We are delighted to share this article by Robert McCrum from the Trinity 2011 edition of Oxford Today magazine.
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, born in 1881, came of age at the dawn of mass culture. He was an Englishman of that generation, shaped by the Education Act of 1870, for whom the written word was an intoxicating plaything – and a means of self-improvement. Also, as the son of a colonial civil servant, he was a junior member of an English establishment shaped by public schools like Dulwich, his alma mater. Wodehouse’s inimitable style, its language and range of allusion, which is also the expression of his comic genius, profoundly reflects these two influences, the popular and the traditional.
As a boy, Wodehouse received a classical education at Dulwich. His instinctive command of the prose sentence, combined with a perfect ear for the music of English, gave him the confidence to trade in school slang (oil; archbish; barge; biff; corking), which would eventually morph into the lingo of his 1940 story collection Eggs, Beans and Crumpets.
The Mayfair of the clubs was in the future. Dulwich College is rooted in the suburbs of south London, a genteel purlieu of sorrowful aspiration, a place of servants, landladies, and clerks. It’s Dulwich (‘Valley Fields’ in the Wodehouse canon) that connects the Wodehouse of the English shires to a mass audience of clerks, insurance salesmen and minor civil servants, for whom chassis becomes slang for body, and giving someone the elbow, meaning to reject, possibly derives from the experience of taking a commuter train to the City. Such suburban clerks would also refer to moustaches as soup strainers or jocularly describe a colleague’s beard as a fungus. At their most uninhibited, they might address one another, as Ukridge does in some of Wodehouse’s earliest stories, as “old horse”.
After Dulwich, Wodehouse had two unhappy years working in a bank. Although he disdained the City, he owed rather more to his fellow clerks than he acknowledged, appropriating the Pooterish Edwardian slang of give me the pip (irritate); restore the tissues (take alcoholic refreshment); off his onion (unbalanced); old oil (flattery); pure applesauce (fanciful nonsense), and pip pip (goodbye).
This was the Edwardian world whose slang – cove, blighter and snifter – would pepper the conversation of Bertie Wooster and his fellow Drones. In this indolent milieu, the prince of the affluent young Edwardian was the knut, descended from the Beau, the Buck and the Swell, an amiable cove you could laugh at but hardly despise, given to absurd expressions like oojah-cumspiff and Tinkerty-tonk. Rupert Psmith (“the P is silent as in psalm”) is the quintessential knut with a range of vocabulary (like his author’s) that is matched by an instinctive love of quotation from the classics (“solvitur ambulando”) and from the kind of English poetry learned at public school. Psmith is never lost for words, his own, or other people’s.
Wodehouse, like all the greatest English writers, was always a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. Two youthful trips to New York before the outbreak of the Great War had a decisive effect on the emergence of his mature style. Throughout his heyday (approximately 1915 to 1939), Wodehouse could always count on selling his work twice over, first in magazine, and then in book, form on both sides of the Atlantic. Zippiness, hotsy-totsy, ritzy, dude, lame-brain, syncopated, zing, and hooched all bear witness to Wodehouse’s love of the US vernacular.
In retrospect, his creative zenith (the years of the first Jeeves and Blandings stories) was the 1920s, one of the great alcoholic decades of the twentieth century. Unique in the canon of English literature, almost none of Wodehouse’s characters is indifferent to the temptations of a quiet snort. Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; stinko; squiffy; tanked and woozled. Every one of these words, and many other phrases, betrays their author’s delight in the vernacular.
Wodehouse himself, of course, was always completely in command of his artistic faculties. He was also lucky. His astonishing popularity came at a singular moment in British social history. For the first time, the nation was almost universally literate. Wodehouse’s polished and seemingly effortless combination of the suburban and the classical, matching popular storytelling with brilliantly allusive prose, was perfectly suited to a mass audience and the elite Oxbridge readership within it. Newspaper critics, like Gerald Gould in The Observer, expressed a widespread opinion: “In the most serious and exact sense of the word [PGW] is a great artist. He has founded a school, a tradition. He has made a language… He has explained a generation.”
Shortly after these words appeared, Wodehouse completed his masterpiece, The Code of the Woosters, a comic tour de force that contains some of his most celebrated felicities:
“He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
Or: “It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.”
Or: “You see before you, Jeeves, the toad beneath the harrow.”
The Code of the Woosters is the supreme example of Wodehouse’s marriage of high farce with the inverted poetry of his mature comic style. Today, he is more popular than on the day he died, and reference to his characters appear somewhere in the English-speaking world almost every day. The OED Online, for example, contains more than 1,750 quotations from crispish to zippiness. In lightness and lunacy, life could become bearable, and the unexamined life, left to its own devices, could go like a breeze – especially if crowded with incident, orchestrated by butlers and valets, and dedicated to helping old pals. It was, finally, Wodehouse’s genius to execute his stories in a language that danced on the page, marrying the English style of the academy with the slang of the suburbs.
The new Oxford English Dictionary Online is available – at home, at any time – via UK public libraries and many others worldwide. An online version of this article, with links to Wodehouse’s words, is available in the ‘Aspects of English’ section of the Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Robert McCrum is an associate editor of The Observer. His latest book, Globish. How the English Language became the World’s Language, has just been published by Penguin.