James D. Nicoll on English lang. as cribhouse whore

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Mar 5 02:25:57 UTC 2002

In case anyone (besides Ellen Johnson, who just gave me a nudge on
this) was curious, here's the original poster's summary about the
origin of this quote.

--- begin forwarded text

LINGUIST List:  Vol-13-499. Sat Feb 23 2002. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 13.499, Sum: James D. Nicoll Quote
Date:  Wed, 20 Feb 2002 13:52:01 -0600 (CST)
From:  kemmer at ruf.rice.edu
Subject:  James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved

Last week I posted a query requesting the source of the following
quote, which I was unable to locate in published sources and which
recently began to ricochet around the internet quoted from my "Words"
course webpage.

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that
English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow
words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways
to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."
                                            --James D. Nicoll

I got several answers that allow me to declare the mystery solved. I
must be a victim of false memory syndrome, because I could have sworn
I got the quote out of an old book on the English language. Far from
it--but now I have no idea where I came across it.

The quote is original with James Nicoll and was posted on a
science-fiction newgroup (the msg ID is given in several replies
below) in 1990. The thread was an argument about prescriptivism titled
"The King's English". Originally the post had the word "riffle"
instead of "rifle";  in a later posting on the same thread Mr. Nicoll
identified this as a typo.

Rosvita Vaska attributed the quote to Booker T. Washington. To me,
the style was far more reminiscent of Mark Twain than Washington!

Greg Shenaut tentatively suggested that the attribution might be
incorrect: "it sounds like a guy named Henry James Nicoll, who wrote a
book called Landmarks of English Literature, which was published in
1883 but with a "2nd edition" that came out in 1973."

Geoffrey Sampson correctly traced the quote to North America, based on
the use of "cribhouse", the fact that the author uses a middle initial
(I guess instead of signing himself "J. Nicoll" like a good Brit), and
the use of the word "whore" which according to Prof. Sampson "has a
rather literary flavour on this side of the Atlantic" [the British
side --s.k].

"Cribhouse", says J L Speranza, is based on "crib", an old word
for brothel. I don't see this def. in the OED entry for "crib", but
the attested senses of 'narrow wooden bed'; 'small habitation, cabin,
hovel; narrow room; confined space'; and (thieves' slang) 'a dwelling
house, shop, public house' could easily lead to a meaning extension to

Below I excerpt the most relevant parts of the responses I got.

Many thanks to:
Ficus strangulensis Prop, Neil Fulton, Michael R Weholt, Larry Horn,
Geoffrey Sampson, Michael J. Lowrey, Greg Shenaut, Gordon Tisher,
Rosvita Vaska, William H. Fletcher, Lance Nathan, Stanley Dubinsky, J
L Speranza, and James Nicoll.

- Suzanne Kemmer

- --------------------

1. "James Nicoll is a well-known denizen of the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup,
among others.  He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, I believe."  --Gordon Tisher

2. "James Nicoll is the former owner of a specialist s-f bookstore
in Ontario, and a well-known figure in fannish circles. As far
as I know, the lines you quote are original to him, and first
appeared in a Usenet posting to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers
on May 15 1990."   --Neil Fulton

3. "I know this contradicts your memory of seeing it in print in the 1960s,
but take a look at


   ...Notice that this is signed "JDN" and is from
jdnicoll; I'd be pretty positive that this (a newsgroup post from 1990) is
the origin of the quote.  Nicoll was and is a frequent poster to the sf
fandom newsgroups like rec.arts.sf-lovers.  "
                  --Lance Nathan

4. "The following article on google.com appears to be the original post:


[connect that all into one line, of course]

As you will note, it's dated May 15, 1990. View the "Complete
Thread" link for context.

James is now a regular denizen of, among other newsgroups,
rec.arts.sf.fandom. "   --Michael R Weholt

5. "Mr. Nicoll posted the original of this as a message to the
Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers, with the subject
heading "The King's English" on 15 May 1990, 15:53:09 GMT.
The Usenet Message-ID is
<1990May15.155309.8892 at watdragon.waterloo.edu>; it can be
found on Google's Usenets search function.

As to "Who the hell is James D. Nicoll?":  well, other than:

- a man who has defied death in more fascinating ways than
Frank Buck,

- a man who discusses science fiction (and lesser topics)
with wit and insight,

- the recently-retired owner of the excellent game store
"Imperiums To Order" in Kitchener, Ontario, and

- a fine argument for the superiority of science fiction
fans and/or Canadians,

I decline to state, and invite you to ask the man himself.
Nowadays, he is at:

jdnicoll at panix.com

<from a followup msg:>
(Several of us in rec.arts.sf.written are particularly proud
of James for being mistaken for a half-century-old English
textbook cite.)
"  --Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey
[and, I might add, for Booker T. Washington too! -s.k.]

6. Finally, a response from James Nicoll himself (who gave permission for
his email address, jdnicoll at panix.com, to be broadcast in this posting):

"If I had only known that was going to be my fifteen
minutes of fame, I'd have run that sucker through a spell checker and
taken more care while writing the surrounding material."
     --James Nicoll
LINGUIST List: Vol-13-499

--- end forwarded text

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