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

Chapter III. Airs and Graces


SOME of the more obvious devices of humorous writers, being fatally easy to imitate, tend to outlive their natural term, and to become a part of the injudicious novice’s stock-in-trade. Olfactory organ, once no doubt an agreeable substitute for ‘nose’, has ceased to be legal tender in literature, and is felt to mark a low level in conversation. No amount of classical authority can redeem a phrase that has once reached this stage. The warmest of George Eliot’s admirers, called upon to swallow some tough morsel of polysyllabic humour in a twentieth-century novel, will refuse to be comforted with parallel passages from Adam Bede. Loyalty may smother the ejaculation that ‘George Eliot knew no better’: it is none the less clear to him that we know better now. A few well-worn types are illustrated below.
  1. Polysyllabic humour.
    He was a boy whom Mrs. Hackit had pronounced stocky (a word that etymologically, in all probability, conveys some allusion to an instrument of punishment for the refractory).—Eliot. Tommy was a saucy boy, impervious to all impressions of reverence, and excessively addicted to humming-tops and marbles, with which recreative resources he was in the habit of immoderately distending the pockets of his corduroys.—Eliot. No one save an individual not in a condition to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw…—Times. And an observer of Miss Tox’s proceedings might have inferred so much without declaratory confirmation.—Dickens. But it had its little inconveniences at other times, among which may be enumerated the occasional appearance of the river in the drawing-room, and the contemporaneous disappearance of the lawn and shrubbery.—Dickens. They might be better employed in composing their quarrels and preparing a policy than in following the rather lugubrious occupations indicated by Mr. Asquith.—Times. Or perhaps, from a presentiment of calves’ brains, you refrain from any lacteal addition, and rasp your tongue with unmitigated bohea.—Eliot. The rooks were cawing with many-voiced monotony, apparently—by a remarkable approximation to human intelligence—finding great conversational resources in the change of weather.—Eliot. I had been terribly shaken by my fall, and had subsequently, owing to the incision of the surgeon’s lancet, been deprived of much of the vital fluid.—Borrow. An elderly man stood near me, and a still more elderly female was holding a phial of very pungent salts to my olfactory organ.—Borrow. The minister, honest man, was getting on his boots in the kitchen to see us home… Well, this preparation ministerial being finished, we stepped briskly out.—Crockett. We have ourselves been reminded of the deficiencies of our femoral habiliments, and exhorted upon that score to fit ourselves more beseemingly.—Scott.
  2. Playful repetition.
    When she had banged out the tune slowly, she began a different manner of ‘Gettin’ up Stairs’, and did so with a fury and swiftness quite incredible. She spun up stairs; she whirled up stairs; she galloped up stairs; she rattled up stairs… Then Miss Wirt played the ‘Gettin’ up Stairs’ with the most pathetic and ravishing solemnity… Miss Wirt’s hands seemed to faint and wail and die in variations: again, and she went up with a savage clang and rush of trumpets, as if Miss Wirt was storming a breach.—Thackeray. My mind was, to a certain extent, occupied with the marks on the teapot; it is true that the mournful idea strove hard with the marks on the teapot for the mastery in my mind, and at last the painful idea drove the marks of the teapot out.—Borrow. The pastrycook is hard at work in the funereal room in Brook Street, and the very tall young men are busy looking on. One of the very tall young men already smells of sherry, and his eyes have a tendency to become fixed in his head, and to stare at objects without seeing them. The very tall young man is conscious of this failing in himself; and informs his comrade that it’s his ‘exciseman’. The very tall young man would say excitement, but his speech is hazy.—Dickens. Busy is Mrs. Miff this morning at the church-door, beating and dusting the altar-cloth, the carpet and the cushions; and much has Mrs. Miff to say about the wedding they are going to have. Mrs. Miff is told that the new furniture and alterations in the house cost full five thousand pound, if they cost a penny; and Mrs. Miff has heard, upon the best authority, that the lady hasn’t got a sixpence wherewithal to bless herself. Mrs. Miff remembers, likewise, as if it had happened yesterday, the first wife’s funeral, and then the christening, and then the other funeral; and Mrs. Miff says, By-the-bye, she’ll soap-and-water that ‘ere tablet presently, against the company arrive.—Dickens. Mr. Dombey was a grave sight, behind the decanters, in a state of dignity; and the East India Director was a forlorn sight, near the unoccupied end of the table, in a state of solitude; and the major was a military sight, relating stories of the Duke of York to six of the seven mild men (the ambitious one was utterly quenched); and the Bank Director was a lowly sight, making a plan of his little attempt at a pinery, with dessert knives, for a group of admirers; and Cousin Feenix was a thoughtful sight, as he smoothed his long wristbands and stealthily adjusted his wig.—Dickens.
    The author is very much at his ease in the last example; the novice who should yawn in our faces with such engaging candour would render himself liable to misinterpretation.
  3. The well-worn ‘flood-of-tears-and-sedan-chair’ pleasantry.
    Phib Cook left her evening wash-tub and appeared at her door in soap-suds, a bonnet-poke, and general dampness.—Eliot. Sir Charles, of course, rescues her from the clutches of the Italian, and they return together in triumph and a motor-car.—Times. Miss Nipper … shook her head and a tin-canister, and began unasked to make the tea.—Dickens. And for the rest it is not hard to be a stoic in eight-syllable metre and a travelling-carriage.—Lowell. But what the bare-legged men were doing baffled conjecture and the best glasses.—E. F. Benson.
  4. Other worn-out phrases of humorous tendency.
    For, tell it not in Gath, the Bishop had arrived on a bicycle.—D. Sladen. Tell it not in Smith-st., but…—Guernsey Evening Press. Sleeping the sleep of the just. The gallant sons of Mars.—Times. Mr. Mackenzie, with a white hat … and long brown leather gaiters buttoned upon his nether anatomy.—Lockhart. Looking for all the world like…—D. Sladen. Too funny for words.
    These two phrases are commonly employed to carry off a humorous description of which the success is doubted. They are equivalents, in light literature, of the encouragement sometimes offered by the story-teller whose joke from Punch has fallen flat: ‘You should have seen the illustration’. Worthy and gallant are similarly used:
    To hear the worthy and gallant Major resume his favourite topic is like law-business, or a person who has a suit in Chancery going on.—Hazlitt. Home.—I would implore God to survey with an eye of mercy their unoffending bairns. Hume.—And would not you be disposed to behold them with an eye of the same materials?—Landor. Two or three haggard, ragged drawers ran to and fro… Guided by one of these blinking Ganymedes, they entered…—Scott. The ancient Hebe who acted as Lord Glenvarloch’s cup-bearer took his part against the intrusion of the still more antiquated Ganymede, and insisted on old Trapbois leaving the room instantly.—Scott.
    It may be doubted whether any resemblance or contrast, however striking, can make it worth a modern writer’s while to call waiters Ganymedes, waitresses Hebes, postmen Mercuries, cabmen Automedons or Jehus. In Scott’s time, possibly, these phrases had still an agreeable novelty: they are now so hackneyed as to have fallen into the hands of writers who are not quite certain who Ganymede and Hebe were. Thus, there are persons who evidently think that it is rather complimentary to one’s host than otherwise to call him an Amphitryon; and others who are fond of using the phrase ‘l’Amphitryon où l’on dîne’ altogether without point, apparently under the impression that ‘où l’on dîne’ is an alternative version for the use of the uninitiated (‘Amphitryon’, that is to say, ‘one’s host’).
    Japan, says M. Balet, can always borrow money so long as she can provide two things—guarantees and victories. She has guarantees enough and victories galore.—Times. The English people has insisted on its preference for a married clergy, and Dr. Ingram’s successor may have ‘arrows in the hand of a giant’.—Times.
    The inverted commas seem to implore the reader’s acceptance of this very battered ornament. One could forgive it more easily, if there were the slightest occasion for its appearance here.
    The only change ever known in his outward man was…—Dickens. Rob the Grinder, thus transformed as to his outer man…—Dickens. One hundred parishioners and friends partaking of tea.—Guernsey Advertiser. But that’s another story.—Kipling. But that is ‘another story’.—Times. It was all that Anne could do to keep from braining him with the poker for daring to call her ‘Little One’,—and Anne’s arm is no joke when she hits to hurt. Once John Barnaby—but the tale of John Barnaby can wait.—Crockett. Nevertheless, some folk like it so, and even now the Captain, when his pipe draws well and his grog is to his liking, says—But there is no use in bringing the Captain into the story.—Crockett.
    The notion that Mr. Kipling, left to himself, is not competent to bring out all the latent possibilities of this phrase is a mistaken one, and argues an imperfect acquaintance with his works.
    Many heads in England, I find, are shaken doubtfully over the politics, or what are thought to be the politics, of Australia. They—the politics, not the heads—are tangled, they are unsatisfactory in a high degree.—W. H. Fitchett.