Dictionary._ London, 1872.

  W. D. WHITNEY. _Language and the Study of Language._ New York, 1867.

        “        _The Life and Growth of Language._ New York, 1875.

  E. P. WHITTLE. _Essays and Reviews._ Boston, 1856.

         “       _Literature and Life._ Boston, 1871.

  ESSAYS BY A BARRISTER. London, 1862.



  abdicate and desert, 282.

  abominable, 392.

  accord, 467.

  a confirmed invalid, 455.

  Addington, nicknamed by Sheridan, 361.

  Adullamites, 362.

  agriculturalist, 445.

  alert, 395.

  Alexander, Addison, D.D., his lines on small words, 157.

  alligator, 387.

  all of them, 459.

  all right, 72.

  almost, 464.

  alms, 419.

  alone, 448.

  American orators, their diffuseness, 179-181;
    their exaggeration, 185.

  Americans, spendthrifts of language, 179;
    their exaggeration, 184, 187.

  Amphibolous sentences, 291.

  and, 285.

  anecdote, 378.

  Animals, cannot generalize, or designate things by signs, 1-2.

  an innumerable number, 465.

  animosity, 384.

  antecedents, 430.

  anyhow, 446.

  apology, 271.

  apple-pie order, 402.

  appreciates, 455.

  Aristotle, on frigidity of style, 117.

  Armstrong, 338.

  Arnold, Dr. Thomas, on the styles of historians, 65, 66.

  artesian, 408.

  artillery, 379.

  assassin, 396.

  astonish, 376.

  atom, 320.

  at all, 449.

  _atte_, _at_, 331.

  attraction, 84.

  avocation, 448.


  Bacon, Lord, his command of language, 10;
    on the power of words, 84, 85.

  Bailey, Samuel, on Berkeley’s theory of vision, 16.

  balance, 116, 448.

  Balzac, on the witchery of words, 85.

  banister, 437.

  bankrupt, 387.

  Barrow, Isaac, D.D., his word-coinings, 433.

  bedlam, 418.

  belfry, 416.

  Bentley, Richard, D.D., 236, 241.

  _berg_, 32.

  bib, 404.

  bid, 470.

  bishop, 415.

  bit, 387.

  bitter end, the, 403.

  blackguards, 378.

  blanket, 409.

  blue-stocking, 390.

  blunderbuss, 397.

  Boileau, quoted, 111, 214.

  Bolingbroke, Lord, his attention to his style, 441.

  bombast, 379.

  _bonhomme_, 71.

  booby, 396.

  bosh, 397.

  Botany, its nomenclature, 89.

  boudoir, 400.

  bound, 455.

  Bowen, Prof. Francis, on a fallacy of Darwin’s, 277;
    on second causes, 270.

  bran-new, 414.

  brat, 383.

  bravery, 377.

  Brown, John, his moderation of language, 191.

  Browne, Sir Thomas, on scholars, 6.

  Buckle, on the dialect of English scholars, 241.

  buffoon, 389.

  Bulwer, Lytton, on the power of words, 93;
    on children’s names, 324.

  bumper, 394.

  Bunsen, on poetry, 248.

  Burr, Aaron, saying of, 182.

  but, 445.

  but that, 449.

  by-laws, 395.

  Byron, Lord, on Keats’s death, 90;
    his denunciation of the English Language, 133, 134;
    his use of monosyllables, 152, 153;
    his subscription for Greece, 160;
    on the inadequacy of language, 212.


  Cæsar, 335.

  caitiff, 379.

  caloric, 293.

  canard, 391.

  Canning, George, his command of words, 18;
    extract from, 200.

  canon, cannon, 396.

  Cant, political, 168;
    ethical, 169;
    Seneca’s, 169;
    religious, 170-173;
    Spurgeon on, 172;
    in art, 176;
    etymology of the word, 389, 390.

  caption, 467.

  Capuchin, 355.

  carat, 405.

  Carbo, anecdote of, 29.

  Carlyle, Thomas, satirized by an auctioneer, 120.

  carnival, 458.

  caucus, 401.

  causeway, 419.

  ceiling, 417.

  celebrity, 451.

  chaffer, 385.

  chagrin, 396.

  Chalmers, Thomas, D.D., on John Foster, 27;
    his dispute with Stuart, 264.

  Charles V, saying of, 177.

  Chatham, Lord, his study of words, 17;
    his words, 52, 53;
    his speeches, 182.

  cheat, 398.

  Chesterfield, Lord, anecdote of, 128;
    his efforts to improve his language, 440.

  _chevalier d’industrie_, 95.

  Choate, Rufus, on the diction suitable to lawyers, 18;
    his prodigality of words, 187.

  Christian, 356, 357.

  Cicero, his choice of words, 29;
    his word-coining, 105.

  civilization, 274.

  Clarendon, Lord, his solecisms, 438.

  cleave, 421.

  Climate, its effects on language, 243, 244.

  Cobbett, William, his mastery of narration and invective, 236;
    his nicknames of Peel, Stanley, and others, 352.

  cock, 244.

  Coke, Sir Edward, his characterization of Raleigh, 53.

  Coleridge, Hartley N., his characterization of the Greek and Latin
          languages, 74;
    his lines on speech, 193.

  Coleridge, S. T., on Shakespeare’s language, 7;
    his witchery of phrase, 9;
    on the study of the Bible, 115;
    on religious cant, 171;
    his word-coinings, 432, 433;
    on Youth and Age, 256.

  Collins, William, lines from, 152.

  Combe, Dr. Andrew, on Cowper’s and Wilberforce’s letters, 165.

  commerce, 114.

  Common Improprieties of Speech, 424-477.

  community, 468.

  compulsory, 275.

  concede, 381.

  condign, 464.

  conduct, 454.

  constable, 404.

  convene, 449.

  Conversation, religious defined, 172.

  _convivium_, 75.

  Cooper, Sir Astley, anecdote of, 72.

  coquet, 380.

  corporeal, 446.

  corpse, 380.

  Corwin, Thomas, Gov., 132.

  Council of Basle, 263.

  country-dance, 415.

  couple, 463.

  Courier, P. L., on abusive epithets, 279.

  court, 405, 406.

  Couthon, 168.

  Cowper, William, his translation of Homer, 36;
    his poetry, 165;
    his letters, 165.

  craft, 383.

  Craik, Prof., on the revivification of human speech, 57.

  crawfish, 416.

  creative, 290, 291.

  Crockett, David, anecdote of, 15.

  Crowe, W., lines from, 252.

  crushed out, 449.

  cunning, 384.

  cur, 405.

  Curiosities of Language, 367-423.

  curmudgeon, 397.

  Curran, his encounter with a fish-woman, 365.

  Currer Bell, her “Villette” criticised, 126.

  Cuvier, anecdote of, 15.


  dandelion, 415.

  dangerous, 461.

  Dante, his language, 9.

  dare, 470.

  Darwin, Charles, his fallacious use of “tend,” 277.

  deceiving, 452.

  decimated, 115.

  deduction, 445.

  defalcation, 385.

  delinquents, 347.

  De Maistre, Count Joseph, on Locke, 276;
    on Pagan ideas of holiness and sin, 81.

  De Medicis, Catherine, sayings of, 178.

  Demosthenes, his choice of words, 28, 29;
    his speeches, 181, 182;
    his ignorance of foreign tongues, and study of Thucydides, 239.

  demure, 383.

  De Quincey, his mastery of words, 12;
    on translation, 32;
    on the word “humbug,” 81, 82;
    on Cardinal Mezzofanti, 178;
    on the French language of passion, 189;
    on the choice of Saxon or Romanic words, 195, 196, 201;
    on the inadequacy of language, 212;
    on the style of women’s letters, 240, 241;
    saying of, 319;
    on improprieties of speech, 439.

  Denmark, capture of her fleet by the British, 304, 305.

  Desbrosses, on Roman hereditary names, 327.

  dexterity, 388.

  “Dick Swiveller style,” 164.

  differ with, different to, 446.

  directly, 456.

  Disraeli, Benjamin, quoted, 263.

  distinguish, 470.

  do, 467.

  doing good, 307-309.

  dollar, 404.

  Domenech, the Abbé, on the language of savages, 24, 25.

  Dominicans, 355.

  don’t, 451.

  dormouse, 416.

  “Double Procession.” the, controversy concerning it, 262.

  doubt, 447.

  drive, 469.

  Dryden, John, his scientific language, 10;
    his translation of the “Æneid,” 36;
    his version of “Paradise Lost,” 37, 38;
    his modernization of Chaucer, 37;
    lines from, 251;
    Willmott on his versification, 253.

  dun, 408, 431.

  dunce, 386, 387.

  Du Ponceau, on the inadequacy of language, 212.

  Dyer, lines from his “Ruins of Rome,” 249.


  Easter, 406.

  education, 280-282.

  effluvium, 457.

  egregious, 401.

  either, 452, 453.

  either alternative, 460.

  electricity, 293.

  Eloquence, uses simple language, 124, 125.

  Emerson, R. W., on Montaigne’s words, 10;
    on Shakespeare’s suggestiveness, 55;
    on oratory, 123.

  English Bible, richness of its vocabulary, 204;
    F. W. Faber on, 204.

  English Language, few of its words in common use, 51, 58;
    its copiousness, 132-138;
    decried by Charles V, Madame de Stael and Byron, 133;
    Addison and Waller on, 134;
    its composite character, 135, 136;
    its irregularities, 137;
    illustrations of its monosyllabic character, 147-157;
    its capabilities, 214, 215.

  English Literature, its looseness of diction, 425.

  English race, its intolerance of restraints, 425.

  Ennius, saying of, 177.

  enthuse, 467.

  equally as well, 456.

  equanimity of mind, 451.

  Erskine, Lord, his mastery of English, 236.

  ether, 293.

  Etymological knowledge, its value in the use of words, 231-234.

  Etymology, rules of, 413;
    errors based on, 285-289.

  Euripides, on character, 54.

  every, 464.

  evidence, 449.

  Exaggeration of language, 184-193;
    F. W. Robinson on, 191.

  except, 463.

  excessively, 452.

  exchequer, 406.

  exorbitant, 381.

  experience, 266, 267.

  Expletives, 90, 91.

  extend, 463.


  faint, 388.

  Fallacies in Words, 257-322.

  farce, 392.

  farther, 456.

  fast, 420.

  fatherland, 429.

  Federalist, 347.

  fellow, 386.

  fellow countrymen, 470.

  female, 114.

  final completion, 450.

  _Fitz_, _witz_, and _sky_, 329.

  folks, 468.

  Fortescue, 337.

  Foster, John, on the words of a man of genius, 6;
    on eloquence, 122.

  Fox, C. J., on Pitt’s words, 26;
    his eloquence, 52.

  Frank, 407.

  Franklin, Dr. Benjamin, his style, 236.

  Freeman, Dr. E. A., on the English Language, 118.

  freemason, 415.

  French Academy, the, 431.

  French language, its lack of words for “bribe,” “sober,” “listener,”
          “home,” etc., 70-72.

  French Literature, its method and lucidity, 426.

  Frenchmen, their distaste for foreign words, 126, 127.

  from thence, from whence, 454.

  _Frondeurs_, 350.

  frontispiece, 414.

  Fuller, Dr. Thomas, on the Italian and Swiss languages, 76;
    on high-flown language, 129;
    on “ah!” and “ha!” 143;
    on the schoolmen, 317;
    his etymologies, 414;
    his story of John Cuts, 339.

  fur, 95.


  Garrick, David, saying of, 146.

  Gautier, Theophile, his study of words, 19.

  _gêne_, 71.

  gentleman, 97-99.

  George I, of England, 166.

  Gesticulation, its expressiveness, 19-21.

  gibberish, 394, 408.

  Gibbon, Edward, his historical insinuations and suppressions, 292.

  girl, 378.

  go ahead, 72.

  Goethe, saying of, 34;
    lines from, 215;
    on study of foreign tongues, 229;
    a poor linguist, 238.

  Goldsmith, Oliver, his solecisms, 438, 439.

  gooseberry, 414.

  gossip, 385.

  Gothic, 84.

  Greek and Latin, contrasted, 74;
    a knowledge of them not necessary to the command of English, 229-241;
    their value for culture, 230, 231.

  Greek, its subtle distinctions, 34.

  Greek words, Roman affectation for, 127.

  Greeks, their perversions of words, 96;
    their ignorance of grammar and etymology, 238.

  greet, greeting, 456.

  Gregory VII, Pope, 167.

  Guelphs and Ghibellines, 358.

  gutted, 430.

  gypsies, 418.


  haberdasher, 397.

  hack, 405.

  had have, 435, 450.

  had ought, 450.

  Halifax, Lord, on trimming, 359.

  Hall, Robert, D.D., anecdotes of, 26, 173;
    on his aping of Johnson, 281;
    on Saxon-English, 205.

  Halleck, Fitz-Greene, his anecdote of a Scotch girl, 129.

  Hamilton, Alexander, his legal arguments, 182.

  Hamilton, “Single Speech,” 360.

  Hamilton, Sir William, on certain philosophical terms, 285.

  Handel, saying of, 133.

  handkerchief, 404.

  harden, 301, 302.

  Hawthorne, Nathaniel, on the spells in words, 47.

  hawk, 398.

  Haydon, anecdote of, 85.

  Hazlitt, William, on words, 4;
    his “Tiddy-doll” story, 364.

  helter-skelter, 388.

  Herder, his nickname of Goethe, 348.

  hermetically, 409.

  Higginson, T. W., on words, 4, 46.

  hip, hip, hurrah! 388.

  Historians, their characters shown by their styles, 65.

  hoax, 397.

  Hobbes, his language, 316;
    on words, 316, 317.

  hocuspocus, 396.

  Hollinshed, his “Chronicles” quoted, 286.

  Homer, his “winged words,” 5;
    his onomatopœia, 254.

  “Homoousians” and “Homoiusians,” 262.

  _homo_, 320.

  _honnêteté_, 71.

  Horne Tooke, saying of, 155.

  horrent, 375.

  hospital, 313.

  host, 405.

  how, 456.

  Huguenot, 393, 394.

  humble-pie, 398.

  humbug, 82, 395.

  Hume, David, 98, 99;
    his argument against miracles, 265-270;
    his history of England, 292;
    on the term “delinquents,” 347.

  humility, 81.

  hung, 470.

  hypocrite, 402.


  idiot, 383.

  I have got, 445.

  imagination, 234.

  imbecile, 396.

  imbroglio, 115.

  Imitation, in literature, 218, 222.

  imp, 383.

  impertinent, 271.

  in, 470.

  inaugurate, 114.

  incomprehensible, 272.

  incorrect orthography, 456.

  indices, 463.

  individual, 109.

  _ing_, 334.

  in our midst, 452.

  instances, 377.

  Interjections, 141-146;
    Horne Tooke on, 141;
    Max Müller on, 143;
    Whitefield’s, 146;
    Shakespeare’s, 146;
    Greek and Latin, 147.

  intoxicated, 116, 117.

  inveterate, 423.

  is, 466.

  island, 414.

  Italian language, 76;
    its debasement, 76-79.

  its, 430.

  it were, 447.


  jacket, 409.

  Jansenists, their disputes with the Jesuits, 261.

  Jeffrey, Francis, his artificial style, 119;
    anecdote of, 119.

  jeopardize, 461.

  Jerusalem artichoke, 415.

  Johnson, Dr. Samuel, his grandiose style, 156;
    anecdote of, 112;
    his Johnsonese dialect, 112, 113;
    satirized by Dr. Wolcott, 113;
    sayings of, 123, 168;
    his spoken and written language contrasted, 206, 207;
    his advice on style, 215;
    on imitative harmony, 255;
    on Mrs. Barbauld’s name, 343;
    his care of his speech, 441;
    improprieties in his “Rambler,” 442;
    his nickname of a fish-woman, 365.

  Johnson, Edward, M. D., on “right,” 287.

  jolly, 375.

  Joubert, on Rousseau’s words, 10;
    his verbal economy, 183.

  _jour_, 247.


  Keats, John, his love of fine phrases, 18.

  kennel, 402.

  kidnap, 398.

  _kin_, 334.

  King, T. Starr, on the mystery of style, 30.

  knave, 384.


  lady, 391.

  landed proprietor, 84, 273.

  Landor, W. S., on fine words, 111;
    lines from, 154.

  Language, its value to man, 2, 3, 21;
    its power, 5, 6;
    not indispensable to thought and its expression, 19-21;
    elaborated by successive generations, 21;
    abbreviates the processes and preserves the results of thought,
          22, 23;
    its educational value, 23;
    the limit of thought, 23;
    of savages, 24, 25;
    not the dress of thought, 35;
    unity of language essential to national unity, 47, 48, 50;
    gains by time and culture, 56;
    no new additions to, 56;
    formed out of twenty elementary sounds, 60;
    an index to individual character, 62-67;
    an index to national character, 67-82;
    how enriched and impoverished, 67, 68;
    debasement of the Italian, 68-70;
    the Greek and the Latin characterized, 73-75;
    reveals the climate of a country, 75, 76;
    the Italian contrasted with the Swiss, 76;
    its influence on opinion, 83;
    its lubricity, 95;
    mischiefs caused by its debasement, 101;
    barbarized by fineries of style, 122;
    of art and science, 129-131;
    expressiveness of the English, 132-138;
    transcendental, 210;
    inadequate for the expression of thought, 211;
    obscure caused by obscurity of thought, 214, 215;
    its virtues moral, 221;
    its suggestive power, 222;
    Goldwin Smith on, 222;
    its magical effects, 224, 225;
    stamped with local influences, 243, 244;
    an imperfect vehicle of thought, 317;
    Emerson on, 369;
    contains the history of nations, 370;
    mirrors the tastes, customs and opinions of a people, 374;
    of savages, 410-412;
    over-nicety in its use, 427;
    is living and organic, 428;
    is ever growing, 428;
    defies all shackles, 429;
    Henry Rogers on, 433;
    how to use it well, 440.

  Languages, of conquered peoples not easily extirpated, 48-50;
    the study of foreign, 50, 239.

  Lavoisier, his chemical terminology, 15.

  least, 454.

  leave, 458.

  _Les Gueulx_, 357.

  less, 446.

  let, 420.

  Lewes, G. H., on frankness, 158.

  lie, lay, 447.

  lieutenant, 414.

  light, 14, 302.

  like I did, 447.

  likewise, 448.

  Lincoln, Abraham, anecdote of, 363.

  Literature, effete, 163.

  Locke, John, his “Essay on the Human Understanding,” 276.

  London, 312, 313.

  looks beautifully, 457.

  £. s. d., 387.

  Louis XIV, 167.

  Lower, Mark A., quoted, 329;
    anecdotes by, 330, 333;
    on the origin of certain historical names, 337, 338.

  lust, 385.

  Luttrell, Henry, lines by, 167.

  luxury, 295-298.


  Macaulay, T. B., on Milton’s words, 7, 8;
    on Dryden’s, 10;
    on Johnson’s language, 206;
    his eulogy on Saxon-English, 206;
    quoted, 84, 240;
    on disputes in Parliament concerning James II and William, 282.

  Macready, W. C., his elocution, 53.

  malignants, 347.

  manumit, 402.

  Marsh, Prof. G. T., on Demosthenes, 29;
    on the Italian language, 69, 70;
    on Goethe as a linguist, 238.

  Martineau, James, D.D., on words, 103.

  martinet, 409.

  Materialism, derives no support from language, 288, 289.

  maudlin, 408.

  megrim, 419.

  menial, 382.

  Methodist, 355.

  Mezzofanti, Cardinal, 177, 178.

  Michaelis, J. D., remarks of, 79.

  Mill, J. S., on the misuse of certain words, 273.

  Miller, Hugh, his style, 238.

  Milton, the suggestiveness of his verse, 7, 8;
    Macaulay on his words, 7, 8;
    his versification, 9;
    his necromantic power over language, 9;
    his use of monosyllables, 151;
    his use of words in their etymological sense, 233, 375, 376;
    his prose style, 241;
    extracts from his “Paradise Lost,” 250, 251, 252, 254;
    from “Il Penseroso” and “L’Allegro,” 253.

  Mirabeau, his words, 3.

  miscreant, 380.

  mistaken, 421.

  money, 259.

  mongrel, 405.

  monomania, 94.

  Monosyllables, their potency in life and literature, 140;
    how constructed in English, 148;
    their number in English, 156.

  Montaigne, on verbal definitions and explanations, 310.

  Montgomery, James, on Milton’s versification, 8, 9.

  Moon-Alford controversy, the, 424.

  Moore, Thomas, anecdote of, 27;
    verses of, 153;
    saying of, 240.

  more perfect, 465.

  Morris, Gouverneur, anecdote by, 87, 88.

  Motley, J. L., on “The Beggars,” 357.

  mountebank, 388.

  Müller, Max, on “The Supernatural,” and “To Know and To Believe,” 264;
    on etymology, 413.

  murder, 303, 304.

  muriatic acid, 293.

  musket, 232, 248.

  mussulmen, 469.

  mutual, 462.

  myself, 458.

  mystery, 406.


  Names, of children, 323-325, 343, 344;
    of things, once names of persons, 408;
    of places--how corrupted, 417, 418.

  Names of Men, 323-344;
    how regarded by the Jews and the Romans, 43, 45;
    their suggestiveness, 325;
    all originally significant, 326;
    Roman, 327;
    surnames, 328;
    Saxon, 334;
    obsolete words preserved in, 332;
    ending in _er_, 332;
    ending in _ward_, 332;
    derived from offices, 332;
    disguised, denoting mean occupations, 333;
    from personal qualities, 334;
    Puritan, 334;
    derived from oaths, 334;
    indicating personal blemishes or moral obliquities, 335, 336;
    some changes of, 336, 339;
    “Erasmus” and “Melanchthon,” 336;
    corruption of, 336, 337;
    queer conjunctions of, 339;
    that harmonize with, or are antagonistic to, their owners’
        occupations, 339-341;
    puns upon, 341-343;
    not mere labels, 346;
    Goethe on, 346;
    their influence on their wearers, 346.

  Napier, extract from his History of the Peninsular War, 201.

  Napoleon, his love of glory, 64, 65;
    his hypocrisy, 168;
    his style, 222;
    on epithets, 350.

  naturalist, 378.

  nature and art, 298.

  nature and law of nature, 269, 270.

  nervous, 420.

  never, 453.

  Newman, Prof. J. H., verses by, 174.

  nice, 394, 461.

  Nicknames, 345-366;
    their influence in controversy, 346;
    Goethe on, 346, 348;
    of Van Buren, Tyler, Gen. Scott and Bonaparte, 348, 349;
    why effective, 350, 351;
    theological, 351;
    loving, 351;
    Cobbett’s skill in, 351, 352;
    Carlyle’s, 352;
    meaningless, 352;
    their origin, 352-354;
    felicitous, 354;
    of the Italians for them, 354, 359;
    memorable English, 360-363;
    originally complimentary, 363;
    Southey’s “Doctor Dove” on, 364.

  no, 455.

  none, 457.

  notwithstanding, 470.

  numerous, 470.


  _ock_, 334.

  O’Connell, Daniel, his “Lax Weir” case, 16;
    his stock phrases, 168.

  off of, 465.

  oh!, 142.

  old, 280.

  older, 468.

  _O_, _Mac_, and _Ap_, 328, 329, 330.

  Onomatopes, 242-256;
    objections to the theory of, 245-247;
    why they vary in different languages, 246;
    their expressiveness, 248, 255;
    abound in poetry, 248;
    examples of in English poetry, 249-254;
    Homer’s, Virgil’s and Aristophanes’s, 254;
    Dr. Johnson on, 255;
    no rules for their choice, 255.

  on to, 467.

  opposite and contrary, 284.

  or, 285.

  Oratory, an important law of, 190.

  originality, 290.

  ostracize, 371.

  ovation, 117.

  overflow, 468.

  owl, 399.

  oxygen, 293.


  pagan, 371, 372.

  palace, 405.

  palfrey, 405.

  palsy, 419.

  Pambos, anecdote of, 174.

  pander, 409.

  pantaloon, 398.

  pantheist, 276.

  paradise, 382.

  paraphernalia, 464.

  parasite, 399.

  parliament, 272.

  parlor, 400.

  parson, 385.

  partake, 437.

  parts, 380.

  party, 451.

  Pascal, quoted, 111.

  pasquinade, 409.

  Patkul, and Charles XII., 167.

  pensive, 394.

  people, 465.

  person, 283, 397.

  personalty, 467.

  pet, 396.

  petrels, 396.

  Phidias, saying of, 223.

  Philologists, their dangers, 412.

  Phillips, his “World of Words,” 429.

  Pinkney, William, his study of words, 17, 18.

  Pitt, Christopher, lines by, 250.

  plagiarism, 400.

  Plantagenet, 338.

  plenty, 445.

  Poetry, English, of the 18th century, 163-165.

  policy, 414.

  Political economists, their disputes, 259, 260.

  poltroon, 392.

  pontiff, 406.

  Pope, Alexander, his translation of Homer, 35, 36;
    saying of, 53;
    his use of small words, 139;
    his circumlocutions, 165;
    lines from, 249, 252.

  Popes, their management of theological controversies, 263.

  porpoise, 416.

  post, 420.

  Practical men, and theorists, 305, 307.

  Preachers, their use of philosophical words, 109, 110.

  predicate, 451.

  premier, 358.

  prevent, 378.

  preventative, 461.

  previous, 445.

  priest, 263.

  Proctor, Adelaide, on words, 2, 104.

  property, 390.

  proposition, 455.

  proven, 455.

  punctual, 379.

  puny, 407.

  Puritan, 359.


  quaker, 359.

  quandary, 388.

  quantity, 458.

  _quamquam_, 289.

  quinsy, 419.

  _Quirites_, 85.

  quite, 457.

  quiz, 393.


  raising the rent, 471.

  rascal, 378.

  raven, 398.

  reasons, 97.

  recommend, 446.

  regeneration, 382.

  relevant, 381.

  rendition, 463.

  resent, 384.

  restive, 458.

  retaliate, 384, 423.

  revolt, 448.

  rhinoceros, 320.

  right, 287, 310, 398.

  ringleader, 232.

  rip, 422.

  Robertson, Rev. F. W., on calumny, 91, 92;
    on talk without deeds, 173;
    on the use of superlatives, 174, 175, 191, 192.

  Robinson, “Boot-jack,” 360.

  rodomontade, 410.

  Romanic words in English, 197-201.

  Romans, the, degeneracy of their language, 75;
    their ideas of virtue and vice, 81;
    had no idea of sin, 81.

  Roscius, the Roman actor, 19.

  rosemary, 415.

  Rossini, saying of, 176.

  rostrum, 405.

  Roundhead, 360.

  Rump, the, 360.


  sagacious, 378.

  Sainte-Beuve, C. A., on Napoleon’s style, 222.

  salary, 398.

  salmon, 405.

  Salutation, its forms an index to national character, 77-79.

  same, 290.

  sandwich, 409.

  sarcasm, 399.

  saunterer, 409.

  Savages, no ethical nomenclatures in their languages, 80;
    their poverty of language, 24, 25.

  Saxon-English, its merits and defects, 196-197, 201-208;
    the basis of the language, 208;
    its witchery, 208;
    its obsolete pictorial words, 201;
    Robert Hall on, 205;
    Macaulay on, 206;
    its freedom from equivocation, 278.

  Saxon Words, or Romanic?, 194-209.

  scarcely, 468.

  Scarlett, Sir James, on brevity in jury addresses, 182.

  Schiller, on the study of foreign languages, 239.

  Scholarship, the error of modern, 178.

  schooner, 399, 400.

  Science, influence of its names and phrases, 89.

  scrupulous, 400.

  second causes, 270.

  secret, 376.

  Secret of Apt Words, the, 210-241.

  Selden, John, saying of, 56.

  seldom, or never, 454.

  selfishness, 81, 279.

  Seneca, his moral discourses, 169;
    his wealth, 169, 170;
    his crimes, 170.

  seraphim, 465.

  servant, 400.

  servitude, 274.

  setting-room, 464.

  sexton, 388.

  shacklebone, 372.

  Shakespeare, his words, 7;
    suggestiveness of his diction, 54, 55;
    not a classical scholar, 235;
    quoted, 254.

  shall, will, 471-477.

  Sharp, Dr., saying of, 173.

  Shenstone, on melody of style, 255.

  Shibboleths, their influence with the people, 87-89.

  shoot, 416.

  Siddons, Mrs., on one of Haydon’s pictures, 85.

  Sidney, Sir Philip, on the ballad of “Chevy Chase,” 224;
    saying of, 441.

  signing one’s name, 404.

  silhouettes, 408.

  silly, 382.

  simple, 385.

  simplicity, 299.

  sincere, 367.

  sit, sat, 454.

  slave, 400.

  Small Words, 139-157;
    when necessary, 156;
    their potency, 140;
    abound in English, 147.

  Smith, 331.

  Smith, Prof. Goldwin, on language, 222.

  Smith, Sydney, saying of, 26;
    his word-coinings, 433;
    on Sir James Macintosh’s style, 118, 119;
    his solecisms, 442.

  snob, 395.

  Solecisms, in eminent writers, 434, 437, 438, 442-444.

  solidarity, 430.

  Some Abuses of Words, 177-193.

  somerset, 417.

  son, 327, 333.

  sophist, 271.

  South, Robert, D. D., on verbal magic, 94, 275;
    extract from, 184.

  Spaniards, their love for long names, 127, 128, 339.

  “Spasmodic School” of Poetry, 362.

  specialty, 461.

  species, 300.

  speculation, 383.

  spencer, 409.

  Spencer, Herbert, on Saxon-English, 154.

  Spenser, his “Abode of Sleep,” 249.

  spoonsful, 468.

  Spurgeon, Rev. C. H., on religious cant, 172.

  squatter, 430.

  squirrel, 399.

  Stanhope, Lady Hester, 319.

  Stanley, Lord, on Saxon words, 194, 195.

  starvation, 360.

  stentorian, 410.

  stipulation, 387.

  stopping, 462.

  Story, Judge Joseph, anecdote told by, 312.

  Story, W. W., quoted, 199.

  stranger, 403.

  strong, 302.

  Style, the most vital element of literary immortality, 30;
    Gibbon’s and Hume’s, 30;
    Starr King on its mystery, 30;
    an index to character, 65;
    intensity of, 192;
    the transcendental, 210;
    how to form a good, 215, 216, 222, 225;
    no model, 217;
    varieties of, 219;
    Joubert on, 220, 221;
    the kind demanded to-day, 220;
    not to be cultivated for its own sake, 221;
    images the writer’s nature, 221;
    Ruskin on, 221;
    a question concerning it, 224;
    perspicuity its first law, 225;
    should be vivid, 225.

  succeed, 469.

  succession powder, 96.

  such, 456.

  suffrage, 406.

  sunstroke, 293.

  supercilious, 400.

  superior, 457.

  supplement, 456.

  surname, 415.

  Swinburne, A. C., his command of words, 11.

  sycophant, 399.

  Synonyms, 26.


  tabby, 399.

  tale, 375.

  Tartar, 469.

  tawdry, 409.

  Taylor, “Chicken,” 362.

  Taylor, Henry, on the writers of the 17th century, 13-14.

  Taylor, Jeremy, his latinistic style, 233.

  team, 313-316.

  telescope, 430.

  tend, 276.

  Tennyson, his command of words, 11;
    his use of onomatopœia, 251, 252;
    on words, 212.

  terrier, 405.

  that of, 470.

  the above, 450.

  the church, 262, 263.

  the masses, 452.

  theory, 305.

  then, 450.

  Theological disputes, 260-264.

  thing, 380.

  Thomson, James, his list of obsolete words, 57.

  Thought, difficulty of expressing it, 211.

  thrall, thraldom, 403.

  tidy, 379.

  toad-eater, 389.

  to a degree, 456.

  to allude, 459, 460.

  to curry favor, 418.

  to extremely maltreat, 467.

  Tooke, Horne, on “truth,” 286, 287.

  topsy-turvy, 388.

  Tory, 355.

  Townsend, Lady, on Whitefield, 173.

  Translations, their inadequacy, 31-43;
    of the New Testament, 32-34;
    of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” 35, 36;
    of Horace, 38;
    blunders in, 39-41.

  transpire, 470.

  treacle, 419.

  tribulation, 399.

  trifling minutiæ, 462.

  trivial, 392.

  True Blue, 407.

  truth, 286, 289.

  try, 451.

  try and, 469.

  two good ones, 471.

  tyrant, 271.


  ugly, 466.

  underhanded, 461.

  unity, 283.

  upon, 14.

  Usage, a presumptive test of purity of speech, 434;
    of old writers, 435.

  usury, 380.

  utopian, 88, 410.


  vagabond, 384.

  ventilate, 470.

  villain, 382.

  violation of nature, 267.

  Virgil, his “Æneid,” 28;
    his onomatopœia, 254.

  virtual representation, 265.

  Vocabularies, of different men and callings, 66, 67.

  Vocal Organs, the, their adaptation to the atmosphere, 60.

  volcano, 409.


  Walton, Izaak, his style, 236.

  was, 471.

  watched him do it, 457.

  we, 161, 162.

  wealth, 390.

  wearies, 446.

  Webster, Daniel, his study of words, 17;
    the impressiveness of his words, 52;
    his early speeches bombastic, 124;
    his use of plain words, 124;
    his temperance of language, 192.

  Wellington, on his “duty,” 64.

  Whately, Archbishop, his simplicity in preaching, 123.

  whether, 453.

  Whipple, E. P., on the words of Chaucer, Edwards, and Barrow, 54;
    on the suggestiveness of Shakespeare’s diction, 54, 55;
    on the styles of Sydney Smith, Bacon, Locke, etc., 219, 220;
    his style, 237;
    his knowledge of English literature, 237.

  Whitney, W. D., quoted, 234.

  Whittington and his cat, 417.

  whole, entire, complete, total, 460, 469.

  William, 326.

  Willmott, Rev. Robert A., on Dryden’s and Pope’s versification, 253.

  window, 404.

  wiseacre, 414.

  wit, 380.

  Wolcott, Dr., his lines on Johnson, 113.

  woman, 391.

  women, their language, 240.

  Words, their significance, 1-61;
    their range and power, 2, 46;
    are things, 3;
    Mirabeau on, 3;
    Hazlitt on, 3;
    more enduring than sculpture or painting, 4, 5;
    Homer’s, 5;
    the incarnation of thought, 6;
    Milton’s, 7-9;
    Montgomery on Milton’s, 8, 9;
    Bacon’s, 10;
    Dryden’s, 10;
    Montaigne’s, 10;
    Rousseau’s, 10;
    Coleridge’s, 10;
    Tennyson’s, 11;
    Swinburne’s, 11;
    De Quincey’s mastery of them, 12;
    of the 17th century writers, 13;
    difficulty of defining, 14-16;
    Daniel Webster’s study of, 17;
    Lord Chatham’s study of, 17;
    William Pinkney’s study of, 17;
    Theophile Gautier’s fondness for picturesque, 19;
    comprehensive, 23;
    their use a test of culture, 25, 26;
    should fit close to the thought, 26;
    never strictly synonymous, 26;
    Wm. Pitt’s use of, 96;
    Robert Hall’s use of, 26;
    John Foster’s scrutiny of, 27;
    Thomas Moore’s use of, 27;
    how used by the ancient writers, 27-30;
    Demosthenes’s choice of, 28, 29;
    Cicero’s use of, 29;
    Cowper on, 34;
    their necromantic power, 34, 35;
    how regarded by the ancients, 43-45;
    use of in “the black art,” 45;
    T. W. Higginson on, 46;
    Prof. Maurice on, 46;
    Hawthorne on their spells, 47;
    their meaning and force depend upon the man who uses them, 50-56;
    E. P. Whipple on the transfiguration of common, 54;
    suggestiveness of Shakespeare’s, 54, 55;
    media for the emission of character, 55, 56;
    no new ones can be invented, 56, 57;
    difficulty of restoring obsolete, 57;
    their significance disclosed by life, 59, 60;
    their morality, 62-104;
    an index to character, 62-104;
    their power over the popular imagination, 82;
    test of thought, 82;
    embalm mistaken opinions, 84;
    Bacon on their power, 84;
    Balzac on their witchery, 85;
    South on the enchantment of popular ones, 85, 86, 87;
    illustrations of their power, 86, 87;
    their influence in theology, 88, 89;
    their influence in science, 89;
    their influence upon authors, 90;
    employed as expletives, 90;
    calumnious, 92;
    their power in politics, 93;
    Bulwer on their influence, 93;
    their perversions by the Greeks and Romans, 96;
    used to gloss over vices, 99, 100;
    auctioneers’ use of, 100;
    criminality of their corruptors, 101, 102;
    James Martineau on, 103;
    a startling fact about them, 104;
    grand, 105-138;
    the mania for big, 106-108;
    St. Paul on, 109;
    the simplest best, 124;
    the affectation of foreign, 125, 126;
    uncouthness of scientific, 130, 131;
    small, 139-157;
    conventional, 158, 160, 172;
    used without meaning, 162-176;
    lose their significance by handling, 170, 171, 190;
    some abuses of, 177-193;
    the secret of apt, 210-241;
    only symbols, 213;
    their arrangement on the battle-fields of thought, 226, 228;
    onomatopœic, 242-256;
    phonetic corruption of, 247;
    fallacies in, 257-322;
    effect of equivocal in theology, 257-264;
    and in philosophy, 264;
    their changes of meaning, 271;
    dictionary definitions of, 275;
    “rabble-charming,” 275;
    question-begging, 279;
    derivative and primitive, 280;
    mere hieroglyphics, 288;
    shadow forth more than they express, 289;
    their insinuations of error, 292;
    in legal instruments, 311;
    their ambiguity in statutes, 311, 312;
    express only the relations of things, 317;
    imperfect signs of our conceptions, 317, 318, 321;
    convey different ideas to different minds, 318, 319, 320;
    denote but part of an object, 320;
    their power in the French revolution, 349, 350;
    fascination of their study, 367, 368;
    concentrated poems, 369;
    knowledge embodied in, 371;
    Arab in English, 371;
    changes in their meaning, 374-382;
    their degradation, 382-397;
    common with curious derivations, 387-412;
    of illusive etymology, 412-420;
    causes of their corruption, 412;
    Anglicizing of foreign, 412;
    their contradictory meanings, 420-423;
    origin of new, 428;
    legitimate once denounced, 429;
    coined by poets, 432;
    advantages of their accurate use, 436-440;
    the use of pet, 444;
    the coining of, 425, 432-434.

  Words without meaning, 158-176.

  Wordsworth, lines from, 251.

  Wotton, Sir Henry, his definition of an ambassador, 166.


  Youth and Age, Coleridge’s lines on, 256.


  zero, 419.


  Footnote [38] is referenced twice from page 329.

  Obvious typographical errors and punctuation errors have been
  corrected after careful comparison with other occurrences within
  the text and consultation of external sources.

  Except for those changes noted below, all misspellings in the text,
  and inconsistent or archaic usage, have been retained: for example,
  shop-keeper, shopkeeper; law-suit, lawsuit; sea-shore, seashore;
  animalcules; profanation; bewrayed; sublimities; cometary; enginery.

  Pg 14: ‘or decussed at’ replaced by ‘or decussated at’.
  Pg 48: ‘Avars and Slaves’ replaced by ‘Avars and Slavs’.
  Pg 112: ‘to “circumwented,” as’ replaced by ‘to “circumvented,” as’
  Pg 152: ‘are monsyllables.’ replaced by ‘are monosyllables.’.
  Pg 250: ‘horrible and g im’ replaced by ‘horrible and grim’.
  Pg 254: ‘Τριχθί τε καὶ τετραχθὶ διατρύφεν’ replaced by
          ‘Τριχθά τε καὶ τετραχθὰ διατρύφεν’.
  Pg 299: ‘this, unquestianably’ replaced by ‘this, unquestionably’.
  Pg 392: ‘daily occurence’ replaced by ‘daily occurrence’.
  Pg 407: ‘either were no’ replaced by ‘either wore no’.
  Pg 410: ‘three dissyllables’ replaced by ‘three disyllables’.
  Pg 433: ‘enriches the langauge’ replaced by ‘enriches the language’.

  Index: Patkul, and Charles XII.; missing page number ‘167’ added.
  Index: Words; ‘onomatopoetic,’ replaced by ‘onomatopœic,’.

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