Friday, October 06, 2017

`It Were Mere Foppery'

Certain words are permanently welded in memory to a single source, often the work in which we first encountered them. Espy and sere, for instance, belong forever to Keats. On the rare occasions when we encounter them elsewhere, they trigger a pleasant aura of association. Take foppery, a word increasingly useful but seldom used. No one speaks the word, but when found in writing, Edmund in Act I, Scene 2 of King Lear takes the stage:

“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical pre-dominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on.”

Shakespeare’s usage illustrates the first meaning recorded in the OED: “a foolish action, practice, idea, statement, etc.; a folly, an absurdity.” Only later did a secondary and eventually predominant meaning emerge, contingent on the social recognition of fops:  “The behaviour or manner characteristic of a fop; silly affectation of elegance; coxcombry, dandyism.” While rereading his “Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading” (1822), I found Charles Lamb drawing on both meanings:  

“To be strong-backed and neat-bound is the desideratum of a volume. Magnificence comes after. This, when it can be afforded, is not to he lavished upon all kinds of books indiscriminately. I would not dress a set of Magazines, for instance, in full suit. The dishabille, or half-binding (with Russia backs ever) is our costume. A Shakspeare [sic], or a Milton (unless the first editions), it were mere foppery to trick out in gay apparel. The possession of them confers no distinction.”

In another essay, “Popular Fallacies,” Lamb coins a phrase for one of his favorite devices – the “biverbal allusion.” The OED defines it as “relating to two words; punning.” Lamb does this almost habitually. His foppery is less pun than simple double meaning, as are “costume” and “gay apparel.” The latter inevitably reminds us of the Christmas carol, among other things, though Thomas Oliphant didn’t get around to writing the lyrics until 1862, when Lamb had been dead for twenty-eight years.

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