Thursday, July 07, 2016

An interesting etymology I found today: to say that something had been "spirited away" didn't originally mean, as you might assume, that something had been whisked away as if by magical spirits. In fact, "spirits" was a slang term for kidnappers who took poor children from the streets of London and shipped them off to work on plantations in the West Indies. The outcry against this led Parliament in 1645 to pass an ordnance against kidnapping children, although the earliest relevant citations in the OED are from decades later:

1666   London Gaz. No. 107/1   Several persons escaped from the Vessel, who pretend they were spirited (as they term it) and invited upon several pretences aboard them, and then..carried away.
a1675   B. Whitelocke Memorials Eng. Affairs (1682) anno 1645 140/1   An Ordinance agains such who are called Spirits, and use to steal away, and take up children.

Finally, in the nineteenth century, the connotation of the phrase began to converge with the non-slang meaning of the word:

c. Said of the action of spirits.

1825   J. Neal Brother Jonathan I. 253   Peters had been..spirited away in a thunderstorm.
1855   W. Irving Chron. Wolfert's Roost 179   Others jocosely hinted that old Pluto..had spirited away the boy to the nether regions.
1889   J. M. Barrie Window in Thrums 102   It was thocht next mornin' 'at the ghost had spirited them awa.

That first citation is a bit ambiguous but fortunately the context can be confirmed on Google Books. "Nay; it soon came to be whispered about, confidentially, in the great chimney corners; among the very old, and very young people, that Peters had been carried off, in a whirlwind; cottage and all; spirited away, in a thunderstorm, such as never was heard of, before – by his Master – the Evil One; or Old One."

I looked up John Neal, the author of Brother Jonathan, on Wikipedia, and found that he sometimes took only a week to write a novel. This productivity earned him the nickname Jehu O'Cataract. "I shall write, as others drink, for exhilaration," he once declared. After three years in London (lodging part of the time with Jeremy Bentham), he returned to his birthplace of Portland, Maine to visit his mother. He hadn't planned to move back there for good, but the local reaction to his writing had been so bad that he was told he wouldn't be allowed to stay even if he wanted to – which made him decide he did want to, and indeed he did stay, for the rest of his life. "He maintained a solid physique into old age, which he demonstrated when he threw a stubborn cigar-smoker off a non-smoking street car at the age of 79." Edgar Allen Poe called him "among our men of indisputable genius" but none of his books are now in print.

1 comment:

Peter King said...

Hello Ned,
First, I loved “The Teleportation Accident.” One of the best books I’ve read this decade. Also enjoyed “Glow.”
Your John Neal blog entry made me laugh. During my grad school days, I plowed through several of his books. Unlike many once-popular 19th century authors who have been forgotten, his reputation has never been rehabilitated, probably with good reason. Although to give the man some credit, his books did inspire Hawthorne and Melville when they were young, so he had at least a small part in shaping the American Renaissance.
My favorite literary criticism of Neal came from Lillie Deming Loshe, a major critic in the early 20th century. After saying she was astonished by Neal’s “general incoherency,” she wrote, “One always has the vision of him gaily writing away until the ink bottle runs dry, and then scrawling in pencil a few deaths or an insanity or two in order to end the matter.”
I’m looking forward to your next book!