Tag Archives: Herman Melville

As Ugly As A Tick On A Dog’s Belly

The semicolon is not everybody’s cup of tea. Mark Twain may have been dismissive of their appearance, but in Huckleberry Finn he used 1,562 of them. Herman Melville loved them, peppering his text of Moby Dick with over four thousand semicolons, an average of one for every 52 words. How did this Marmite of punctuation marks come to be used in the first place?

The culprit or hero of our story is a printer who operated in Venice towards the end of the 15th century, Aldus Manutius. Not only was he an accurate printer but he was also innovative. He was the first to perfect the printing of the Greek alphabet, enabling the classical texts of the likes of Plato and Aristotle to be more easily replicated. Manutius’ conquering of Greek script cemented the roles of Plato and Aristotle in Renaissance thought and scholarship.

Manutius was also responsible for developing Italic fonts, where the letters lurch rather drunkenly to the right. In his day books and documents were unwieldy and large, barely portable and meant that readers had to go to the books rather than books accompanying the reader. Manutius’ third innovation was to create the Octavio paper size for printing, essentially the traditional flat sheet folded into half, then half again and then half again, so that it was an eight of its original size. The age of the portable book had dawned.

Punctuation was a rather hit and miss affair. For centuries manuscripts had been written in scriptio continua, where all the letters and words formed one continuous stream, only broken when the scribe reached the end of the line or page. Anyone who has read a mediaeval text, I had to as part of my third year at university, will know that it is a slow and laborious task to extract any meaning from a long line of letters, leaving aside any scribal errors. Manutius realised that the power of printing opened up a wider audience for his products but that readers needed an easier and quicker way of making sense of the jumble of letters on a page and so set about introducing and standardising punctuation.

The semicolon first made its appearance in 1494 in a literary Latin text called De Aetna, printed by Manutius, written by Pietro Bembo and using a hybrid mark, a full stop sitting above a comma, produced especially by the Bolognese type designer, Francesco Griffo. The book, De Aetna, was an essay written in dialogue form about climbing the Sicilian volcano. The semicolons were used primarily to separate long lists of items.

Mind you, there was room for confusion. The same symbol is also used as an abbreviation for -ue in the conjunction neque, meaning “and or also not”, although it is positioned at the same level of the words on the page to show it is not a pause.  

Seen as something halfway between a full stop which brings a sentence to a conclusion and a comma which indicates a small pause in the flow, there were no hard and fast rules governing the use of a semicolon. The playwright, Ben Jonson, had a go at defining its use, calling it “a distinction of an imperfect sentence, wherein with somewhat a longer breath, the sentence following is included”. Over time its usage settled down to providing assistance with a long list of items and to allow two ideas, concepts or sentiments to flow together into one sentence as they would into your mind. Its heyday was in the 19th century, but nowadays editors try to discourage its use.

The semicolon has caused some trouble over the years. A dispute over its usage between two University of Paris law professors in 1837 was settled by a duel. A rogue semicolon which entered the transcription of a statute led to the suspension of alcohol service in Boston for six years due to the ambiguity it had caused. In 1927 two men accused of the same crime in a New Jersey murder trial received different sentences because of the misuse of a semicolon. Salvatore Rannelli received a life sentence; Salvatore Merra the death sentence. In 1945, a semicolon in the definition of war crimes in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal threatened to stop the prosecution of Nazi war criminals until the ambiguities were clarified.

Use with caution is my advice.

What Is The Origin Of (235)?

Darby and Joan

There are some benefits to growing old. Admittedly, the limbs are not as supple as they once were, there are more aches and pains and the faculties are not as sharp, but it is a pleasure to be able to do what I want at a pace of my choosing. My wife and I are in danger of becoming that archetypal elderly couple, Darby and Joan, spending our final years, decades I trust, in contentment. Where does the phrase come from and who were Darby and Joan, if anyone?

There is a tendency, as we have seen, in etymological researches to seek to identify a phrase with real people, often erroneously. That may be the case here. The starting point is a reference that the eccentric lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, in the Literary Magazine in 1756 to a ballad about Darby and Joan. Johnson may have had in mind an anonymous poem, printed in the weekly journal, the Gentleman’s Magazine, in March 1735, entitled The Joys of Love never forgot. It contains these lines; “Old Darby, with Joan by his side,/ You’ve often regarded with wonder:/ He’s dropsical, she is sore-eyed,/ Yet they’re never happy asunder.

The devoted couple are thought to have been John Darby and his wife, Joan, a printer who lived and worked in Bartholomew Close in London. The poem is ascribed to Henry Woodfall who worked for him. However, in The Literary Janus, edited by J Wilson and published in the early part of the nineteenth century, there is a similar poem by the title of The Happy Couple. The only difference in the text is you’ve is replaced by I’ve in the second line and in the fourth line reads “and yet they are never asunder.” The couple are supposed to be long-standing residents of a Yorkshire village, three miles from Tadcaster, called Healaugh, and the poem is attributed to Lord Wharton, who was Lord of the Manor of the village.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. A reason to doubt the Woodfall story is that Darby the printer is thought to have died in 1704. Is it likely that he would have waited thirty years to laud his master and his devoted wife? The Yorkshire Darby and Joan seemed to have lived an idyllic life, Darby smoking his pipe and quaffing his ale while Joan “in all the garrulity of age, relating tales of days long passed away” and going to church on Sundays. Are these the prototypical happy, contented couple? I’m not sure it matters.

What is clear is that by the beginning of the nineteenth century the phrase was well established. The Times noted in its edition of May 26, 1801 that a new dance by the title of Darby and Joan was being “received with loud and general plaudits” and in June there was a ballet of the same name doing the rounds. On February 1, 1802 the Thunderer announced that what it termed as a “comic divertissement” was being performed at London’s Royalty Theatre by the name of Darby and Joan; or The Dwarf.

By the middle of the century Darby and Joan was being used to describe a seemingly devoted couple. In He Knew He Was Right, published in 1869, Anthony Trollope wrote, “when we travel together, we must go Darby and Joan fashion.” The verbose Henry James, writing in The Golden Bowl, published in 1904, described a couple thus; “their silence eked out for her by his giving her his arm and their then crawling up their steps quite mildly and contentedly, like some old Darby and Joan…” Darby and Joan were the names given to the devoted couple who provide hospitality in Herman Melville’s Omoo from 1847.

There was a popular song in the 1890s, written by Frederic Weatherly, entitled Darby in Joan in which Joan serenades her hubby with these words; “Darby dear we are old and grey,/ Fifty years since our wedding day./ Shadow and sun for every one,/ as the years roll by.” The couple also made an appearance in Hammerstein and Kern’s 1937 classic song, The Folks Who Live on the Hill.

Whoever they were, they have been an enduring symbol of a long and happy marriage and long may it continue.

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Two

William Thompson

For an etymologist with a penchant for the ignoble art of scamming, William Thompson, who operated in the Big Apple during the 1840s, is manna from heaven.

Conmen were known at the time as diddlers, taking their name from James Kenney’s character, Jeremy Diddler, who appeared in his 1805 farce, Raising the Wind. The art of diddling fascinated Edgar Allan Poe and he wrote an essay, Diddling: Considered as One of the Exact Sciences, which was published in 1843. He considered that “the origin of the diddle is referrable to the infancy of the Human Race, ” and averred that “perhaps the first diddler was Adam.

Be that as it may, Poe did go on to consider the attributes that made the consummate diddler. These, in his opinion, included audacity, focus on small crimes, self-interest, ingenuity, perseverance, impertinence, nonchalance, originality, and a grin. William Thompson was the epitome of Poe’s archetypal diddler.

His modus operandi was beguilingly simple. Immaculately dressed, well-spoken and doubtless with a grin on his face, he would sidle up – whatever happened to sidling? – to his intended victim. Often he would pretend to have a vague acquaintance with the mark and engaged him in conversation. Once he had gained the stranger’s confidence, Thompson would make an unusual request; “have you the confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?

Surprisingly, many had and they were – that was the last they would see of their timepiece. It was like taking candy from a baby.

But one of the hallmarks that Poe didn’t suggest a successful diddler should have was a memory or at least the ability to recognise, and avoid, their marks. This singular failure on the part of Thompson led to his undoing, as the New York Herald reported in 1849. On 12th May 1848 a Mr Thomas McDonald who lived at no 276, Madison Street, met Thompson and during the course of a conversation was persuaded to entrust his gold lever watch, valued at $110, to the diddler. True to form, he never saw it again but what he did see again the following year as he was strolling along the inaptly named Liberty Street, at least as far as Thompson was concerned, was the diddler who had betrayed his trust.

Lucky enough, at least as far as McDonald was concerned, there was an officer of the law nearby, Officer Swayse of the Third Ward, who was told of Thompson’s deception. The Officer swiftly apprehended Thompson who put up somewhat of a fight. It was only when his hands were securely fastened that Swayse was able to march him down to the police station.

Up before Justice McGrath, it was soon revealed that Thompson was, as the New York Herald rather quaintly put it, “a graduate of the college at Sing Sing.” He was remanded in prison and the newspaper recommended that anyone else who had been relieved of their valuables by being foolish enough to trust a stranger should pay him a visit to see whether Thompson was their swindler. Alas, it is unrecorded how many, if any, took up the newspaper’s advice nor is it certain quite what happened to Thompson afterwards.

But etymologically speaking, what is of interest in this rather tawdry tale of petty larceny was that in reporting it, the New York Herald headlined it “Arrest of the Confidence Man.” This was the first printed instance of the use of the term which over time became abbreviated to con man. Herman Melville called his ninth novel, published in 1857, the Confidence Man, showing that the phrase was well understood, fairly rapidly after its first coinage.

The diddler as a term, like William Thompson, faded into ill-deserved obscurity.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


Book Corner – June 2014 (1)


Butcher’s Crossing – John Williams

For me, like many people, John Williams was my literary discovery for 2013. Butcher’s Crossing was his first mature novel, published in 1960, and can be loosely described as a Western. But that rather clichéd handle doesn’t do the book justice. It is not a gun fight at the OK Corral but rather an exploration of man’s relationship with and exploitation of nature.

The protagonist, Will Andrews, is a drop out from Harvard who in 1870, armed with a legacy from an uncle, travels west to find himself, pitching up at Butcher’s Crossing, an unprepossessing settlement largely dependent upon slaughtering buffalo and trading their hides. There Andrews falls in with a veteran hunter, Miller, who has found an undiscovered valley in Colorado teeming with buffalo, and wants to mount an expedition as his last hurrah. Andrews agrees to fund the enterprise.

I won’t spoil the story but the key to the book lies in the two quotations in the preface to the novel – don’t skip them in your anxiety to get into the story! The first is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature which lauds the type of spiritual communion with nature that the protagonist is seeking. The other is from Herman Melville’s Confidence Man in which the novelist warns that this sort of idealism is likely to result in being frozen to death in the prairie.

I was lucky enough to be on the Masai Mara in Kenya a few years ago when the wildebeest were migrating and I was astonished by the sight of black rivers of animals pounding the savannah. So it was relatively easy for me to relate to and visualise the enormous herds of buffalo that still could be found in the Prairies in the States. The book is powerfully written and the wholesale and indiscriminate slaughter of the buffalos by the maniacal and obsessed Miller is graphically represented in a series of set piece tableaux. Williams also describes in detail the skinner’s art and Andrews’ fumbling attempts to master the tricks of the trade.

Inevitably a combination of Miller’s obsession and economic reality – the market for buffalo hides had collapsed – leads to a cataclysmic series of events that give the book a powerful ending.

Williams writes in a simple style but with a deceptive pace which hooks the reader. He is neither sentimental nor maudlin and the reader has great empathy for each of the characters, despite their many failings. Whether it is as good as Stoner is a moot point. The genre is different and, probably, it is easier to empathise with a man who late in his working career recognises that he hasn’t achieved overly much. They both stand up in their own right and whilst I marginally prefer Stoner – but it may be because like an Emerson adherent it was the first time I had glimpsed the promised land of Williams’ prose – I would heartily recommend you read them both. I can’t wait to read his third novel, Augustus!