Friday, October 12, 2018

'A Sprightly or Audacious Utterance'

My wife called to ask whether “sallyport” is one word or two. I walk past the Sallyport on the Rice University campus most days, so I knew the answer. It’s a much-mythologized architectural feature. When the G7 Summit was held at Rice in 1990, world leaders, including President Bush and Margaret Thatcher, were photographed walking through the Sallyport. In its original meaning, dating from the seventeenth century according to the OED, it’s a word that might have been used by Uncle Toby: “An opening in a fortified place for the passage of troops when making a sally.”

Sally is from the French sallie, “a rushing forth.” Again, the earliest context in English is military: “a sudden rush (out) from a besieged place upon the enemy; a sortie.” Meanings proliferated, all sharing the notion of outward motion, often sudden: “a going forth, setting out, excursion, expedition.” The word lost its military shading. The OED cites Johnson’s The Adventurer #107: “At our first sally into the intellectual world, we all march together along one straight and open road.” It seems to have been a favorite with Johnson. Writing of Falstaff in Henry IV, he says: “. . . his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport but raise no envy.” Best of all, here is his second Dictionary definition of “essay”: “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” To a modern ear, there’s a bonus: “loose sally” sounds salacious.

In 2001, R.H.W. Dillard published Sallies: Poems. On the title page are four not entirely awful lines from "Merlin," yet another awful poem by Emerson:

“There are open hours
When the god’s will sallies free,
And the dull idiot might see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years.”

Dillard plays throughout with sally. The collection is dedicated to Sallie Crosby. Its three sections are titled “Sallies,” Des Alliés and “Sallie’s.” Unfortunately, his poems are not very good. He squandered the opportunity to use a perfectly good word. There’s real poetry in the OED. Sally can refer to the Salvation Army or one of its members. It can mean “a sudden departure from the bounds of custom, prudence, or propriety; an audacious or adventurous proceeding, an escapade” – my favorite definition, though this is good too: “a sprightly or audacious utterance or literary composition; now usually, a brilliant remark, a witticism.” The OED cites Johnson, Burke and Boswell for the latter usage (there is something decidedly eighteenth-century about sally), but the best comes from Chap. XIII of George Meredith’s The Egoist:

“The sprightly sallies of the two, their rallyings, their laughter, and her fine eyes, and his handsome gestures, won attention like a fencing match of a couple keen with the foils to display the mutual skill.”

[Later, I discovered sallyport does show up in Tristram Shandy in reference to Uncle Toby: “Believe me, brother Toby, no bridge, or bastion, or sally-port, that ever was constructed in this world, can hold out against such artillery.”]

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Never before heard of "sallyport/sally-port", and it now makes an appearance on consecutive days.

Today's usage was in the Word of the Day email, about "postern".