Who’d Want to Be a Dick Swiveller?

dick_swiveller“What’s going on with this ’twas ever thus thing?” said my partner, Tricia. The phrase had been uttered twice before 9 a.m. on the BBC’s radio news program already that morning. Prime Minister David Cameron said it when talking about Syria, and later another Conservative politician used it in a segment about badger culling.

“A couple of years ago I’d never heard it,” said Tricia, “but now everyone’s saying it.”

Casual claims about the suddenness of additions to the language are almost always wrong. People who have just noticed an expression assume that it must be brand new because it’s new to them. On Language Log we call this the Recency Illusion. Usually a brief glance at the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to show that the supposedly brand new phrase is decades old. And in this case it is centuries (you can track its long slow decline from 1800 to 2000 as recorded in Google Books if you click here).

Nonetheless, checking "ever thus" (with the quotation marks) on Google Trends showed that Tricia was exactly right in a sense: There was zero search interest in the phrase until September 2011, and then people suddenly start running significant numbers of searches on it, suggesting an uptick in either its frequency or its salience, perhaps because The Guardian used the headline “Cricket matches bought and cricket matches sold … twas ever thus” on September 22, 2011. People apparently started Googling the phrase right around that time, and it is still making plenty of appearances in news sources.

Notice that the phrase ever thus has a structure that normal conversational English would not allow. The word ever is barred from affirmative clauses—we get I didn’t ever go out but not *I ever went out. Moreover, thus is very rare in conversation (the normal style equivalent would be so). The phrase as a whole clearly has the ring of a quotation from an earlier century.

But who is being quoted?

It is not too hard to discover: It’s Dick Swiveller, a character in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop with a habit of adapting lines from literature to illustrate his life. When Miss Sophy rejects him in favor of a man named Cheggs who is in the market-gardening business, Swiveller recalls some charmingly sentimental (and famous) lines from Thomas Moore’s 1817 poem “The Fire Worshippers” to dramatize his self-pity:

I knew, I knew it could not last—
’Twas bright, ’twas heavenly, but ’tis past!
Oh! ever thus, from childhood’s hour,
I ’ve seen my fondest hopes decay;
I never loved a tree or flower,
But ’twas the first to fade away.
I never nursed a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well,
And love me, it was sure to die!

In adapting these, Swiveller (I mean Dickens, of course) adds a ’twas before ever that was not there in Moore’s original:

’Twas ever thus—from childhood’s hour I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a tree or flower but ’twas the first to fade away; I never nursed a dear Gazelle, to glad me with its soft black eye, but when it came to know me well, and love me, it was sure to marry a market-gardener.

Cameron uses the Dickens version of the first three words, but updates the ’twas to it was.

Dick Swiveller is an unlikely role model for a politician: a well-meaning but naïve and easily manipulated young man with drama-queen tendencies and a name that seems to tag him as a flip-flopper. David Cameron would surely not want to self-identify as a Dick Swiveller.

But oft-quoted archaisms are not always consciously identified as such; Cameron probably has no idea of the origin of his phrase. It has somehow become one of those things that people still say despite the anomalous grammar, a linguistic fossil still in regular use after 200 years, its odd structure and signs of age scarcely perceived by most of us (except for Tricia).

It’s a reminder of a fact about language evolution: As the glacier of syntactic change grinds slowly along, it picks up and carries with it small lumps of archaic grammar borrowed from the valleys of earlier centuries.

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