OT: Wise and/or Otherwise [Was: Limerick (poem) antedating Nov. 30, 1880]

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Feb 3 20:30:05 UTC 2010

I was wondering about the column title "Wise and Otherwise", as it was
something that I thought I've seen before in publications of that
period. It is a natural enough pun but its historical distribution in
GB has been uneven--and the "and" version has no verifiable GB record
prior to 1810 (while the "or" version stretches back almost another
century). Indeed GB search revealed hundreds of hits for publications
in 1880s and 1890s with only 200 hundred for the 1870s and less than
half that for the 1860s (the jump, in fact, occurs from 1866-7 to
1868-9 and is sustained from that point forward), but there appear to
be quite a few going back to 1830 and a trickle going back even
further (the number is somewhat exaggerated by some volumes that GB
scanned more than once or in multiple printings, but it does not
significantly affect the general timeline). A particularly stricking
feature is the fact that this turn of phrase made a number of
appearances in parliamentary speeches (British and Canadian) and in
legal documents (both US and England) in the first quarter of the
XIXth century and even earlier (including New York Constitutional
Convention). There are even a couple of Enc. Brittanica articles that
contain variations on the theme (where one article uses "side-wise and
otherwise"--indeed, there are several early sources that show
"head-wise", "self-wise", "Tudor-wise" as the first part of the

J.T. Trowbridge's verse may be a late showing, but it might have been
responsible for popularizing the phrase in the last quarter of the
XIXth century (the popularity of the poem itself can be easily
verified--it even made it into a Supreme Court argument in 1911).

"If there ever lived a Yankee lad
Wise or otherwise, good or bad,
Who, seeing the birds fly, did't jump
With flapping arms from stake or stump
    Or, spreading the tail
    Of his coat for a sail,
Take a soaring leap from a post or rail,
    And wonder why
    /He/ couldn't fly,
And flap and flutter and wish and try--
If ever you knew a country dunce
Who didn't try that as often as once,
All I can say, that's a sign
He never would do for a hero of mine."
[From /Darius Green and His Flying Machine/, 1867]

This, of course, is long predated by /The Essay on English Bubbles By
Thomas Hope, Esq./, which Swift signed as being of Aug. 10, 1720.

"To the Right Reverend, Right Honourable, and Right Worshipful, and
Reverend, Honourable, and Worshipful &c Company of Stockjobbers;
whether Honest or Dishonest, Pious or Impious, Wise or Otherwise, Male
or Female, Young or Old, One with Another, who have suffered
Depredation by the late Bubbles: Greeting."

Although some sources pose it as a question or a (false) choice (as in
"the argument may be wise (or otherwise)" or "teachers may inquire
whether this is wise or otherwise"), most use it as Swift did, to
imply "everyone" (and quite often the pair comes accompanied by a
litany of other contrasting pairs, as in both Trowbridge and Swift
lines). An example of the former is Jeremy Bentham's "Panopticon
versus New South Wales" (a.k.a., "First Letter to Lord Pelham", 2 Nov.

"Wise or otherwise, the argument, it must be confessed, is far from
being an unpopular one--navigation (conveyance on the favourite
element)--navigation, like trade, considered as an /end/, rather than
as a /means/--or if as a means, a means with reference to colonies."
[emphasis in original]

Over time, punctuation in the phrase also appears to have evolved from
comma, dash or parenthesis separating the two parts of the phrase to
it almost invariably lacking any punctuation.

On the other hand, we must also recognize the media--the gradual
increase in citations may well be due to an increase in number of
respective books scanned by Google and, perhaps, even the greater book
preservation effort after the end of the Civil War. I am not claiming
any particular significance to the phrase or even suggesting that it
was coined by Swift, but I find the historical usage intresting and, I
thought, others might be similarly intrigued.


On Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 10:17 AM, Stephen Goranson <goranson at duke.edu> wrote:
> St. John Daily News, St. John, N. B.
> Edward Willis, Proprietor
> Tuesday Nov 30, 1880
> Vol. XLII, no. 281
> page 4, column 5
> [headline:} Wise and Otherwise
> ....

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

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