Controlled Revelation #7: Vindicated (Perhaps)

“‘I declare, Mrs. Rand, I cried myself into a snit.’ ‘A snit?’ ‘I do deplore it, but when I’m in a snit I’m prone to bull the object of my wrath plumb in the tummy.’” —C. Boothe,  Kiss Boys Good-Bye  ii. i. 105  (1939).  [Oxford English Dictionary, first use of the word snit.]

This week we examine The Humourist’s essay of January 22, 1754.  As always, I encourage you to follow the link and re-read that essay so that you can get back into the spirit of our analysis.

I just re-read the essay, and I remain pleased with my lines that introduced it:

Today, the Humourist explores connections between what a writer eats and what a writer writes!

Pay close attention: he continues to provide us with clues as he shows his ongoing knowledge of and interest in the ancients, in drama, and in painting.

Indeed, The Humourist does focus a lot on drama!  That’s a major clue, and I picked up on it early on in my reading of his essays.  At the same time, I believe that I could have shed more light initially on this essay than I did, so I am glad to have a chance to give it another close reading in hopes of finding more.  That’s the beauty of this approach:  finding more—always and in all ways.

In exploring the connections between what a “writer eats and what a writer writes,” The Humourist notes that “Mr. Bayes, in the Rehearsal, acquaints us, that he always took stewed Prunes whenever he proposed to write.”

My original explanatory note, I confess, was lame at best:

George Villiers’ 1671 satirical play concerning a revolutionary playwright Bayes who was attempting to stage a play.

Rest assured:  the note is an accurate note.  But, upon further investigation, I found out that the “play” Bayes was attempting to stage consisted, largely, of excerpts from other heroic dramas, and, interestingly enough, without giving any authorial credit.

How intriguing.  1671.  The Rehearsal.  One writer lifts language from other writers and no one screamed, “Plagiarism!”  1754—one hundred and three years later.  The Humourist Essays.  The Humourist lifts language from another writer, and no one (as far as I can determine) screamed “Plagiarism.”

2013—two hundred and fifty-nine years later.  I screamed!  I levied plagiarism charges against The Humourist in my Controlled Revelation #3 and my Controlled Revelation #4.

Since those two posts, I have been—as one of my good friends and fellow writers would say—”in a snit”  with my esteemed Humourist.  How could he!  How dare he!

I don’t like being “in a snit.”  Actually, I’m not even certain that I like the phrase “in a snit.” Count on it, then:  I will not stay in one.  So, when I came to understand that Bayes in The Rehearsal had lifted language from other playwrights without anyone charging plagiarism, I started pondering the word plagiarism.  (Yes:  as I noted in my Controlled Revelation #6, words matter—even odious words like plagiarism.)

I started pondering:

  • “When was the word first used?”
  • “Has plagiarism always been viewed with such disdain as it is viewed today?”

Once again, the Oxford English Dictionary saved the day—saved my day.   The word was first used in 1621:  “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” (Richard Montagu, Diatribæ upon the First Part of the Late History of Tthes).

Its second appearance was in 1716:  “A good Plea to any Charge of Plagiarism or Satyrism” (Myles Davies, Athenæ Britannicæ; or, a Critical History of the Oxford and Cambridge Writers and Writings).

Its third notable use was in 1753:  “Nothing..can be more unjust than to charge an author with plagiarism merely because he…makes his personages act as others in like circumstances have done” (Samuel Johnson, Joseph Warton, and John Hawkesworth, The Adventurer).

Up to that point in its usage, the word plagiarism does not seem to have been as negative as we see it today.

As I continued to follow the Oxford English Dictionary, it appeared that it was not until 1820 that the word came to have its modern meaning.  In his Lectures Chiefly on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth, William Hazlitt notes, “If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after.”

Ah!  If it was not until around 1820 that plagiarism came to have its modern meaning, then perhaps—just perhaps—The Humourist was not guilty of plagiarism since his essays predated the loathsome and abhorrent use of the word by about seventy years! 

Clearly, I needed to do some more research.  So, I Googled—Yes, in case you are wondering:  the words Google and Googled have made it to the Oxford English Dictionary!—I Googled “First Documented Case of Plagiarism”.

Voila!  I had some immediate results, and my first hit looked promising:  Jonathan Bailey’s “The World’s First Plagiarism Case.”  It’s an interesting read, and I recommend that you read it.  Although Bailey traces plagiarism all the way back to Roman poet Martial (40AD-102/104AD), he notes that “the rise of importance in the word ‘plagiarism’ stemmed from the Age of Enlightenment, which put a much higher value on originality in creative works” and that “Like nearly all words, the word ‘plagiarism’ has come to change in meaning.”

So, there!  While I’ll not let The Humourist off the hook, it is possible that his “language lifting” was seen differently in his own time.  For now, that’s enough to get me out of “my snit” and to allow me to move on to one or two other interesting things that I found when I re-examined The Humourist’s January 22, 1754, essay.

In the first part of the essay, The Humourist discusses various foods that help writers write upon certain subjects.  In the second half of his essay, he shifts his focus and discusses foods “which are absolutely destructive to the Intellect, and ought to be avoided.”

First on his list is custard.  He notes that it “is a most barbarous Thing:  Trajan got his Death by it at Antioch.”  Confession:  that stumped me.  Try as I would, I could find nothing confirming that Trajan died from eating custard.  So, in my original note—another lame one, I again confess—I simply identified Trajan as “Marcus Ulpius Traianus, Roman emperor (AD 53-117).”  That was the best that I could do…then.

Now, upon this close reading, I can do better!  I have discovered The Humourist’s source for that statement.  I would have discovered it sooner, I think, but after The Humourist speaks of Trajan’s death from eating custard, he goes on to say that eating custard clouds the memory and understanding:  “Tom Brown gives you its Degrees.”   Tom Brown.  I assumed, ever so erroneously, that Tom Brown was just as fictitious as Trajan’s death by eating custard!

Now, upon this close reading, I have discovered that Tom Brown was not fictitious.  Here’s how I made that discovery.  This time I took The Humourist literally.  Okay.  So I can’t find Tom Brown.  What about Thomas Brown, as a variant form of the name?

Google:  Thomas Brown Trajan Custard.

Voila!  My first hit turned out to be:  The Second Volume of the Works of Mr. Tho. Brown Containing Letters from the Dead to the Living and from the Living to the Dead (London, 1719). And there, on page 368, is the underlying passage that my Humourist—our Humourist—quotes in his essay AND gives credit to Tom Brown!  Let me note, here, that Thomas Brown (1662-1704) was an English translator and political satirist, generally forgotten today except for his famous nursery rhyme, “I Do Not Like Thee Doctor Fell”:

I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
The reason why – I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

(Read more about it at Nursery Rhyme Lyrics, Origins and History.)

Here’s what The Humourist writes:

Custard is a most barbarous Thing; Trajan got his Death by it at Antioch, and many a good Alderman has experienced the bad Qualities accruing from too intimate a Connection with it; I do firmly believe, that it obnubilates the Understanding and hurts the Memory:  Tom Brown gives you its Degrees, “eating of Custard first gives a Cachexy, instantly turns to a Dolor Alvi, that to a Peripneumonia in the Diaphram, to to an Epyena in the Glandula Pinealis.”

And here’s what Thomas Brown writes in his Letters from the Dead:

Trajan got his death by nothing but eating of Custard at Antioch and mention’d two or three other eminent Persons that had, their Heels tript up by that pernicious Food. Dioscorides added farther, that Custard was destructive of the Intellect, and conjur’d me that the next time I writ to any of my Acquaintance in London I would desire them to present his most humble Service to my Lord May0r and Court of Aldermen and advise ’em as from him to refrain from Custard, because it obnubilated the Understanding, and was deterimental .to the Memory. So much by way of digression, but now, Sir, to proceed in the History of my Illness: This eating of Custard first of all gave me a Cachexy, and ’twas my-Misfortune that there was no Brandy to be had in the House,- for in all probability a Cogue of true Orthodox Nantz, would have corrected the Crudity of the Custard. This Cachexy in twelve Hours turned to a Dolor alvi, that to a Peripneumonia in the Diaphram, to to an Epyena in the Glandula Pinealis.

In his use of Thomas Brown’s work, The Humourist is clearly paraphrasing rather than quoting, but he has the decency, integrity, and honor to credit the author.

Perhaps, in view of the above discussion, The Humourist is vindicated—somewhat.  If not, I (at least) have worked my way out of my snit.  More important, though, I have shed light on the essay in a far more meaningful way than I did initially. Thus, perhaps, I, too, am vindicated!

2 thoughts on “Controlled Revelation #7: Vindicated (Perhaps)

  1. There is much to laugh at and think about in your latest controlled revelation. “In a snit!” That is a phrase that always makes me laugh, especially when I must confess that I am in one! Which is not often, thank goodness.

    So, on the charge of plagiarism, The Humourist gets off on a technicality. I can live with it.

    So much talk of custard, and all of it negative! What was wrong with the custard? Were the eggs bad? Had the milk turned? Was the spoon stirred clockwise instead of widdershins? I’m off to investigate!


    • I am delighted, of course, that I brought you some laughter, especially since you are in a snit!

      You are correct: The Humourist gets off on a technicality. I wonder how many other authors from the period escaped censure on the same technicality?

      I am not certain why custard is discussed (and dismissed) with such disdain. It might simply be–and I am conjecturing here–that custard was so much a part of the British diet that The Humourist decided to belittle it. You might enjoy exploring The Food Timeline’s FAQs on Puddings, Custards, and Creams.

      By all means, share the results of your investigations!


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