Thousands of excellent nouns

The opening of Mencken’s preface to A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949):

In my title I revive the word chrestomathy in its true sense of “a collection of choice passages from an author or authors,” and ignore the late addition of “especially one compiled to assist in the acquirement of a language.” In the latter significance the term is often used by linguists, and some of the chrestomathies issued by them in recent years—for example, Dr. Edgar H. Sturtevant’s “Hittite Chrestomathy” of 1935—are works of capital importance. But I see no reason why they should have a monopoly on what is not, after all, their invention. Nor do I see why I should be deterred by the fact that, when this book was announced, a few newspaper smarties protested that the word would be unfamiliar to many readers, as it was to them. Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to such ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage. Let them continue to recreate themselves with whodunits, and leave my vocabulary and me to my own customers, who have all been to school. Chrestomathy is actually more than a century old in English, which makes it quite as ancient as scientist, which was invented by William Whewell in 1840, or anesthetic, which was proposed by Oliver Wendell Holmes I in 1846. In Greek, where it was contrived by joining chrestos, meaning useful, and mathein, meaning to learn, it goes back to Proclus Disdochos, who used it in Athens in the year 450.

Whether anyone will find anything useful in what follows, or learn from it otherwise, is not for me to guess, but at all events I like the word better than the omnibus, reader, treasury, miscellany, panorama and portable that have been so horribly overworked of late.

Magnified into a miracle

Leonard Bernstein’s introduction to Heinrich Gebhard’s The Art of Pedaling (1963):

Reading this beautiful book has been in the nature of a recaptured experience for me—the tenderly nostalgic re-experiencing of an old set of emotions. So clearly does the essence of the Gebhard personality emerge in his writing that it transported me almost physically back into his gracious studio in Brookline, Massachusetts, absorbing again the gentle urging, the massive charm, the malice-free wit, and the overwhelming love for music (romantic as a young lover is romantic) that stamped each piano lesson I had with him as a major event. We would sit at two fine old Mason and Hamlins, abreast: I would play, he would play: he would leap up, with that light, deer-like energy, and over my shoulder coax my Mason and Hamlin to sigh and sing like his. Anything I did that pleased him was magnified into a miracle by his enthusiasms: my failures were minimized and lovingly corrected. And all was bathed in the glow of wonder, of constant astonishment at the golden streams of Chopin, the subtle might of Beethoven, the fevered imaginings of Schumann, and the cooler images of Debussy. But nothing ever became really cool. Sound, in itself, was passion; the disposition of sound into constellations for the piano was life itself. I never once left that studio on my own two feet: I floated out.

During my last year of study with this Delphic fountain, I came upon, and was infatuated with, the Variations by Aaron Copland. A new world of music had opened to me in this work—extreme, prophetic, clangorous, fiercely dissonant, intoxicating. The work was unknown to Heinrich. “Teach it to me,” he said, “and then, by Jove, I’ll teach it back to you.” And that is precisely what happened. Obviously Gebhard’s greatness as a teacher resided mainly in his greatness as a student. Not long before his death he wrote me that he was in the midst of “reviewing” the works of Bach and The Ring of the Nibelungen. By Jove, that was a great man.

Quite an everyday occurrence

from Huygens and Barrow, Newton and Hooke, Vladimir Arnold, translated by Eric J. F. Primrose (1989):

Hooke was a poor man and began work as an assistant to Boyle (who is now well known thanks to the Boyle-Mariotte law discovered by Hooke). Subsequently Hooke began working in the recently established Royal Society (that is, the English Academy of Sciences) as Curator. The duties of the Curator of the Royal Society were very onerous. According to his contract, at every session of the Society (and they occurred every week except for the summer vacation) he had to demonstrate three or four experiments proving the new laws of nature.

Hooke held the post of Curator for forty years, and all that time he carried out his duties thoroughly. Of course, there was no condition in the contract that all the laws to be demonstrated had to be devised by him. He was allowed to read books, correspond with other scientists, and to be interested in their discoveries. He was only required to verify whether their statements were true and to convince the Royal Society that some law was reliably established. For this it was necessary to prove this law experimentally and demonstrate the appropriate experiment. This was Hooke’s official activity.


At that time it was easy to carry out fundamental discoveries, and large numbers of them were carried out. Huygens, for example, improved the telescope, looked at Saturn and discovered its ring, and Hooke discovered the red spot on Jupiter. At that time discoveries were not unusual events, they were not registered, not patented, as they are now, they were quite an everyday occurrence. (This was the case not only in the natural sciences. Mathematical discoveries at that time also poured forth as if from a horn of plenty.)

But Hooke never had enough time to dwell on any of his discoveries and develop it in detail, since in the following week he needed to demonstrate new laws. So in the whole manifold of Hooke’s achievements his discoveries appeared somewhat incomplete, and sometimes when he was in a hurry he made assertions that he could not justify accurately and with mathematical rigour.


Holding the chair at Cambridge, Newton earned considerably more (200 pounds a year), and the farm that he had inherited, which he leased out and where the famous apple tree grew, gave him roughly the same income. Despite the fact that Newton was quite well off, he did not want to spend any money on the publication of the book, so he sent the Principia to the Royal Society, which decided to publish the book at its own expense. But the Society had no money, so the manuscript lay there until Halley (who was the son of a rich soap manufacturer) published it on his own account. Halley took on himself all the trouble of publishing the book, and even read the proofs himself. Newton, in correspondence at this time, called it “Your book”…

Scarcely perceptible, but decisive

from “The Familiar Style,” William Hazlitt, in Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners (1821):

It is not easy to write a familiar style. Many people mistake a familiar for a vulgar style, and suppose that to write without affectation is to write at random. On the contrary, there is nothing that requires more precision, and, if I may so say, purity of expression, than the style I am speaking of. It utterly rejects not only all unmeaning pomp, but all low, cant phrases, and loose, unconnected, slipshod allusions. It is not to take the first word that offers, but the best word in common use; it is not to throw words together in any combinations we please, but to follow and avail ourselves of the true idiom of the language. To write a genuine familiar or truly English style is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, or who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes. Or, to give another illustration, to write naturally is the same thing in regard to common conversation as to read naturally is in regard to common speech. It does not follow that it is an easy thing to give the true accent and inflection to the words you utter, because you do not attempt to rise above the level of ordinary life and colloquial speaking. You do not assume, indeed, the solemnity of the pulpit, or the tone of stage-declamation; neither are you at liberty to gabble on at a venture, without emphasis or discretion, or to resort to vulgar dialect or clownish pronunciation. You must steer a middle course. You are tied down to a given and appropriate articulation, which is determined by the habitual associations between sense and sound, and which you can only hit by entering into the author’s meaning, as you must find the proper words and style to express yourself by fixing your thoughts on the subject you have to write about. Any one may mouth out a passage with a theatrical cadence, or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts; but to write or speak with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task. Thus it is easy to affect a pompous style, to use a word twice as big as the thing you want to express: it is not so easy to pitch upon the very word that exactly fits it. Out of eight or ten words equally common, equally intelligible, with nearly equal pretensions, it is a matter of some nicety and discrimination to pick out the very one the preferableness of which is scarcely perceptible, but decisive. The reason why I object to Dr. Johnson’s style is that there is no discrimination, no selection, no variety in it. He uses none but ‘tall, opaque words,’ taken from the ‘first row of the rubric’— words with the greatest number of syllables, or Latin phrases with merely English terminations. If a fine style depended on this sort of arbitrary pretension, it would be fair to judge of an author’s elegance by the measurement of his words and the substitution of foreign circumlocutions (with no precise associations) for the mother-tongue. How simple is it to be dignified without case, to be pompous without meaning! Surely it is but a mechanical rule for avoiding what is low, to be always pedantic and affected. It is clear you cannot use a vulgar English word if you never use a common English word at all. A fine tact is shown in adhering to those which are perfectly common, and yet never falling into any expressions which are debased by disgusting circumstances, or which owe their signification and point to technical or professional allusions. A truly natural or familiar style can never be quaint or vulgar, for this reason, that it is of universal force and applicability, and that quaintness and vulgarity arise out of the immediate connection of certain words with coarse and disagreeable or with confined ideas. The last form what we understand by cant or slang phrases. — To give an example of what is not very clear in the general statement, I should say that the phrase To cut with a knife, or To cut a piece of wood, is perfectly free from vulgarity, because it is perfectly common; but to cut an acquaintance is not quite unexceptionable, because it is not perfectly common or intelligible, and has hardly yet escaped out of the limits of slang phraseology. I should hardly, therefore, use the word in this sense without putting it in italics as a license of expression, to be received cum grano salis. All provincial or bye-phrases come under the same mark of reprobation — all such as the writer transfers to the page from his fireside or a particular coterie, or that he invents for his own sole use and convenience. I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them circulation or value. I am fastidious in this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as counterfeit the King’s English. I never invented or gave a new and unauthorised meaning to any word but one single one (the term impersonal applied to feelings), and that was in an abstruse metaphysical discussion to express a very difficult distinction. I have been (I know) loudly accused of revelling in vulgarisms and broken English. I cannot speak to that point; but so far I plead guilty to the determined use of acknowledged idioms and common elliptical expressions. I am not sure that the critics in question know the one from the other, that is, can distinguish any medium between formal pedantry and the most barbarous solecism. As an author I endeavour to employ plain words and popular modes of construction, as, were I a chapman and dealer, I should common weights and measures.

The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application. A word may be a fine-sounding word, of an unusual length, and very imposing from its learning and novelty, and yet in the connection in which it is introduced may be quite pointless and irrelevant. It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of the expression to the idea, that clenches a writer’s meaning:— as it is not the size or glossiness of the materials, but their being fitted each to its place, that gives strength to the arch; or as the pegs and nails are as necessary to the support of the building as the larger timbers, and more so than the mere showy, unsubstantial ornaments. I hate anything that occupies more space than it is worth. I hate to see a load of bandboxes go along the street, and I hate to see a parcel of big words without anything in them. A person who does not deliberately dispose of all his thoughts alike in cumbrous draperies and flimsy disguises may strike out twenty varieties of familiar everyday language, each coming somewhat nearer to the feeling he wants to convey, and at last not hit upon that particular and only one which may be said to be identical with the exact impression in his mind. This would seem to show that Mr. Cobbett is hardly right in saying that the first word that occurs is always the best. It may be a very good one; and yet a better may present itself on reflection or from time to time. It should be suggested naturally, however, and spontaneously, from a fresh and lively conception of the subject. We seldom succeed by trying at improvement, or by merely substituting one word for another that we are not satisfied with, as we cannot recollect the name of a place or person by merely plaguing ourselves about it. We wander farther from the point by persisting in a wrong scent; but it starts up accidentally in the memory when we least expected it, by touching some link in the chain of previous association.

There are those who hoard up and make a cautious display of nothing but rich and rare phraseology — ancient medals, obscure coins, and Spanish pieces of eight. They are very curious to inspect, but I myself would neither offer nor take them in the course of exchange. A sprinkling of archaisms is not amiss, but a tissue of obsolete expressions is more fit for keep than wear. I do not say I would not use any phrase that had been brought into fashion before the middle or the end of the last century, but I should be shy of using any that had not been employed by any approved author during the whole of that time. Words, like clothes, get old-fashioned, or mean and ridiculous, when they have been for some time laid aside. Mr. Lamb is the only imitator of old English style I can read with pleasure; and he is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his authors that the idea of imitation is almost done away. There is an inward unction, a marrowy vein, both in the thought and feeling, an intuition, deep and lively, of his subject, that carries off any quaintness or awkwardness arising from an antiquated style and dress. The matter is completely his own, though the manner is assumed. Perhaps his ideas are altogether so marked and individual as to require their point and pungency to be neutralised by the affectation of a singular but traditional form of conveyance. Tricked out in the prevailing costume, they would probably seem more startling and out of the way. The old English authors, Burton, Fuller, Coryate, Sir Thomas Browne, are a kind of mediators between us and the more eccentric and whimsical modern, reconciling us to his peculiarities. I do not, however, know how far this is the case or not, till he condescends to write like one of us. I must confess that what I like best of his papers under the signature of Elia (still I do not presume, amidst such excellence, to decide what is most excellent) is the account of ‘Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist,’ which is also the most free from obsolete allusions and turns of expression  —

A well of native English undefiled.

To those acquainted with his admired prototypes, these Essays of the ingenious and highly gifted author have the same sort of charm and relish that Erasmus’s Colloquies or a fine piece of modern Latin have to the classical scholar. Certainly, I do not know any borrowed pencil that has more power or felicity of execution than the one of which I have here been speaking.

It is as easy to write a gaudy style without ideas as it is to spread a pallet of showy colours or to smear in a flaunting transparency. ‘What do you read?’ ‘Words, words, words.’—‘What is the matter?’ ‘Nothing,’ it might be answered. The florid style is the reverse of the familiar. The last is employed as an unvarnished medium to convey ideas; the first is resorted to as a spangled veil to conceal the want of them. When there is nothing to be set down but words, it costs little to have them fine. Look through the dictionary, and cull out a florilegium, rival the tulippomaniaRouge high enough, and never mind the natural complexion. The vulgar, who are not in the secret, will admire the look of preternatural health and vigour; and the fashionable, who regard only appearances, will be delighted with the imposition. Keep to your sounding generalities, your tinkling phrases, and all will be well. Swell out an unmeaning truism to a perfect tympany of style. A thought, a distinction is the rock on which all this brittle cargo of verbiage splits at once. Such writers have merely verbal imaginations, that retain nothing but words. Or their puny thoughts have dragon-wings, all green and gold. They soar far above the vulgar failing of the Sermo humi obrepens— their most ordinary speech is never short of an hyperbole, splendid, imposing, vague, incomprehensible, magniloquent, a cento of sounding common-places. If some of us, whose ‘ambition is more lowly,’ pry a little too narrowly into nooks and corners to pick up a number of ‘unconsidered trifles,’ they never once direct their eyes or lift their hands to seize on any but the most gorgeous, tarnished, threadbare, patchwork set of phrases, the left-off finery of poetic extravagance, transmitted down through successive generations of barren pretenders.

A really stupid thing to want to do

Elvis Costello in conversation with Timothy White for Musician magazine, October 1983:

Framing all the great music out there only drags down its immediacy. The songs are lyrics, not speeches, and they’re tunes, not paintings. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture—it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.

The clouds and mists of their own raising

From the translators’ preface of the first English edition (1685) of Arnauld’s La Logique ou l’art du penser (1662):

The Common Treatises of Logic are almost without number, and while every Author strives to add something of his own, sometimes little to the purpose, sometimes altogether from the matter, the Art is become, not only Obscure and Tedious, but in a great measure Impertinent and Useless.

Thus the Schoolmen may be said to have clogg’d and fetter’d Reason, which ought to be free as Air, and plain as Demonstration itself, with vain misapplications of this Art to Notion and Nicety, while they make use of it only to main­tain litigious Cavils and wrangling Disputes. So that indeed the common Logics are but as so many Counterscarps to shelter the obstinate and vain-glorious, that disdain Submission and Convincement, and therefore retire within their Fortifications of difficult Terms, wrap themselves up in Quirk and Suttlety, and so escape from Reason in the Clouds and Mists of their own Raising.

The soil on which we really stand

Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, translated by Fred Wieck and J. Glenn Gray:

Let us stop here for a moment, as we would to catch our breath before and after a leap. For that is what we are now, men who have leapt, out of the familiar realm of science and even, as we shall see, out of the realm of philosophy. And where have we leapt? Perhaps into an abyss? No! Rather, onto some firm soil. Some? No! But on that soil upon which we live and die, if we are honest with ourselves. A curious, indeed unearthly thing that we must first leap onto the soil on which we really stand.

A virtue of intolerance

the opening sentences of M. T. McClure’s review in The Journal of Philosophy of W. T. Stace’s A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (1920):

Clarity is often a virtue of intolerance. A man with convictions knows precisely what he believes and is able to measure the worth of ideas as any want of conformity unto or transgression of his standards of belief. Mr. Stace is a man with convictions. He knows exactly what he means by philosophy and writes a “critical” history of Greek thought in the light (or darkness) of this meaning. The style and manner of presentation are extraordinarily simple and clear. There are more monosyllables to the paragraph than in any philosophical treatise with which I am familiar. Lucidity is the chief merit of the book. As a contribution to historical scholarship it is altogether unimportant.