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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why is Old Time Writing so Pompous? (Mailbox)

You just Googled "Pompous Mailbox" didn't you?
Why does old time writing sound pompous? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week. I have a LOT of backlogged questions right now, but I will try to eventually get to all of them.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Don't be afraid to get me to answer what is clearly your homework because by the time I answer it, you'll have graduated.]  

Anonymous writes:

(this question is approximately 25% trolling, and 75% sincere curiosity.  and anonymous because I don't want to admit I don't already know.)

writing prompt - re-word the following quote into modern American English, and then explain what the hell it means (just in case it doesn't make sense in plain English)... and then if you want, talk about why old-timey writing always sounds so pompous.

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed."
-- Herman Melville

feeling dumb 

My reply:

I'll answer this, but if we end up together as the Doctor's companions, and go back in time, remind me to explain to you about the moving target of social conventions and the beauty industry of the 20th century before you go popping off about some aristocrat's body odor or some baroness's body hair or something.


"Old timey" writing didn't sound pompous when it was being written. It had a continuum of formal or informal the same way modern writing does. A style as vocabulous and thick as Melville's, at the time, would probably read like Danielewski, Eco, or Marquez does to us today: lush and rotten with big words but hardly indecipherable. It just sounds a little bit pompous to us here in the 21st century because we have a century and a half of linguistic drift. Language changes and evolves, so you're kind of reading something that's about 15-20% of the way to needing a translation the way Chaucer does today.

Let's be clear, Melville was definitely on the wordy side, even for the 19th century Thesaurus Rex writers of the time. He also tried hard to be baroque, modeling himself quite deliberately after the Bible (which even when it updates, always goes with the most anachronistic English that is still readable in order to get that "Ye Olde Verily" feel going on) as well as Shakespeare and Milton. (That's the prose, I'm guessing, not the dick and fart jokes.) However, Melville was also incredibly unconventional and used so many unorthodox compound adjectives and so much onomatopoeia that many of his contemporaries and critics thought he was insane. (And I don't mean "Oh that craaaaaaazy Herm! He's a wild one!" insane.)

The reason old timey writing SOUNDS pompous today is because of who's still talking and writing that way, and even more who's running around trying to make sure everyone else sounds that way. Usually pompous people. Language shifts over time as new words are adopted, old words become archaic, and even grammar rules change, and the people who have a stick up their ass about that fact are (usually) stuck about a hundred years in the past when it comes to how they think English ought to look and sound.

And I mean I love me some Shakespeare, but he did the same shit. All that thee and thou shit that drove you bonkers in high school was pretty much on the way out by the time he was writing, but he was interested in writing upper class snobs as upper-class sounding, and during the 13th century all the aristocrats liked the French influence of a formal and informal "you."

There was also a pretty profound shift in literature in the thirties, forties, and fifties. It would take at least an hour of lecture to get into all the specifics of how and why, but the short version is that Hemingway was probably a bigger deal than you've been told. In the same way that the minimalism of the late 20th century can be largely attributed to Raymond Carver (who, by the way, was working off of Hemingway), the influence even today of the powerful "short declarative sentence" came largely from Hemingway and it was a huge shift away from the popularity of the more languid prose of prior.

Let's look at your quote though. "Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed."

Or in other words:

"Of all the shit beliefs people have about other people nothing is more shitacular than some rich asshole telling a poor person what they're doing wrong in life."

You know how rich people tell poor people they should just go to school or get a job and they sort of don't realize that the poor person does have a job but it doesn't pay the bills or that they can't just go to school because they need to work 60 hours a week because the first job doesn't pay the bills. Or the rich people criticize that the poor haven't invested well in a retirement portfolio so they could stop working eventually and the poor person is making choices like Pay Rent vs. Eat Food for the month. Or they give some fuckass bullshit advice like "Don't take that crap from your boss! Stand up to them!" without realizing that losing a job to a capricious boss can put someone out of food or a home.

My personal favorite (and I'm using that word with sneering sarcasm if it isn't oozing off the page): If I Were Poor Black Kid. Which, quite appropriately got its ass completely handed to it, often by actual poor Black kids. (Why yes. Each one of those words IS its own response article.)

Probably the worst criticism rich people give to poor people is about risk assessment. Telling poor folks that their problem is that they don't take chances. It's fine and well to take chances when you have a safety net (be it money in the bank, parents who won't let you starve, or just some Tony Jacklin golf clubs you can sell in a pinch). However, to tell someone who is trying to figure out which bill it'll be okay to not pay this month that the reason they're poor is because they haven't just quit their job to go into alpaca farming is particularly lacking in decency, empathy, and compassion.

That's probably more answer than you were hoping for Anon, but I got your back. Even if it takes me like three months to get around to it.


  1. Well articulated... I enjoyed reading your response to the question.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. A reasoned and well-written response. It also helped stoke my anger about people who just don't get what it's like to be poor.

  4. I think it's also worth remembering who was in the readership for 'old time' writers. I wonder whether it wasn't a very 'respectable' middle-class club, with writers using a style that showed they belonged.

    To be a reader you have to have ticked a lot of boxes that used to be harder to tick *in Western democracise, at least):

    You had to have been taught to read - which meant money time, or a system of state education.

    You had to have access to books - either money to buy them, or a friend or public library to lend them. And books were expensive.

    You had to have leisure time during daylight, or you had to be able to afford artificial light to read by (and have leisure time to read rather than work while your expensive candle burned down).

    All those things are still true, of course, but the Nineteenth Century included changes that widened the pool of readers (in countries such as the UK and USA at least).

    There's also the role of censorship. Writers who wanted to write like DH Lawrence's use of 'unprintable' words in Lady Chatterley's Lover (as well as his subject matter -an affair between a married aristocratic woman and a working-class man) was too much until court cases were won in the USA (1959) and the UK (1960).

  5. I don't know if it was true for Melville, but Dickens and Thackeray
    were paid by the word. So while some of it really is pompous, padding didn't help.