GOOD POINT.

I’m getting close to the end of A Sentimental Journey, and it continues to educate me about English words. In the chapter “The Supper,” his horse loses a couple of shoes in “the ascent of mount Taurira” (anybody have any idea what that might be? there’s a village called Tarare in the general vicinity, but a village isn’t a mountain and Tarare isn’t Taurira) and the narrator decides to go to a nearby farmhouse: “It was about eight in the evening when I got to the house—so I left the postilion to manage his point as he could—and for mine, I walk’d directly into the house.” I didn’t understand the use of “point” here, but the OED soon enlightened me: “7. a. A condition, state, situation, or plight. Freq. with modifying word specifying the type of situation or plight (as good, evil, etc.). Now hist.” A couple of representative quotations: 1733 Pope Ess. Man i. 277 “Know thy own Point..this due degree Of blindness, weakness, Heav’n bestows on thee.” 1896 Dict. National Biogr. at Robert II, “Robert, perhaps really averse to war,..retired to the highlands, ‘because he was not,’ says Froissart, ‘in good point to ride in warfare.’” (I suspect that by 1896 the phrase “in good point” had become fossilized, and nobody but antiquarians would have been able to explain the original sense.)
Addendum. When Sterne writes, a bit later, “The peasants had been all day at work in removing a fragment of this kind between St. Michael and Madane,” the places in question are clearly Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and Modane. The latter is a particularly annoying error, so I thought I’d share the fruits of my research for fellow geography hounds.
Addendum the Last. I have finished the book, and the only complaint I have about it is the dreadful “wink wink, nudge nudge” approach to everything having to do with what Sterne inevitably refers to as “the fair sex.” I understand that it reflects the state of gender relations in his day, but my, it becomes tiresome. “There was but one point forgot in this treaty, and that was the manner in which the lady and myself should be obliged to undress and get to bed; – there was but one way of doing it, and that I leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do it, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, ’tis the fault of his own imagination…” Fie, sir. Fie, I say.

Comments

  1. Diane Nicholls says:

    ‘embonpoint’ from French ‘en bon point’ meaning in good condition, survives, of course, though with a primary sense of ‘plumpness’.

  2. To ride point is to be the front rider in a row or group of (horseback) riders.

  3. Political journalists’ usage of “point man” (eg., “the government’s point man on the Syria file”) seems to combine aspects of the forward rider mentioned by AJPBD, and OED 7(a) “plight” – since the point man is supposed to be leading the effort to solve some problem.

  4. Earthtopus says:

    The “point guard” running a basketball team’s offense definitely seems to involve the “leading” element only. Unless it’s a comeback attempt.

  5. From Google Books searches it looks like “Tarare mountain” or “Mount Tarare” was a term for the rise and fall in elevation between Roanne and Tarare on the Paris-Lyon road.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    How old an edition are you reading? Is “Madane” Sterne’s error (to the extent “error” is an appropriate word for an age of looser orthographic consistency than ours) or that of some subsequent typesetter? One can certainly find 19th century guidebooks referring to “Modane” as that place visited by Sterne, so it’s an issue that could have been silently corrected in later editions had anyone cared.

  7. It raises a grin, your complaining of his prim language and then writing “gender relations”. I’ll do you the honour, Sir, of considering it wry.

  8. Hey, I thought Sterne was being funny when he wrote that, and I myself think it’s funny. Honi soit qui mal y pense is his general attitude to a lot of things.
    Speaking of which, are you still working through the Aubrey-Maturin series? And if so (or even if not), what sense do you make of O’Brian’s use of censoring dashes? One moment he’s saying things like “trembling like a fucking jelly”, and the next it’s “— —ing”.

  9. @dearieme: Maybe “prim” means something different to you than it does to me? Because I wouldn’t consider Sterne “prim” here; he’s pointedly alluding to sex, and (as John Cowan says) trying to be funny about it.

  10. Sterne uses the word “gender” in A Sentimental Journey, as follows. It is when Yorick hires a servant to accompany him in his travels:
    I am apt to be taken with all kinds of people at first sight; but never more so than when a poor devil comes to offer his service to so poor a devil as myself; and as I know this weakness, I always suffer my judgment to draw back something on that very account, – and this more or less, according to the mood I am in, and the case; – and I may add, the gender too, of the person I am to govern.
    This struck me when I read it yesterday, because I had the idea that “gender” did not mean “sex” until recent times. The pun on the grammatical terms mood/case/gender went right over my head the first time (I am embarrassed to say), so I am glad that dearieme’s comment has prompted me to reread the passage.

  11. He does call women “the fair sex”, but at least once he also calls them simply “the sex”, like Bertie Wooster.

  12. Hey, I thought Sterne was being funny when he wrote that, and I myself think it’s funny.
    Well, sure he’s being funny, as are the wink wink, nudge nudge comedians. The problem is (and it’s not Sterne’s fault) that it was impossible to speak more straightforwardly, so there really isn’t any other option, except of course the flowery excursuses upon the beauty and purity &c &c of some fair maid whom he casts chaste eyes at, which becomes equally tiresome to me. I would rather he had written about other things.
    dearieme: What would you prefer in place of (what strikes me as the perfectly ordinary phrase) “gender relations”? Perhaps “relations between the sexes”? How exactly do the added three syllables improve matters?

  13. I can just imagine the explosion Hat will have at the last word, or rather the last punctuation mark.

  14. Eh, I have nothing against dashes.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Ø : the fair sex … “the sex”, like Bertie Wooster
    In 18th century French it was common to refer to women and girls as les personnes du sexe, meaning du sexe féminin. Of course the male sex never needed to be specified as men apparently considered themselves as the default humans (and many of them they still do).

  16. The default humans
    Haha. Brilliant, m-l.

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed the bit early on about the narrator’s encounter with a woman near the remise. It was not so much wink-wink nudge-nudge as charmingly introspective in its slo-mo treatment of the interaction between these two strangers.
    the last word, or rather the last punctuation mark
    Hat, there was a lot of winking and nudging in the last sentence, though, yes?– independent of punctuation. It was one of those moments of the kind that annoyed you?

  18. I’m confused. Am I hopelessly out of date for thinking of women as the fair sex?

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe, the point is that “the fair sex” became just “the sex”. And if women were “the fair sex”, were men “the unfair sex”? “the ugly sex”? Most men did not care how they might appear to women, whose opinion in the matter did not count, or at least not for much.

  20. To return to the point –
    ‘To ride point’, ‘point man’, ‘point guard’: I’ve considered these to have a military origin.

  21. I thought the preferred term was “person(s) of gender”?

  22. Sir JCass says:

    This struck me when I read it yesterday, because I had the idea that “gender” did not mean “sex” until recent times. The pun on the grammatical terms mood/case/gender went right over my head the first time…
    There’s an epigram by Palladas (fl. 4th century AD) in the Greek Anthology, where he jokes about a grammarian’s daughter giving birth to three children: one masculine, one feminine and one neuter. I’ll have to see if I can find it online (can’t type Greek on my keyboard).

  23. Sir JCass says:

    I tell a lie. Managed to find it AP 9.489):
    Γραμματικού θυγατηρ ἔτεκεν φιλότητι μιγεῖσα
    παιδίον αρσενικόν, θηλυκόν, ουδέτερον.
    It may have inspired this epigram by Ausonius:
    Rufus vocatus rhetor olim ad nuptias.
    Celebri ut fit in convivio,
    grammaticae ut artis se peritum ostenderet,
    haec vota dixit nuptiis:
    “et masculini et feminini gignite
    generisque neutri filios”.

  24. Sir JCass says:

    “But wooman, lovely wooman,” said Mr. Turveydrop with very disagreeable gallantry, “what a sex you are!” (Dickens, Bleak House)

  25. Am I hopelessly out of date for thinking of women as the fair sex?
    I’m afraid you are, in that I doubt anyone born within the last half-century or so does so (and those born within the last few decades may well never have heard the phrase). But those of us who are out of date may as well resign ourselves to it, because trying to hide the fact simply makes us look silly. (I remember middle-aged folk in the ’60s trying to deploy the term “groovy”…)

  26. Not-entirely-off-topic: Is it true that obscene books in the Cambridge library have a ‘ Ø ‘ in their catalog designations?

  27. Yeah, the isn’t-it-funny?-smugness of sexist assumptions–the assumptions themselves–are the most tiresome part of the whole mindset.
    I won’t even go into Akin….(sigh).

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