Category Archives: English language

Pride and Prejudice again

I often wonder what Jane Austen would have thought of the intense interest in her writings more two hundreds years further on. I wonder whether it had entered her mind that her books would gain a worldwide audience, and her popularity only grow. On the second, I think the answer would be a definite no. It never occurred to her. On the evidence, all she hoped for was the publication of her novels and their acceptance.

On the first, I think she would have been stunned, flabbergasted – and appalled. Appalled at the interpretation by some who attribute political views to her she did not hold. Feminists have given her the status of a feminist icon while the evidence speaks against this.

Jane Austen was a devout Christian, leaning to the High Church of England. Her traditional Christian beliefs, which include the idea of an ordered world, would disqualify this picture before we look at other evidence. In her novels, she savages a range of female types – the stupid, the ignorant, the neurotic, the manipulative, the deceitful, the cruel, and the list goes on. The heartless Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is perhaps the most vile female character in English fiction.

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The Ghost of Dickens Past

By Cicero Bruce|February 6th, 2020

Dickens and the Social Order, by Myron Magnet (266 pages, ISI Books, 2004)

Critics have well acquainted us with Dickens the sentimentalist—lover of the oppressed, defender of childhood innocence, decrier of England’s industrial sweatshops. But seldom have they given readers a glimpse of the Dickens with whom Myron Magnet deals in his study of Britain’s preeminent fictionist, the Dickens who had an “almost fanatical devotion to the Metropolitan Police,” who reproved his government’s failure to punish sufficiently the hardened violators of its laws, supported Governor Eyre’s notoriously violent quelling of the 1864 Negro uprising in Jamaica, and called the proverbial noble savage and annoying “superstition” that “ought to be civilized off the face of the earth.” In short, critics have said far too little about the philosophical traditionalist reconsidered in Dickens and the Social Order.

Yes, Dickens was a reformer, a radical one at that, but his reforming spirit, as Dr. Magnet carefully reveals, was checked by the intrinsic conservatism by no means shared by his present-day enthusiasts, who, for the sake of validating generally liberal aims and assumptions, prefer to focus on the sanguine aspects of his achievement. True, Dickens may have been qualitatively liberal, at least by the standards of nineteenth-century English liberalism. But he was neither a liberal per se nor a conservative liberal of any sort. He was, to make an important semantic distinction, a liberal conservative.

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Waugh on the merits

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in 1903 to upper-middle-class Anglicans who lived in a suburb of London. He attended a boarding secondary school (Lancing College), read history at Oxford, published his first book (a biography of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at age twenty-four, then his first novel a year later. Waugh married that same year (1928), divorced after two years, and converted to Catholicism. After the first marriage was declared null, he married a Catholic by whom he had seven children. He served honorably but ineffectively as an infantry officer in World War II, and was to publish thirteen novels, as well as seven travel books, three biographies, a volume of autobiography, and numerous essays and book reviews. Lionized in the 1920s as a trendy man of fashion, he became increasingly conservative in politics and churchmanship and notorious for his truculent contempt for the sham enthusiasms of modernity. He died on Easter Sunday, 1966, at his house in Somerset. Read on…

‘Core’ vs. ‘non-core promise’ is a legitimate distinction

During his long term as Australia’s prime minister (1996-2007), John Howard made a distinction between promises or undertakings that were ‘core’ and those that were ‘non-core’. He made the distinction in response to an accusation that he had gone back on an undertaking.  Some undertakings, he said, have to be reversed because of changed circumstances. It seemed an unexceptionable explanation, but the words had hardly passed his lips when a howling of abuse, ridicule and scorn arose from the Left like a cloud of red dust blowing in from the outback. The ABC/Fairfax coalition went to town, confident that such an absurd declaration by a conservative they hated just a touch less than Tony Abbott would give them years of fun. Indeed, their confidence was not misplaced.

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English is largely made up of the rules we don’t know that we know.

Have you ever wondered why many foreign speakers of English, as fluent as they may be, never entirely master the language? I can think of the Dutch. Many Dutch people speak English well, but there are few that speak it really well, like a native-speaker – unless they spent some time growing up in a English-speaking country. I exclude those. Mark Forsyth’s fascinating piece on BBC online explains why.

The language rules we know but don’t know we know

Over the weekend, I happened to go viral. Or rather a single paragraph from a book I wrote called The Elements of Eloquence went viral. The guilty paragraph went like this:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”  Read on…