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selves, it can never establish what is accounted use in language. Now, what children are to men, that precisely the ignorant are to the knowing.
From the practice of those who are conversant in any art, elegant or mechanical, we always take the sense of the terms and phrases belonging to that art ; in like manner, from the practice of those who have had a liberal education, and are therefore presumed to be best acquainted with men and things, we judge of the general use in language. If in this particular there be any deference to the practice of the great and rich, it is not ultimately because they are greater and richer than others, but because, from their greatness and riches, they are imagined to be wiser and more knowing. The source, therefore, of that preference which distinguisheth good use from bad in language, is a natural propension of the human mind to believe that those are the best judges of the proper signs and of the proper application of them who understand best the things which they represent.
But who are they that in the public estimation are possessed of this character? This question is of the greatest moment for ascertaining that use which is entitled to the epithets reputable and good. Vaugelas makes them in Fránce to be “the soundest part of the court, and the soundest part of the authors of the
* With us Britons, the first part, at least, of this description, will not answer. In France, which is a pure monarchy, as the dependance of the inferior orders is much greater, their submission to their superiors, and the humble respect which in every instance they show them, seem, in our way of judging, to border even upon adoration. With us, on the contrary, who in our spirit, as well as in the constitution of our government, have more of the republican than of the monarchical, there is no remarkable partiality in favour of courtiers. At least their being such rarely enhanceth our opinion either of their abilities or of their virtues.
I would not by this be understood to signify that the primary principle which gives rise to the distinction between good use and bad in language, is different in different countries. It is not originally, even in France, a deference to power, but to wisdom. Only it must be remarked, that the tendency of the imagination is to accumulate all great qualities into the same character. Wherever we find one or two of these, we naturally presume the rest. This is particularly true of those qualities which, by their immediate consequences, strongly affect the external senses. We are, in a manner,
* “Voici comme on définit le bon usage. C'est la façon de parler de la plus saine partie de la cour, conformément à la façon d'écrire de la plus saine partie des auteurs du temps."— Préface aux Remarques sur la Lansue Françoise.
dazzled by them. Hence it happens, that it is difficult even for a man of discernment, till he be better instructed by experience, to restrain a veneration for the judgment of a person of uncommon splendour and magnificence; as if one who is more powerful and opulent than his neighbours were of necessity wiser too. Now this original bias of the mind some political constitutions serve to strengthen, others to correct.
But, without resting the matter entirely on the difference in respect of government between France and Britain, the British court is commonly too fluctuating an object. Use in language requires firmer ground to stand upon. No doubt the conversation of men of rank and eminence, whether of the court or not, will have its influence ; and in what concerns merely the pronunciation, it is the only rule to which we can refer the matter in every doubtful case ; but in what concerns the words themselves, their construction and application, it is of importance to have some certain, steady, and well-known standard to recur to, a standard which every one hath access to canvass and examine. And this can be no other than authors of reputation. Accordingly, we find that these are, by universal consent, in actual possession of this authority, as to this tribunal, when any doubt arises, the appeal is always made.
I choose to name them authors of reputation, rather than good authors, for two reasons : first, because it is more strict ly conformable to the truth of the case. It is solely the esteem of the public, and not their intrinsic merit (though these two go generally together), which raises them to this distinction, and stamps a value on their language. Secondly, this character is more definitive than the other, and, therefore, more extensively intelligible. Between two or more authors, different readers will differ exceedingly as to the preference in point of merit, who agree perfectly as to the respective places they hold in the favour of the public. You may find persons of a taste so particular as to prefer Parnell to Milton, but you will hardly find a person that will dispute the superiority of the latter in the article of fame. For this reason, I affirm that Vaugelas's definition labours under an essential defect, inasmuch as it may be difficult to meet with two persons whose judgments entirely coincide in determining who are the sounder part of the court or of the authors of the age. I need scarcely add that, when I speak of reputation, I mean not only in regard to knowledge, but in regard to the talent of communicating knowledge. I could name writers who, in respect to the first, have been justly valued by the public, but who, on account of a supposed deficiency in respect of the second, are considered as of no authority in language.
Nor is there the least ground to fear that we should be cramped here within too narrow limits. In the English tongue there is a plentiful supply of noted writings in all the various kinds of composition, in prose and verse, serious and ludicrous, grave and familiar. Agreeably, then, to this first qualification of the term, we must understand to be comprehended under general use whatever modes of speech are authorized as good by the writings of a great number, if not the majority, of celebrated authors.
ANOTHER qualification of the term use which deserves our attention is, that it must be national. This I consider in a twofold view, as it stands opposed both to provincial and forcign.
In every province there are peculiarities of dialect, which affect not only the pronunciation and the accent, but even the inflection and the combination of words, whereby their idiom is distinguished both from that of the nation and from that of every other province. The narrowness of the circle to which the currency of the words and phrases of such dialects is confined, sufficiently discriminates them from that which is properly styled the language, and which commands a circusation incomparably wider. This is one reason, I imagine, why the term use, on this subject, is commonly accompanied with the epithet general. In the use of provincial idioms, there is, it must be acknowledged, a pretty considerable concurrence both of the middle and of the lower ranks. But still this use is bounded by the province, county, or district which gives name to the dialect, and beyond which its peculiarities are sometimes unintelligible, and always ridiculous. But the language, properly so called, is found current, especially in the upper and the middle ranks, over the whole British Empire. Thus, though in every province they ridicule the idiom of every other province, they all vail to the English idiom, and scruple not to acknowledge its superiority over their own.
For example, in some parts of Wales (if we may credit Shakspeare*), the common people say goot for good; in the south of Scotland they say gude, and in the north gueed. Wherever one of these pronunciations prevails, you will nev, er hear from a native either of the other two; but the word good is to be heard everywhere, from natives as well as strangers ; nor do the people ever dream that there is anything laughable in it, however much they are disposed to laugh at the county accents and idioms which they discern in one another. Nay, more, though the people of distant provinces
* Fluellin in Henry V.
do not understand one another, they mostly all understand one who speaks properly. It is a just and curious observation of Dr. Kenrick, that “ the case of languages, or, rather, speech, being quite contrary to that of science, in the former the ignorant understand the learned better than the learned do the ignorant; in the latter it is otherwise."*
Hence it will perhaps be found true, upon inquiry, notwithstanding its paradoxical appearance, that though it be very uncommon to speak or write pure English, yet, of all the idioms subsisting among us, that to which we give the character of purity is the commonest. The faulty idioms do not jar more with true English than they do with one another; so that, in order to our being satisfied of the truth of the apparent paradox, it is requisite only that we remember that These idioms are diverse one from another, though they come under the common denomination of impure. Those who wander from the road may be incomparably more than those who travel in it; and yet, if it be into a thousand different by-paths that they deviate, there may not in any one of these be found so many as those whom you will meet upon the king's highway.
What hath been now said of provincial dialects may, with very little variation, be applied to professional dialects, or the cant which is sometimes observed to prevail among those of the same profession or way of life. The currency of the latter cannot be so exactly circumscribed as that of the former, whose distinction is purely local; but their use is not, on that account, either more extensive or more reputable. Let the following serve as instances of this kind. Advice, in the commercial idiom, means information or intelligence; nervous, in open defiance of analogy, doth in the medical cant, as Johnson expresseth it, denote having weak nerves; and the word turtle, though preoccupied time immemorial by a species of dove, is, as we learn from the same authority, employed by sailors and gluttons to signify a tortoise.f
It was remarked that national might also be opposed to foreign. I imagine it is too evident to need illustration, that the introduction of extraneous words and idioms from other languages and foreign nations, cannot be a smaller transgression against the established custom of the English tongue, than the introduction of words and idioms peculiar to some precincts of England, or, at least, somewhere current within the British pale. The only material difference between them is, that the one is more commonly the error of the learned, the other of the vulgar. But if, in this view, the former is entitled to greater indulgence from the respect paid to learning, in another view it is entitled to less, as it is much more
* Rhet. Gram., chap. ii., sect. iv.
commonly the result of affectation. Thus two essential qualities of usage in regard to language have been settled, that it be both reputable and national.
But there will naturally arise here another question: "Is not use, even good and national use, in the same country, different in different periods? And if so, to the usage of what period shall we attach ourselves as the proper rule? If you say the present, as it may reasonably be expected that you will, the difficulty is not entirely removed. In what extent of signification must we understand the word present? How far may we safely range in quest of authorities? or at what distance backward from this moment are authors still to be accounted as possessing a legislative voice in language ?" To this, I own, it is difficult to give an answer with all the precision that might be desired. Yet it is certain that, when we are in search of precedents for any word or idiom, there are certain mounds which we cannot overleap with safety. For instance, the authority of Hooker or of Raleigh, however great their merit and their fame be, will not now be admitted in support of a term or expression not to be found in any good writer of a later date.
In truth, the boundary must not be fixed at the same distance in every subject. Poetry hath ever been allowed a wider range than prose; and it is but just that, by an indulgence of this kind, some compensation should be made for the peculiar restraints she is laid under by the measure. Nor is this only a matter of convenience to the poet; it is also a matter of gratification to the reader. Diversity in the style relieves the ear, and prevents its being tired with the too frequent recurrence of the rhymes, or sameness of the metre. But still there are limits to this diversity. The authority of Milton and of Waller on this article reinains as yet unquestioned. I should not think it prudent often to introduce words or phrases of which no example could be produced since the days of Spenser and of Shakspeare.
And even in prose the bounds are not the same for every kind of composition. In matters of science, for instance, whose terms, from the nature of the thing, are not capable of such a currency as those which belong to ordinary subjects, and are within the reach of ordinary readers, there is no necessity of confining an author within a very narrow circle, But in composing pieces which come under this last denomination, as history, romance, travels, moral essays, familiar letters, and the like, it is safest for an author to consider those words and idioms as obsolete which have been disused