Wednesday, June 28, 2017

`The Peccant Part'

Not for the first time a rare and useful word shows up twice, in two books, on the same day. On this date, June 28, in 1728, Pope writes in a letter to Swift, referring to Lord Bolingbroke:

“Upon his return from the Bath, all peccant humours, he finds, are purged out of him; and his great temperance and economy are so signal, that the first, is fit for my constitution, and the latter, would enable you to lay up so much money, as to buy a bishoprick in England.” (Alexander Pope: Selected Letters, ed. Howard Erskine-Hill, 2000)

Pope is staying in Bolingbroke’s villa at Dawley, near Uxbridge. With Swift he relaxes his customary formality, and he goes on to express pleasure in his soon-to-be-published Dunciad. The word is peccant. It echoes in my head with piquant, but that’s a cul-de-sac. The etymology in the OED is uncertain and feeds on both Latin and French, but the meaning is clear: “unhealthy, corrupt, diseased; causing disease. Formerly esp. of a bodily humour.” Which explains the reference to Bath, where since the days of the Romans one took the therapeutic waters. In Pickwick Papers, when John Smauker asks Sam Weller about the taste of the waters at Bath, Weller replies: “I thought they’d a wery strong flavour o’ warm flat irons.” The dictionary cites a figurative usage of the word in the “Baltimore” chapter in The American Scene by Henry James: “One feels that no community can really be as purged of peccant humours as the typical American has for the most part found itself foredoomed to look.”

The second reference I found in English Wits (1940), edited by Leonard Russell. The premise is simple – contemporary wits (Dilys Powell, Ernest Newman) write about their favorite wits of the past (Pope, Sydney Smith). Monsignor Ronald Knox, author of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion with Special Reference to the XVII and XVIII Centuries (1950), chooses to write wittily about Dr. Johnson: “To call Johnson a wit is a curiously inadequate definition of him. If anyone should study his life with the idea of cultivating the art of repartee, the effect would be disastrous.” What follows is a quick rundown of Johnson’s greatest conversational hits, including this:

“When somebody defends Dominicetti’s vapour baths, `Well, Sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated, but be sure that the steam be directed to thy head, for that is the peccant part.’”

The reference is to the entry for Oct. 26, 1769, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. On that night, Boswell tells us, “Dr. Johnson was in very good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects,” and peccant brings us back to baths. Boswell writes:   

“Dominicetti, being mentioned, he would not allow him any merit. `There is nothing in all this boasted system. No, Sir; medicated baths can be no better than warm water: their only effect can be that of tepid moisture.’ One of the company took the other side, maintaining that medicines of various sorts, and some too of most powerful effect, are introduced into the human frame by the medium of the pores; and, therefore, when warm water is impregnated with salutiferous substances, it may produce great effects as a bath. This appeared to me very satisfactory. Johnson did not answer it; but talking for victory, and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber's comedies: `There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.’”

That’s when Johnson turns on the unnamed gentleman who had the temerity to defend Dominicetti’s quackery, and suggests he steam his head, “the peccant part.” Boswell concludes: “This produced a triumphant roar of laughter from the motley assembly of philosophers, printers, and dependents, male and female.”

No comments: