Over the past few years, like a lot of people, I've been doing genealogical research - mostly on my father's side. I've started working on a series of essays about the search and what I've found, but I wanted to share this little twig from the family tree today.
My paternal grandmother's family came from Montreal. The Noads (yes, I know - what a name, but it gets worse) were a very respectable Montreal family in the mid-to-late 19th century. Very respectable. So respectable, they practically couldn't bend their limbs. In fact, their pictures can be found on exhibit at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, in that institute's collection of the photographs of William Notman, Canada's Matthew Brady. My ancestors stare at us from old prints, completely complacent and frozen solid, all mutton-chop whiskers and hoop skirts. (My direct connections made, shall we say, a break from this stifling respectability in a big way, but that's another story. Stay tuned.)
The respectable branch of the family (not mine - are you tantalized?) stayed respectable right through the 20th century. In fact, at least one of them became moderately illustrious in academia - my grandmother's first cousin, Algy Smillie Noad (I told you the names got worse), who was a renowned professor of comparative literature at McGill University, Canada's Harvard, from 1921-1952. Algy had a rather dashing job before settling down at McGill - he was briefly the tutor of the son of the Cuban President, Mario Garcia Menocal. Once ensconced at McGill, however, Algy settled down to a life of concentrated and relentless scholarship. He wrote critical articles and published two readers for the teaching of composition. My favorite of his publications, though, is his Canadian Handbook of English (1932), wherein he determinedly browbeats students out of sloppy grammar and lazy language into his version of proper English.
Algy knew that proper English was the mark of the refined. He deplored the vulgarization of the language, the addition and use of "the large class of words that live, but only on sufferance. Their existence is frowned upon; they are classed as undesirables. For the dictionary-maker, a specialist, to leave them out of his book would be a mistake. If, however, we look them up in its pages we shall find opposite each some description that will explain why it is not considered fit for common use by cultivated writers and speakers. These, then, if they are to be included in our estimate of the average working vocabulary, must be put in with a black mark beside them...Leave vulgar English, then to the writers of moving-picture titles and sensational newspapers."
Beyond vulgarisms and profanity, there is, according to Algy, a worse offender to civilized discourse - slang. Woe betide the writer of essays who employs it! He cites some good reasons for eschewing it (hah! there's a respectable word for you) - its fugitive quality ("the slang of 1930 is not the slang of 1920, and no one can predict what the slang of 1950 will be") and its imprecision ("it very soon loses its solidity and its clearness of outline, and eventually it is found serving half-a-dozen purposes at once"). But the most important reason, in Algy's estimation, is because:
"It has low associations[Algy's boldface]. Habitual users of slang are people who think approximately, once they get out of the sphere of crude bodily needs. They cannot be taken as models by anyone who takes the least interest in improving the clearness and beauty of his language. Much slang, too, is borrowed from the lingo of the underworld, and hence its use suggests a familiarity with the inmates of the underworld."
(One wonders what Algy might have said if, say, he'd dropped a dictionary on his foot.)
This is fascinating on a sociological level - in this view, the correctness of the language reflects the quality of the person using it, and their social station. Algy fills the handbook with some tough exercises, too, to whip his students into shape and make sure no-one mistakes them for hoodlums. How many of us (even those of us who teach English) know that "when shall and will are used to form future tense, they give rise to two distinct systems, the meaning of which is quite clearly marked in every person," much less correctly do three pages worth of exercises on the distinction? You've got to hand it to him - for all his stodginess, Algy knew his stuff.
Algy taught at McGill until his death in 1952. (In 1984, his widow endowed a small scholarship in his name for outstanding senior English majors, still awarded every year.) Interestingly, at the time of his death, Algy was researching imaginary voyages in literature -- maybe that respectability was just a wee bit confining, after all.