Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Gaiety of Nations

This afternoon, stupefied by the hottest September day of my lifetime, I was half-listening to Radio 4's Word of Mouth. This is an often interesting programme about words, devised years ago by its then presenter Frank Delaney (anyone remember him?), and subsequently presented for years by Michael Rosen. These days, however, Rosen has been joined by Dr Laura Wright, a linguist who apparently knows everything and delights in undermining and mildly humiliating Rosen at every turn. Rosen takes it all manfully but is clearly seething, and the tension between the two presenters makes a compelling little background psychodrama. Rosen has his moments though: he recently dumbfounded all present with a little anecdote about the charmless (to put it mildly) behaviour of the ghastly Roald Dahl towards his (Rosen's) son. It's the Dahl centenary today, I believe. No celebrations here.
 But I digress. I was listening, as I say, to Word of Mouth when the phrase 'the gaiety of nations'  came up, with someone remarking that the modern meaning of the adjective 'gay' hasn't carried over to the noun. But what of the phrase 'the gaiety of nations'? I was hoping someone would tell us where it originated, as I didn't know - maybe another one of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's, along with 'the great unwashed' and 'the pen is mightier than the sword'? No, it is actually a phrase of Samuel Johnson's, from his tribute to his friend and former pupil, the great actor David Garrick: 'I am disappointed by the stroke of death which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.' There is a version of it on Garrick's monument in Lichfield Cathedral, where I no doubt read it on my visit last year. It is a fine phrase, 'the gaiety of nations', as is 'the public stock of harmless pleasure'.
 Lord, this heat...


  1. Couldn't agree more on Dahl. Revolting weirdo.

  2. Couldn't agree more on Dahl. Revolting weirdo.

  3. We might be in a minority of two there, Guy!

  4. There's a marvellously funny scene in the TV comedy "Outnumbered" when the Head mistress (played by Rebecca Front) to the family's precocious and entitled daughter drops her copy of "Matilda" in the bin while dismantling the girl's Dahl-inspired view of the universe in which adults are the unquestionable villains.

  5. Indeed, courtesy of Youtube, here it is! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dR2Sp6pkt-s

  6. Brilliant! And a great performance from Rebecca Front (as ever). So glad there's strong anti-Dahl feeling out there - you'd never guess it from the BBC's relentless fawning (Outnumbered expected!)

  7. The linguist ‘who apparently knows everything' is no stranger to humiliation herself. Her book ‘Sources of London English: Medieval Thames Vocabulary' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) received a ferocious roasting by eminent Middle English scholar Michael Benskin in Medium Aevum (66, 1 pp.133-135). His review ends ‘This work has been awarded a doctorate by Oxford University, was revised (sic) thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship from the British Academy, and is now published by the Clarendon Press. O tempora, o mores! It disgraces them all.’

  8. That too is very good to know - thanks, Alexander!

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