Tag Archives: Jonathan Swift

Book Corner – November 2020 (7)

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

It may be an unfashionable view, but I find Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 almost impossible to read. I get so far and find I can’t go any further. Some years later I pick it up and the same thing happens again, my own peculiar version of Catch 22. Perhaps I’m prejudiced because the man who discovered the book, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster by the name of Robert Gottlieb, rejected Toole’s book after two years of protracted correspondence. Toole’s life spiralled out of control and he committed suicide near Biloxi in Mississippi in March 1969, aged 31. Due to his mother’s persistence it finally saw the light of day in 1980, winning the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, the only writer to be so honoured. Much good it did him.

The book is a picaresque novel detailing the adventures of a misfit in New Orleans, Ignatius J Reilly. There are Quixotic overtones as the anti-hero, an enormous slob of a man, rails against what he perceives to be the evils of society and trying to foist his own philosophy, based on Boethius, on the unsuspecting public. Ignatius is clumsy, walking disaster, a hypochondriac who will bore anyone in earshot about the state of his pyloric valve, eccentrically dressed with a preposterous green deerstalker perched atop of his oversized head, trapped by his own delusions of grandeur, a compulsive liar, blunt to the point of rudeness and unable to hold down a job. He really does not have much going for him.

Toole walks a fine line with his larger than life character. He joins in with us at laughing at his ludicrous creation but does it in a way that elicits sympathy. You wouldn’t want to live next door to the gaseous oaf, but you end up having a great deal of sympathy for him and hope that he finds a way out of the downward spiral that is his fate, or according to his philosophy, what the wheel of Fortuna has determined.         

Reilly is a worry to his mother and she eventually conspires to send him to a lunatic asylum. After a hilarious motor accident which results in significant structural damage and a big bill for compensation, Ignatius is forced to earn a living. Naturally, he wreaks havoc, initially as a filing clerk at Levy’s Pants, where he incites a strike, and as a hot dog seller where he gets himself involved in a scam to distribute pornography, centring around a house of ill repute. Events come to a hilarious head towards the end of the book.

Toole leaves us with a sense of hope from all the carnage that his comic creation has caused. His mother is finally able to stand her ground against Ignatius while still showing that, for all his faults, she still loves him. Gus Levy, the owner of Levy Pants, finally releases himself from the shackles of the past and looks forward to driving his business forward, manufacturing Bermuda shorts, with renewed gusto. The put upon African American vagrant-cum-bar sweeper, Burma Jones, through a clever piece of PR manipulation, engineers his escape from a life of vagrancy.

The book is very funny and has many memorable moments. Toole’s handling of colour may jar with many modern readers, although you could make a strong case for arguing that Burma Jones is the real hero of the story, showing a savviness and sense of compassion that all the other characters lack. The title, by the way, comes from Jonathan Swift’s essay, Thoughts on Various Subjects Moral and Diverting; “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Is Burma, rather than Ignatius, Toole’s true genius?

I really enjoyed the book.

What Is The Origin Of (273)?…

The devil to pay

One of the intriguing things about etymological researches is how many who engage in this rather dry but enlightening pursuit seem desperate to find an origin to a phrase which is other than what might be termed the bleedin’ obvious. Take the devil to pay, for instance, which signifies that there will be serious trouble if something happens. Why shouldn’t the devil in the phrase be Satan?

The devil, the personification of evil, has been in popular culture since at least Biblical days and is someone’s whose wiles all God-fearing people should shun, like Christ did after fasting for forty nights and forty days. Our phrase first crops up in a manuscript dating from 1481 in which the anonymous scribe wrote, “it would be better to stay at home/ than to serve here to pay the devil”. There is no question that the devil here who might otherwise be pacified, the original definition of pay and later extending to the idea of pacifying creditors by paying up, is none other than Satan.

It was not until the early 18th century that the phrase cropped up again, for example in Thomas Brown’s Letters from the Dead to the Living, published in 1707; “we knew we should have the Devil to pay one time or other, and now you see like honest men we have pawn’d our Souls for the whole Reckoning”.

The satirist, Jonathan Swift, was fond of the phrase, adding and all as an intensifier to give the phrase additional emphasis. In a letter to Esther Johnson dated September 28, 1711 he wrote, “The earl of Stafford is to go soon to Holland, and let them know what we have been doing and then there will be the devil and all to pay”. On November 17th that year he wrote, “this being queen Elizabeth’s birth-day, we have the Devil and all to do among us” and in 1738, fearing the wrath of his wife, he penned, “I must be with my Wife on Tuesday, or there will be the Devil and all to pay”.  

A variant was to substitute the Devil with the name of his natural habitat. This variant, possibly for the purpose of preserving the metre, was deployed in Joseph Lewis’ The miscellaneous and whimsical lucubrations of Lancelot Poverty-Struck from 1758; “before that either gain’d the Day/ By Heaven! There was Hell to pay”. Another variation was devil to pay and no pitch hot. This was recorded and explained by Alexander Hamilton in his Gentleman’s Progress of 1744 in which the Scot regaled his readers of his travels including a visit to New York. There he met a man whose speech was peppered with proverbs, including “the devil to pay and no pitch hot?” which he helpfully defined as “An interrogatory adage metaphorically derived from the manner of sailors who pay their ship’s bottoms with pitch”.

Francis Grose, in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1788 helpfully defined the nautical connotations of the verb to pay. “To smear over. To pay the bottom of a ship or boat; to smear it over with pitch”. The nautical duo, William Smyth and Edward Belcher, shed light on the term devil, defining it in their The Sailor’s Word-Book of 1867 as “the seam which margins the water-ways…why only caulkers can tell, who perhaps found it sometimes difficult for their tools”.  

These later usages have led some to draw two conclusions; that the devil refers to a seam on the water-level of a ship and that the devil to pay is an abbreviation of the devil to pay and no pitch hot. I don’t think we need to jump to this conclusion. The devil to pay was already in use and well attested before the nautical version came upon the scene and it is clear that the devil concerned was Satan. The later phrase may simply have a separate origin or, more likely, the devil in it really was Satan and that some clever Dick decided to crowbar a nautical context on to it.

Who knows?

What Is The Origin Of (272)?…

Hem and haw

One of the many attributes a politician needs to get to the top of what is a slippery pole is the ability to deflect a question, keeping their options open and issuing a cloud of words that obfuscates the simple fact that they have not addressed the question. Perhaps W.B Yeats was right when he observed in his poem, The Second Coming, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. To hem and haw is to speak hesitantly or indecisively, usually with lots of ums and erms interspersing the trickle of discernible words.

The two verbs conjoined by and both had independent existences before they came together. Hem is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “an interjectional utterance like a slight half cough, used to attract attention, give warning, or express doubt or hesitation”. It is what grammarians call an echoic verb, one that imitates the sound itself, in this instance of someone clearing their throat as if to speak. It has lent itself to the word ahem, which is used as a more polite way to clear one’s throat, either preparatory to speech or to warn someone of your presence.

Haw also echoes the sound it represents, defined by the OED as “an expression of hesitation”. It is one of those nothing words that pepper people’s daily speech, like, uh, um, huh, a verbal stopgap to allow someone to gather their thoughts and continue with whatever it is they have to say.

Perhaps it was inevitable that the two should have been put together, suggesting the impression of someone clearing their throat and gathering their thoughts before launching into the next part of their dialogue. One of the characters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from the late 14th century, is described as someone who “hewed” and “gan to hum”. John Palsgrave, an English priest and compiler of his Lesclarcissement de la langue francyose from 1530, in which he sought to explain to his English readers the intricacies of the French tongue, was probably the first to put the two elements together; “he hummeth and heath and wyll nat come out withall”.       

The English language was even more fluid in those days than it is now and variants such as hum and haw or um and ah or hem and hawke began to appear. It seemed that you could perm any two from the collection and the meaning would remain the same. In American English hem and haw is more common whereas in English as spoken in Blighty we seem to prefer hum and haw.

Jonathan Swift, in his 1728 poem called My Lady’s Lamentation used hum and haw, albeit the other way round, for the purposes of the rhyme; “he haws and he hums./ At last out it comes”.  A meeting with royalty may be a justifiable occasion for a bit of hemming and hawing. In this instance from 1786 it clearly had the desired effect; “I hemmed and hawed…but the Queen stopped reading”.

Haw also has the sense, at least these days, of a rather lofty, affected way of speaking. It is no coincidence that this was reflected in the British nickname of Lord Haw-Haw given to William Joyce who broadcast regularly to these shores at the behest of Hitler during the Second World War.

At least, someone who hems and haws is perhaps giving some careful consideration to what they are saying, which can’t be a bad thing, unless they are a politician, of course.

What Is The Origin Of (230)?…

Purple patch

Regular readers of this blog will know by now that you will have to search long and hard for anything that might resemble a purple patch. Indeed, many critics contend that a purple patch is something to avoid in any literary endeavour as it denotes an over-written passage in which the writer has strained too hard to achieve their effect. It is something out of the ordinary in comparison with the rest of the writer’s output. Its usage these days has been extended to indicate a period of success or outstanding achievement, particularly in a sporting context.

Where does it come from and why purple?

The starting point in our survey is Ars Poetica, written by the Roman poet, Horace to give him his Anglicised name, in around 20 BCE. In the opening passages to his work he compares and contrasts his style of writing with those of his contemporaries. He notes “weighty openings and grand declarations often/ have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam/ far and wide…There’s no place for them here.” This is the earliest reference to a purple patch, or purpureus pannus as Horace wrote it, in a literary context.

In Roman times, purple was the colour associated with those in power, adopted by emperors and magistrates. The dye to create the colour came from the mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail and was highly prized and expensive. To associate a piece of writing with this rare colour was to indicate that it was out of the ordinary, exceptional, special.

The survival of pagan Roman literature through the periods of Christian ascendancy was a hit and miss affair until their value as works of art was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Ars Poetica was one that made it through the dark centuries in reasonably good shape and formed part of the required reading matter of an educated chap and the occasional chapess. Unusually for the 16th century, Ann Boleyn insisted that he daughter, Elizabeth, obtained “knowledge of all tounges, as Hebrue, Greeke, Latyne, Italian, Spanishe, Frenche.” Indeed, Queen Bess, as she became, developed into a noted Latin scholar.

What better way to keep your Latin up to scratch after you have dealt with the affairs of state than to translate one of the classical masterpieces into English? In 1598 she turned her hand to the Ars Poetica, rendering our passage thus; “oft to beginnings graue and shewes of great is sowed a purple pace, one or more for vewe.” This is the earliest example of the phrase to have survived in English but given the translator it may be a reflection of her status rather than being the first genuine usage.

The early 18th century was a disputatious period when wits and political rivals would pen furious pamphlets to either attack their opponents or to promote their cause. One such was Dr Charles Davenant, a cousin of Jonathan Swift, who invented a character called Tom Double to espouse anti-Whig sentiment. But then, to the dismay of Swift and his chums, Devanant had a political volte-face, prompting his friends to publish, in 1704, The True Tom Double.

Within its pages is a discussion of literary styles. The prevailing taste was for a style which was even, rather than one which had the occasional splash of literary brilliance. “All a man writes should be proportion’d Even and of a piece; and one Part of the Work should not so far outshine, as to Obscure and Darken the Other. The Purple Patches he claps upon his Course Style, make it seem much Courser than it is.

It seems that the use of purple patch in a context other than literary was a much later phenomenon, perhaps around the turn of the 20th century. The Westminster Budget used it, in October 1900, to denote something exceptional or truly noteworthy; “true, it is hardly to be counted a purple patch of history…

What Is The Origin Of (229)?…


Our wonderful English language is like a sponge, drawing in influences from wherever it can. I suppose it could be considered a feather in one’s cap to have a word or a phrase named after you. I’m not sure that Ambrose Philips saw it that way. The phrase in which he is immortalised is namby-pamby, used pejoratively these days to describe something or someone who is overly sentimental or insipidly pretty.

Shropshire born Ambrose Philips (1674 – 1749) was a pastoral poet and a staunch Whig supporter to boot. A feud developed between him and Alexander Pope, fuelled by articles in the Guardian in 1713 praising Philips’ work and calling him the only extant poet fit to fill the size nines left by Edmund Spenser. What particularly appealed to Philips’ admirers was his simple style and his avoidance of classical mythology.

Pope responded by writing anonymously an article published in the Guardian in which he censured his own pastoral style and lauded the worst passages from Philips’ work. Philips saw through this rather thin satire and threatened to hit Pope on the head with a rod which he kept in Button’s coffee house for that express purpose. These poets! Samuel Johnson described relations between the two poets as “a perpetual reciprocation of malevolence.” He also thought that Philips was hard done by.

Philips did have a certain style and some of his worst excesses, usually prompted by attempts to ingratiate himself with the great and the good by lauding their kiddywinks, opened him up to ridicule. Take this, for example; “thou, thy parents pride and care/ fairest offspring of the fair/…when again the lambkins play/ pretty sportlings, full of May.” In technical terms, his style generally consisted of three trochees, followed by an extra-stressed monosyllabic foot.

And ridiculed Philips was. In 1725 Henry Carey wrote a poem called Namby-Pamby; or a panegyrick on the new versification address’s to A___ P___. It didn’t take a genius to work out that A P was Ambrose Philips and that Namby-Pamby was a play on his Christian name. Carey did not hold back; “All ye poets of the age/ all ye writings of the stage../ Namby-Pamby is your guide/ Albion’s joy, Hibernia’s pride/ Namby-Pamby, pilly-piss/ Rhimy-pim’d on Missy Miss/ Tartaretta Tartaree/ From the navel to the knee;/ That her father’s gracy, grace/ might give him a placy place.

Philips’ enemies were pleased with the new coinage which, in their eyes, in its childish reduplication, gave vent to their disgust at the excesses of his style. Pope couldn’t resist poking fun at his foe and he duly appears in one of Pope’s greatest works, The Dunciad, published in 1728; “beneath his reign, shall…Namby Pamby be prefer’d for Wit”. Johnathan Swift called Philips’ works “little flams.

But Johnson stuck up for him, calling Philips’ best works “those which from Pope or Pope’s adherents procured him the name of Namby-Pamby, the poems of short lines by which he paid his court to all ages and characters, from Walpole, the steerer of the realm, to Miss Pulteney in the nursery.” It is all a question of taste, after all.

The phrase namby-pamby was too good to be wasted on the specific and soon moved to a broader application. In 1745, William Ayre in his Memoirs of the life and writings of Alexander Pope, used it to describe an ineffectual form of writing, typified by Philips; “he used to write verses on Infants, in a strange Stile, which Dean Swift calls the Namby Pamby stile.”  And by 1774 it became a pejorative term referring to anything weak or ineffectual, the Westmoreland Magazine in that year describing someone as “a namby pamby Duke.

While Philips and his pastoral poetry have been lost in the mists of time, namby-pamby soon augmented the ranks of words to be used to insult someone.