Monday, April 20, 2015

`A Peep Show'

A Sterne-reading reader has stumbled on “raree-show,” a word William Hazlitt used in a passage I quoted in Sunday’s post. It’s a delicious word, seldom used today but perfectly suited to our world. I learned of “raree-show” more than forty years ago on first reading Tristram Shandy. The Widow Wadman, as usual, is putting the moves on the oblivious Uncle Toby. Something is irritating her eye and she asks Toby to look into it. The Widow is seated beside him and our narrator says: “Honest soul! Thou didst look into it with as much innocency of heart, as ever child look’d into a raree-shew-box; and ’twere as much a sin to have hurt thee.” Just so we get the joke, Sterne, the most smutty-minded of writers, has Tristram observe in the next paragraph: “—If a man will be peeping of his own accord into things of that nature—I’ve nothing to say to it--” 

In the OED, the first definition of raree-show is straightforward, dating from the seventeenth century: “a set of pictures or a puppet show exhibited in a portable box for public entertainment; a peep show.” That latter phrase has salacious modern connotations that Sterne may have been toying with. The dictionary gives nine citations between 1677 and 2003, including quotes from Tom Jones (1749) and Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak (1823). 

The second definition is even closer to Sterne’s sense: “an exhibition, show, or spectacle of any kind, esp. one regarded as lurid, vulgar, or populist.” We get this usage in a letter of Edward Fitzgerald’s published in 1889: “Do you see Dickens’ David Copperfield? Carlyle says he is a showman whom one gives a shilling to once a month to see his raree-show.” Unexpectedly, the word shows up in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955): “He’ll show you... He'll put up a real maudlin raree-show for you.”

In the third sense, raree-show is1681—2003 “a mass noun: spectacular or lurid display,” as in an 1809 letter by Scott: “Those immense London Stages fit only for pantomime and raree show.” Among the compounds are “raree-show box” and “raree-show performance.” Here, the dictionary cites Sterne’s usage. Now the reader can understand the word’s contemporary relevance and usefulness. Among our counterparts to the raree-show, to entertainments that are “lurid, vulgar, or populist,” are video games, Star Wars and the Harry Potter phenomenon, tacky children's concoctions consumed by adults.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Thanks for that Mr Kurp.