My wife and I have finished Speak, Memory and moved on to Middlemarch in our nighttime reading, and the other day I was baffled by this, in a discussion of social mobility in Chapter 11: “Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirates, gained wealth…” What on earth does it mean to “deny aspirates”? I looked up aspirate in the OED, thinking it might have some obscure sense that would explain the phrase, but no such luck.
Today it occurred to me to use GoogleBooks, and the fourth hit was page 209 of Our Corner, by Annie Besant:
While we praise concision, it is well to remember that it is sometimes carried to excess, brevity being attained by obscuring the sense. Thus we find George Eliot saying: “Persons denied aspirates, gained wealth;” a phrase which for a moment creates bewilderment by reason of the “denied” appearing to be in the active voice.
A light bulb went on: “denied” is passive! Persons who were denied aspirates [i.e., dropped their aitches, i.e., were lower class] gained wealth! Bless you, Annie Besant, and bless you, internet!
Incidentally, a few pages later in the same chapter occurs this amusing and impressively sensible passage:
‘What must Rosy know, mother?’ said Mr Fred, who had slid in unobserved through the half-open door while the ladies were bending over their work, and now going up to the fire stood with his back towards it, warming the soles of his slippers.
‘Whether it’s right to say “superior young men”,’ said Mrs Vincy ringing the bell.
‘Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers’ slang.’
‘Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?’ said Rosamond, with mild gravity.
‘Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.’
‘There is correct English: that is not slang.’
‘I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.’