Billeder på siden

writer is absolutely inadmissible into the library of a young lady, both on account of his immodesty and his impiety; and if, in wishing to exclude him, it may be thought wrong to have given him so much commen. dation, it is only meant to show that the author is not led to reprobate his principles from insensibility to his talents.*

Goldsmith's History of Animated Nature has many references to a Divine Author. It is to be wished that some judicious person would publish a new edition of this work, purified from the indelicate and offensive parts.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small]


On the use of definitions, and the moral benefits of ac

curacy in language.



ERSONS having been accustomed from 66 their cradles to learn words before they knew the ideas "for which they stand, usually continue to do so all their lives, never taking the pains to settle in their minds " the determined ideas which belong to them. This "want of a precise signification in their words, when

they come to reason, especially in moral matters, is the cause of very obscure and uncertain notions. They

use these undetermined words confidently, without “ much troubling their heads about a certain fixed " meaning, whereby, besides the ease of it, they obtain "this advantage, that as in such discourse they are " seldom in the right, so they are as seldom to be con. "vinced that they are in the wrong, it being just the "same to go about to draw those persons out of their 66 mistakes, who have no settled notions, as to dispossess

a vagrant of his habitation who has no settled abode. 66 The chief end of language being to be understood, 66 words serve not for that end when they do not excite " in the hearer the same idea which they stand for in 66. the mind of the speaker."*

I have chosen to shelter myself under the broad sanca tion of the great author here quoted, with a view to apply this role in philology to a moral purpose ; for it applies to the veracity of conversation as much as to its correctness; and as strongly recommends unequivocal


* Locke.

and simple truth, as accurate and just expression. Scarcely any one perhaps has an adequate conception how much clear and correct expressions favour the elucidation of truth; and the side of truth is obviously the side of morals; it is in fact one and the same cause; and it is of course the same cause with that of true religion also.

It is therefore no worthless part of education to study the precise meaning of words, and the appropriate signification of language. To this end I know no better method than to accustom young persons very early to define common words and things; for, as definition seems to lie at the root of correctness, to be accustomed to define English words in English, would improve the understanding more than barely to know what those words are called in French or Italian. Or rather, one use of learning other languages is, because definition is often involved in etymology ; that is, since many Eng. lish words take their derivation from foreign languages, they cannot be so accurately understood without some knowledge of those languages : but precision of any kind too seldom finds its way into the education of


It is perhaps going out of my province to observe, that it might be well if young men also, before they en. tered on the world, were to be furnished with correct definitions of certain words, the use of which is become rather ambiguons. For instance; they should be pro. vided with a good definition of the word honour in the fashionable sense, shewing what vices it includes arid what virtues it does not include: the term good company, which even the courtly Petronius of our days has defined as sometimes including not a few immoral and disreputable characters : religion, which in the various senses assigned it by the world, sometimes means superstition, sometimes fanaticism, and sometimes a mere dispositon to attend on any kind of form of worship : the word goodnessy which is made to mean every thing that is not no riously bad ; and sometimes even that too, if what is notoriously bad be accompanied by good humour,


pleasing manners, and a little alms-giving. By these means they would go forth armed against many of the false opinions which through the abuse or ambiguous meaning of words pass so current in the world.

But to return to the youthful part of that sex which is the more immediate object of this little work. With correct definition they should also be taught to study the shades of words, and this not merely with a view to accuracy of expression, but to moral truth.

may be thought ridiculous to assert, that morals have any connexion with the purity of language, or that the precision of truth may be violated through defect of critical exactness in the three degrees of comparison : yet how frequently do we hear from the dealers in superlatives, of " most admirable,” super-excellent, and " quite perfect” people, who to plain persons, not bread in the school of exaggeration, would appear mere common characters, not rising above the level of medi. ocrity! By this negligence in the just application of words, we shall be as much misled by these trope and figure ladies, when they degrade as when they panegyr. ize; for to a plain and sober. judgment, a tradesman may not be “the most good-for-nothing fellow that ever

existed,” merely because it was impossible for him to execute in an hour an order which required a week ; a lady may not be “the most hideous fright the world ev. “ er saw," though the make of her gown may have been obsolete for a month ; normay one's young friend's father be a monster of cruelty,” though he may be a quiet gentleman who does not choose to live at water. ing-places, but likes to have his daughter stay at home with him in the country.

But of all the parts of speech the interjection is the most abundantly in use with the hyperbolical fair ones. Would it could be added that these emphatical expletives (if I may make use of a contradictory term) were: not sometimes tinctured with profaneness ! Though I am persuaded that idle habit is more at the bottom of this deep offence than intended impiety, yet there is scarcely any error of youthful talk which wants severer castiga...

[ocr errors]

tion. And an habit of exclamation should be rejected by polished people as vulgar, even if it were not abhor. red as profane.

The habit of exaggerating trifles, together with the grand female failing of mutual flattery, and elaborate general profession of fondness and attachment, is incon. ceivably cherished by the voluminous private correspon. dences in which some girls are indulged. A facility of style, and an easy turn of expression, are dearly purchas. ed by the sacrifice of that truth, sobriety, and correct. ness of language, and that ingenious simplicity of char. acter and manners so lovely in female youth.

But antecedent to this epistolary period of life, they should have been accustomed to the most scrupulous ex. actness in whatever they relate. They should maintain the most critical accuracy in facts, in dates, in numbering, in describing, in short, in whatever pertains, either directly or indirectly, closely or remotely, to the great fun. damental principle, Truth.

The conversation of young females is also in danger of being overloaded with epithets. As in the warm season of youth hardly any thing is seen in the true point of vision, so hardly any thing is named in naked simplicity; and the very sensibility of the feelings is partly a cause of the extravagance of the expression. But here, as in other points, the sacred writers, particularly of the New Testament, present us with the purest model; and its natural and unlaboured style of expression is perhaps not the meanest evidence of the truth of the gospel. There is throughout the whole narratives, no overcharged character, no elaborate description, nothing studiously emphatical, as if truth of itself were weak, and want. ed to be helped out. There is little panegyric, and less invective; none but on great, and awful, and justifiable occasions. The authors record their own faults with the same honesty as if they were the faults of other men, and the faults of other men with as little amplification as if they were their own. There is perhaps no book in which adjectives are so sparingly used. A modest state. ment of the fact, with no colouring and little comment,

« ForrigeFortsæt »