Pride and Ignorance (Snippets 52)


Turner’s “The Park at Petworth House” (1830), included here for the flimsy reason that it presents a 19th Century view of England, but really just because I like it.

Americanisms and Briticisms by James Brander Matthews is an entertaining study of the differences in spoken and written language between the two nations.  It is a useful snapshot, not just of the words themselves, but of concerns at the time regarding the differences and, some may say (including Matthews) prejudices.

In Snippets 4 we looked at some specific examples offered by Matthews, but the following quote illustrates the author’s low opinion of English snobbery regarding language, an issue which still crops up nowadays.

Far more often than we could wish can we hear the note of lofty condescension in British discussion of the peculiarities of other races. When Englishmen are forced to compare themselves with men of any other country, no doubt it must be difficult for them not to plume themselves on their superior virtue. But modesty is also a virtue, and if this were more often cultivated in Great Britain, the French, for example, would have fewer occasions for making pointed remarks about la morgue britannique. Even the gentle Thackeray — if the excursus may be forgiven — is not wholly free from this failing. In spite of his familiarity with French life and French art, he could not quite divest himself of his British pride, and of the intolerance which accompanies it, and therefore we find him recording that M. de Florac confided gayly to Mr. Clive Newcome the reason why he preferred the coffee at the hotel to the coffee at the great cafe “with a duris urgens in rebus egestsas! pronounced in the true French manner” (Newcomes, chapter xxviii.). But how should a Frenchman pronounce Latin? — like an Englishman, perhaps? When even the kindly Thackeray is capable of a sneering insularity of this sort, it is small wonder that the feeling of the French towards the British is well expressed in the final line of the quatrain inscribed over the gate at Compiegne through which Joan Darc went to her capture:

“Tous ceux-là d’Albion n’ont faict le bien jamais!”

And we are reminded of the English lady who was taken to see Mr. Jefferson’s performance of Rip Van Winkle, and who liked it very much indeed, but thought it such a pity that the actor had so strong an American accent!

“Ignorance of his neighbor is the character of the typical John Bull,” says Mr. R. L. Stevenson, who also declares that “the Englishman sits apart bursting with pride and ignorance.” What a Scot has written a Yankee may quote. And the quotation has pertinence here in view of the fact that in the last century the English were just as keen against Scotticisms and Hibernicisms, and just as bitter, as they have been in this century against Americanisms, and as they may be in the next against Australianisms.

Americanisms and Briticisms was published in 1892 by Harper and Brothers, New York.  The same year Matthews was appointed a professor of literature at Columbia University.  Although some of his books had some degree of lasting popularity, this was not one of them, and he was better known for his work examining American literature and drama.  He was one of the pioneers of the study of drama, which had previously escaped the interest of academia in general.  He also wrote his own works of fiction, none of which have stood the test of time.

A couple of notes: “la morgue britannique” was a popular term for British haughtiness, particularly in their Empire-building.  “Tous ceux-là d’Albion n’ont faict le bien jamais!” means “all these English have never done any good”.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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2 Responses to Pride and Ignorance (Snippets 52)

  1. Jasne says:

    “Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off” 😀
    To be fair, though, Britain is an island that not so long ago happened to be the metropolis of a pretty large empire. A bit of snobbery is only natural (though not always fun to run into). Besides, most cultures have that “we’re better than everybody else” attitude; it’s just some are more open about it and others try to control it. Come on, I belong to this culture so it must be the best one ever, right? 🙂
    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

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