H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter III. Airs and Graces
We have implied in former sections, and shall here take it for granted, that occasional archaism is always a fault, conscious or unconscious. There are, indeed, a few writers—Lamb is one of them—whose uncompromising terms, 'Love me, love my archaisms', are generally accepted; but they are taking risks that a novice will do well not to take.
As to unconscious archaism, it might be thought that such a thing could scarcely exist: to employ unconsciously a word that has been familiar, and is so no longer, can happen to few. Yet charitable readers will believe that in the following sentence demiss has slipped unconsciously from a learned pen:
He perceived that the Liberal ministry had offended certain influential sections by appearing too demiss or too unenterprising in foreign affairs.—Bryce.
The guilt of such peccadilloes as this may be said to vary inversely as the writer's erudition; for in this matter the learned may plead ignorance, where the novice knows too well what he is doing. It is conscious archaism that offends, above all the conscious archaisms of the illiterate: the historian's It should seem, even the essayist's You shall find, is less odious, though not less deliberate, than the ere, oft, aught, thereanent, I wot, I trow, and similar ornaments, with which amateurs are fond of tricking out their sentences. This is only natural. An educated writer's choice falls upon archaisms less hackneyed than the amateur's; he uses them, too, with more discretion, limiting his favourites to a strict allowance, say, of once in three essays. The amateur indulges us with his whole repertoire in a single newspaper letter of twenty or thirty lines, and—what is worse—cannot live up to the splendours of which he is so lavish: charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit. Our list begins with the educated specimens, but lower down the reader will find several instances of this fatal incongruity of style; fatal, because the culprit proves himself unworthy of what is worthless. For the vilest of trite archaisms has this latent virtue, that it might be worse; to use it, and by using it to make it worse, is to court derision.
A coiner or a smuggler shall get off tolerably well.—Lamb.
The worst of making a mannerism of this shall is that, after the first two or three times, the reader is certain to see it coming; for its function is nearly always the same—to bring in illustrations of a point already laid down.
Some of us, like Mr. Andrew Lang for instance, cannot away with a person who does not care for Scott or Dickens.—Spectator.
Regarded as a counter-irritant to slang, archaism is a failure. Frills is ten times more noticeable for the prim and pompous be.
Under them the land is being rapidly frivolled away, and, unless immediate action be taken, the country will be so tied that...—Times.
'We must not'. Similarly, the modern prose English for if I be, it were, is if I am, it would be.
'I have no particular business at L.,' said he; 'I was merely going thither to pass a day or two.'—Borrow.
There, not thither, is the modern form; to it, not thereto; of which, of this, not whereof hereof; till then, or up to that time, not theretofore. So, in the following examples, except, perhaps, before, though; not save, perchance, ere, albeit.
Nobody save an individual in no condition to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw...—Times.
The use of ere with a gerund is particularly to be avoided.
And that she should force me, by the magic of her pen to mentally acknowledge, albeit with wrath and shame, my own inferiority!—Corelli.
The writer means albeit; he would have been safer with though.
Living in a coterie, he seems to have read the laudations and not to have noticed aught else.—Times.
A novelist who places his story in some former age may do so for the sake of a purely superficial variety, without any intention of troubling himself or his readers with temporal colour more than is necessary to avoid glaring absurdities; he is then not concerned with archaism at all. More commonly, however, it is part of his plan to present a living picture of the time of which he writes. When this is the case, he naturally feels bound to shun anachronism not only in externals, but in thought and the expression of thought. Now with regard to the language of his characters, it would be absurd for him to pretend to anything like consistent realism: he probably has no accurate knowledge of the language as his characters would speak it; and if he had this knowledge, and used it, he would be unintelligible to most of his readers, and burdensome to the rest. Accordingly, if he is wish he will content himself with keeping clear of such modes of expression as are essentially modern and have only modern associations, such as would jar upon the reader's sense of fitness and destroy the time illusion. He will aim, that is to say, at a certain archaic directness and simplicity; but with the archaic vocabulary, which instead of preserving the illusion only reminds us that there is an illusion to be preserved, he will have little to do. This we may call negative archaism. Esmond is an admirable example of it, and the 'Dame Gossip' part of Mr. Meredith's Amazing Marriage is another. It hardly occurs to us in these books that the language is archaic; it is appropriate, that is all. The same may be said, on the whole, of Treasure Island, and of one or two novels of Besant's.
Only the novelist who is not wise indulges in positive archaism. He is actuated by the determination to have everything in character at all costs. He does not know very much about old English of any period; very few people do, and those who know most of it would be the last to attempt to write a narrative in it. He gives us, however, all that he knows, without much reference to particular periods; it may not be good ancient English, but, come what may, it shall not be good modern. This, it need scarcely be said, is not fair play: the recreation is all on the writer's side. Archaism is, no doubt, very seductive to the archaist. Well done (that is, negatively done), it looks easy; and to do it badly is perhaps even easier than it looks. No very considerable stock-in-trade is required; the following will do quite well: Prithee—quotha—perchance—peradventure—i' faith—sirrah—beshrew me—look ye—sith that—look to it—leave prating—it shall go hard but—I tell you, but—the more part—fair cold water—to me-ward—I am shrewdly afeared—it is like to go stiff with me—y' are—y' have—it irks me sorely—benison—staunch—gyves—yarely—this same villain—drink me this—you were better go; to these may be added the indiscriminate use of 'Nay' and 'Now (by the rood, &c.)'; free inversion; and verb terminations in -st and -th. Our list is largely drawn from Stevenson, who, having tried negative archaism with success in Treasure Island, chose to give us a positive specimen in The Black Arrow. How vexatious these reach-me-down archaisms can become, even in the hands of an able writer, will be seen from the following examples of a single trick, all taken from The Black Arrow.
An I had not been a thief, I could not have painted me your face.
It is like a child with a new toy.
But there is the opposite fault. The judicious archaist, as we have said, will abstain from palpable modernisms, especially from modern slang. The following extracts are taken from an old woman's reminiscences of days in which a 'faultless attire' included 'half high boots, knee-breeches very tight above the calf (as the fashion was then), a long-tailed cutaway coat,...':
But the Captain, who, of course, lacks bowels of mercy for this kind of thing, says that if he had been Caesar, 'Caius would have got the great chuck. Yes, madam, I would have broke Mister Caius on the spot'.—Crockett.
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