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The nature and use of verbal criticism, with its principal canons.
as it is both irregular and unnecessary, I can foresee no inconvenience that will arise from dropping it altogether. I have seen this idiom criticised in some essay, whose name I cannot now remember, and its origin very naturally accounted for, by supposing it to have sprung from the contraction I'd, which sup: plies the place both of I had, and of I would, and which hath been at first ignorantly resolved into I had, when it ought to have been I would. The phrase thus frequently mistaken, hath come at length to establish itself, and to stand on its own foot *.
Of the second sort, which, when explained grammatically, leads to a different sense from what the words in conjunction commonly bear, is, “He sings a “good song,” for “he sings well.” The plain meaning of the words as they stand connected is very different, for who sees not that a good song may be ill
* Whether with Johnson and Lowth we should consider the phrases by this meant, by that meant, it is a means, as liable to the same exception, is perhaps more doubtful. Priestly considers the word mean: as of both numbers, and of such nouns we have several cxamples in the language. But it may be objected, that as the singuiar form mean is still frequently to be met with, this must in. evitably give to the above phrases an appearance of solecism, in the judgment of those who are accustomed to attend to the rules of syntax. But however this may induce such critics to avoid the spressions in question, no person of taste, I presume, will venture so far to violate the present usage, and consequently to shock the ears of the generality of readers, as to say, “By this mean,” or “By that mean.” . . . . . .
Sect, II. Every thing favoured by good use, not worthy to be retained...Can. IX.
sung 2 Of the same stamp is, “He plays a good fid“dle,” for “he plays well on the fiddle.” This seems also to involve a solecism. We speak indeed of playing a tune, but it is always on the instrument.
UNDER the third sort, which can scarcely be considered as literally conveying any sense, may be ranked a number of vile, but common phrases, sometimes to be found in good authors, like shooting at rovers, having a month's mind, currying favour, dancing attendance, and many others. Of the same kind also, though not reprehensible in the same degree, is the idiomatical use that is sometimes made of certain verbs, as stand for insist, “he stands upon security;” take for understand, in such phrases as these, “You take “ me,” and “as I take it ;” hold for continue, as “he “does not hold long in one mind.” But of all kinds, the worst is that wherein the words, when construed, are susceptible of no meaning at all. Such an expression is the following, “ There were seven ladies “in the company, every one prettier than another,” by which it is intended, I suppose, to denote that they were all very pretty. One prettier, implies that there is another less pretty, but where every one is prettier, there can be none less, and consequently none more pretty. Such trash is the disgrace of any tongue. Ambitiously to display nonsensical phrases of this sort, as some writers have affected to do, under the ridiculous notion of a familiar and easy manner, is not to set off the riches of a language, but to expose its rags.
The nature and usc of verbal criticism, with its principal canons.
As such idioms, therefore, err alike against purity, simplicity, perspicuity, and elegance, they are entitled to no quarter from the critic. A few of these in the writings of good authors, I shall have occasion to point out, when I come to speak of the solecism and the impropriety.
So much for the canons of verbal criticism, which properly succeed the characters of good use, proposed in the preceding chapter for the detection of the most flagrant errors in the choice, the construction, and the application of words. The first five of these canons are intended to suggest the principles by which our choice ought to be directed, in cases wherein use itself is wavering, and the four last to point out those farther improvements which the critical art, without exceeding her legal powers, may assist in producing. There are, indeed, who seem disposed to extend her authority much further. But we ought always to remember, that as the principal mode of improving a language, which she is empowered to employ, is by condemning and exploding, there is a considerable danger, lest she carry her improvements this way too far. Our mother-tongue, by being too much impaired, may be impoverished, and so more injured in copiousness and nerves, than all our refinements will ever be able to compensate. For this reason there ought, in support of every sentence of proscription, to be an evident plea from the principles of perspicuity, elegance, or harmony.
Sect. II. Every thing favoured by good use, not worthy to be retained...Can. IX.
IF so, the want of etymology, whatever be the opinion of some grammarians, cannot be reckoned a sufficient ground for the suppression of a significant term, which hath come into good use. For my part, I should thinkitasunreasonable to reject, on this account, the assistance of an expressive word, which opportunely offers its service, when perhaps no other could so exactly answer my purpose, as to refuse the needful aid of a proper person, because he could give no account of his family or pedigree. Though what is called cant is generally, not necessarily, nor always, without etymology, it is not this defect, but the baseness of the use, which fixeth on it that disgraceful appellation. No absolute monarch hath it more in his power to nobilitate a person of obscure birth, than it is in the power of good use to ennoble words of low or dubious extraction ; such, for instance, as have either arisen, nobody knows how, like fib, banter, bigot, fop, flippant, among the rabble, or like flimsy, sprung from the cant of manufacturers. It is never from an attention to etymology, which would frequently mislead us, but from custom, the only infallible guide in this matter, that the meanings of words in present use must be learnt. And, indeed, if the want in question were Inaterial, it would equally affect all those words, no inconsiderable part of our language, whose descent is doubtful or unknown. Besides, in no case can the line of derivation be traced backwards to infinity,
The nature and use of verbal criticism, with its principal canons.
We must always terminate in some words of whose genealogy no account can be given ". It ought, at the same time, to be observed, that what hath been said on this topic, relates only to such words as bear no distinguishable traces of the baseness of their source; the case is quite different in regard to those terms, which may be said to proclaim their vile and despicable origin, and that either by associating disagreeable and unsuitable ideas, as bellytimber, thorowstitch, dumbfound ; or by betraying some frivolous humour in the formation of them, as transmogrify, bamboozle, topsyturvy, pellmell, belterskelter, hurlyburly. These may all find a place in burlesque, but ought never to show themselves in any serious performance. A person of no birth, as the phrase is, may be raised to the rank of nobility, and, which is
* Dr Johnson, who, notwithstending his acknowledged learning, penetration, and ingenuity, appears sometimes, if I may adopt his own expression, “iost in lexicography,” hath declared the name punch, which signifies a certain mixt liquor very well known, a cant word, because, being to appearance without etymology, it hath probably arisen from some silly conceit among the people. The name sherbet, which signifies another known mixture, he allows to be good, because it is Arabic; though, for aught we know, its origin among the Arabs, hath been equally ignoble or uncertain. By this way of reckoning, if the word punch, in the sense wherein we use it, should by any accident be imported into Arabia, and come into use there, it would make good Arabic, though it be but cant £nglish ; as their herbet, though in all likelihood but cant Arabic, makes good English. This, I own, appears to me very capri. of QūS,