JUST as scientific discoveries are sometimes flukes, or rather examples of what Horace Walpole called ‘serendipity,’ — that is, the faculty for finding one thing when looking for another, — so language has often been enriched by misunderstandings. There are few more convenient phrases than ‘psychological moment.’ It expresses ‘nick of time’ with something added, and there is no other way of conveying its exact sense. Yet, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it originally ‘passed nonsensically into English journalese.’ The Prussian Kreuz Zeitung, discussing (December 16, 1870) the projected bombardment of Paris, used das psychologische Moment — that is, ‘momentum’ or determining factor—to express the probable effect of the bombardment on the morale of the Parisians. French writers, at that time generally very unfamiliar with German, understood it as though the German journalist had written der psychologische Moment — that is, ‘moment of time.’ Sarcey, in his Siège de Paris (1871), rendered it by moment psychologique, which is explained by the Dictionnaire General as ‘le moment où l’âme est dans l’attente de quelque chose qui doit s’accomplir.’ Sarcey’s book was at once translated into English and so our language was enriched by a phrase which we should now be sorry to relinquish.
This is a case of isolated misunderstanding; but there are many words to which a rather uneducated communal usage has given a new meaning. The English Chancellor of the Exchequer is reported as having said, on October 20, 1024, ‘Mr. MacDonald has descended to a level which no Prime Minister of this country had demeaned himself by touching before.’ ‘To demean oneself’ is simply to behave oneself, from Old French se demener, which has very much the same sense as se conduire. It will be obvious that ‘conduct’ and ‘demeanor’ are fairly germane concepts. But, by association with the English adjective ‘mean,’ the verb ‘demean ‘ has taken, in vulgar parlance, the idea of lowering oneself. I need hardly say that I use ‘vulgar’ in its etymological sense, for Mr. Churchill is here in the company of Richardson, Thackeray, and Hawthorne. The mental process involved is what is called folk-etymology, an instinct which finally leads to such rustic perversions as ‘Polly Andrews’ for ‘polyanthus’ and the Essex peasant’s ‘ varico vein ‘ as the logical singular of ‘varicose veins.’
Excursions into a language with which the speaker or writer is unfamiliar are apt to lead to much more disastrous results. Not everyone who writes down beau idéal is aware that beau is the noun and idéal the adjective. Cui bono is commonly used as equivalent to ‘to what purpose?’ But for Lucius Cassius, to whom Cicero attributes the saying, it was an unfailing test of the real motive of an action. Cui bono fuisset? — Who would have profited by it? One of the noisiest of British eugenists, hymning in the London Observer of October 24, 1924, the joys of Prohibition, regretted the impossibility of giving in petto a proper description of its working. The Italian in petto, ‘in the breast,’ — that is, secretly, tacitly, — expresses just the opposite of the writer’s intention. With the widespread conviction that in petto means ‘concisely,’ one may compare the repeated use by a popular novelist of the word ‘cavalcade,’ — that is, mounted procession, — for two pedestrians pushing a barrel-organ. Chaucer and other Middle English writers often use the Old French title ‘dan,’ the masculine of ‘dame,’ speaking, for instance, of ‘Dan Cupid ‘ and of ‘Dan Russell the fox.’ That Spenser should apply the same title to ‘Dan Chaucer, well of English undefyled,’ is right and natural, but the distinguished author who, on the strength of this, wrote of ‘good old Daniel Chaucer’ really went a little too far. The allusion above to Prohibition reminds me of the temperance orator who, with a vague recollection of the word ‘misogynist,’ proclaimed himself to be ‘an uncompromising beerogynist.’ More logical was the little French girl who, having heard her mother use the words pauvre estropié of a man with a wooden leg, cried, seeing a one-armed man, ‘Maman, voilà un pauvre estromain.’
Our Shakespearean reminiscences are not always free from misunderstanding. I am not alluding to chronic misquotation, for the psychology of language seems to require that only by becoming a misquotation can a quotation obtain real currency. Most of us say: ‘The Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose,’ ‘A young man married is a young man marred,’ ‘A beggarly array of empty benches,’ ‘Screw your courage to the sticking-point,’ and so forth, with the confident feeling that we are quoting Shakespeare’s own words. But that is another story; for here we are dealing with the misunderstood and not with the misquoted. No Shakespearean phrase is more often misused than ‘foregone conclusion,’descriptive of a result that can be predicted with absolute certainty, whereas Othello meant by it a disaster that has already occurred. Bellenden, in his translation of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiæ, writes: ‘Macbeth and Banquho met by ye gait thre women clothit in elrage and uncouth weid. They wer jugit be the pepill to be weird sisters’; and two centuries earlier Chaucer told of the ‘wirdes that we clepen destinee.’ We still use ‘weird’ in its proper sense in the phrase ‘ to dree one’s weird’ — that is, to endure one’s fate. Bellenden’s ‘weird sisters’ were borrowed by Shakespeare, and the regular collocation of the words resulted in the birth of an adjective ‘weird,’ taken to mean grisly, fantastic, and so forth. Similarly from ‘gamecock,’ cock of the game (that is, cockfighting), has been evolved the sporting-adjective ‘game,’ plucky, intrepid, used especially in the phrase ‘to die game.’
The modern misuse of some expressions is due less to misapprehension than to the innate vulgarity of mankind. ‘Patience on a monument,’ from Viola’s pretty speech in Twelfth Night, suggests to the modern mind only a look of bored resignation, while ‘single blessedness,’ used by Shakespeare of the holiness of celibate life, helps to express our half-ironical, half-complacent conception of the bachelor’s care-free existence. So, also, the ‘aching void’ which we owe to Cowper’s ‘Walking with God ‘ is commonly applied to that feeling which warns us that the next meal is overdue, and ‘ latter end, ‘ once poetically associated with man’s destiny in old age and eternity, has become almost exclusively anatomical.
Nautical metaphor has many pitfalls for the landlubber. Cheese-paring economy is sometimes described as ‘spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar.’ But Captain John Smith, the amazing John Smith of Virginia, speaks with derision of those who would rather ‘lose ten sheepe than be at the charge of a halfe penny worth of tarre.’ In many English dialects ‘sheep’ is regularly pronounced ‘ship,’ and the Ship Street of our country towns represents an earlier Sheep Street, leading generally to the sheep-market. Tar is a very ancient medicine for some diseases of sheep. When the preliminary difficulties of a problem are cleared away, we say, ‘Now all is plain sailing.’ But the sailor speaks of ‘plane-sailing,’ and, though ‘plain’ and ‘plane’ are really the same word, the allusion is not to simplicity, but to navigation by a plane chart — that is, one drawn on the theoretical assumption that the earth’s surface is plane and not spherical. During the World War, the type of man who in France had the name jusquauboutiste was sometimes in England called a ‘bitter-ender,’ as being determined to see things through ‘to the bitter end.’ If we again consult Captain John Smith, we find that the ‘bitter’ is the ‘turn of a cable about the bitts,’ and that to pay out cable or rope ‘to the bitter end’ is to let it run out till none remains inboard. Mistaken association with the adjective ‘bitter’ has given a stern sort of vigor to the metaphorical application of the phrase.
Most people know that ‘forlorn hope’ was originally a military name for a desperate storming party (the enfants perdus of French), and that it is borrowed from Old Dutch verloren hoop, ‘lost heap’; also that ‘to curry favor’ is a meaningless corruption of a much earlier ‘to curry Favel,’ the latter word being the Old French Fauvel, the name of a fallow horse in a mediæval allegory, der fahle Hengst of German legend. But I doubt whether there are many who realize the fantastic change of form and meaning that has given us the expression ‘to take heart of grace.’ This elaboration of the simpler ‘to take heart’ is one of those grotesque and clumsy word-plays in which the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries delighted. A ‘hart of grease’ was a hart in prime condition, with the proper depth of fat upon his ribs. ‘Heart’ and ‘hart’ were originally spelled alike, a fact which perhaps helped to perpetuate this singularly pointless complex.
The Revised Version of the English Bible, published in 1884, shows that some of the most picturesque expressions in the language rest upon mistranslations. There can hardly be a phrase more full of awful boding than ‘the valley of the shadow of death,’ one of the many jewels which the Authorized Version inherited from Coverdale. It is true that the Revised Version preserves this reading, but the marginal note gives the alternative, and probably more correct, ‘valley of deep darkness.’ The early vernacular translations were based on the Vulgate and the Septuagint, both of which often misinterpret the Hebrew pointing. Thus ferrum pertransiit animam ejus was poetically rendered in the Prayer Book version of the Psalms ‘the iron entered into his soul.’ This is also the reading of the Great Bible (1539), while the Authorized Version and the Revised Version have the more prosaic ‘he was laid in (chains of) iron,’ which represents the Hebrew original, instead of the erroneous Vulgate. ‘Scapegoat’ was coined by Tyndale as a translation of the caper emissarius of the Vulgate. The Revised Version replaces this by the proper name ‘ Azazel,’ with the alternative rendering ‘dismissal.’ When one thinks of the absolute impossibility of expressing in any other way the idea contained in the picturesque ‘scapegoat,’ one is thankful that early textual interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was sometimes uncertain.