Thursday, June 30, 2005

English as a foreign language

Lady Catherine: 'She sallied forth to scold [any erring tenants] into harmony and plenty'
I am, at last, reading Jane Austen. The English in it is not 200 years old, but yet it surprises me at every turn.

The spelling is markedly different, the most noticeable being words split that we have joined: "any body" for anybody, "no body" for nobody. In contrast, the punctuation is not that alien, though there are, as one would expect, more commas than we'd use.

The most striking are words whose use reflects a different social mileu. Take "condescension", for example. Here's the insufferable Mr Collins describing his patroness in Pride and Prejudice: "... he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank -- such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine. She had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching before her." [1] Elsewhere, reference is made to Mr Collins' admiration of "... Lady Catherine's condescension as he knew not how to admire enough" [2].

While we think of condescension as a failing, indicating arrogance and offensively patronizing [3] behavior, it also has the meaning of "affability to your inferiors and temporary disregard for differences of position or rank" [4] -- clearly a good thing in a patron. In Austen's world, class distinctions are a matter of endless attention and vital importance to one's quality of life, and hence a superior who deigns to ignore them is offering a great courtesy to their inferiors.

It's not the language that's foreign after all, but the world that it is describing.


[1] Pride & Prejudice, Chapter XIV of Volume I (Chap. 14)

[2] Pride & Prejudice, Chapter VI of Volume II (Chap. 29)

[3] Here's another one: patronizing. One meaning is "to treat with condescension", which is bad these days; but it also means "to act as a patron, to support or sponsor", which is a good thing (

[4] WordNet and American Heritage Dictionary, cited in


Pierre de Vries said...

Another seemingly familiar word that's used very differently in Pride and Prejudice is "complaisant", as in "amid very complaisant smiles and general encouragement" (Chapter XV of Volume I (Chap. 15)). It has the same etymology as "complacent" (French, from Old French, present participle of complaire, to please, from Latin complacere), and means "exhibiting a desire to please". It shares that meaning with "complacent", but the latter also means "self-satisfied". See's word for the day for 26 Feb 2003.

Pierre de Vries said...

That use of "complacent" is pretty recent. Here's something from Amy Vanderbilt's Book of Etiquette (1952 owards) quoted by Melissa Banks in "A girls' guide to hunting and fishing":

"Insisting on playing a game for which, after a fair amount of time, you show no natural aptitude is frustrating to you and annoying to all but the most complacent opponents"