Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/January 1876/Correspondence



To the Editor of the Popular Science Monthly:

THE article in the August number of the Monthly upon "Infirmities of Speech" was a stimulant to much curious reflection. A true student of character will see, among the men and women he meets in the parlor, idiosyncrasies of speech and manner that are common to quite a large class of people. Dr. Trousseau's patient was but one of many. The wife of a physician of this city, formerly an inspector of the Board of Health, created much merriment among acquaintances by the singularity of her answers to the simplest questions. Nearly every expression was a comparative one. To a stranger her conversation appeared of the quality of humorous extravagance. Upon one occasion she was asked the condition of a friend who had been a long time sick. "Oh, she's about like the lid of a stove," was the reply. This excited laughter, but was unsatisfactory. "Was she feverish?" "No." "Was she in a chill?" "No, she was just like the lid of a stove, don't you understand?" Her husband explained the expression by saying that the sick friend was exceedingly nervous, and that his wife, in making the comparison, alluded to the dancing of a tea-kettle on a hot stove. From early girlhood she had employed this expression, to the exclusion of the correct one. In their reminiscences, Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke mention a similarity in the speech of George Dyer. With a question, answer, or other observation, he would begin intelligently; after a few words, fill in the space of several others with a series of abd's, as if choking, and, in concluding, would invariably use "Well, sir, but, however." A gentleman of rich culture and high professional eminence has used "and consequently" since he was a boy, whenever he exhausted breath in his rapid speech, was unable to grasp the correct word, or was interrupted. He was, and still is, unconscious of this peculiarity. He will so designate a man, a woman, a piece of furniture, or any object whose proper name is for the time hidden. This habit, as the untutored would denominate it, is so apparent that a stranger would detect it in five minutes.

The ability to always use the best words to give force to an idea is possessed by so few, that the promiscuous gathering of words, if not too idiotic, is charitably passed over without remark.

A young lady, whose company is much solicited for the graces of her mind, undergoes a most piteous embarrassment from the effects of this infirmity. In the early part of the evening her choice of words will be faultless; and she will render a criticism or narrative with an enviable flow. But, later, she becomes nervous, hesitates, studies her words, trips, and then stumbles on to the climax with nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs that darken, instead of illumine, the "point." It is but a few evenings ago that, in speaking of the influence of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, she said: "Now, how few writers are capable of so effectively consolidating the contradictory impulses that arise in a child's mind! No, I mean so effectively con—con—well, mix up will oil." And, when conciliate was mentioned, she said that was the word she desired. If she ventured upon a further observation the infirmity increased, so far as to leave her sentence a hopeless wreck.

Many will say this is a habit, and only becomes an infirmity by being allowed too free scope. Still, the best-educated people are subject to it.

To carelessness is attributed another peculiarity, not of speech, but of action. The physician before alluded to was unable to page his manuscript of stenographic reports of lectures before the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The figure 8 was always uppermost in his mind, and all but the first page would have that numeral in the upper left-hand corner. When arranging the pages for eyelets or tape, he was obliged to read over each one; and he was not assured of the sequence until the mass had been examined by another.

Some writers fasten their best thoughts when penning with the greatest haste. Their manuscript, like that of many careful authors, contains either neglected or erased words—terminations that appear perfectly inexcusable. Think of a scholar tracing with a rush fixed, and then adding tion, or satisfying himself with hermeticly; and yet, in overlooking thousands of pages of copy prepared by authors who would have a delirium if the slightest typographical error appeared in the "revise," I have stricken out countless terminations and intermediate syllables and letters—not specimens of bad spelling, so called—that looked like grammatical refugees, so far were they from their proper place.

Again, in writing, the pen does apparently just what the organs of speech do when certain words are to be produced. In the most delightful stage of composition, when the brain and the pen jog on comfortably together, it will often be found, on looking back a few lines, that a stranger has turned up who the author is positive has no right in such company. There it is, winking at a clever trick that the subject cannot explain.

Here the writer possesses the memory of words and the memory of how to use words. But, while the mind is being tickled with the successful unfolding of a pet theory, or the attractive draping of an important idea, the pen surreptitiously lets in an unblushing beggar.

In writing, the brain will order the pen to inscribe a certain word, and, with voluminous authors, that nimble servant will frequently transfix an unsuspected one before the outrage is detected.

Now, as in the case above, the author possesses the knowledge of the exact word that is desired; but an incorrect one appears. Neither the memory is lost, nor the ability of utilizing it. Think of the results, when the proof-reader strides through the idea, and buries a still more uncongenial word in the prettiest passage.

Recognized carelessness causes omission of words, curtailment of words, and often-times incorrect spelling. It is only the carelessness that is not recognized that takes a fancy to giving a word more letters than it craves, changing favorite words at birth, and placing before the eye a stone when bread is wanted.

G. J. Hagar.

New York, August, 1875.