The Danger of Wit and Humor

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There are among us who seem so sensible of the Danger of Wit and Humour, that they are resolved to have nothing to do with them: And indeed they are in the right on’t; for Wit, like Hunger, will be with great Difficulty restrained from falling on, where there is great Plenty and Variety of Food.

——Henry Fielding, Dedication to Don Quixote in England

Caxton on English Style

Mr. William Caxton, the first English printer, wrote in the preface to his English retelling of the Aeneid that he had written the tale to be understood, not to flaunt his vocabulary. The spelling and punctuation have been modernized, but the words are otherwise as Caxton wrote them.

And that common English that is spoken in one shire varieth from another. Insomuch that in my days happened that certain merchants were in a ship in Thames for to have sailed over the sea into Zealand, and for lack of wind, they tarried at Foreland, and went to land for to refresh them. And one of them named Sheffield, a mercer, came into an house and asked for meat; and specially he asked after eggs. And the goodwife answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but would have had eggs, and she understood him not.

And then at last another said that he would have eyren. Then the goodwife said that she understood him well.

Lo, what should a man in these days now write—”eggs” or “eyren”? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of diversity and change of language. For in these days every man that is in any reputation in his country will utter his communication and matters in such manners and terms that few men shall understand them. And some honest and great clerks have been with me, and desired me to write the most curious terms that I could find.

And thus between plain rude and curious, I stand abashed. But in my judgment, the common terms that be daily used be lighter to be understood than the old and ancient English.

Mistaken, but Well-Meaning, Zealots

It is a wonder that Christians of different denominations do not see, that while they are spending the precious hours contending for the non-essentials, which are but as the fringe to the “wedding-garment,” souls are slipping past them into eternity, uncared-for and unprepared. One is often painfully struck with this thought, in reading, or hearing, the acrid disputes of mistaken, but well-meaning, zealots.

——Fanny Fern, Ginger-Snaps.

On Apologetic Prefaces

Most Prefaces are, (Effectually) Apologies; and neither the Book, nor the Author, one Jot the Better for them. If the Book be Good, it will not Need an Apology; If Bad, it will not Bear One: For where a man thinks, by Calling himself Noddy, in the Epistle, to Atone, for Shewing himself to be one, in the Text; He does (with Respect to the Dignity of an Author) but Bind up Two Fools in One Cover: But there’s no more Trusting some People with Pen, Ink, and Paper, then the Maddest Extravagants in Bedlam, with Fire, Sword, or Poyson. He that Writes Ill, and Sees it, why does he Write on? And, with a kind of Malice Prepense, Murder the Ingenious part of Mankind? He that Really Believes he Writes Well; why does he pretend to Think Otherwise? Now take it which way you please, a man runs a Risque of his Reputation, for want, either of Skill, and Judgment, the One way; Or of Good Faith, and Candor the Other. Beside a Mighty Oversight, in Imagining to bring himself off, from an Ill Thing, Done, or Said, by Telling the World that he did it for This or That Reason. When a Book has once past the Press into the Publique; there’s no more Recalling of it, then of a Word Spoken, out of the Air again. And a man may as well hope to Reverse the Decree of his Mortality, as the Fate of his Writings. In short: When the Dice are Cast, the Author must stand his Chance.

——Sir Roger L’Estrange, Preface to the Observator.

On Human Improvement

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The human race is still in the making, is by no means done; and, however noble it is to be human, it will be nobler to be humaner.

——Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Concerning Children.

(We should like it understood that we do not endorse Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s rather odd ideas of race and “breeding,” but merely liked her succinct way of expressing the idea that we human beings have work to do before we live up to our potential as the summit of creation.)