Before the meeting ended, which was not long after, I was set thinking of Despard-Smith’s use of the phrase ‘the men’. That habit went back to the ’90’s: most of us at this table would say ‘the young men’ or ‘the undergraduates’. But at this time, the late 1930’s, the undergraduates themselves would usually say ‘the boys’. It was interesting to hear so many strata of speech round one table. Old Gay, for example, used ‘absolutely’, not only in places where the younger of us might quite naturally still, but also in the sense of ‘actually’ or even ‘naturally’ – exactly as though he were speaking in the 1870’s. Pilbrow, always up to the times, used an idiom entirely modern, but Despard-Smith still brought out slang that was fresh at the end of the century – ‘crab’, and ‘josser’,* and ‘by Jove’. Crawford said ‘man of science’, keeping to the Edwardian usage which we had abandoned. So, with more patience it would have been possible to construct a whole geological record of idioms, simply by listening word by word to a series of college meetings.
      – C. P. Snow (The Masters, 171)

From the eudaemonist, who footnotes as follows:

* Defined by the OED thus:

A simpleton; a soft or silly fellow. So, in flippant or contemptuous use, a fellow, an (old) chap.

Date range from 1886 to 1946, but clustering around 1900 (corroborating Snow).

I wonder what the geological record of a similar gathering today would reveal?


  1. Good question, LH. But I am first set to wondering what your editorial eye makes of these features of the text:
    the ’90’s
    the late 1930’s
    Best more modern practice would have ’90s and 1930s, hm?
    as though he were
    Why do people use as though at all? It seems to me that as if is all we need; and the if in it functions as it usually does, while the though in as though does not.
    still brought out slang that was fresh at the end of the century
    We note the simple past in place of the pluperfect: slang that had been fresh. Interesting from a non-American; and we do see a pluperfect soon after in the passage.
    So, with more patience
    Can the comma be justified? Perhaps this is just a matter of taste, but I wouldn’t want it.
    I think that there might be a different treatment of gender in any such round-table discussion today.

  2. Those features of the text, Noetica, probably have somthing to do with Snow’s text having been written more than fifty years ago.

  3. So have the other features of interest, wouldn’t you say, Elck? In any case, that substitution for the pluperfect is not explained in such a way.

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