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try and understand me …

April 9, 2009

I want to praise a book—A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler—but I cannot at this moment find the right words to do justice to the object of my admiration.

Instead, I’ll give an example of what I admire (which incidentally confirms and elucidates one of my long and vehemently held beliefs):

try. The idiom t. and do something is described as colloquial for t. to do. It’s use is probably commonest in exhortations and promises: Do t. and stop coughing; I will t. and have it ready for you. And it is hardly applicable to past time or to negative sentences, He tried and made the best of it is not English in the sense required, nor is It is no use to t. and make the best of it; but He did t. and make the best of it will pass, especially if the did is emphatic. It is, therefore, colloquial, if that means specially appropriate to actual speech; but not if colloquial means below the proper standard of literary dignity. Though t. to do can always be substituted for t. and do, the latter has a shade of meaning that justifies its existence; in exhortations it implies encouragement—the effort will succeed—; in promises it implies assurance—the effort shall succeed. It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.”

I would actually argue that It is no use to t. and make the best of it does work as a kind of indirect discourse where the to t. and make the best of it is the, possibly ironic, presentation of a point of view held by another as held by another. However, I think you can see why this kind of description of usage is helpful, illuminating, delightful, and expresses a true friendship with the language.

That A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is described by the author as “the last fruit of the partnership [with his late brother] that began 1903 with our translation of Lucian” suggests further that it is not just the record of a friendship with language, but also a disclosure of the true and noble human friendship which exists in language.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Finny permalink
    April 10, 2009 7:05 am

    You should read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and then read Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, which was pretty much the first really significant dictionary in English. Theodore Dalrymple recently wrote an article defending the worth of reading Johnson, who in recent years has begun to be remembered only for his being the subject of Boswell’s book, supposedly the best biography ever written in English.
    Anyway, this is the article:

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_4_oh_to_be.html

  2. rainscape permalink*
    April 11, 2009 11:28 am

    I’m not exactly persuaded of Johnson’s “greatness” by Darymple’s article; he is certainly formidable. But I find something very troubling about this British witty equanimity and intellectual conservatism (that’s a reduction, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate).

    Darymple quotes one of Johnson’s periods:

    “Singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges in peculiar traits, is worse than others, if he be not better.”

    To me this is disturbing: first of all in his major assumption that singularity implies “contempt of the general practice.” What would he say of the playful, contemptless defiance of our Maria Wuz? or the honest eccentricity of Alyosha?

    Secondly, his quite liberal moral generalizations—”he therefore … is worse than others, if he be not better”—seem unphilosophical, suggesting moreover that, having somehow risen above all that, one might well hold general practice in contempt. It seems to me that a distinction between indignation and contempt should be made. While moral indignation can be the proper response certain general practices, contempt implies a one-sided state of mind that rules out sympathy in judgment. What we want is to foster the desire to understand, even in our proper indignation, the sway of “general practice” over human things, and even over ourselves. One may, perhaps, hold a logical position in contempt, but no one rests himself entirely free from “general practice.” And one ought not try and pretend to have done so.

    Perhaps to harp so long on single period seems unjust; but I think this way of speaking in condensed, witty moralisms actually betrays an unwillingness to become at home with the dubious intellectual ground on which one stands.

    I understand you’re not endorsing the article. And I’m not attacking Johnson’s (or Boswell’s) being worth reading. But this is the sort of suspicion that I would recommend to anyone doing a serious reading of Johnson; I do wonder if Johnson’s worldview merits Darymple’s accolades.

  3. Cheiron permalink
    December 23, 2009 1:58 am

    Dalrymple’s essay on Johnson is one of his best essays because it combines temperate lucid writing (normal with him) with deep love. As for the sentence by Johnson that you quote, you are wrong to rip it out of context, then strangely attack it as if it said the opposite of what it does say. Contempt of a practice, in a man whose practice is superior, does not mean contempt of persons, only of the practice. It does not rule out sympathy. For example, I have contempt of all sloppy writing but know that often I do it myself.

    By the way, to know what Johnson really thought of a thing, it is sometimes enough to see what he chose to quote in his Dictionary. Under Contempt he quoted this by South: “There is no action in the behaviour of one man towards another, of which human nature is more impatient than of contempt; it being an undervaluing of a man, upon a belief of his utter uselessness and inability, and a spiteful endeavour to engage the rest of the world in the same slight esteem of him.”

    All of us are sometimes guilty of this. Some even make their living by it (e.g. right- or left-wing political bloggers; they even glory in it). Johnson scorned it. What makes his biographies of English writers a joy to read is their justice; their just, warm appreciation of merit, in people of whom in other respects he disapproved.

  4. rainscape permalink*
    December 23, 2009 2:49 am

    You’re right to scold my silly and false display of “know-it-all-ness,” clearly unequal to the justice of Johnson that you describe. (I, unfortunately, didn’t even have the poor excuse of having read any Johnson to speak of when I wrote this undervaluing comment.)

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