Rigid turns of phrase; obscure words
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 January 2016)

The latest piece of fiction by the magnificent Hilary Mantel, a short story in the January issue of the London Review of Books, attributes to an adolescent student the peculiar phrase "She is in high dudgeon."

Readers like me stopped dead at that point. So did Hilary Mantel. She paused to explain what might have been going on in the mind of that fictional student, a process as complicated as the English Reformation under Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell that Mantel has narrated in her masterpieces, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Mantel points out that phrases like the one about dudgeon seem to emerge from nowhere, perhaps "from schoolbooks their grandparents had." Dudgeon means a feeling of offence or deep resentment. It may have originated as an Italian word for overshadowing, which would make it a sister word to umbrage, a favourite of mine. Dudgeon is always high. It may have a different use if it appears in conversation but in print, so far as most of us know, it is never otherwise. A dudgeon, if it's not high, simply doesn't appear. It never goes out into to the world without its companion. No one ever mentions a low dudgeon, or a moderate dudgeon.

This is one of the many minor but absolutely iron rules of the language, followed in obedience by all users. It's one simple expression of the usually complicated McLuhanite view that language dictates to us how we communicate. Sometimes we don't choose our words. They choose us.

Our multifarious, perverse, mysterious and deliciously enchanting language has many such regulations, the one that dudgeon follows being among the most noticeable -- though not as noticeable as umbrage, a word that an English-language reader may find exotic and oddly comic. It sounds to me like a relatively harmless medical condition or an obscure industrial process of the 19th century.

Most people, I believe, have read "take umbrage" many times without wondering how this word came to mean what it does. We guess from the content that it's a way of saying "feel resentful" or "be angered." We then pass on to the next sentence, unconsciously but correctly assuming we have slightly expanded our vocabulary. Certainly that was how I dealt with it until my curiosity overcame my natural laziness and I became determined to find out where it came from.

Well-read horticulturalists and arborists have always known. It comes from the term for shade trees. That's how Charlotte Brontė used it 1849 in Shirley, her second published novel after Jane Eyre: "She would spend a sunny afternoon in lying stirless on the turf, at the foot of some tree of friendly umbrage."

Gradually, usage gave the word another meaning, so that the shadow cast by friendly trees turned into an unfriendly shadow cast over individuals or phrases that might darken someone's otherwise good name.

Well before Brontė, Thomas De Quincey, in Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1822) reflected that the calamities of his early years caught up to him "and grew into a noxious umbrage that has overshadowed and darkened my latter years." Fanny Burney, the proto-feminist who became a bestselling novelist in the 18th century, used it in her 1796 comic novel, Camilla, when she had a character say: "However, as to his having called me a blockhead, it's not what I take umbrage at."

A third meaning became current in the 18th century: Umbrage could also be defined as benevolent patronage: In 1776 someone was heard admitting, "I entered the House of Lords under the umbrage of Lord Polworth." But positive meanings were brushed aside and umbrage became the means by which people explained their distress at how they had been treated.

Today, of course, the use of such a term can convict authors of pretentiousness and make them the object of ridicule. In The New York Times, Michael Kinsley used umbrage eight times (including the heading) when he reviewed Double Down, a book on the 2012 US election, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Kinsley's point was that the authors habitually used fancy terms for ideas that could be better expressed with simplicity.

Companion words can provide clear meanings even after most readers forget or never learn where they come from.

Out of kilter, to mean awry or broken, remains alive though no one could tell us what "in kilter" might mean. Fine fettle and arrant nonsense are useful even after their original meanings suffered the humiliation of being branded in dictionaries as "obscure."

Short shrift is a rare case of an ancient companion term that retains its strength although few readers understand its origin.

Originally, it referred to the sacrament of confession, often called shrift. It was said that prisoners who were soon to be executed received only rapid treatment by priests administering confession: short shrift. It passed into general language as curt dismissal: "The judge gave short shrift to an argument based on the right to free speech."

In the Nation magazine last month, Jonah Goldberg wrote that in a certain document "Geostrategic threats got short shrift." Then, perhaps feeling impatient with that phrase, he presaged its retirement by adding "You never see the phrase long shrift."

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