A miscellaneous compilation of articles and off-the-cuff ideas, mostly relating to the English Language and its words, and how well they are used on some occasions, and how badly on others. But other topics and whimsies are likely to keep cropping up too. This blog is closely related to the website mentioned below.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

More Singular Plurality; and The Humour of M.R.James

Way back in April (it seems ages ago), this blog, under the heading Singular Plurality, considered the strange phenomenon of apparently plural words that we English treat as if they were singular - such as a golf links, a kennels, a maltings, and so on.

Now here's another - but it's not in current use because it describes a job that today is virtually extinct. Two or three generations ago, if you stayed at a hotel or inn, you could leave your shoes or boots outside the door of your room to be taken and returned, clean and shining, before you went out next morning. And the servant who dealt with that was known as 'the boots'. I was reminded of this the other day by one of M.R.James's ghost stories, 'A Warning to the Curious', in which the narrator and his friend returned to their inn after a late evening walk, and found that "the boots was on the look-out for us".

As a person interested in the language and the history of our Anglo-Saxon forebears, I am familiar with some of M.R.James's other writings, some of them academic, others more popular, but all well written and easy to read. What his more serious books and articles don't reveal (unsurprisingly) is his sense of humour. Nor would you expect to find it in his spooky ghost stories.

But every now and then it shows up, especially when he creates a 'wordy' character, in the tradition of Sheridan's Mrs Malaprop or some of the personalities in Dickens. It is perhaps in the story Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance that James is at his most Dickensian. A Mr Humphreys has just inherited a large property in Eastern England, and when he at last gets there he is greeted by the estate bailiff, Mr Cooper, and his wife.

"I'll take it upon myself to assure you, sir, that a warm welcome awaits you on all sides. And as to any change of propriety turning out detrimental to the neighbourhood . . . ." Mr Cooper decides not to pursue that line of thought any further. A little later he remarks to his wife "I was just saying to Mr Humphreys, my dear, that I hope and trust that his residence among us will be marked as a red-letter day".

"Yes, indeed, I'm sure," said Mrs Cooper heartily, "and many, many of them."

The death of Humphrey's late uncle, the former owner of the property, arises in the conversation.

"Yes, poor man", says Humphreys to Cooper. "Did he suffer from any special disorder before his last illness - which, I take it, was little more than old age ?"

"Just that, Mr Humphreys - just that. The flash flickering slowly away in the pan," said Cooper, with what he considered an appropriate gesture, - "the golden bowl gradually ceasing to vibrate."

And later Mr Cooper comments: "I can see that you've found your meatear here, Mr Humphreys: you'll make this place a regular signosier before many seasons have passed over our heads."

M.R.James, who lived from 1862 to 1936, was an extraordinarily talented man, a transcriber, cataloguer and interpreter of ancient manuscripts and inscriptions, a linguist capable of conversing in some four or five modern languages and reading in three or four ancient ones, an antiquary whose explorations had enabled him to study hundreds and hundreds of churches, both in Britain and abroad, a skilled writer not only on academic subjects but also of ghost stories, and in turns a Museum Director, Provost of King's College, Cambridge, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Provost of Eton College.

What a pity he did not have more opportunity - or inclination - to write humorous stories !

More Singular Plurality: and The Humour of M.R.James

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