Superfine English.

A commenter in this Wordorigins thread cited a wonderful essay in the December 1885 issue of Cornhill Magazine called “Superfine English” (pp. 626-635); it begins:

It is the Nemesis of pedantry to be always wrong. Your true prig of a pedant goes immensely out of his way to be vastly more correct than other people, and succeeds in the end in being vastly more ungrammatical, or vastly more illogical, or both at once. The common pronunciation, the common idiom, the common meaning attached to a word, are not nearly good enough or fine enough for him; he must try to get at the original sound, at the strict construction, at the true sense—and he always manages to blunder upon something far worse than the slight error, if error it be, whioh he attempts to avoid in his superfine correctness. There are people so fastidious that instead of saying ‘camelia,’ the form practically sanctified by usage and by Dumas Fils (for even Dumas Fils can sanctify), they must needs say ‘camella,’ a monstrous hybrid, the true but now somewhat pedantic ‘Latin’ name being really ‘camellia.’ There are people so learned that instead of talking about Alfred the Great, like all the rest of us, they must needs talk about Ælfred, and then pronounce the word as though the first half of it had something or other to do with eels, whereas the true Anglo-Saxon sound thus clumsily expressed is simply and solely the common Alfred. There are people so grammatical that they must needs dispute ‘against’ their opponent instead of disputing with him, in complete ignorance of the fact that the word ‘with’ itself means ‘against’ in the early forms of the English language, and still retains that meaning even now in ‘withstand,’ ‘withhold,’ ‘withdraw,’ and half-a-dozen other familiar expressions. To such good people one is tempted to answer, in the immortal words of Dr. Parr to the inquirer who asked that great scholar whether the right pronunciation was Samaria or Samareia, ‘You may thay Thamareia if you like, but Thamaria ith quite good enough for me.’

There’s a great passage about the etymological fallacy (the connection in which it was adduced at Wordorigins):

And this leads us on to a second habit of the microscopic critic, which I venture to describe as the Etymological Fallacy. Your critic happens to know well some one particular language, let us say Greek or Latin; and so far as the words derived from that language are concerned (and so far only) he insists upon every word being rigidly applied in its strict original etymological meaning. He makes no allowance for the natural and beautiful growth of metaphor, and the transference of signification, which must necessarily affect the usage of all words in the course of time; he is aware that the root of ‘mutual’ in Latin implies reciprocal action, and so he objects to the harmless English colloquial expression ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ which the genius of Dickens has stamped so indelibly upon the English language that all the ink of all the pedants will never suffice to wash out the hall-mark. I use the mixed metaphor quite intentionally, because it exactly expresses the utter hopelessness of the efforts of banded pedantry.

I wonder if that’s the origin of the phrase (in its modern sense)? The whole thing is worth a read; [I just wish I knew who had written it -- Punch suggests it was the editor of the magazine, who would have been James Payn at this time].

Update. Apparently the author is Grant Allen; see Jan Freeman’s comment below.

Comments

  1. >I wonder if that’s the origin of the phrase (in its modern sense)?

    Of ‘Etymological Fallacy’?
    Could be John Fearn’s polemic against John Horne Tooke, called Anti-Tooke (1824). By the 1880s it is common enough, especially in this kind of literary journalism, to make the “I venture to describe as…” sound a bit coy, here. Smythe Palmer by this time has already published his “Folk Etymologies: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy”.
    Tolkien popularized “etymological fallacy” to a different audience in the 1940s, albeit in a slightly different sense, closer to “false friends”.

  2. It’s interesting to me that both the etymological fallacy and the critique of the etymological fallacy seem to stalk each other throughout Western intellectual history, going back probably to the Cratylus. Here is Dugald Stewart in 1829:

    While the philologer, however, is engaged in these captivating researches, it is highly necessary to remind him, from time to time, that his discoveries belong to the same branch of literature with that which furnishes a large proportion of the materials in our common lexicons and etymological dictionaries;—that after he has told us, (for example) that imagination is borrowed from an optical image, and acuteness from a Latin word, denoting the sharpness of a material instrument, we are no more advanced in studying the theory of the human intellect, than we should be in our speculations concerning the functions of money, or the political effects of the national debt, by learning from Latin etymologists, that the word pecunia, and the phrase æs alienum had both a reference, in their first origin, to certain circumstances in the early state of Roman manners.

  3. “Eelfred”! I love it. Nothing like pronouncing Old English with the traditional pronunciation of Latin.

    Good for a much-needed laugh today.

  4. Could be John Fearn’s polemic against John Horne Tooke, called Anti-Tooke (1824). By the 1880s it is common enough, especially in this kind of literary journalism, to make the “I venture to describe as…” sound a bit coy, here. Smythe Palmer by this time has already published his “Folk Etymologies: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy”.

    I thought it was clear that I was talking specifically about the phrase “the etymological fallacy”; earlier examples of people discussing or exemplifying the idea are irrelevant, and it seems churlish to mock the author for using a “common enough” phrase if you can’t in fact adduce any earlier instances.

    D-AW: I’ve taken the liberty of correcting your quote from here; I hope that’s OK.

  5. Fearn’s Anti-Tooke does seem to contain the first use of “etymological fallacy”, as far as Google Books knows, but the phrase there seems simply to mean “incorrect etymology”, as far as I can make out. Likewise in the only other pre-1885 usage GB finds, from 1850.

  6. In a Globe Boston column years ago, I attributed the “Superfine” essay to one Grant Allen; I don’t now know why I did, but here it’s listed among his papers: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/findingaids/2282.htm

  7. >and it seems churlish to mock the author for using a “common enough” phrase if you can’t in fact adduce any earlier instances.

    Huh?

    A) I am adducing an earlier instance, John Fearn’s 1828 “Anti-Tooke” : “As a single and curious example of this etymological fallacy in Mr. Tooke, I am led to furnish the reader with the following one…”; and B) I wasn’t mocking anyone, let alone churlishly, only commenting on a rhetorical stance.

  8. Fearn’s Anti-Tooke does seem to contain the first use of “etymological fallacy”, as far as Google Books knows, but the phrase there seems simply to mean “incorrect etymology”, as far as I can make out. Likewise in the only other pre-1885 usage GB finds, from 1850.

    Probably that’s right. Maybe LH thinks this irrelevant, but we might think of the two senses as inversions of each other, since Fearn’s “etymological fallacy” involves making linguistic assertions on philosophical grounds, and the “etymological fallacy” of the Cornhill Mag. author involves making philosophical assertions on linguistic grounds.

  9. Huh?

    Sorry! You didn’t actually quote the instance, you just mentioned the book, and I assumed you were just citing it for Tooke’s well-known crazy etymological theories — i.e., as an example of such fallacies. My bad.

  10. I may be rather churlish myself today because I’ve just started editing a long, badly written book with too short a deadline.

  11. editing a long, badly written book with too short a deadline.

    Been there, done that. Hope you’re being adequately compensated.

  12. Yup! That’s the saving grace.

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