Tuesday, September 28, 2021

'Two Evils, Ignorance and Want of Taste'

I associated bamboozle with Westerns movies. The tenderfoot from back East buys shares in the beefsteak mine only to learn he has been bamboozled – or hornswoggled. The word has a Mark Twain sound to it. Yet Dr. Johnson included it in his Dictionary (1755): “[a cant word not used in pure or in grave writings.] To deceive; to impose upon; to confound.” The earliest usage cited by the OED dates from 1703, though the etymology is uncertain. 

Jonathan Swift objected to the word as a symptom of general linguistic and literary decline. On this date, September 28, in 1710, he takes on, in his Tatler essay, “the deplorable ignorance that for some years has reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” In 1709, Richard Steele had promoted his new newspaper, The Tatler, by naming Isaac Bickerstaff Esq. as editor. Swift occasionally contributed to the paper but most of it was written by Steele and Joseph Addison. In the “bamboozle” essay, Swift quotes a letter written to his persona Isaac Bickerstaff, who deplores “the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows, such as banter, bamboozle, country put, and kidney, as it is there applied; some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession of it.”


The OED’s entry for “country put” reads as follows: “n. Obsolete slang a loutish, unsophisticated, or foolish person from the country; an inexperienced person.” In other words, a rube, hick, hayseed or country bumpkin. The sense of kidney that riles Bickerstaff/Swift is probably “temperament, nature, constitution, disposition; hence, kind, sort, class, stamp.” Shakespeare uses it in Merry Wives of Windsor when he has Falstaff say, “a man of my kidney.” In short, Swift is a prescriptivist when it comes to language, not an advocate of the flaccidly descriptive approach. He suggests


“. . . . introducing into our style that simplicity, which is the best and truest ornament of most things in human life; which the politer ages always aimed at in their building and dress (simplex munditiis) as well as their productions of wit. It is manifest that all new affected modes of speech, whether borrowed from the court, the town, or the theatre, are the first perishing parts in any language; and, as I could prove by many hundred instances, have been so in ours.”


One agrees – but not unagreeably. I’m reminded of Kingsley Amis in his posthumously published The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (1997). The book is useful and amusing, especially when the reader feels Amis is not being crankily pedantic. Consider his stance on ending a sentence with a preposition:


“This is one of those fancied prohibitions (compare SPLIT INFINITIVE) dear to ignorant snobs. In this case they should be disregarded, and they mostly are, though the occasional stylistic derangement may suggest that a writer here and there still feels its force. It is natural and harmless in English to use a preposition to end a sentence with. As [H. W.] Fowler famously observed, ‘The power of saying . . . People worth talking to instead of People with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.’ This time idiom and common sense have triumphed over obscurantism.” 


The germ of Swift’s argument remains intact:


"These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third, I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it has been improved in the foregoing hundred.”

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

As almost always - Fowler for the win.