August 6, 2013

"It is ironic that Austen, the elegant, precise satirist that she was, should provoke this crude and unsophisticated and wild meanness."

"She was no stranger to anger, to simmering resentments and harsh judgments, to taking people down a notch, but her sentences were if anything the opposite of 'a bomb was placed in front of your house.'"

Writes Katie Roiphe in Slate, about the Jane-Austen-on-the-banknote controversy we were talking about yesterday.

Why is that ironic? Isn't it more exactly what you'd expect, that an elegant, precise writer's antagonists would be crude? What's ironic is that Roiphe, championing the elegant, precise writer would misuse the word "ironic."

I checked the complete works of Jane Austen to see if old Jane had ever used the word "irony" or "ironic." The answer is no, but the search turned up the uses of "iron" as well, and I was amused by this exclamation, in "Northanger Abby," about James's gig:

"Break down! Oh! lord! Did you ever see such a little tittuppy thing in your life? There is not a sound piece of iron about it....."
Tittuppy.  Is that the adjective for the phrase "tits up"? The (unlinkable) OED marks the word as colloquial and defines it to mean: "Apt to tittup or tip up; unsteady, shaky." The first recorded usage is the "Northanger Abby" one I've quoted above. It's based on the noun "tittup," which is "apparently echoic, from the sound of the horse's feet" and means "A horse's canter; a hand-gallop." I guess we'd say "clip-clop." Now, a second meaning of "tittup" is "An impudent or forward woman or girl; a hussy, a minx." You might want to try using that!
1762   D. Garrick Farmer's Return 9   Some Tittups I saw, and they maade me to stare!
We're referred to the second meaning of "tit," which is "A girl or young woman: often qualified as little: cf. chit n.1; also applied indiscriminately to women of any age (? dial.).  (a) Usually in depreciation or disapproval: esp. one of loose character, a hussy, a minx.  (b) Sometimes in affection or admiration, or playful meiosis. (Common in 17th and 18th c.; now low slang.)" This is a very old usage, going back to 1599:
1599   T. M. Micro-cynicon ii. sig. B5v,   He hath his tyt, and she likewise her gull. Gull he, Trull she....
1886   G. M. Fenn Master of Cerem. vii,   She's a pretty little tit....
1932   S. O'Faoláin Midsummer Night Madness 62   I'm sorry for his two tits of sisters, though.
Wow. The oldest meaning of "tit" is a small horse. Surprising, no?


Ron said...

Wow. The oldest meaning of "tit" is a small horse. Surprising, no?

In a Ginger Rogers movie, when a small chested girl wants to borrow her bra, Ginger said "That'd be like putting a saddle on a Pekingese!"

Bob_R said...

"Irony" is widely misused. What do people THINK the word means, or, at least, what does Katie Rhoiphe think it means in this instance. Is it just some sort of hipster trust cue, like when businessmen talk about "win-win" or feminists talk about "patriarchy" or conservatives talk about "patriotism?" It doesn't really matter if you use the word correctly - you just use it to show that you are part of the club?

CWJ said...

I second Bob-R,

I would love to use the word, but I'm still uncertain as to its meaning. I'd give contradictory examples but there seem to be too many..

kimsch said...

Alanis Morrisette's misuse of the word ironic in the song Ironic has made a lot of people think that's the proper use.

Paco Wové said...

"the elegant, precise writer would misuse the word "ironic.""

One of my favorite-ever moments of book browsing was when reading the blurbs on the back of some book of popular literary criticism and encountering a George Will quote in which he wrongly defined "schadenfreude".

Carl said...

This is not surprising at all. Austen can be considered a first-principles philosophical definition of irony, and anyone who writes for Slate is ipso facto incapable of grasping irony. It's no surprise they chase the Amanda Marcotte generation, who entirely lack the wit and sense of humor to grasp even a Donald Duck voice caricature of the concept.

Which is, I guess, why they have to invent a new meaning for that which otherewise lies within their conceptual blind spot.

Russell Baker once wrote that no one under the age of 50 should be permitted by statute from reading Moby Dick (roughly). I'd impose a similar rule about Austen: if you can't tell a joke -- I mean a funny joke -- at your own expense, you should be savagely fined if caught with a copy of Persuasion or Mansfield Park. (The Ninth Circuit could probably find a penumbra of medical marijuana laws that shields possession of P&P with a doctor's note, I suppose.)

Imagining the dolts at Slate perusing Austen is like imagining sweaty 16-year-olds beating off to stills of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.