Vocabulary above Their Station.

From Michael Dobson’s LRB review (2 July 2020; archived) of Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s Shakespeare’s Englishes: Against Englishness (which sounds like a good book):

The villains of the piece are a group of 16th-century writers whose combined assault on foreign loan words, terms newly invented from Latin, imported fashions and outlandish cuisine add up to what Tudeau-Clayton calls a ‘cultural reformation project’. They include George Gascoigne (‘the most auncient English words are of one sillable … the more monasyllables that you use, the truer Englishman you shall seeme’), Thomas Nashe (who accused the academic Gabriel Harvey of ‘supplanting and setting aside the true children of the English, and suborning inkehorne changlings in their steade’) and Thomas Wilson, who invented the phrase ‘the King’s English’ in his Arte of Rhetorique (1553), thereby invoking royal sanction for the ‘plainness’ he prescribed. Their campaign inevitably had particular problems with the cultural legacies of the Norman conquest. John Green, with exactly the bluntness he advocates, longed for the linguistic and ethnic purity of Anglo-Saxon England. ‘Before the Conquest by Bastard William that the French came in,’ he claimed in 1615, ‘our English tongue was most perfect,’ but nowadays ‘a plaine man can scarce utter his mind.’ Even the greatest English writers of the Middle Ages, when the court habitually spoke French, were now under suspicion. In 1605 Richard Verstegan scorned Chaucer as ‘a great mingler of English with French’, and Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique had earlier lamented that the educated upper class was still following his example: ‘the fine Courtier wil talke nothyng but Chaucer.’ Spenser, though happy to invoke Chaucer in Book IV of The Faerie Queene (1596) as the ‘well of English undefiled’, had some sympathy with this position, or at least seems to have distrusted those who continued to add French-derived words to English vocabulary instead of contenting themselves with established practice. The preface to Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1579), very much in the mode of the cultural reformers, criticises those who have been ‘borrowing here of the french, there of the Italian, euery where of the Latine, not weighing how il those tongues accorde with themselues, but much worse with ours: So now they have made our English tongue, a gallimaufray or hodgepodge of al other speches.’

‘Gallimaufry’ and ‘hodgepodge’ are both culinary terms (and ultimately of French origin, as Tudeau-Clayton points out), and the question as to whether English should be a linguistic fusion cuisine or homogeneous as ship’s biscuit came to a head in the Elizabethan playhouses, which both attracted and depicted a heterogeneous miscellany of social classes. As venues where crowds could hear new vernacular dialogue exemplifying all sorts of registers and social situations, the newly established commercial theatres were recognised as exerting an immense influence on English usage, for better and worse. The author of the university play Albumazar (1615) [Google Books (1634 ed.), Internet Archive (1944 ed.)], for instance, regards public playhouses as places where the lower orders might pick up vocabulary above their station. In a subplot a farmer hopes to win his mistress with ‘complements drawne from the Plaies I see at the Fortune, and Red Bull, where I learne all the words I speake and understand not’.

If only in self-defence, writers for commercial theatres might claim that they were allies of the reformers, and that, rather than helping to equip amorous rustics with incomprehensibly affected flattery, they were trying to purify the dialect of the tribe. Thomas Heywood’s Apology for Actors (1612) adopts some of the linguistic nationalists’ favourite vocabulary:

our English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, uneven, and broken language of the world, part Dutch, part Irish, Saxon, Scotch, Welsh, and indeed a gallimaufry of many, but perfect in none, is now by this … meanes of playing, continually refined … so that … from the most rude and unpolisht tongue, it is growne to a most perfect and composed language, and many excellent workes, and elaborate Poems writ in the same, that many Nations grow inamored of our tongue (before despised).

Heywood’s last claim was vindicated in 1666, when the expatriate Giovanni Torriano would write (in Italian) that England’s playhouses were the best reason for learning the local language: ‘The English language is today a most copious, most flourishing, most pregnant tongue, and worthy that a foreigner should apply himself to learn it, if not sufficiently to speak it, at least enough to understand their stupendous comedies and tragedies.’ Heywood was not the only playwright to take a stand on the desirability of establishing a standard, properly English form of English. During the ‘War of the Theatres,’ Ben Jonson dramatised the struggle for linguistic purity in Poetaster (1601), when Crispinus is purged and forced to vomit up Latinate neologisms on stage. Some of them still sound pretty out of the way, such as ‘turgidous’, ‘ventositous’ and ‘furibund’, but others, such as ‘spurious’, ‘strenuous’ and ‘reciprocal’ have been in common use since Jonson wrote.

Whatever Jonson may have thought of it, Shakespeare soon used ‘reciprocal’ in King Lear, and the first of the words that Crispinus is made to cough out – ‘retrograde’ – had recently been heard in the second scene of Hamlet. Tudeau-Clayton’s book is largely dedicated to pointing out just how thoroughly Shakespeare’s writings defy every canon of the reformers, and indeed to showing how his Elizabethan works in particular allude repeatedly to their favourite tropes only to qualify and refute them. ‘Put at its baldest and boldest,’ as she says in her introduction, ‘my claim is that these plays evoke only to resist the project of a cultural reformation ideology to appropriate for the figure of the plain-speaking, plainly dressed virtuous citizen the normative (“proper”) centre of “the King’s English” (Merry Wives, 1.4.5) (Chapter 2) and “the true-born Englishman” (Richard II, 1.3.273).’

The result is challenging to read – there aren’t many sentences in Shakespeare’s Englishes which deploy fewer inverted commas and parentheses and references than the one I’ve just quoted – but persuasive. Paying minute attention to linguistic texture, etymology and nuance, Tudeau-Clayton shows not only how Shakespeare delighted in hodgepodges and heterogeneity, from the level of plot to the micro-level of puns, but with what casual élan he picks up and spits out the linguistic purists’ own rhetoric. As she shows, the characters who advertise themselves as champions of plain-speaking in Shakespeare are usually Machiavellian hypocrites (Richard III, Mark Antony, Iago), while the only one to call himself a ‘true-born Englishman’ is Henry Bolingbroke, en route to usurping the throne. Just as strikingly, the one character who appeals to the notion of ‘the King’s English’ is Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, herself delightfully prone to what we would now anachronistically call malapropisms.

To imply​ that any single version of English is innately superior to another would in any case be incongruous in Shakespeare’s Windsor, where the parson is the Welshman Hugh Evans and the doctor the Frenchman Dr Caius. The Merry Wives of Windsor nowhere suggests that either man is less than a fully entitled member of the community, and when the cleric and the medic attempt to fight a duel, the local pub landlord – who has a splendidly distinctive mine-host idiolect, and is later tricked into laying on elaborate hospitality for some fictitious Germans – takes considerable comic pains to prevent it. Mistress Page wants the Frenchman to marry her daughter, Anne, and although her husband, George, would prefer the upper-class twit Slender as a son-in-law, and Caius has a second rival in the person of the broke but ultimately successful courtier Fenton, no one expresses any serious Francophobia or asks whether the doctor has the right number of points to qualify for resident alien status. Shakespeare, as Tudeau-Clayton underlines, is if anything a Francophile, quite unlike Gascoigne or Wilson, and even when he dramatises Henry V’s invasion of France he is careful to point out that there are differences between Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English officers in Henry’s army just as serious or as trivial as those between the English and the French. Indeed the ultimate goal of the military campaign – like that of Shakespeare’s play, which includes a whole scene written in French – is to reaffirm Anglo-French hybridity, since one of Henry’s principal demands is marriage to the French princess Catherine, by whom he hopes ‘between Saint Denis and Saint George’ to ‘compound a boy, half-French, half-English’.

We discussed Thomas Heywood’s Philocothonista, or, The drunkard in 2017.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “The exclusionary binarism between we who aren’t binarists and they who are is very hard to avoid”

    Very true. (Or false. Or both … whatever.)

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Quis debinarificit ipsos binarios?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Quis indeed?

  4. gallimaufray < galimafrée (1393 calimafree « sorte de sauce » …, XVe s. [éd.] galimafrée « ragoût de diverses viandes » …)
    And unrelated to galimatias. Or not.

  5. Thanks for yet another fascinating pointer. This sounds like an interesting and very rare read – rare in that Kobo is offering it to me for 1/3 the price Amazon is asking. 🙂

  6. Another satisfied customer!

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    the most auncient English words are of one sillable

    Very true. Mother, father, sister, brother, eleven, twenty, fathom, little … Not like those horrid foreign words niece, aunt, they, sky, give, egg, leg, blame, court, port, scene, church ….

  8. David Marjanović says

    ‘Before the Conquest by Bastard William that the French came in,’ he claimed in 1615, ‘our English tongue was most perfect,’ but nowadays ‘a plaine man can scarce utter his mind.’

    They get trust until they hit Eric.

  9. Only once in my life have I encountered a recent writer using the word gallimaufray without it seemingly being intended, in whole or in part, as a Doctor Who joke.

  10. Whereas this is the first I’ve heard of its being associated with Doctor Who.

  11. “Only once in my life have I encountered a recent writer using the word gallimaufray without it seemingly being intended, in whole or in part, as a Doctor Who joke.”

    I once read that the definition of an intellectual is “someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger”. Replacing “the William Tell overture” with “gallimaufray” and “The Lone Ranger” with “Doctor Who” would work as well, I think. He said, as one who would fail either way.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Gallimaufry (with just -y) appears weekly on electoral-vote.com, with no Doctor in sight.

  13. Here is a Stack Exchange answer I wrote, coming at the Doctor Who connection from the other direction.

  14. “The exclusionary binarism between we who aren’t binarists and they who are is very hard to avoid.”
    – Prof Michael Dobson (DPhil Oxford), Director of the Shakespeare Institute

    Between we and they? O tempora … Still: Which, of he or Adrian, for a good wager, first begins to crow?

  15. I understood Brett’s point immediately as a result of my misspent youth, but do not fault hat for not following it. To Robin’s quote, once upon a time (in a rather more homogenous/monocultural age) it was statistically improbable to be an American of a certain generational cohort and not be aware of the Lone Ranger. By contrast, I am skeptical that there has ever been a generational cohort of AmEng speakers in which >50% of the individuals would “get” Dr. Who references, although I appreciate that Brett has probably spent most of his life in subcultures where the Whovian-Awareness-Quotient is much higher than for the national population.

    I am indebted to Brett for the stack exchange link, for the sheer amusement value of the comment suggesting that “Gallifrey” is an allusion to an adjective I had never previously encountered purportedly meaning “of or associated with Geoffrey of Monmouth.”

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Between we and they?

    I’ve officially given up on that one. I noticed (because I’m Just That Sad) several examples of this (“from we who are …” etc) in Ada Palmer’s latest, and she knows Latin (and, rather more to the point, was actually aiming at a highfalutin literary register at the time.)

    The dogs bark, the caravan moves on …

  17. @J.W. Brewer: I am sure that you are right that there has never been a cohort of Americans (as opposed to Brits) of whom a majority were closely familiar with Doctor Who. However, the number of natural users of gallimaufry seems to be several nepers yet smaller. When I started as a professor in 2007, I would ask my students, whenever I first mentioned antimatter, if they were familiar with Doctor Who, and there would always be a minority of them who were. I would then point out that real antimatter bore no resemblance to the bizarre way the substance was depicted in the Fourth Doctor serial “Planet of Evil.” However, by around 2012, it became clear that, while overall familiarity with Doctor Who had gone up in the intervening five years,* at that point virtually none of the students who had seen the show had watched any of the original twentieth-century version. Many of them did not even know that the older show had even existed!

    * Around that time, one of my students wore a TARDIS dress she had bought at Hot Topic to class regularly, knowing that I would appreciate it.**

    ** Not like that. That dress was much more demure than what you find if you Google for “Hot Topic TARDIS dress” today.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    @David E.: Surely “from we who are …” makes perfect sense if one assumes the writer was striving for a highfalutin register, because that’s pretty much the definition of hypercorrection, innit?

    The “between we and they” example is odd, because the use of “nominative” pronouns in compound objects is more typically confined to the second half of the compound – “between him and I” is more commonly seen than “between he and I.” Although it is otherwise for “accusative” pronouns used in compound subjects, e.g. “me and him went down to the store” is perfectly cromulent and “I and him” sounds a bit off to my ear.

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    Perhaps the author wanted something like “between those of us who are not [binary exclusionists] and those (others) who are”. Note that a more pragmatiic “between us what are not and them what are” would bring the author in to Ali G territory, probably not the intended effect.

  20. David Marjanović says

    I have long noticed, to my Standard Average European horror, that We the People seems to be indeclinable.

    I think that’s related to sabertooths (i.e. sabertooth cats, not actual teeth) and field mouses (i.e. mouse is on the list of nouns with irregular plurals, but field mouse, for a noticeable number of people at least, is not).

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    In fairness, I think Dobson was probably deliberately evoking the “We the People” vibe.

  22. Little Bunny Foo-foo, the pre-eminent transmitter of the concept in an age when most kids will never see a field mouse, declines field mice, antecedent to boppin’ ’em on the head.

    If there is any question at all for most people, it might be what the singular is, since they’ve only ever heard of field mice. Field mouses sounds like a LOLCat caption to me.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    I recall a ward sister, who spoke rather posh RP as her L1 (though her antecedents were Indian) who consistently called “housemen”, “housemans.”

    [Note for Americans: “houseman” = “junior intern”; I’m not sure what “ward sister” is sermone Americano: nurse in charge of a hospital ward, anyhow.]

  24. John Emerson says

    I have never heard the word “gallimaufry” spoken, but I’ve read it and sort of like the word, but if I were to have used it in speech I would have said “gallumfery”. I learned writing by the look-say method and often misspell the endings of long words I’ve never heard spoken.

    Where does Spenser stand in the purism debate? I remember that several sections of “A Shepherd’s calendar” are in Middle English, but can’t remember if these were uniform in dialect, and can’t remember whether the rest of the book is uniform or diverse in dialect.

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Not in Middle English, though he affects an archaizing style (and indeed invents words to match.)

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    Are the Young People Today relying solely on Little Bunny Foo-Foo for their zoological lexicon and no longer exposed to the beneficient influence of cartoon cats who use the plural “meeces”?

  27. Now I think of it, he should have been saying “I hate meeces to pice.”

  28. @David Eddyshaw: The American equivalent of ward sister is charge nurse.

    @J.W. Brewer: There was a three-line poem in one of my elementary school language arts textbooks that ran

    Two gooses—geese.
    Two mooses, meese;
    Two spruces, spreece?

    (The words should all be correct, but I cannot attest to the exact punctuation. The World-Wide Web shows no knowledge of this particular verse, so I have not been able to verify it.)

  29. Not in Middle English, though he affects an archaizing style (and indeed invents words to match.)

    This is why Tolkien reportedly detested Spenser. (Though I suspect Spenser’s religious politics might have had something to do with it too.)

  30. Tolkien is complaining about Spenser affecting an archaizing style and inventing words to match?? Talk about yer pot and kettle!

  31. “Can’t read Spenser because of the forms,” was C. S. Lewis’ summary of Tolkien’s attitude just after they met. Archaism is one thing; inaccurate archaism is another. Also “No harm in him: only needs a smack or two.”

  32. Having been exposed to “I hate meeces to pieces” only as online quotes, I did used to first assume it to involve a plural of moose (and still no idea which cartoon cat is responsible).

  33. Mr. Jinks. (Meeces at 4:20.)

  34. The cartoon is Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks, a second rate Hanna-Barbera cat-and-mouse thing. Jinks, the cat, affects a kind of beatnik speech manner. The line about the meeces is his standard line at the end of the cartoon, when he’d been had.

  35. It was part of the Huckleberry Hound Show, to which I was addicted as a wee lad.

  36. David Marjanović says

    cat-and-mouse thing

    Today I learned that’s a whole genre, Tom & Jerry is just the tip of an iceberg, and Itchy & Scratchy may not be a parody of specifically Tom & Jerry…

    Also, meeces are delightfully arrhotic.

  37. “Goose, Moose, and Spruce” by David McCord (see p. 74). It’s three, not two, Brett.

  38. “Vocabulary above their station” reminded me of Stephen Sondheim’s interesting but needlessly (?) self-critical observation that Maria in West Side Story would have been unlikely to use “It’s alarming how charming I feel.”

    “Binarism” reminded me of Robert Benchley (if he coined it) writing that there are two kinds of people, those who divide people into two groups, and those who don’t.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    There are 10 kinds of people: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

  40. Stephen Sondheim’s interesting but needlessly (?) self-critical observation that Maria in West Side Story would have been unlikely to use “It’s alarming how charming I feel.”

    That’s a bizarre thing to say. She would have been unlikely to spend all her time singing, to begin with. And she would have spoken a lot more Spanish.

  41. I think the point is not so much that it was out of character for Maria as that, “It’s alarming how charming I feel,” is just a bad line. I know I dislike it and find it awkwardly jarring every time I hear the song.

    @David Eddyshaw: Every base is “base 10.”

  42. Stu Clayton says

    And she would have spoken a lot more Spanish.

    Like this:


  43. “It’s alarming how charming I feel,” is just a bad line. I know I dislike it and find it awkwardly jarring every time I hear the song.

    Huh, I don’t feel that at all. I don’t care for Sondheim in general (I know, I’m a heretic), but that line doesn’t bother me.

  44. I feel charming — oh so charming; it’s alarming how charming I feel. — That’s a great line!

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    Are there people (somehow demographically different from Maria) who in real life do frequently put internal rhymes in their statements? Or who would somehow more plausibly do so if they were to implausibly burst into song?

    I will say that one of the great internal rhymes of the last half-century (by the late W. Zevon) is in a conditional clause – “If California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will.”

  46. Uncanny. Sondheim is mentioned here today and also today I find out that he passed away a week ago…

  47. More context (from The Guardian Nov. 26, 2021):

    He [Sondheim] was 27 when he had his first big hit with West Side Story, which relocated Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side and was conceived by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents and music by Leonard Bernstein. His lyrics for Tonight, America and Somewhere would be loved by generations of theatregoers but, as a perfectionist and his own worst critic, he came to regret one of Maria’s lines – “It’s alarming how charming I feel” – in I Feel Pretty. “That wouldn’t be unwelcome in Noël Coward’s living room,” he said. “I don’t know what a Puerto Rican street girl is doing singing a line like that.”

    And related filmed interviews (via 60 Minutes):

  48. More recent “binarism”?

    James Shapiro reviewing Lena C. Olin, The Private Life of William Shakespeare (which sounds interesting), NYT last Nov. 23 included:
    “Biographers confronted with the mystery of “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” split into two groups: those who see his early years in his hometown as formative, and those (myself included) who place greater weight on his experiences in London.”

    Reader responses might include:
    a) hometown, yes
    b) London, yes
    c) Uh, why not both and wherever else he traveled, physically and in imagination?
    d) Such geocentrism
    e) If you follow the clues to the real authorship…

  49. John Cowan says

    f) the unpredictable mixing of the Shakespeare and Arden families on a particular night in 1563.

    This leads my mind to such questions as “How did John Cowan become H.M. John Cowan, T.E., the curious polymath?” The same possible answers apply, substituting New York for London. But to my mind the answer is: “I have no fucking idea, and neither do you.”

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