Thursday, 15 October 2009

Full of anachronism? Yes and no.

A nice example, found in the wild, of recency illusion (a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky for "the belief that a word, meaning, grammatical construction or phrase is of recent origin when it is in fact of long-established usage"):

Some scenes in the first episode of Emma (4 October, BBC1) ... were well and carefully extended, but in others, exquisite renderings of Jane Austen's own texts were interspersed with anachronistic expressions like "paid up front" and "full of himself". They stuck out like a sore thumb ...
- "Jarring with Jane", Hilary Potts, London W13, Letters, Radio Times magazine, 17-23 October 2009

Anachronisms? Partially true. Google News produces a lovely graph showing the recent origin and growth - post 1970 - of the phrase "paid up front".

The phrase "up front" by itself dates from around 1900 - see Google News - but this is for its general usage (US English for "at the front" ... "in the vanguard").

On the "full of himself". This refers to the section in Emma where Mr Knightley comments on the egotistical Mr Elton.
She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.

TV version:
Mr Knightley: "That man is is so full of himself I am surprised he can stay on that horse."
While Austen doesn't use the phrase herself, to think "full of himself" a modern anachronism for the time of Jane Austen is definite recency illusion. Emma was published in December 1815. A Google Books search for "full of himself", 1810-1815, gets many hits, showing it to have been perfectly current in the period when Emma was being written. It's actually considerably older; the oldest example I can find is
And the proud man is too full of himself to hear any good counsel.
- A commentarie, or exposition upon the prophecie of Habakkuk: together with many usefull and very seasonable observations, delivered in sundry sermons, Edward Marbury, 1650
It's quite nice because it explains what the phrase means: when someone is so full of themself that it leaves no space for outside input. It has been in currency ever since.

- Ray


  1. Shewn vs. shown? I like "shewn" better.

    Of course I had to look up anachronism. Did you know that it was an anachronism to use a typewriter? I guess there are anachronism police out there. Sort of like the censors in "1984" or 1930's Moscow, photoshopping purged former eminences grises or otherwise out of the picture.

    One could consider writing entirely in anachronisms. Might be difficult. Then when we realize how many quotations are spurious ("Play it again, Sam") that might be difficult.

    My favorite is when a I was dragged by a proud mother to a 7th grade production of "Midsummer Night's Dream." Her son was, I believe, a "rude mechanical" in the cast. Unfortunately, he wore a very conspicious wristwatch.

  2. Well, as long it was a mechanical watch (hoho). The anachronisms in Shakespeare - such as having chiming clocks in Julius Caesar - were beautfiully woven together in Poul Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest.