Home  »  The King’s English  »  ARCHAISM

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces


  1. Occasional.We have implied in former sections, and shall here take it for granted, that occasional archaism is always a fault, conscious or unconscious. There are, indeed, a few writers—Lamb is one of them—whose uncompromising terms, ‘Love me, love my archaisms’, are generally accepted; but they are taking risks that a novice will do well not to take. As to unconscious archaism, it might be thought that such a thing could scarcely exist: to employ unconsciously a word that has been familiar, and is so no longer, can happen to few. Yet charitable readers will believe that in the following sentence demiss has slipped unconsciously from a learned pen:
    He perceived that the Liberal ministry had offended certain influential sections by appearing too demiss or too unenterprising in foreign affairs.—Bryce.
    The guilt of such peccadilloes as this may be said to vary inversely as the writer’s erudition; for in this matter the learned may plead ignorance, where the novice knows too well what he is doing. It is conscious archaism that offends, above all the conscious archaisms of the illiterate: the historian’s It should seem, even the essayist’s You shall find, is less odious, though not less deliberate, than the ere, oft, aught, thereanent, I wot, I trow, and similar ornaments, with which amateurs are fond of tricking out their sentences. This is only natural. An educated writer’s choice falls upon archaisms less hackneyed than the amateur’s; he uses them, too, with more discretion, limiting his favourites to a strict allowance, say, of once in three essays. The amateur indulges us with his whole repertoire in a single newspaper letter of twenty or thirty lines, and—what is worse—cannot live up to the splendours of which he is so lavish: charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit. Our list begins with the educated specimens, but lower down the reader will find several instances of this fatal incongruity of style; fatal, because the culprit proves himself unworthy of what is worthless. For the vilest of trite archaisms has this latent virtue, that it might be worse; to use it, and by using it to make it worse, is to court derision.
    A coiner or a smuggler shall get off tolerably well.—Lamb. The same circumstance may make one person laugh, which shall render another very serious.—Lamb. You shall hear the same persons say that George Barnwell is very natural, and Othello is very natural.—Lamb. Don Quixote shall last you a month for breakfast reading.—Spectator. Take them as they come, you shall find in the common people a surly indifference.—Emerson.
    The worst of making a mannerism of this shall is that, after the first two or three times, the reader is certain to see it coming; for its function is nearly always the same—to bring in illustrations of a point already laid down.
    Some of us, like Mr. Andrew Lang for instance, cannot away with a person who does not care for Scott or Dickens.—Spectator. One needs not praise their courage.—Emerson. What turn things are likely to take if this version be persisted in is a matter for speculation.—Times. If Mr. Hobhouse’s analysis of the vices of popular government be correct, much more would seem to be needed.—Times. Mr. Bowen has been, not recalled, but ordered to Washington, and will be expected to produce proof, if any he have, of his charges against Mr. Loomis.—Times. It were futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.—Times. It were idle to deny that the revolutionary movement in Russia is nowhere followed with keener interest than in this country.—Times. It were idle to deny that coming immediately after the Tangier demonstration it assumes special and unmistakable significance.—Times. He is putting poetic ‘frills’, if the phrase be not too mean, on what is better stated in the prose summary of the argument.—Times.
    Regarded as a counter-irritant to slang, archaism is a failure. Frills is ten times more noticeable for the prim and pompous be.
    Under them the land is being rapidly frivolled away, and, unless immediate action be taken, the country will be so tied that…—Times. That will depend a good deal on whether he be shocked by the cynicism of the most veracious of all possible representations…—H. James. We may not quote the lengthy passage here: it is probably familiar to many readers.—Times.
    ‘We must not’. Similarly, the modern prose English for if I be, it were, is if I am, it would be.
    ‘I have no particular business at L.,’ said he; ‘I was merely going thither to pass a day or two.’—Borrow. I am afraid you will hardly be able to ride your horse thither in time to dispose of him.—Borrow. It will necessitate my recurring thereto in the House of Commons.—Spectator. The Scottish Free Church had theretofore prided itself upon the rigidity of its orthodoxy.—Bryce. The special interests of France in Morocco, whereof the recognition by Great Britain and Spain forms the basis of the international agreements concluded last year by the French Government.—Times. To what extent has any philosophy or any revelation assured us hereof till now?—F. W. H. Myers. On the concert I need not dwell; the reader would not care to have my impressions thereanent.—C. Brontë.
    There, not thither, is the modern form; to it, not thereto; of which, of this, not whereof hereof; till then, or up to that time, not theretofore. So, in the following examples, except, perhaps, before, though; not save, perchance, ere, albeit.
    Nobody save an individual in no condition to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw…—Times. My ignorance as to ‘figure of merit’ is of no moment save to myself.—Times. This we obtain by allowing imports to go untaxed save only for revenue purposes.—Spectator. Who now reads Barry Cornwall or Talfourd save only in connexion with their memorials of the rusty little man in black?—Times. In my opinion the movements may be attributed to unconscious cerebration, save in those cases in which it is provoked wilfully.—Times. When Mr. Roosevelt was but barely elected Governor of New York, when Mr. Bryan was once and again by mounting majorities excused from service at the White House, perchance neither correctly forecasted the actual result.—Times. Dr. Bretton was a cicerone after my own heart; he would take me betimes ere the galleries were filled.—C. Brontë. He is certainly not cruising on a trade route, or his presence would long ere this have been reported.—Times. Mr. Shaynor unlocked a drawer, and ere he began to write, took out a meagre bundle of letters.—Kipling. Fortifications are fixed, immobile defences, and, in time of war, must await the coming of an enemy ere they can exercise their powers of offence.—Times. ‘It is something in this fashion’, she cried out ere long; ‘the man is too romantic and devoted.’—C. Brontë. Ere departing, however, I determined to stroll about and examine the town.—Borrow.
    The use of ere with a gerund is particularly to be avoided.
    And that she should force me, by the magic of her pen to mentally acknowledge, albeit with wrath and shame, my own inferiority!—Corelli. Such things as our modern newspapers chronicle, albeit in different form.—Corelli. It is thought by experts that there could be no better use of the money, albeit the best American colleges, with perhaps one exception, have very strong staffs of professors at incredibly low salaries.—Times. ‘Oxoniensis’ approaches them with courage, his thoughts are expressed in plain, unmistakable language, howbeit with the touch of a master hand.—Daily Telegraph.
    The writer means albeit; he would have been safer with though.
    Living in a coterie, he seems to have read the laudations and not to have noticed aught else.—Times. Hence, if higher criticism, or aught besides, compels any man to question, say, the historic accuracy of the fall…—Daily Telegraph. Many a true believer owned not up to his faith.—Daily Telegraph. The controversy now going on in your columns anent ‘Do we believe?’ throws a somewhat strange light upon the religion of to-day.—Daily Telegraph. It is because the world has not accepted the religion of Jesus Christ our Lord, that the world is in the parlous state we see it still.—Daily Telegraph. A discussion in which well nigh every trade, profession and calling have been represented.—Daily Telegraph. Why not? Because we have well-nigh bordering on 300 different interpretations of the message Christ bequeathed us.—Daily Telegraph. It is quite a common thing to see ladies with their hymn-books in their hands, ere returning home from church enter shops and make purchases which might every whit as well have been effected on the Saturday.—Daily Telegraph. How oft do those who train young minds need to urge the necessity of being in earnest…—Daily Telegraph.trow not.—Daily Telegraph. The clerk, as I conjectured him to be from his appearance, was also commoved; for, sitting opposite to Mr. Morris, that honest gentleman’s terror communicated itself to him, though he wotted not why.—Scott. I should be right glad if the substance could be made known to clergy and ministers of all denominations.—Daily Telegraph. So sordid are the lives of such natures, who are not only not heroic to their valets and waiting-women, but have neither valets nor waiting-women to be heroic to withal.—Dickens.
  2. Sustained archaism in narrative and dialogue.A novelist who places his story in some former age may do so for the sake of a purely superficial variety, without any intention of troubling himself or his readers with temporal colour more than is necessary to avoid glaring absurdities; he is then not concerned with archaism at all. More commonly, however, it is part of his plan to present a living picture of the time of which he writes. When this is the case, he naturally feels bound to shun anachronism not only in externals, but in thought and the expression of thought. Now with regard to the language of his characters, it would be absurd for him to pretend to anything like consistent realism: he probably has no accurate knowledge of the language as his characters would speak it; and if he had this knowledge, and used it, he would be unintelligible to most of his readers, and burdensome to the rest. Accordingly, if he is wish he will content himself with keeping clear of such modes of expression as are essentially modern and have only modern associations, such as would jar upon the reader’s sense of fitness and destroy the time illusion. He will aim, that is to say, at a certain archaic directness and simplicity; but with the archaic vocabulary, which instead of preserving the illusion only reminds us that there is an illusion to be preserved, he will have little to do. This we may call negative archaism. Esmond is an admirable example of it, and the ‘Dame Gossip’ part of Mr. Meredith’s Amazing Marriage is another. It hardly occurs to us in these books that the language is archaic; it is appropriate, that is all. The same may be said, on the whole, of Treasure Island, and of one or two novels of Besant’s. Only the novelist who is not wise indulges in positive archaism. He is actuated by the determination to have everything in character at all costs. He does not know very much about old English of any period; very few people do, and those who know most of it would be the last to attempt to write a narrative in it. He gives us, however, all that he knows, without much reference to particular periods; it may not be good ancient English, but, come what may, it shall not be good modern. This, it need scarcely be said, is not fair play: the recreation is all on the writer’s side. Archaism is, no doubt, very seductive to the archaist. Well done (that is, negatively done), it looks easy; and to do it badly is perhaps even easier than it looks. No very considerable stock-in-trade is required; the following will do quite well: Prithee—quotha—perchance—peradventure—i’ faith—sirrah—beshrew me—look ye—sith that—look to it—leave prating—it shall go hard but—I tell you, but—the more part—fair cold water—to me-ward—I am shrewdly afeared—it is like to go stiff with me—y’ are—y’ have—it irks me sorely—benison—staunch—gyves—yarely—this same villain—drink me this—you were better go; to these may be added the indiscriminate use of ‘Nay’ and ‘Now (by the rood, &c.)’; free inversion; and verb terminations in -st and -th. Our list is largely drawn from Stevenson, who, having tried negative archaism with success in Treasure Island, chose to give us a positive specimen in The Black Arrow. How vexatious these reach-me-down archaisms can become, even in the hands of an able writer, will be seen from the following examples of a single trick, all taken from The Black Arrow.
    An I had not been a thief, I could not have painted me your face. Put me your hand into the corner, and see what ye find there. Bring me him down like a ripe apple. And keep ever forward, Master Shelton; turn me not back again, an ye love your life. Selden, take me this old shrew softly to the nearest elm, and hang me him tenderly by the neck, where I may see him at my riding. Mark me this old villain on the piebald. ‘Sirrah, no more words,’ said Dick. ‘Bend me your back.’ ‘Here is a piece of forest that I know not’, Dick remarked. ‘Where goeth me this track?’ ‘I slew him fair. I ran me in upon his bow,’ he cried. ‘Swallow me a good draught of this,’ said the knight.
    It is like a child with a new toy. But there is the opposite fault. The judicious archaist, as we have said, will abstain from palpable modernisms, especially from modern slang. The following extracts are taken from an old woman’s reminiscences of days in which a ‘faultless attire’ included ‘half high boots, knee-breeches very tight above the calf (as the fashion was then), a long-tailed cutaway coat,…’:
    But the Captain, who, of course, lacks bowels of mercy for this kind of thing, says that if he had been Caesar, ‘Caius would have got the great chuck. Yes, madam, I would have broke Mister Caius on the spot’.—Crockett. But if you once go in for having a good time (as Miss Anne in her innocence used to remark) you must be prepared to…—Crockett. …as all girls love to do when they are content with the way they have put in their time.—Crockett.