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A Nother mistaken idea, which runs through the theories of some of our late philologers, although of a far less dangerous tendency than that which has been just remarked, is yet of sufficient consequence to deserve our attention, before we close the present discussion. It relates, indeed, to a question altogether foreign to the subject of the foregoing Essays; but has its origin in an error so similar to those which I have been endeavouring to correct, that I cannot expect to find a more convenient opportunity of pointing it out to the notice of my readers. The idea to which I refer is assumed, or, at least, implied as an axiom, in almost every page of Mr Tooke's work : That, in order to understand, with precision, the import of any English word, it is necessary to trace its progress historically through all the successive meanings which it has been employed to convey, from the moment that it was first introduced into our language; or, if the word be of foreign growth, and transmitted to us from some dialect of our continental ancestors, that we should prosecute the etymological research, till we ascertain the literal and primitive sense of the root from whence it sprung. " Nor is this idea peculiar to Mr Tooke. It forms, in a great measure, the ground-work of a learned and ingenious book on French Synonymes, by M. Roubaud ; and, if we may judge from the silence of later writers, it seems to be now generally acquiesced in, as the soundest criterion we can appeal to, in settling the very nice disputes to which this class of words have frequently given occasion.
For my own part, I am strongly inclined to think, that the instances are few indeed (if there are, in truth, any instances), in which etymology furnishes effectual aids to guide us, either in writing with propriety the dialect of our own times; or in fixing the exact signification of ambiguous terms; or in drawing the line between expressions which seem to be nearly equivalent. In all such cases, nothing can, in my opinion, be safely trusted to, but that habit of accurate and vigilant induction, which, by the study of the most approved models of writing and of thinking, elicits gradually and insensibly the precise notions which our best authors have annexed to their phraseology. It is on this principle that Girard and Beauzée have proceeded in all their critical decisions; and, although it cannot be denied,
* In one passage, he seems to pay some deference to usage : “Quem penes arbitrium est et jus et norma loquendi.” But the whole spirit of his book proceeds on the opposite principle; and even in the page to which I allude, he tells us, that “capricious and mutable fashion has nothing to do in our in“quiries into the nature of language, and the meaning of “words.”—Vol. II, p. 95.
that there is often a great deal of false refinement in both, they must be allowed the merit of pointing out to their successors the only road that could conduct them to the truth. In D’Alembert’s short but masterly sketch on Synonymes, he has followed precisely the same track." How very little advantage is to be gained from etymology, in compositions where Taste is concerned, may be inferred from this obvious consideration, That, among words deriving their origin from the same source, we find some ennobled by the usage of one country; while others very nearly allied to them, nay, perhaps identical in sound and in orthography, are debased by the practice of another. It is owing to this circumstance, that Englishmen, and still more Scotchmen, when they begin the study of German, are so apt to complain of the deep rooted associations which must be conquered, before they are able to relish the more refined beauties of style in that parent language on which their own has been grafted. On the other hand, when a word, originally low or ludicrous, has, in consequence of long use, been once ennobled or consecrated, I do not well see what advantage, in point of taste, is to be expected from a scrupulous examination of its geneal -y or of its kindred connexions. Mr Tooke has shewn, in a very satisfactory manner, that some English words which are now banished, not only from so
* See Note at the end (R.) Q
lemn discourse, but from decent conversation, are very nearly allied, in their origin, to others which rank with the most unexceptionable in our language; and he seems disposed to ascribe our prejudice against the former to a false delicacy. " I should be glad to know what practical inference Mr Tooke would wish us to draw from these discoveries. Is it that the latter should be degraded, on account of the infamy of their connexions; or, that every word which can claim a common descent with them from a respectable stem is entitled to admission into the same society? May there not be some risk that, by such etymological studies, when pushed to an excess, and magnified in the imagination to an undue importance, the Taste may lose more in the nicety of its discrimination, than the Understanding gains in point of useful knowledge 2 One thing I can state as a fact, confirmed by my own observation, so far as it has reached;—that I have hardly met with an individual, habitually addicted to them, who wrote his own language with ease and elegance. Mr Tooke himself is, indeed, one remarkable exception to the general rule; but even with respect to him, I am inclined to doubt if the style of his composition be improved, since he appeared with such distinction as the antagonist of Junius. Nor will this effect of these pursuits appear surprising, when it is considered that their tendency is to substitute the doubtful niceties of the philologer and the antiquarian, as rules of decision in cases
* Wol. II. pp. 67 and 134.
where there is no legitimate appeal but to custom and to the ear. Even among those who do not carry their researches deeper than the superficial aspect of our vernacular speech, we know what a deceitful guide etymology frequently is, in questions about the propriety or impropriety of expression. How . much more so, when such questions are judged of on principles borrowed from languages which are seldom studied by any who have made the cultivation of Taste a serious object . " As an illustration of this, I shall only take notice of the absurdities into which we should inevitably fall, if we were to employ the conclusions of the etymologist as a criterion for judging of the propriety of the metaphors involved in our common forms of speech. In some cases, where such metaphors, from their obvious incongruity, form real and indisputable blemishes in our language, necessity forces us to employ them, from the want of more unexceptionable substitutes; and, where this necessity exists, it would be mere pedantry to oppose to established use the general canons of criticism. My own opinion is, that this pedantry has, for many
* “Il est si rare que l'étymologie d'un mot coincide avec sa “véritable acception, qu'on ne peut justifier ces sortes de re“cherches par le prétexte de mieux fixer par-lä le sens des mots. “Les écrivains, qui savent le plus de langues, sont ceux qui com“mettent le plus d'improprietés. Trop occupés de l'ancienne “énergie d’un terme, ils oublient sa valeur actuelle, et négligent “les nuances, qui font la grace et la force du discours.”
See the notes annexed to the ingenious memoir read before the Academy of Berlin, by M. de Rivarol, entitled, De l'Universa
lité de la Langue Françoise.