Sunday, January 06, 2008



George Eliot, Middlemarch (Book 1, Chapter 11):
"So it seems, my love, for you have as good as refused the pick of them; and if there's better to be had, I'm sure there's no girl better deserves it."

"Excuse me, mamma—I wish you would not say, 'the pick of them.'"

"Why, what else are they?"

"I mean, mamma, it is rather a vulgar expression."

"Very likely, my dear; I never was a good speaker. What should I say?"

"The best of them."

"Why, that seems just as plain and common. If I had had time to think, I should have said, 'the most superior young men.' But with your education you must know."

"What must Rosy know, mother?" said Mr. Fred, who had slid in unobserved through the half-open door while the ladies were bending over their work, and now going up to the fire stood with his back towards it, warming the soles of his slippers.

"Whether it's right to say 'superior young men,'" said Mrs. Vincy, ringing the bell.

"Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers' slang."

"Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?" said Rosamond, with mild gravity.

"Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class."

"There is correct English: that is not slang."

"I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets."

"You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point."

"Well, tell me whether it is slang or poetry to call an ox a leg-plaiter."

"Of course you can call it poetry if you like."

"Aha, Miss Rosy, you don't know Homer from slang. I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips, and give them to you to separate."
Later in the same chapter, Fred gives his definition of prig:
"But now, tell us exactly what sort of man he is."

"Oh, tallish, dark, clever—talks well—rather a prig, I think."

"I never can make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosamond.

"A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions."

"Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy. "What are they there for else?"

"Yes, mother, the opinions they are paid for. But a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."
Ouch! In Book 2, Chapter 21 of Middlemarch another character is described as
...this dried-up pedant, this elaborator of small explanations about as important as the surplus stock of false antiquities kept in a vendor's back chamber...
Ouch again! This is hitting uncomfortably close to home. Nevertheless, I will pedantically elaborate a small explanation about Fred's term "leg-plaiter."

Fred is likely referring to Greek εἰλίπους (eilipous), which occurs in both the Iliad (6.424, 9.466, 15.547, 16.488, 21.448, 23.166) and the Odyssey (1.92, 4.320, 8.60, 9.46). Liddell & Scott define it as "rolling in their gait, in Hom. (only in dat. and acc. pl., Il.6.424, 9.466) as epith. of oxen, which bring round their hind legs with a circling or rolling motion." Liddell & Scott derive the compound from εἴλω (eilō = wind, revolve) and πούς (pous = foot).

For a learned discussion of εἰλίπους see Liliane Bodson, "Un trait d'anatomie fonctionelle dans l'épopée homérique: le pas de Bos taurus (LINNÉ, 1758)," Revue de Paléobiologie volume spécial 10 (Dec. 2005) 243-257 (.pdf format). The English abstract states:
The compound adjective eilipous is evidenced in HOMER'S Iliad (6 occurrences) and Odyssey (4 occurrences). It qualifies the cattle specifically with respect to their feet (pous: foot). The linguistic and semantic characteristics of this adjective have been much disputed by modern commentators and translators, most of them referring it either to the cattle's rolling or shambling gait or to their so-called crooked or bent feet. The present day knowledge of bovine motion confirms the ancient Greeks' interpretation of eilipous as describing both the arc drawn by all cattle's, yet typically milking cows' rear feet at every step and some sort of spiral-like line resulting from the sequence of these steps.
According to Liddell & Scott, the adjective εἰλίπους is also used "of women, having a rolling gait." This characteristic is endlessly fascinating to the male of the species, and Aristotle has even written a treatise on the subject, entitled Posterior Analytics.

(I owe the Aristotle joke to William Vallicella.)

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