possible citation of possible interest

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Aug 14 03:33:59 UTC 2000

At 9:37 AM -0400 8/14/00, Fred Shapiro wrote:
>On Fri, 11 Aug 2000, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>  This question came up on another list--
>>  ============
>>  I'm trying to trace an authoritative source for the remark, alleged to
>>  have been made by that King [James I] when he first saw St Paul's Cathedral:
>>  "How monstrous, awful, and artificial" - all terms then used in a
>>  favourable way (for an impressively large, awe-inspiring, work of art)
>>  but now derogatory.
>Clearly it couldn't have been James I who said this.  Nigel Rees covers
>it in the June 1996 issue of his "Quote...Unquote" newsletter.  Rees
>says that King James II, among others, is said to have praised St. Paul's
>as "amusing, awful, and artificial."  Rees writes:  "Simeon Potter
>mentioned in Our Language (1976) that 'When King James II observed that
>the new St. Paul's Catherdral was amusing, awful, and artificial, he
>implied that Sir Christopher Wren's creation was 'pleasing, awe-inspiring,
>and skillfully achieved.' ... A request to the Librarian of St. Paul's
>(the aptly-named J. Joseph Wisdom) failed ... to turn up an original
>source for the remark."
>Personally, I find this anecdote puzzling, since one-third of it seems to
>depend on the word "amusing" being a negative word in contemporary speech,
>whereas, as far as I know, to call a building "amusing" would be a
>compliment nowadays.  Another way to put my point is that I don't think
>"amusing" is a word that has changed its meaning much over the centuries.
>Or, if it has changed its meaning, it has changed in the opposite
>direction, from a negative signification (see OED, sense 1) to a positive

Meanwhile, on the list at which the query was first posed and through
my own investigations on the web, we've come up with attributions to
Charles II as well as James I (as in the original post), James II,
and Queen Anne, and one for Samuel Pepys, along with one vote each
for an unspecified male monarch and an unspecified female monarch.
The adjectives in question include various orderings of pompous,
monstrous, amusing, awful, and artificial, although always in a
series of three.   I ended up feeling skeptical that this anecdote
reflects anything beyond a courtly urban legend, and Fred's note
supports this skepticism.  As we know, this sort of extreme variation
in the particulars of such stories is characteristic of urban
legends, although the "moral" (that words change meaning in radical
and surprising ways) is more congenial to us than in most such cases.
What it reminds me of is the more contemporary anecdote that pops up
here every few years about the lecture (at an international
conference or in a classroom) by a distinguished but pompous
professor (of linguistics or philosophy) that concludes with the
observation that while two negations in some languages cancel each
other out and in other languages amount to a single negation, there
is no language in which two affirmatives reduce to a single negative,
to which a voice from the back of the audience (belonging to Saul
Kripke of Princeton, Sidney Morganbesser of Columbia, or someone
unidentified) comments "Yeah, yeah" (or "Yeah, right", or "Sure,
sure", or...).


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