speaking by book

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Nov 24 20:50:26 UTC 2011

This is from a long essay, 1838, prompted by a report from Boston of a
conniving lawyer who was abusing debtors confined to a debtors' prison and
the streets immediately around it, by enticing them to go beyond those
boundaries.  The author of the essay is Mordecai Noah, whom you have met
many times before.  In the very early 1820s, he had been sheriff of New
York County, and one of the chief responsibilities of the Sheriff was
maintaining the debtors' prison and supervising the debtors.

"If Gaol Limits are necessary, they should be co-extensive with the city --
for the object of such confinement is only to be secure of your debtor when
you want him; and it is the same whether he is limited to a few streets or
has the freedom of the whole city.  On this subject I speak by book.  When
Sheriff of this city the limits were only one hundred and fifty acres.
***  Enticing persons off the limits [who were] confined for heavy sums and
with good bail, was an organized system."   [Women were hired to fake a
fainting spell just beyond the limits, in the hopes that the targetted
debtor would cross the street to help them.]

Evening Star, September 24, 1838, p. 2, col. 2

Noah means by "speak by book" that he speaks with authority, as if what he
is saying comes from a book, though the literal sense of the expression is
contradicted by the larger context, since Noah is speaking from his
experience, and is not spouting about what he has only read about.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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