Monday, October 08, 2007

A fascinating digression.

I'm reading (and enjoying) James Bowman's Honor: A History, which is an interesting study of the evolution of honour and how it is and has been perceived by difference cultures. (A clich├ęd title format though; "Something: A Something Else" or "This and That: The Other Things" being very popular kinds of titles apparently with publishers. Do we really need subtitles for every non-fiction book?)

Anyway, in the course of making a point about the transition of the common meaning of the word "ambition", he departs on an interesting tangent about the meaning of another word. I quote the section here.

"It was in the nineteenth century that the ordinary meaning of the English word 'ambition' first began to be a positive one. The normal meaning in Shakespeare was that of the conspirators against Julius Caesar as they stood over his corpse and said, 'Ambition's debt is paid,' or of Cardinal Wolsey to Cromwell in Henry VIII when he said, "Fling away ambition: by that sin fell the angels." Chaucer's Ballade de Bon Conseyle advises the reader: 'That thee is seynt, receive in buxomnesse'—where buxomness means obedience. As a sidelight here, we might consider how it is that "buxom" makes the perilous transit from meaning 'obedient, compliant, submissive' (related to bow) to 'large-chested,' its only contemporary meaning. My guess is that the progression goes something like this: from obedient to obliging to pleasant or friendly to physically flexible to jolly and vivacious to well-favored to healthy to 'comfortable-looking' (OED) to well-endowed. But can it be entirely accident that the same word with two such distinct meanings is used to describe the feminine ideal, according to men anyway, in the Middle Ages and today?"

This is a great section. Not only is the main topic interesting, but he takes the time to explore a word that is really unrelated to his thesis simply because it was interesting. This is what an ill-bred copy-editor would cut if given half a chance, and would do the text a disservice by the excision.