Monday, December 23, 2013

`More Terrour Than Danger'

An interesting word – bugbear – used high and low, and close in meaning to our boogieman. When we wish to frighten children, and chide them, we say the boogieman will get them if they don’t behave, though in an age of serial killers and kiddie porn, the threat seems less amusing. The boogieman is no longer mythical. He’s at least as real as you or me. The OED dates the word from Shakespeare’s time: “A sort of hobgoblin (presumably in the shape of a bear) supposed to devour naughty children; hence, generally, any imaginary being invoked by nurses to frighten children.” Dr. Johnson in The Idler #11 says ungrounded fears are “no less dangerous than to tell children of bugbears and goblins. Fear will find every house haunted; and idleness will wait for ever for the moment of illumination.” 

The word came to refer to any unreasonable source of anxiety: “An object of dread, esp. of needless dread; an imaginary terror. In weakened senses: an annoyance, bane, thorn in the flesh.” George Eliot uses the word in an 1880 letter and Dickens writes in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840): “What have I done to be made a bugbear of?” But it’s Dr. Johnson who makes the word most memorable and useful. On this date, Dec. 23, in 1758, in The Idler #36, he diagnoses an obfuscatory style of writing still very much in vogue, “a style by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known.” Johnson in particular  damns John Petvin’s Remarks on Letters Concerning Mind (1750), a book about which I know little except that both Coleridge and Charles Lamb read it, and that its contents sound suspiciously like some of the flakier claims made by today’s neuroscientists and their popularizers. Of the book’s style, Dr. Johnson says: 

“This style may be called the terrifick, for its chief intention is to terrify and amaze; it may be termed the repulsive, for its natural effect is to drive away the reader; or it may be distinguished, in plain English, by the denomination of the bugbear style, for it has more terrour than danger, and will appear less formidable as it is more nearly approached.”

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