enough, you say. Indeed, so it seemed for years, during which time the
quotation lay quietly in waiting among Bikwil’s archives, handy,
perhaps, as a background piece for the casual limerick-attracted
passer-by, but presumably unregarded as anything constituting a problem.
editor received an email late in 2001, that is, which politely enquired as
to which exactly of Fowler’s books Harlish Goop’s paragraphs came from.
too happy to oblige, I looked it up in the obvious place (his Modern
English Usage), and guess what?
checked again, this time flicking back and forth through those pedantic
pages, hoping to find a hidden reference to limericks — all to no avail,
of course. While I was repeating the humiliating procedure (with equal
success), an appalling idea suddenly occurred to me.
they weren’t Fowler’s words at all?
they were Ebenezer Brewer’s, say, from his Dictionary of Phrase and
know what you’re all thinking. How on earth, you’re marvelling, could
bookish old H.G. have mixed up such dissimilar works? They are, after all,
designed for different purposes: the one to give counsel on the proper use
of English, the other to provide a compilation of otherwise
hard-to-track-down literary, historical and miscellaneous other
information (e.g. English idioms).
simple reason for any possibility of my confusing the two works is this: I
learned of both on the same day from a friend who produced them from his
shelves to search for clarification of a couple of points that had arisen
in conversation. From that moment they’ve been inextricably interconnected
in my mind, so much so that whenever a question comes up that either
authority might conceivably answer I have to quickly ask myself which I
should call upon.
despite their differences, the occasional overlap does occur. When it
does, you can bet your sweet bippy that Fowler will say something
contemptuous, while Brewer will stick to the facts. All of which is
consistent with their aims, I suppose.
case in point: the Italian phrase dolce far niente. Brewer gives
the translation (“delightful idleness”), plus a similar Latin phrase, and
leaves it there. Fowler, on the other hand, relegates the phrase to the
rubbish-heap he entitles Battered Ornaments. There it languishes to this
day, along with such phrases alma mater, in durance vile,
gang agley and sleep of the just.
example of an overlap occurs with Fowler’s entry on Sobriquets. You know,
such “secondary names” as Coeur de Lion (for Richard I), Gilded
Chamber (House of Lords), Senior Service (Navy), Warrior
Queen (Boadicea), etc.
these can be looked up individually in Brewer without occasioning any risk
of rebuke, but Fowler sternly advises against their use, since they’re “a
very serious symptom of perverted taste for cheap ornament”. Typical.
me wrong: Fowler is not my pet aversion. There are parts of MEU
that are actually worth reading. Articles I particularly like include
Humour, Love of the Long Word, Metaphor, Subjunctives . . .
some favourites from Brewer: Black, God, Heretic, Horse, Seven, Tricolour
. . .
you’ve long since deduced and precisely as I’d feared, the limerick
information is a Brewer quote. I can only assume that on the day in
question in 1998 I had been looking in both, and later forgot which had
supplied the quotation.
As far as
the email request went, then, there was little I could do but draft an
apology to my enquirer, together with an abject entreaty for forgiveness.