Faults "intollerable and euer vndecent"

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I haven't read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma yet — all I know about it comes from Laura Miller's review in Salon, "Memo to grammar cops: Back off!", 10/25/2009. But on the basis of her description, it seems to me that one of his claims is not quite right:

According to Lynch, the very notion of correct English is only 300 years old; in the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the idea that native English speakers could be accused of using their own language improperly would have seemed absurd. The advent of printing — and, especially, the growth of general literacy — led to efforts to establish authoritative standards of spelling and usage in the 18th century.

It's certainly true that Tudor and Elizabethan spelling was catch-as-catch-can, and it's also true that prescriptive rules of usage blossomed in the 18th century, along with the standardization of spelling. But it's not true that native speakers in Shakespeare's time never accused one another of using their own language improperly.

.As evidence, and because it's fun to read, I'll post again a few paragraphs of Thomas Nash's "Epistle to the Reader", apparently published as an introduction to the 1594 second edition of Christ's Tears over Jerusalem,:

The ploddinger sort of unlearned Zoilists about London exclaim that it is a puft-up stile, and full of prophane eloquence: others object unto me the multitude of my boystrous compound wordes, and the often coyning of Italionate verbes, which end all in ize, as mummianize, tympanize, tirannize. To the first array of my clumperton antagonists this I answer — that my stile is no otherwise puft up, then any mans should be which writes with any spirite; and whom would not such a devine subject put a high ravishte spirite into? For the prophaneness of my eloquence, so they may terme the eloquence of Sainct Austin, Jerome, Chrysostome, prophane, since none of them but takes unto him faire more liberty of tropes, figures, and metaphors, and alleadging heathen examples and histories.

To the second rancke of reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize, thus I reply: that no winde that blowes strong but is boystrous, no speech or wordes, or any power of force to confute or persuade, but must be swelling and boystrous. For the compounding of my wordes, therein I imitate rich men, who, having gathered store of white single money together, convert a number of those small little scutes into great peeces of gold, such as double pistols and Portugues. Our English tongue, of all languages, most swarmeth with the single money of monasillables, which are the onely scandal of it. Bookes written in them, and no other, seeme like shop-keepers boxes, that contain nothing else save halfe-pence, three farthings and two-pences. Therefore, what did me I, but having a huge heape of those worthlesse shreds of small English in my pia mater's purse, had them to the compounders immediately, and exchanged them foure into one, and others into more, according to the Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian.

Come, my maisters, enure your mouths to it, and never trust me, but when you have tride the commodity of carrying much in a small roome, you will, like the apothecaries, use more compounds than simples, and graft wordes as men do their trees, to make them more fruitfull. My upbraided Italionate verbes are the least crime of a thousand, since they are growne in generall request with every good poet.

Besides, they carrie farre more state with them then any other, and are not halfe so harsh in their desinence as the old hobling English verbes ending in r: they express more than any other verbes whatsoever, and that substantives would be quite barraine of verbs, but for that ending. This word mummianized, in the beginning of my first Epistle, is shrewdly called into question, for no other reason, that I can conceive, but that his true derivative, which is mummy, is somewhat obscure also: to phisitions and their confectioners it is as familiar as mumchance among pages, being nothing else but mans flesh long buried and broyled in the burning sands of Arabia. Hereupon I have taken up this phrase of Jerusalems mummianized earth manured with mans flesh. Express who can the same substance so briefly in any other word but that. A man may murder any thing if hee list in the mouthing, and grinde it to powder extempore betwixt a huge paire of jawes, but let a quest of calme censors goe upon it betwixt the houres of sixe and seaven in the morning, and they will, in their grave wisdome, subscribe to it as tollerable and significant.

When I posted this passage before, in "Centuries of disgust and horror?" (3/16/2009), I noted that the OED atributes the ize phrase to a work published in 1591:

1591 NASHE Introd. Sidney's Astr. & Stella in P. Penilesse (Shaks. Soc.) p. xxx, Reprehenders, that complain of my boystrous compound wordes, and ending my Italionate coyned verbes all in ize.

But in commenting on a post at at Epea Pteroenta, Conrad Roth confirms that the 1594 citation is the correct one, and also quote this passage from his master's thesis, which indicates that Nash took both sides of the argument over neologistic "huge woords":

As his use of language developed in later works, Nashe began to defend his own inkhornism in terms of persuasive rhetoric. In the preface to Christs Teares over Ierusalem, he argues in favour of 'boystrous compound wordes' that 'no speech or wordes of any power or force to confute or perswade but must bee swelling and boystrous' (2/184). Rather than censuring the 'mechanicall mate', who 'abhorreth the English he was borne too' (3/311), he now advocates the compounding of monosyllables, after the manner of the 'Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian' (2/184), comparing this neologistic technique to the grafting of trees 'to make them more fruitful'. When, having explained the word 'Mummianize', he issues a challenge to 'Expresse who can the same substance so briefly in any other word but that' (2/185), Nashe is using one of the chief justifications given by mid-century neologisers. The appeal to rhetoric continues in the preface to Lenten Stuffe, in which Nashe justifies his use of 'huge woords' with the claim that he has become a 'tragicus Orator' (3/152): the very species he had lampooned in the Preface to Menaphon ten years earlier."

It's worth quoting the earlier Nashe at greater length:

I am not ignorant how eloquent our gowned age is grown of late; so that euery mechanicall mate abhorreth the English he was borne too, and plucks, with a solemne periphrasis, his vt vales from the inkehorne: which I impute, not so much to the perfection of Arts, as to the seruile imitation of vaine glorious Tragedians, who contend not so seriously to excell in action, as to embowell the cloudes in a speech of comparison, thinking themselues more than initiated in Poets immortality, if they but once get Boreas by the beard and the heauenly Bull by the deaw-lap. But heerein I cannot so fully bequeath them to folly, as their ideot Art-masters, that intrude themselues to our eares as the Alcumists of eloquence, who (mounted on the stage of arrogance) thinke to out-braue better pennes with the swelling bombast of bragging blanke verse. Indeede it may bee the ingrafted ouerflow of some kil-cow conceit, that ouercloyeth their imagination with a more then drunken resolution, being not extemporall in the inuention of any other meanes to vent their manhoode, commits the digestion of their cholericke incumbrances to the spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasillabon.

At this point, we should quote one of the OED's examples for ink-horn term "a term of the literary language, a learned or bookish word":

1589 PUTTENHAM Eng. Poesie II. xii[i]. (Arb.) 130 Irreuocable, irradiation, depopulation and such like,..which..were long time despised for inkehorne termes.

And I note in passing that someone who writes "the spacious volubilitie of a drumming decasillabon" can never have been a fully sincere opponent of the ink-horn.

But leaving Mr. Nashe behind, we turn to the source of the OED's earliest citation for ink-horn term, namely The Arte of English Poesie, apparently published in 1589 (though perhaps written several decades earlier).  It's less entertaining than Nashe, but if anything even more peevish, e.g. here:

Now also wheras I said before that our old Saxon English for his many monosillables did not naturally admit the vse of the ancient feete in our vulgar measures so aptly as in those languages which stood most vpon polisillables, I sayd it in a sort truly, but now I must recant and confesse that our Normane English which hath growen since William the Conquerour doth admit any of the auncient feete, by reason of the many polysillables eeuen to sixe and seauen in one word, which we at this day vse in our most ordinarie language: and which corruption hath been hath been occasioned chiefly by the peeuish affectation not of the Normans them selues, but of clerks and scholers or secretaries long since, who not content with the vsual Normane or Saxon word, would conuert the very Latine and Greeke word into vulgar French as to say innumerable for innombrable, reuocable, irreuocable, irradiation, depopulation and such like, which are not naturall Normans nor yet French, but altered Latines, and without any imitation at all: which therefore were long time despised for inkehorne terms, and now be reputed the best and most delicat of any other. Of which and many other causes of corruption of our speach we haue in another place more amply discoursed …

There are quite a few other passages in this work that could pass for 20th-century prescriptivism, if translated into a more modern idiom. For example:

.. after a speach is fully fashioned to the common understanding, and accepted by consent of a whole countrey and nation, it is called a language, and receaueth none allowed alternation, but by extraordinary occasions by little and litle, as it were insensibly bringing in of many corruptions that creepe along with the time; of all which matters, we haue more largely spoken in our bookes of the originals and pedigree of the English tong.

And this:

[W]e finde in our English writers many wordes and speaches amendable, and ye shall see in some many inkhorne terms so ill affected brought in by men of learning as preachers and schoolemasters: and many straunge terms of other languages by Secretaries and Marchaunts and trauailours, and many darke wordes and not vusall nor well sounding, though they be dayly spoken in Court. Wherefore great heed must be taken by our maker in this point that his choise be good.

(Note how "Secretaries" are persistently blamed for corruption of the language, anticipating the more recent peeving about manager-speak. )

[M]any other like words borrowed out of the Latin and French, were not so well to be allowed by us, as these words, audacious, for bold: facuditie, for eloquence: egregious, for great or notable: implete, for replenished: attemptat, for attempt: compatible, for agreeable in nature, and many more.

And finally:

Your next intollerable vice is solecismus or incongruitie, as when we speake false English, that is by misusing the Grammaticall rules to be observed in cases, genders, tenses and such like, euery poore scholler knowes the fault, and cals it the breaking of Priscians head, for he was among the Latines a principall Grammarian. […]

Another of your intollerable vices is ill disposition or placing of your words in a clause or sentence […]

All these remembred faults be intollerable and euer vndecent.

I think it's clear that English-language prescriptivism was well established in the 16th century.


  1. jfruh said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    OK, so "mummianize" is better known today as "mummify"; what's "tympanize" mean?

    [(myl) According to the OED, "trans. To affect with a tympany (lit. or fig.); to distend (the abdomen, etc.) with gas; to inflate, puff up (with pride, etc.)". The Nashe citation is 1593 NASHE Christ's T. (1613) 118 The therd sonne of Pride is Atheisme, which is when a man is so timpaniz'd with prosperity,..that he forgets he had a Maker.]

  2. bianca steele said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there were teachers of the English language in the schools of the time, so there was nobody to study and teach English language prescriptivism, and thus arguably no such thing–only people lacking formal study of the "subject matter" talking about their own opinions.

    [(myl) And the situation today is different because … ?]

  3. Mark Anderson said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    There are plenty of English grammar schools that date back to Elizabethan times, but it seems that they didn't teach English grammar in those days – see Wikipedia on grammar schools. The surviving Elizabethan grammar schools (eg Manchester Grammar School) nowadays tend to be independent schools ~(ie not part of the State system).

    [(myl) In those days, "grammar schools" taught mostly Latin grammar, and maybe a little Greek. But the issue is not whether prescriptive rules were taught in school, but rather whether "the very notion of correct English is only 300 years old", and whether "in the days of … Shakespeare, the idea that native English speakers could be accused of using their own language improperly would have seemed absurd".]

  4. bianca steele said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    To be clear, I won't deny there may have been subcultures, like the London playwrights and poets among whom Nashe belonged, who possessed their own in-group sense of where the limits were (though I think it still needs to be answered whether such a group is the most likely source for Nashe says). But even supposing a consistent and reasonably complete body of instruction given to all members of that kind of subgroup, their rules can hardly be taken to describe the usage of the nation as a whole–in the absence of evidence that they engaged in a valid, empirical scientific study of the nation as a whole.

    [(myl) Bianca, your comments are puzzling. When have prescriptivist "rules" ever been based on "a valid, empirical scientific study of the nation as a whole"? There have certainly been some scholars who have worked at defining norma loquendi, but the term "prescriptivist" has generally been hijacked by self-appointed authorities who simply stated personal opinions, often incoherent ones, as if they should obviously apply to everyone. This tradition clearly includes Nashe's critics, Nashe himself, Puttenham (or whoever the author of The Arte of English Poesie really was), and others in the 16th and 17th centuries, and extends forward in an unbroken span to Strunk & White and beyond.]

  5. dwmacg said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    I suspect that prescriptivists have been prescriptivizing for as long as written language has existed, and perhaps for as long as language has existed. It just seems like a natural outgrowth of human nature to assert that there's a right way to do things and doing it another way is a sign of a moral flaw. Hell, even linguists find that certain usages grate on us, even though we know there's no logical reason for our prejudices.

    Slightly off topic: Was Lowell George citing Thomas Nash when he wrote (in Roll 'Um Easy) "and eloquent profanity, it rolls right off my tongue"?

  6. bianca steele said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    myl: You're joking, I think. The schools of the time were meant to educate local boys in Latin and as I understand it would have considered teaching English language as a formal subject in something the same way a high-toned 19th century Haitian school would have considered teaching the grammar of Creole. Part of the point of an education like the one Nashe received was to instill a sense of superiority to his neighbors who hadn't benefited from a university education (and moreover he was in part writing polemics against his rivals in the literary world who had less education than himself but may have been more popular at times). That is totally unlike the situation today, in which schools of education and departments of English Instruction and Linguistics develop formal programs of instruction that all children are required to follow.

    The fact that Nashe peeved about his frustrations trying to view English poetry and prose through the lens of what he'd learned about proper (Latin) language doesn't prove the existence of common beliefs about the language, or their nature.

    [(myl) With respect, something is not working in this conversation.

    (1) We agree that "grammar schools" taught Latin (and sometimes a little Greek, I believe).
    (2) The Arte of Englishe Poesie was not written by Thomas Nash(e). The author may have been George Puttenham.
    (3) That book was not mainly "[peeving] about … frustrations trying to view English poetry .. through the lens of … proper (Latin) language". On the contrary, it was a serious and seriously influential attempt to build a foundation for genuinely English prosody — as you can see from its many complaints about over-Latinization and other violations of what its author saw as the basic nature of English.

  7. mollymooly said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    "Therefore, what did me I, but …" was Nashe from Down South?

    "euery poore scholler knowes": antedates Mark Liberman's "every schoolboy knows" of 1791

    For all his delight in long words, Nashe was the second person to write "O.K." Probably not the modern word, though.

  8. uberVU - social comments said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by whatsonjeruslem: Faults "intollerable and euer vndecent": …to the 1594 second edition of Christ's Tears over Jerusal.. http://bit.ly/2hOAdI

  9. DRK said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    And there were probably Sumerians who complained about the verb order in Gilgamesh. By the way, "Clumperton Antagonists" would make an excellent name for a punk string quartet, or a outlaw aseasonal morris dancing group.

    [(myl) You're probably right on both counts; but let's not lose sight of the fact that there really are differences among cultures, and among historical periods, in how prominent linguistic peeving is, and even what its nature is. Thus complaints about English neologisms in ize go all the way back to the 16th century, but as far as I know, the accumulation (in English) of invented "rules" against stranding prepositions and so on didn't begin until the 18th century.]

  10. bianca steele said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    My comment was in part a response to Mark Anderson's, trying to address a hole in my own argument that what he posted pointed out. If the connection between my comment and what went before was not obvious, I apologize.

    But to try to clarify further: Even if there were a subset of schools in the 16th century that taught English grammar, again as in our day those mostly being pay schools rather than those supported by the state, (which is the only way I can see the relevance of that part of his comment), the fact that a subculture taught certain grammar rules in schools it set up for its own children does not mean they were teaching widely accepted rules–and even if they purported to have been doing so, as we don't have evidence they were trying to do empirical research on the language of other subcultures, they couldn't have really been doing so. I agree this was offpoint and confusing, and not of obvious relevance, and most likely I should have limited my comments to the original post

    That seems longer than the point deserved, and I've deleted an even longer 2-3 paragraphs on the definition of "prescriptivist." I assumed the issue was the development of the study of the English language and especially the development of a discourse in which people were instructed on English language use (which is what I took Lynch's work and Laura Miller's review to cover). A few pioneers, like Nashe, Puttenham, or Sidney, discussing language itself mostly only in passing, without wide influence or evidence of an audience who thought their prescriptions important, just don't seem to me to support the the idea that such a field existed at the time and that people would have known about it and expected it to pronounce on their own usage. (Without a lot of theoretical assumptions, such as that Nashe would have been incapable of making prescriptivist statements had such a culture not existed, which I would probably think are absurd.) I do think it significant that the educated men of that time studied in Latin though they wrote in English, and that they were the first to write a lot of academic-style texts in English at all. But maybe you were using a different kind of argument. Sorry again for the length.

  11. Rubrick said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I now really want to revive the word "clumperton". What a great word.

  12. Nathan Myers said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    I too was ouerioyd at finding "Therefore, what did me I, but…".

    [(myl) Nashe is full of delights, though (for me at least) hard to take for more than five or ten pages at a time. It's a sort of linguistic Thanksgiving dinner.]

  13. ken brown said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 3:07 am

    Does anyone seriously doubt that there were language peeves in those days? And earlier! Caxton's famous tale about "egges" and "eyren" is a sort of language peeve. (And I can't remember any offhand but I'm sure I've seen earlier ones in Middle English)

    On the other hand, isn't it sort of obvious that Nash was taking the piss? At least sometimes. The man's a sort of comedy writer. I'm not sure we can find his real opinions in a short extract of a deliberately funny rant. If he was around today he'd be writing sketches for BBC Radio 4 or erudite put-downs for Stephen Fry to use on QI.

    This is, after all, the man who wrote a book called "Have With You To Saffron Walden" (which is even ruder now that it was then, unless the slang meaning of "dick" is older than the dictionary says it is)

  14. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad has its hair pulled back, Wayfarers on said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 9:37 am

    […] Faults "intollerable and euer vndecent" — Language Log is rather funny about 16th century prescriptivism. With primary sources, no less. A must-read for word geeks and grammar geeks. […]

  15. goofy said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    When was English prescriptivism first taught in schools? I have an idea that it was the 18th century, but I don't know for sure.

  16. Jonathan said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    I really enjoyed this posting, though I think it is perhaps slightly misleading to identify what Nashe and others are doing as exactly the same as later prescriptivism. Disapproving comment on language at around this time tends to focus on usages that are seen as overly scholarly or 'strange' (ie. rare) – up the prestige register if you like – whereas later prescrptivism looks down on usages that are 'provincial', 'vulgar' and so forth. I think we are so attuned to the later type of prescriptivism that we miss this quite important difference.

    [(myl) The distinction is a good one, but the facts are not quite as you say. Thus in the same Puttenham work quoted above, we find (p. 156)

    This part in our maker or Poet must be heedyly looked vnto, that it be naturall, pure, and the most vsual of all his countrey: and for the same purpose rather that which is spoken in the kings Court, or in the good townes and Cities within the land, then in the marches and frontiers, or in port townes, where straungers haunt for traffike sake, …, or finally, in any vplandish village or corner of a Realme, where is no resort but of poore resticall or vnciuill people: neither shall he follow the speach of a craftes man or carter, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and Citie in this Realme, for such persons doe abuse good speaches by strange accents or ill shapen soundes, and false ortographie. But he shall follow generally the better brought vp sort, such as the Greekes call [charientes] men ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred. […] neither shall he take the terms of Northern-men, such as vse in dayly talke, whether they be noble men or gentlemen, or of their best clarkes all is a matter: nor in effect any speach vsed beyond the riuer of Trent, […]


  17. Nathan Myers said,

    November 19, 2009 @ 10:14 pm

    It's helpful to have a well-known boundary line to naturall, pure, and most vsual speech. Riuer of Trent, is it?

  18. Troy S. said,

    November 20, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    If I'm not mistaken, -ize is not Italianate at all, but Greek.

  19. joanne salton said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 2:19 am

    I find it difficult to imagine a past or future society at any technological level in which there was not some confusion and debate over whether a neologism (or even mistake!) was "wrong" in some way or other, or whether an expression used by near neighbours or different sub-groups was in some manner annoying and to be avoided. Language is generally a normative business, and yet language changes as society changes. Peeves and accusations are therefore always a natural part of the process, and it is necessary to examine exactly how they operate and affect language, rather than wonder if they exist or not.

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