Friday, January 28, 2022

'A Person Characterized As Being Small'

Who remembers Thomas Sprat (1635-1713)? Any aging English majors out there? Some of us know him only from the brief biography included by Dr. Johnson in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). 

While looking for something else in Johnson’s Dictionary, I encountered an unfamiliar word, philologer. He defines it as “one whose chief study is language; a grammarian; a critic” – that is, a good portion of Johnson’s own job description. He includes citations from Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Boyle, and then Sprat’s: “The best philologers say, that the original word does not only signify domestick, as opposed to foreign, but also private, as opposed to common.” You’ll find that sentence in Sprat’s “A Sermon Preached at the Anniversary Meeting of the Sons of Clergy-men in the Church of St. Mary-le-Bo” (1678).


Johnson devotes perhaps 150 words in his biography to Sprat’s work as a poet. The rest largely covers his clerical and political life. Sprat edited Abraham Cowley’s work and wrote his biography, and Johnson closes his biography of Sprat with these words:.  


“My business is only with his poems. He considered Cowley as a model; and supposed that, as he was imitated, perfection was approached. Nothing, therefore, but Pindarick liberty was to be expected. There is in his few productions no want of such conceits as he thought excellent; and of those our judgment may be settled by the first that appears in his praise of Cromwell, where he says, that Cromwell’s ‘fame, like man, will grow white as it grows old.’”


If not for Johnson, it’s likely I would never have learned of Sprat – a reminder of the fate of most poets. His surname is a mildly cruel joke. A sprat is a small fish. It is used figuratively to refer to a young boy or, the OED tells us, “a person characterized as being small, weak, or insignificant. Frequently used dismissively or as a term of contempt.” I seem to remember W.C. Fields spitting out “Sprat!” in one of his films.


Richard Zuelch said...

Don't forget his more famous relative - Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat!

Jack said...

"Sprat" is used derogatorily in Scorsese's Gangs of New York -- presumably to capture period speech.

mike zim said...

"The phrase "a sprat to catch a mackerel", and its variants, denote a small outlay or risk ventured in the hope or expectation of a significant return.

This is a metaphor from fishing, in which sprats are used as bait to catch larger fish."

A post last summer on the Word Histories blog: