The Browser Review Daily Letter 14

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Of Snobs And Soothsayers


The Nation,  3rd July 1913

NEW YORK — The composite character of English speech is strikingly illustrated by the double section of The Oxford English Dictionary: Sniggle-Sorrow, prepared by W. A. Craigie (Frowde).

Among the 3084 words listed there are numerous snippy English monosyllables in Sn — such as snore, snort, snuff; Dutch snow, a small sailing vessel; Scandinavian snipe and snub; Gaelic sonsy, happy epithet for a lass; French sojourn and soirée, of which the first record is from Lady Granville's Letters, 1820; Italian solo and soprano; Latin socialism, soliloquy, and solitary; Greek solecism and sophist; Oriental sofa and sophy.

The ancient anarchy in spelling into which some of us are again so merrily plunging is recalled by the word soldier, which has appeared in at least seventy different forms.

Dilettante Walpole gets the credit for introducing in 1760 the rich romantic adjective sombre, indispensable in characterizing the reflections of the Byronic and pre-Byronic heroes. To the Romanticists and to Scott in particular is due the revival of sooth, which seems almost abruptly to have lapsed from use in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The sense development of the verb soothe offers a peculiar surprise to any one who has associated soothing too closely with a certain sovereign syrup for ululant infants. Soothe is good old AngloSaxon for verify, and, indeed, is used in that sense as late as the sixteenth century, e. g., "being inquisitive of these matters, I could find no one of them soothed by such persons upon whose relation I am disposed to venture".

Soothe, however, moves towards its modern meaning when Warner writes in 1596, "Amen, I sooth'd no lye," and Lane in 1616, "to heere what lies they soothe." The next step is indicated in Massinger, 1623, "Sooth me in all I say. There's a main end in it." And so by little and little soothe suffers its declension from verifying to corroborating, to backing up, to encouraging, to praising, to pacifying, and to drugging.

Another interesting sense-history is that of the word snob, a term of obscure origin, in its earliest use, in 1781, meaning a shoemaker or cobbler. In its second stage it is Cambridge slang for "any one not a gownsman, a townsman" — the equivalent of "mucker" in Cambridge, Mass. Next in 1831 it is generalized to include any persons "belonging to the ordinary or lower classes of society."

The classical English sense is fixed by Thackeray's Book of Snobs, 1848, where it means "one who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank or wealth; one who wishes to be regarded as a person of social importance."

Now, there is a distinction between the English and the American use of snob, which is neither defined nor illustrated in the Oxford nor in our own Webster's Dictionary—a distinction due to the influence of aristocratic as compared with democratic traditions.

In an American university town, for example, snob is not applied by gownsmen to townsmen, but by townsmen to gownsmen. In American social circles it may occasionally be applied to vulgar "climbers", but it is much more likely to be applied by "climbers" to inaccessible members of the "inner circle".

A snob is not one who seeks to associate with those of superior rank or wealth or intelligence, but one who keeps aloof from those of inferior rank or wealth. In other words, an English snob is a man who falls short of the perfect aristocrat through a taint of democratic vulgarity, whereas an American snob is a man who falls short of the perfect democrat through a taint of aristocratic exclusiveness.

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