November 16, 2010


Category: Feasting,Literature :: Permalink

Another reason to read Patrick O’Brian: Wonderful passages like this, in which Stephen Maturin, the naturalist and ship’s doctor, is talking to a colleague from Boston about American politics and the American language.  The conversation takes place during the War of 1812, though the first part of it looks forward to another conflict within America itself.  But it’s the comment about grits, though, that made me laugh out loud and I now repeat it every time I make grits for breakfast.

Stephen said, “Your republic, now, Mr Evans: do you look upon it as one and indivisible, or rather as a voluntary association of sovereign states?”

“Well, sir, for my part I come from Boston, and I am a Federalist: that is to say I look upon the Union as the sovereign power.  I may not like Mr Madison, nor Mr Madison’s war — indeed, I deplore it: I deplore this connection with the French, with their Emperor Napoleon, to say nothing of the alienation of our English friends — but I see him as the President of the whole nation, and I concede his right to declare it, however mistakenly, in my name; though I may add that by no means all of my Federalist friends in New England agree with me, particularly those whose trade is being ruined.  Most of the other officers aboard, however, are Republicans, and they cry up the sovereign rights of the individual states.  Nearly all of them come from the South.”

“From the South? Do they, indeed?  Now that may account for a difference I have noticed in their manner of speech, a certain langour — what I might almost term a lisping deliberation in delivery, not unmelodious, but sometimes difficult for the unaccustomed ear.  Whereas all that you say, sir, is instantly comprehensible.”

“Why, sure,” said Evans, in his harsh nasal metallic bray, “the right American English is spoke in Boston, and even as far as Watertown.  You will find no corruption there, I believe, no colonial expressions, other than those that arise naturally from our intercourse with the Indians.  Boston, sir, is a well of English, pure and undefiled.”

“I am fully persuaded of it,” said Stephen.  “Yet at breakfast this morning Mr Adams, who was also riz in Boston, stated that hominy grits cut no ice with him.  I have been puzzling over his words ever since.  I am acquainted with the grits, a grateful pap that might with advantage be exhibited in cases of duodenal debility, and I at once perceived that the expression was figurative.  But in what does the figure consist?  Is it desirable that ice should be cut?  And if so, why?  And what is the force of with?”

After barely a moment’s pause, Mr Evans said, “Ah, there now, you have an Indian expression.  It is a variant upon the Iroquois katno aiss’ vismi — I am unmoved, unimpressed.  Yes, sir” — Patrick O’Brian, The Fortune of War, 138-139.

I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but because there are readers online who wonder if this is indeed the correct etymology, I will: Stephen is playing with Evans here, pointing out a perfect example of the sort of phrase Evans claims is never found in Boston, and Evans is trying to save face by coming up (“after barely a moment’s pause”) with a fake etymology.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:36 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Grits”

  1. Ben House Says:

    Delightful. Makes me want to read O’Brian for sure. On a related note, I was wondering if you have ever watched the Horatio Hornblower series? There were six or eight of them, and I wish there were more. The series is well done, but slightly graphic. I would not recommend them as family viewing for those with younger children.

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