Page images
PDF
EPUB

ORIGIN OF THE LONGER WORDS.

37

CHAPTER V.

LONG WORDS, AND DIRECTIONS UPON THE CHOICE OF WORDS.

17. BESIDES the shorter and, on the average, most expressive words, there are many longer ones which have been introduced from the Latin, Greek, and other languages. These constitute about one-fourth of the terms found in English dictionaries, but very seldom reach so high a proportion in the language of any author. Some of them are the only single terms in the language to express the thoughts for which they stand, and therefore must be used when those thoughts are to be expressed; others bear nearly the same meaning as older and shorter words, but are generally esteemed as more elegant or sonorous, or indicative of higher culture, and are therefore often preferred.

The earlier writers of the English language, when it had fairly supplanted the Anglo-Saxon language, were for the most part familiar with the Latin, and introduced into their written compositions many words that the people had not been accustomed to hear. The words were mostly English in form, Latin in fact. It was positively necessary either that they should introduce such words, or that they should combine the familiar Anglo-Saxon words into new com

pound terms, for new ideas were awakened which the-old simple words would not express. Many compound words were formed, and many were transferred to our language from the Latin, and subsequently from the Greek, and from other languages.

Both as a description, and, to some extent an illustration, of this practice, the following extract from a work of Lord Bacon is given, entitled "The Proficience and Advancement of Learning," published first in 1605:

"Thereof grew again a delight in this manner of style and phrase, and an admiration of that kind of writing which was much furthered and precipitated by the enmity and opposition that the propounders of those primitive, but seeming new opinions, had against the schoolmen, who were generally of the contrary part, and whose writings were altogether in a different style and form, taking liberty to coin and frame new terms of art to express their own sense, and to avoid circuit of speech, without regard to the pureness, pleasantness, and, as I may call it, lawfulness, of the phrase or word. And again, because the great labor then was with the people, for the winning and persuading of them, there grew of necessity, in chief price and request, eloquence and variety of discourse, as the fittest and forciblest access into the capacity of the vulgar sort; so that these four causes concurring, the admiration of ancient authors, the hate of the school-men, the exact study of languages, and the efficacy of preaching, did bring in an affected study of eloquence and copia of speech which then begun to flourish."

Afterward, on this same subject, Bacon adds:

"How is it possible but this should have an operation to discredit learning, even with vulgar capacities, when they see learned men's works, like the first letter of a patent or limned book, which, though it hath large flourishes, yet it is but a letter? It seems to me that Pygmalion's frenzy* is a good emblem or portraiture of their variety;

** Pygmalion, a character described in Grecian story, who is said to have made a statue and fallen in love with it after it was endowed with life.

THE JOHNSONIAN STYLE.

39

for words are but the images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is all one as to fall in love with a picture."

Writings in which long and sonorous terms abound are sometimes said to be in the "Johnsonian style," from the character of the productions of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., the author of a "Dictionary of the English Language," whose vocabulary was extensive, and effectively employed. The following sentence illustrates his style:

"That affluence and power, advantages extrinsic and adventitious, and, therefore, easily separable from those by whom they are possessed, should very often flatter the mind with expectations of felicity which they can not give, raises no astonishment; but it seems rational to hope that intellectual greatness should produce better effects; that minds qualified for great attainments should first endeavor to secure their own benefit; and that they who are most able to teach others the way to happiness should, with most certainty, follow it themselves."

Mr. Macaulay, criticising Johnson's style, says: "When he talked, he clothed his wit and his sense in forcible and natural expressions. As soon as he took his pen in hand to write for the public, his style became systematically vicious. All his books are written in a learned language-in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse-in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love in a language in which nobody ever thinks. It is clear that Johnson himself did not think in the dialect in which he wrote. ***

"His constant practice of padding out a sentence with useless epithets till it became as stiff as the bust of an exquisite; his antithetical forms of expression

constantly employed even where there is no apposi tion in the things expressed; his big words wasted on little things; his harsh inversions, so widely different 'from those graceful and easy inversions which give variety, spirit, and sweetness to the expression of our great old writers-all these peculiarities have been imitated by his admirers and parodied by his assailants till the public has become sick of the subject."*

His definition of "net-work" in his dictionary illustrates this style as follows: "Any thing reticulated or decussated with interstices at equal distances between the intersections."

18. When the Johnsonian Style is allowable.-When the thought is valuable and impressive, the use of ponderous and majestic words is eminently appropriate. The advantages of learning are now so widely disseminated that a much larger proportion of the public appreciate such language. Certain minute shades of thought may be expressed by it alone, and there are occasions when good taste pronounces it appropriate and indispensable. Therefore all scholars should obtain a mastery over it.

19. A Variety in this Matter to be cultivated.-The best writers employ a great variety of words, not confining themselves to the Anglo-Saxon or to the Latinized style. Much depends upon the nature of the subject, the character of the audience addressed, and the purpose of the author, whether to instruct, convince, or amuse. The most forcible expressions in

.

* Macaulay's Miscellaneous Writings: article, "Boswell's Life of Johnson."

RACY AND IDIOMATIC EXPRESSIONS,

41

the language are short and direct; longer words are often more harmonious and elegant.

Upon the propriety of using words derived from the Latin and Greek, a great difference of opinion is entertained. A modern writer of some notoriety has said:

"Our great scholars have corrupted the English language by a jargon so uncouth that a plain man can hardly discern the real lack of ideas which their barbarous and mottled dialect strives to hide. * * * There can be but little doubt that the principal reason why well-educated women write and converse in a purer style than well-educated men is because they have not formed their taste according to those ancient classical standards, which, admirable as they are in themselves, should never be introduced into a state of society unfitted for them. To this may be added that Cobbett, the most racy and idiomatic of all our writers, Erskine, by far the greatest of our forensic orators, knew little or nothing of any ancient language, and the same observation applies to Shakspeare."*

The style of Erskine was also complimented by the famous orator, Rufus Choate, who in conversation said: "Erskine got along not by wide scope and reach of rich allusion and thought, but by a beautiful voice, emotional temperament, and the richest English, taken from Shakspeare and Milton."+

The following extract from a speech of Mr. Erskine

* History of Civilization in England. By Henry Thomas Buckle (London, 1857, vol. i. p. 744).

Reminiscences of Rufus Choate, the Great American Advocate. By Edward G. Parker (Boston, 1860, p. 263).

« PreviousContinue »