Vulgarity, Punctuation, and Doris Day

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April 7, 2017 by libroshombre

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer knew vulgarity when he encountered it, and there’s even a selection of them in the section titled “Vulgar Errors” in the latest edition of his magnum opus, “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.” Coming from the Latin “vulgaris,” meaning “of or pertaining to the common people,” the term has grown more pejorative over time. In the 1604s “vulgar” came to mean “coarse, low, ill-bred,” according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, and the prolific twentieth-century American essayist Guy Davenport expanded upon that by writing, “What we have added to human depravity is again a thoroughly Roman quality, perhaps even a Roman invention: vulgarity. That word means the mind of the herd, and specifically the herd in the city, the gutter, and the tavern.”

When it came deeming something to be vulgar, Brewer cast a wide net, which is to be expected from a Victorian Englishman. However, the modern editors of Brewer’s Dictionary have pointed out that his “judgment was not always as damning as it sounds. Far from being trifles, Brewer recognized that such beliefs are among the most powerful in public consciousness simply because they are exactly that: believed. As such he considered them to be more than worthy of record and scrutiny.” Among the vulgarities Brewer exposed in the first edition of his dictionary were Aristotle’s claim that women possess more teeth than men, and the popular notion that badger legs are shorter on one side than the other.

He also laid to rest the misconception about how the legal-sized paper known as “foolscap” got that name. Fine paper usually includes a faint watermark that identifies it, so how did jester’s headgear come to be symbol on official British documents? The apocryphal version is that Cromwell ordered the royal watermark to be replaced with a jester wearing a floppy cap after deposing and executing King Charles. I think Brewer was closer to the mark when he pointed out that “foolscap” is a “corruption of the Italian ‘foglio-capo’ (folio-sized sheet.) The error must have been very ancient, as the water-mark of this sort of paper from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century was a fool’s head with cap and bells.”

Like so much in life, defining vulgarity is an exercise in objectivity. On one hand we have Doris Day saying, “Vulgarity begins when imagination succumbs to the explicit,” while on the other Vladimir Nabokov is maintaining that “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.” To my way of thinking, the current fad of monkeying around with punctuation is profoundly vulgar, but then I’m a librarian.

Punctuation was missing from written history until the 3rd century BCE when a librarian stepped in to organize things: Aristophanes, the head librarian at the famous Alexandrian. Most reading back then was done aloud, and to reduce confusion, Aristophanes suggested using dots to indicate how long readers should pause between words and phrases. A dot towards the top of the letter indicated a long pause, while a dot towards the bottom, looking like a period, meant a short pause, like a modern comma. Sadly, his scheme didn’t last long and soon the vulgar Romans were cranking out unpunctuated books. It wasn’t until the 7th century CE that Archbishop Isidore of Seville popularized commas to indicate pauses and periods to show the end of sentences.

Today it’s become fashionable among some to restrict comma usage. Even the Associated Press recommends not using the serial comma when listing three or more items. This leads to confusing sentences, like “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope.” I could draw upon more vulgar examples that abound on the Internet, but we live in such vulgar times, why wallow in it?

Few things are as vulgar as not being able to read well. And teaching youngsters to read using computers while firing real-live reading teachers seems the height of educational vulgarity. Overwhelming research shows reading print’s far better than reading digital formats, that human instruction is far better at instilling a love of reading, and kids who love to read learn better. Computerized instruction might save a few bucks initially, but that sort of thinking is vulgar.



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