Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Melancholy noise; swiving; middlebrows

Jenny Diski writes about Google n-grams:
Melancholy is virtually non-existent before 1570, but begins to rise and then falls until it drops off completely around 1625, about the time of the death of Dowland. It builds again to a great surge in 1650 (when, it says in Wikipedia, ‘the Age of Discovery ends’: reason enough), falls and then picks up, growing nicely and rising with the Romantics in 1800, and then declines gently before starting to increase again after 2000. Sting recorded a very terrible version of Dowland’s songs in 2006. [Ed. !!]  Fuck is quite absent from books until about 1590 when it jolts up the chart for about eight years and then plummets, before returning in the 1630s...

To see what's really going on one should run the search without smoothing:

So it's mostly just a signal-to-noise artifact that's due to small corpora. (Here's the post-1750 part expanded.) It is not credible that "fuck" was absent until the 1590s; late medievals and especially Scots -- Dunbar, Lyndsay, etc. -- were fond of the word, which for some reason was preferred in the north to "swive."

By the way, the gem-studded OED entry for "fuck" has this beautiful inadvertent alexandrine by Florio, defining "fottere" in World of Words:
to iape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.

(Note to self/others: use in parody of Tennyson's "Ulysses.")

Another n-gram I wanted to post, although I don't have the time to discuss it in detail, is the "brow" words:

As you can see they're all recent, not just middlebrow. All of them are coeval -- middlebrow perhaps exactly contemporary -- with T.S. Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility" thesis. I suspect that the dissociation of brows had something to do with this. In particular there's a Church of Latter-Day Middlebrows that the modernists came up with, beginning with Dryden (I remember J.D. McClatchy actually calling Dryden a middlebrow) and running through Addison, Richardson, Johnson (but not Pope or Swift, who were playful and mad respectively), and Walter Scott, to the high Victorian period when the distinction between middlebrows and highbrows becomes imperceptible. This lines up nicely with Eliot's history of English poetry, in which all poetry after Milton and Dryden (until Eliot, of course) was either ethereal and goofy or businesslike and drab.

Update Jenny Davidson asks in comments about the "standard" history of highbrow, which is presumably a phrenology thing although I can't locate any reliable early sources of an explicitly phrenological character. Assuming that this is so, it's interesting that even highbrow dates from the later days of phrenology. Perhaps this is because the terms had no real, non-jocular application before the era of Bloomsbury and Eliot.


Jenny Davidson said...

Wait, what IS the standard intellectual history/usage line on the -brow formation? Your graph is what I would expect, namely back-formation from HIGHbrow, which would be poking fun at eugenicists who think head shape makes them elite? With middlebrow as a formation leading from highbrow, and then low- as the inevitable end point? I am not sure about the eugenics/phrenology link, the OED examples are sort of drawn from boxing, but doesn't it seem like there must be a connection of that sort?

Zed said...

Good question! Here is a suggestive Google scholar snippet -- "Both terms have disturbing origins in the racist pseudo-science phrenology, which privileged the typically high brow of Caucasians" -- but I can't access the full article and for all I know they're making it up. The OED example seems to be prizefighters vs. highbrows rather than a parallel... I would be greatly surprised if there weren't a phrenological link here, I remember seeing a cartoon in the American political press in the late 19th showing Anglo-Saxon vs. Hibernian features with the crests in remarkably different places. But this implication is not obvious in any OED entries.

I think middlebrow is _after_ lowbrow.

Zed said...

Wikipedia footnote: Hendrickson, Robert (1997). Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File. "New York Sun reporter Will Irvin popularized 'highbrow,' and its opposite 'lowbrow' in 1902, basing his creation on the wrongful notion that people with high foreheads have bigger brains and are more intelligent and intellectual than those with low foreheads. At first the term was complimentary, but 'highbrow' came to be at best a neutral word."