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

Chapter I. Vocabulary


MOST people of literary taste will say on this point ‘It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh’. They are Liberal-Conservatives, their liberalism being general and theoretic, their conservatism particular and practical. And indeed, if no new words were to appear, it would be a sign that the language was moribund; but it is well that each new word that does appear should be severely scrutinized. The progress of arts and sciences gives occasion for the large majority of new words; for a new thing we must have a new name; hence, for instance, motor, argon, appendicitis. It is interesting to see that the last word did not exist, or was at least too obscure to be recorded, when the Oxford Dictionary began to come out in 1888; we cannot do without it now. Nor is there in the same volume any sign of argon, which now has three pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to itself. The discoverers of it are to be thanked for having also invented for it a name that is short, intelligible to those at least who know Greek, free of barbarism, and above all pronounceable. As to barbarism, it might indeed be desired that the man of science should always call in the man of Greek composition as godfather to his gas or his process; but it is a point of less importance. Every one has been told at school how telegram ought to be telegrapheme; but by this time we have long ceased to mourn for the extra syllable, and begun seriously to consider whether the further shortening into wire has not been resisted as long as honour demands. Among other arts and sciences, that of lexicography happens to have found convenient a neologism that may here be used to help in the very slight classification required for the new words we are more concerned with—that is, those whose object is literary or general, and not scientific. A ‘nonce-word’ (and the use might be extended to ‘nonce-phrase’ and ‘nonce-sense’—the latter not necessarily, though it may be sometimes, equivalent to nonsense) is one that is constructed to serve a need of the moment. The writer is not seriously putting forward his word as one that is for the future to have an independent existence; he merely has a fancy to it for this once. The motive may be laziness, avoidance of the obvious, love of precision, or desire for a brevity or pregnancy that the language as at present constituted does not seem to him to admit of. The first two are bad motives, the third a good, and the last a mixed one. But in all cases it may be said that a writer should not indulge in these unless he is quite sure he is a good writer.
The couch-bunk under the window to conceal the summerly recliner.—Meredith.
The adjective is a nonce-sense, summerly elsewhere meaning ‘such as one expects in summer’; the noun is a nonce-word.
In Christian art we may clearly trace a parallel regenesis.—Spencer. Opposition on the part of the loquently weaker of the pair.—Meredith. Picturesquities.—Sladen. The verberant twang of a musical instrument.—Meredith. A Russian army is a solid machine, as many war-famous generals have found to their cost.—Times.
Such compounds are of course much used; but they are ugly when they are otiose; it might be worth while to talk of a war-famous brewer, or of a peace-famous general, just as we often have occasion to speak of a carpet-knight, but of a carpet-broom only if it is necessary to guard against mistake.
Russia’s disposition is aggressive … Japan may conquer, but she will not aggress.—Times.
Though aggress is in the dictionary, every one will feel that it is rare enough to be practically a neologism, and here a nonce-word. The mere fact that it has never been brought into common use, though so obvious a form, is sufficient condemnation.
She did not answer at once, for, in her rather super-sensitized mood, it seemed to her…—E. F. Benson.
The word is, we imagine, a loan from photography. Expressions so redolent of the laboratory are as well left alone unless the metaphor they suggest is really valuable. Perhaps, if rather and super- were cancelled against each other, sensitive might suffice.
Notoriously and unctuously rectitudinous.—Westminster Gazette.
Some readers will remember the origin of this in Cecil Rhodes’s famous remark about the unctuous rectitude of British statesmen, and the curious epidemic of words in -ude that prevailed for some months in the newspapers, especially the Westminster Gazette. Correctitude, a needless variant for correctness, has not perished like the rest.
We only refer to it again because Mr. Balfour clearly thinks it necessary to vindicate his claims to correctitude. This desire for correctitude is amusingly illustrated in the Outlook this week, which…—Westminster Gazette.
All these formations, whether happy or the reverse, may be assumed to be conscious ones: the few that now follow—we shall call them new even if they have a place in dictionaries, since they are certainly not current—are possibly unconscious:
The minutes to dinner-time were numbered, and they briskened their steps back to the house.—E. F. Benson. (quickened) He was in some amazement at himself … remindful of the different nature…—Meredith (mindful)
Remindful should surely mean ‘which reminds’, not ‘who remembers’.
Persistent insuccess, however, did not prevent a repetition of the same question.—Times. (failure) The best safeguard against any deplacement of the centre of gravity in the Dual Monarchy.—Times. (displacement) Which would condemn the East to a long period of unquiet.—Times. (unrest)
Mere slips, very likely. If it is supposed that therefore they are not worth notice, the answer is that they are indeed quite unimportant in a writer who allows himself only one such slip in fifty or a hundred pages; but one who is unfortunate enough to make a second before the first has faded from the memory becomes at once a suspect. We are uneasily on the watch for his next lapse, wonder whether he is a foreigner or an Englishman not at home in the literary language, and fall into that critical temper which is the last he would choose to be read in. The next two examples are quite distinct from these—words clearly created, or exhumed, because the writer feels that his style requires galvanizing into energy:
A man of a cold, perseverant character.—Carlyle. Robbed of the just fruits of her victory by the arbitrary and forceful interference of outside Powers.—Times.
All the specimens yet mentioned have been productions of individual caprice: the writer for some reason or other took a liberty, or made a mistake, with one expression; he might as well, or as ill, have done it with another, enjoying his little effect, or taking his little nap, at this moment or at that. But there are other neologisms of a very different kind, which come into existence as the crystallization of a political tendency or a movement in ideas. Prime Minister, Cabinet, His Majesty’s Opposition, have been neologisms of this kind in their day, all standing for particular developments of the party system, and all of them, probably, in more or less general use before they made their way into books. Such words in our day are racial, and intellectuals. The former is an ugly word, the strangeness of which is due to our instinctive feeling that the termination -al has no business at the end of a word that is not obviously Latin. Nevertheless the new importance that has been attached for the last half century to the idea of common descent as opposed to that of mere artificial nationality has made a word necessary. Racial is not the word that might have been ornamental as well as useful; but it is too well established to be now uprooted. Intellectuals is still apologized for in 1905 by The Spectator as ‘a convenient neologism’. It is already familiar to all who give any time to observing continental politics, though the Index to the Encyclopaedia (1903) knows it not. A use has not yet been found for the word in home politics, as far as we have observed; but the fact that intellect in any country is recognized as a definite political factor is noteworthy; and we should hail intellectuals as a good omen for the progress of the world. These, and the scientific, are the sort of neologism that may fairly be welcomed. But there is this distinction. With the strictly scientific words, writers have not the power to decide whether they shall accept them or not; they must be content to take submissively what the men of science choose to give them, they being as much within their rights in naming what they have discovered or invented as an explorer in naming a new mountain, or an American founder a new city. Minneapolis, Pikeville, and Pennsylvania, may have a barbaric sound, but there they are; so telegram, or aesthophysiology. The proud father of the latter (Herbert Spencer) confesses to having docked it of a syllable; and similarly Mr. Lecky writes of ‘a eudaemometer measuring with accuracy the degrees of happiness realized by men in different ages’; consequently there will be some who will wish these long words longer, though more who will wish them shorter; but grumble as we may, the patria potestas is indefeasible. On the other hand, with such words as racial, intellectuals, it is open to any writer, if he does not like the word that threatens to occupy an obviously vacant place, to offer a substitute, or at least to avoid giving currency to what he disapproves. It will be remembered that when it was proposed to borrow from France what we now know as the closure, it seemed certain for some time that with the thing we should borrow the name, clôture; a press campaign resulted in closure, for which we may be thankful. The same might have been done for, or rather against, racial, if only some one had thought of it in time.