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Foppington (Lord)


Foppington (Lord), an empty-headed coxcomb, intent only on dress and fashion. His favourite oaths, which he brings out with a drawl, are: “Strike me dumb!” “Split my windpipe!” and so on. When he loses his mistress, he consoles himself with this reflection: “Now, for my part, I think the wisest thing a man can do with an aching heart is to put on a serene countenance; for a philosophical air is the most becoming thing in the world to the face of a person
of quality.” — Sir John Vanbrugh, The Relapse (1G97).

Foppington (Lord), a young married man about town, most intent upon dress and fashion, whose whole life is consumed in the follies of play and seduction. His favourite oaths are: “Sun, burn me!” “Curse, catch me!” “Stap my breath!” “Let me blood!” “Run me through!” “Strike me stupid!” “Knock me down!” He is reckoned the king of ill court fops. — Colley Cibber, The Careless Husband (1704).

Foppington (Lord), elder brother of Tom Fashion. A selfish coxcomb, engaged to be married to Miss Hoyden, daughter of Sir Tunbelly Clumsy, to whom he is personally unknown. His brother Tom, to whom he did not behave well, resolved to outwit him; and passing himself off as Lord Foppington, got introduced to the family, and married the heiress. When his lordship appeared, he was treated as an impostor, till Tom explained his ruse; and Sir Tunbelly, being snubbed by the coxcomb, was soon brought to acquiesce in the change, and gave his hand to his new son-in-law with
cordiality. The favourite oaths of Lord Foppington are: “Strike me dumb!” “Strike me ugly!” “Stap my vitals!” “Split my windpipe!” “Rat me!” etc.; and, in speaking, his affectation to change the vowel “o” into a, as rat, nam, resalve, waurld, ardered, mauth, paund, maunth, lang, philasapher, tarture, and so on. — Sheridan, A Trip to Scarborough (1777)


From The Reader’s Handbook of Allusions, References, Plots and Stories, by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. (1891)

Alternate spellings


I am inclined to agree with linguist Robert A. Hall, Jr., who points out that “… in earlier times there was considerably more latitude in the use of alternate spellings such as smoak or smoke, cloak or cloke, cloathes or clothes. No harm was done by the existence of such alternatives, nor would it be done at present.” In fact, any language spelled as abominably as English is spelled probably deserves every misteak it gets.


From To Writers, with Love, by Lesley Conger (1971)

The life of a statue


On the day when a statue is finished, its life, in a certain sense, begins. The first phase, in which it has been brought, by means of the sculptor’s efforts, out of the block of stone into human shape, is over; a second phase, stretching across the course of centuries, through alternations of adoration, admiration, love, hatred, and indifference, and successive degrees of erosion and attrition, will bit by bit return it to the unformed mineral mass out of which its sculptor had taken it.


From That Mighty Sculptor, Time, by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Walter Kaiser (1993)

The unspeakable Lord Ormont


Moreover, I have vowed not to open Lourdes till I shall have closed with a furious final bang the unspeakable Lord Ormont, which I have been reading at the maximum rate of ten pages, ten insufferable and unprofitable pages a day. It fills me with a critical rage, an artistic fury, utterly blighting in me the indispensable principle of respect. I have finished, at this rate, but the first volume whereof I am moved to declare that I doubt if any equal quantity of extravagant verbiage, of airs and graces, of phrases and attitudes, of obscurities and alembications, ever started less their subject, ever contributed less of a statement told the reader less of what the reader needs to know. All the elaborate predicates of exposition without the ghost of a nominative to hook themselves to; and not a difficulty met, not a figure presented, not a scene constituted not a dim shadow condensing once either into audible or into visible reality making you hear for an instant the tap of its feet on the earth. Of course there are pretty things, but for what they are they come so much too dear, and so many of his profundities and tortuosities prove when threshed out to be only pretentious statements of the very simplest propositions.


From a letter to Edmund Gosse complaining about George Meredith’s Lord Ormont and his Aminta, reprinted in Selected Letters of Henry James to Edmund Gosse, 1882-1915: A Literary Friendship, edited by Rayburn S. Moore (1988)

The standard woman does not seem satisfied with her fate


The standard woman does not seem satisfied with her fate, nor with the masculine prerogatives, which seem to incite her to prefer being a man (53%). But we feel safe in saying that not much would be needed in the way of satisfaction and realization of feminine desires for her to become once more proud and happy to be a woman. Nevertheless, the standard woman does not say that man is devoid of faults. On the contrary, she has drawn an impressive table of the “essential” qualities that man should endeavor to acquire. We refer the reader to it in Question 28*.

*The picture of the average man was depicted in majestic strokes in the answers of these women. A summation of their remarks may be made in this manner: “You are, gentlemen, selfish and you take openly too many liberties (morally and physically). Those among you who would like to earn the love and confidence of a woman will find in the examination of the foregoing list some useful and profitable lessons.”


From Inquiry into the intimate lives of women, by Marc Lanval, translated from L’Amour Sous le Masque (1950)

Keeping the story free of explanation


Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. Leskov is a master at this (compare pieces like “The Deception” and “The White Eagle”). The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves and amplitude that information lacks.


From “The Storyteller,” (1936) reprinted in Illuminations
(available online at

Blankly folding blank paper


Immediately I found myself standing in a spacious place intolerably lighted by long rows of windows, focusing inward the snowy scene without.

At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.

In one corner stood some huge frame of ponderous iron, with a vertical thing like a piston periodically rising and falling upon a heavy wooden block. Before it—its tame minister—stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note-paper, which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing.

Seated before a long apparatus, strung with long, slender strings like any harp, another girl was feeding it with foolscap sheets which, so soon as they curiously traveled from her on the cords, were withdrawn at the opposite end of the machine by a second girl. They came to the first girl blank; they went to the second girl ruled.

I looked upon the first girl’s brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl’s brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled. Then, as I still looked, the two—for some small variety to the monotony—changed places; and where had stood the young, fair brow, now stood the ruled and wrinkled one.

Perched high upon a narrow platform, and still higher upon a high stool crowning it, sat another figure serving some other iron animal; while below the platform sat her mate in some sort of reciprocal attendance.

Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard by the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery—that vaunted slave of humanity—here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.


From “The Tartarus of Maids,” by Herman Melville, first published in Harpers Magazine, April 1855

Science needs the freedom to constantly change its mind


One possible corrective might be to modify the way we teach science. Currently, our insights are communicated as a catalogue of Things We Know, which has the dual disadvantage of not only making science seem a laborious exercise in memorisation, but also giving the false impression that our knowledge is petrified and immutable, a Cretaceous-era insect entombed in amber. Maybe, instead, we should teach science as an exciting examination of Things We Don’t (Yet) Know.

Denied the comforting blanket of illusory permanence and absolute truth, we have the opportunity and obligation to do something extraordinary: to see the world as it is, and to understand and appreciate that our images will keep changing, not because they are fundamentally flawed, but because we keep providing ourselves with better lenses. Our reality hasn’t become unstable; it’s just that our understanding of reality is of necessity a work in progress.


From “Paradigms lost,” by David P. Barash, Aeon 27 October 2015

The architect that places yet another brick upon the palace of the future


More than interesting, the novel is important because, low as its status may be, it does day by day express mankind, and mankind in the making. Sometimes it is the architect that places yet another brick upon the palace of the future. Always it is the showman of life. I think of “serious books”, of the incredible heaps of memoirs, works on finance, strategy, psychology, sociology, biology, omniology that fall every day like manna (unless from another region they rise as fumes) into the baskets of the reviewers. All this paper they dance their little dance to four hundred readers and a great number of second-hand booksellers, and lo ! the dust of their decay is on their brow. They live a little longer than an article by Mr. T. P. O’Connor, and live a little less.

The novel, too, does not live long, but I have known one break up a happy home, and another teach revolt to several daughters; can we give greater praise? Has so much been achieved by any work entitled “The Foundations of the Century”, or something of that sort? The novel, despised buffoon that it is, pours out its poison and its pearls within reach of every lip ; its heroes and heroines offer examples to the reader and make him say: “That bold, bad man, you wouldn’t think it to look at me, who’m a linen-draper, but it’s me.”


From Literary Chapters, by W. L. George (1918)

I lost my love of books


But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out of date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the ‘sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.


From “Bookshop Memories,” originally published in Fortnightly November 1936, included in Essays by George Orwell

A deep look into a waterhole


Exploring into the real ins and outs of a community like that is something like taking a deep look into a waterhole in the desert. You can ride within a few feet of a desert waterhole every day for a year without ever actually seeing the water at all, only the things it reflect: sky, willows, snakeweed, tules, rye grass, maybe a few circling snake doctors and a bird or two. But when you get down to drink from it and lean close, the reflections disappear and the life under the surface becomes visible: water bugs, tadpoles, minnows, dwarf crawfish, pin-point molluscs, naked roots, red water weeds, thread grasses. The mere shadowing out of some surface images that never really existed opens up a whole new world as active and populous as your won, different from anything in it and still part of it.


From Wind of Morning by H. L. Davis (1952)

I think in writing


I think in writing: putting down words, sharpening them. In spoken communication with others I think too — outward, then words — developing thought. And in reading I react to the words. In other words, for me the Word clarifies cerebration. Whereas in solitude, in introspection, I retell old stories, I repeat old arguments, hold discourses that will never be held in which I am unanswered as I make my cogent points, as I thrust home, irrefutably, the explanation that will prove and clarify and settle. Thus while the daydream proceeds, all is repetition, a foggy sort of non-thought, which moves like a phonograph needle round and round in a groove, leaving me in the end with no sense of accomplishment or progress. But put it down with a pen or say it out with the voice to some other one, the audience, the real opposite number, the responding mind, and at once with the word thinking begins.


From Invented a Person: The Personal Record of a Life, by Lenore Marshall (1979)

Community Speech


This community speech, unconsciously taught and learned, in which words live in the presence of their objects, is the very root and foundation of language. It is the source, the unconscious inheritance that is carried, both with and without schooling, into consciousness–but never all the way, and so it remains rich, mysterious, and enlivening. Cut off from this source, language becomes a paltry work of conscious purpose, at the service and the mercy of expedient aims.


From Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry (1980)



Rumors became almost an elemental force under Petliura, a kind of cosmic development like a plague of madness. It was an epidemic of hypnosis. Rumors entirely lost their primary purpose — to communicate invented facts. They acquired a new character, becoming a sort of self-reassurance, a powerful narcotic drug. People could hold on to hope for the future only by means of rumors.

Some of them were transient, some lasted for a long while. Most of them held people in a kind of trance for two or three days. Even the most cynical skeptics believed all sorts of stories, such as that the Ukraine would be made a department of France and that President Poincaré himself was coming to Kiev for tha triumphal announcement, or that the actress Vera Kholodnaya had recruited an army which she led, like Joan of Arc, on a white horse, and that she was basing her gallant troops on the town of Priluka where she had declared herself Empress of the Ukraine.

I started once to keep a record of these rumors but then I gave it up. It was enough to give you a bad headache, or to drive you into a kind of quiet insanity. Then you wanted just to liquidate them all, from President Poincaré and President Wilson to Makhno and the famous ataman Zelony who kep his headquarters in the village of Tripolye near Kiev. I regret now that I destroyed my list of rumors. It was a magnificent collection of lies, and of the irrepressible fantasies of helplessly disorganized people.


From Story of a Life, by Konstantin Paustovsky (1964)

Every contact is an experiment


Every contact which you make with a human being (or even with an animal) is an experiment and a dangerous and therefore important experiment. It is dangerous because it can never be repeated. However serious, however trivial it may be, though you will afterwards make many others, perhaps more unusual, more intimate or more complete — that chance will not come again.

Human contacts are dangerous, too, because they matter so much, and no one knows how much they matter. Even the most trivial meeting makes a difference, slight but lasting, to one or both. Intimate contacts make heaven and hell, they can heal and tear, kill and raise from the dead.

These contacts are the fields in which we succeed or fail. I believe that they matter far more than anything else in life. What we are is written on the people whom we have met and known, touched, loved, hated and passed by. It is the lives of others that testify for or against us, not our own.


From a letter written by Geoffrey Vickers to his son Burnell in 1924, reprinted in The Vickers Papers, edited by the Open Systems Group (1984)

On the Indian Ocean


All of one day Jack had been busy and happy slapping white paint on the rail. No one had told him off, and one man even joked with him. He had his tea of Irish stew and bread and jam, then, after washing up, went on the fo’castle head and sat down on the bitts. It was getting dark, and the sea was a beautiful black velvet. The sky was a poem of green and gold in the west. The curtain of night–like a coat studded with snowflakes–was gently folding over from the east. A warm, gentle breeze ruffled his hair and soothed the burning sunburn on his face. Over to the right, two little black clouds, like galleons of old, hung motionless, etched against the gold. The white bow wave hissed and caressed the ship’s side, and left a wake spotted with phosphorus–beautiful and thrilling–leading back to the dark. Porpoises, leaving green trails of light, sped and darted ahead like ballet dancers, leading the ship in happy escort. Far above in the stillness the look-out hummed “Shenandoah,” as the foremast traced long sweeping arcs below the skies. The light fled to its close as faintly and pathetically as the music of Schumann. And as Jack sat and drank this in with a quiet and a scruffy little soul, he found Conrad, found Masefield–found the boundless peace of his heritage, the sea. He never lost them.


From Log Book, by Frank Laskier (1943)

The slipperiness of words


One reason for our not noticing when we’ve projected our own order onto the world is that there’s a slippage in the meaning of the word order itself. Order can have either a descriptive or a prescriptive meaning: order as “pattern” describes, maps, tells what is (the order of grades a child passes through in school); order as “command” prescribes, molds, tells what ought to be (an order given by a teacher to students). This same slippage is inherent in the meanings of many of the key terms connected with order: law, direction, must. A law can be a description of nature (the law of relativity) or a prescription for human conduct (a law prohibiting or permitting abortions). A direction can describe spatial relations (the direction of the Cape Horn Current is from west to east), or it can prescribe a pattern to follow (the directions in a cookbook). Must, similarly, can describe necessary relations as if on a map (to get from Manhattan to Staten Island, you must cross water), or it can prescribe, mold, behavior according to some view of right conduct (you must not steal).

It’s impossible to know for sure why these key terms for talking about our human existence contain this slippage in their meanings; but I think maybe the reason is that our existence itself is, essentially, slippery. We are both bound and not bound; we both follow laws and make them; we are to some extent controlled by material forces and to some extent not. And no one knows where to draw the line. Wherever we try to draw it, it slips somewhere else–even if just the tiniest bit. The key terms with which we try to draw a line (write a line) both represent this slipperiness of our existence and allow for it.


From Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us by Peggy Rosenthal (1984)

Government clerks


Your Government-clerk generally occupies a neat cottage in one of the suburbs, within comfortable walking-distance of his office, for the sake of digestion, and, in case it should rain, on a good line for ‘busses. A number of Government-clerks will generally be found to have settled down upon neighbouring houses, as rooks do upon neighbouring trees; partly, it may be, because what are local recommendations to one are so to the whole of them, but still more because, like the rooks, they enjoy a neighbourly “caw, caw.” About the same hour of the morning they may be seen issuing from their respective doors, after leisurely and comfortably shaving, breakfasting, and brushing, and uniting slowly into one stream, like drops of water on the glass of the window, they move leisurely townward together. Staid decorous men–as all who can keep a place of routine duties for years must be, with the quiet consciences which doing nothing wrong if people do nothing very particularly good inspires–and with the comfortable state of body produced by regular easy work, sufficient to keep men from fretting about other matters and not enough to make them fret about itself–are easily amused. Their topics of conversation may be counted on your fingers: in Spring and Autumn they discuss the change from a winter dress to a summer one, or vice versa. In summer they talk of yester-evening’s walk, and in winter of yester-evening’s drive homewards, and the incidents of bad sixpences, new ‘busses on the road. These varied by remarks on asparagus, oysters, and other “fruits in their season,” form the staple of their discourse which has whiled away their time on the road into town for years. As they drop into their respective dens even this slender vivacity subsides: they become mere copying, fetching, and carrying (of intelligence, however, as well as papers) machines. It is a beautiful arrangement in the mechanism of the human mind which enables man to put forth just so much of his thinking powers as the necessity of his sphere may call for.


From “The Treasury,” by W. Weir, in London, edited by Charles Knight (1841)

A successful poem says what a poet wants to say


To write in this way about one’s poetry is extremely unpleasant and unnatural. A successful poem says what a poet wants to say, and more, with particular finality. The remarks he makes about his poems are incidental when the poem is good, and embarrassing or absurd when it is bad–and he is not permitted to say how the good poem is good, and may never know how the bad poem is bad. It is better to write about other people’s poetry. But to be in this anthology, one had to write about one’s own; and to have you read the poems, I was willing to write this prose.


From Randall Jarrell’s introduction to his poems in Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi (1952)

An ongoing quarrel


Yet those who work within a craft tradition cannot dogmatically identify the good with the old: a living tradition does not consist of a set of static truths passed down. For example, Taylor and Boody will soon undertake the restoration of an instrument in Pittsburgh. “All the synthetic materials are going to go, all new squares in the action, all new trackers. We’ll replace them with either wood or carbon fiber.” When I expressed some surprise at this last item, John’s eyes lit up. “Carbon fiber turns out to be excellent material for trackers. It’s stable, extremely strong, and stays absolutely straight.”

The tradition of organ building evidently consists of an ongoing quarrel about how best to realize certain functional ends. John Boody is engaged in a living conversation, concretely expressed in action, with the authors of every musty organ-making treatise extant. Given the opportunity to examine his organs, one imagines these predecessors would recognize in Taylor and Boody a competent conversational partner, which is different from someone who simply parrots your words back to you. The conversation has a point, and moves along. To participate, an interlocutor must have good manners: he must listen well, contribute with tact, and have that sense of shame that helps you recognize when you have been refuted.


From The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew B. Crawford (2015)