6

(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XV, published 1892)

Passage 232

THE CARGO OF THE “FLYING SCUD.”

In my early days I was a man, the most wedded to his idols of my generation. I was a dweller under roofs: the gull of that which we call civilisation; a superstitious votary of the plastic arts; a cit; and a prop of restaurants. I had a comrade in those days, somewhat of an outsider, though he moved in the company of artists, and a man famous in our small world for gallantry, knee breeches, and dry and pregnant sayings. He, looking on the long meals and waxing bellies of the French, whom I confess I somewhat imitated, branded me as “a cultivator of restaurant fat.” And I believe he had his finger on the dangerous spot; I believe, if things had gone smooth with me, I should be now swollen like a prize-ox in body, and fallen in mind to a thing perhaps as low as many types of bourgeois—the implicit or exclusive artist. That was a home word of Pinkerton's, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can't see is why you should want to do nothing else.” The dull man is made, not by the nature, but by the degree of his immersion in a single business. And all the more if that be sedentary, uneventful, and ingloriously safe. More than one half of him will then remain unexercised and undeveloped; the rest will be distended and deformed by over-nutrition, over-cerebration, and the heat of rooms. And I have often marvelled at the impudence of gentlemen, who describe and pass judgment on the life of man, in almost perfect ignorance of all its necessary elements and natural careers. Those who dwell in clubs and studios may paint excellent pictures or write enchanting novels. There is one thing that they should not do: they should pass no judgment on man's destiny, for it is a thing with which they are unacquainted. Their own life is an excrescence of the moment, doomed, in the vicissitude of history, to pass and disappear: the eternal life of man, spent under sun and rain and in rude physical effort, lies upon one side, scarce changed since the beginning.

Collins has this: home 20. effective or deadly: a home thrust. I would like to metaphorically take it to mean incisive or concise but, maybe, home word is a set phrase. What does that is a home word of someone mean? Maybe it matters Pinkerton is American.

4
  • 4
    I doubt it’s a collocation. It may have been, back in the nineteenth century, but I anyway don’t recall ever running across it. If I interpret Stevenson correctly, he’s using it here to mean something like “That’s one of Pinkerton’s go-too expressions,” or “That’s one of Pinkerton’s accustomed soapboxes,” or even “That’s one of Pinkerton’s pet peeves.” Another possibility in this same semantic cloud is hobbyhorse. Oct 30, 2023 at 12:49
  • Home can refer to any default, basic, standard: Home base, home team, hometown. Oct 30, 2023 at 14:45
  • @PaulTanenbaum A pet peeve is something entirely different. PS I think you meant 'go-to' expression ;)
    – paddotk
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:10
  • @paddotk, oops :-) Oct 31, 2023 at 15:54

4 Answers 4

5

In 19th century and early 20th century texts in both British English and educated American English the phrase home word means "native" word, that is, word in one's native language. We find attestations like "You would say Mignonne for our home word darling." See the attestations below.

The word bourgeois was a native word for Pinkerton, a "home word". In modern linguistic terminology, it was part of his idiolect.

P.S. I suspect there may be some mispunctuation in the text, and that the colon should be replaced with a full stop.

And I believe he had his finger on the dangerous spot; I believe, if things had gone smooth with me, I should be now swollen like a prize-ox in body, and fallen in mind to a thing perhaps as low as many types of bourgeois—the implicit or exclusive artist. That was a home word of Pinkerton's, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: [ FULL STOP HERE] “What I can't see is why you should want to do nothing else.” The dull man is made, not by the nature, but by the degree of his immersion in a single business.

But to confirm that suspicion would require consultation of the manuscript. The reasoning is that the word "that" is anaphoric, not cataphoric. "That" refers back to the only foreign word in the vicinity, bourgeois. "That" wouldn't be pointing forward to "“What I can't see is why you should want to do nothing else.” Moreover, that sentence, with the first person pronoun "I", is hardly something to be "writ in gold letters on the portico of every school of art". "Who is this 'I'?", people would wonder. But BOURGEOIS could indeed be writ in gold there, in Pinkerton's view, as his sense of what it means to be bourgeois is to grow "dull...by ... immersion in a single business." Pinkerton cannot fathom how a person would want to have a single profession, artist, and "do nothing else". The theme of the paragraph is about how the "exclusive artist" (one who does nothing but art) has no knowledge of the world, being isolated from it:

More than one half of him [of such an artist] will then remain unexercised and undeveloped; the rest will be distended and deformed by over-nutrition, over-cerebration, and the heat of rooms.

Attestations:

Richard. The minion?

Minion! minion! -- O you'd say Mignonne,

French for our home-word, darling?

Thomas A Becket: A Dramatic Chronicle, George Darley (London, 1840), Act 5, scene 5.

The bad taste, in giving vulgar names to their articles of food or refreshment, is an obvious defect in American manners, and is certainly unpleasing to a foreign ear. But it should be known that this people are very ambitious of establishing a sort of quaint and coarse phraseology, as the distinctive national humour; and, moreover, that their standard notions of politeness in language are very far indeed below European refinement. Expressions that are usual with only the lowest orders in England are very common from the mouth of American gentility. "I don't care a copper for him," or such a one "is not worth a copper," is an every day phrase, instead of our home word farthing to express the same idea.

Civilized America, Thomas Colley Grattan (London, 1849), p. 62

Our county [Lancaster County, Pennsylvania] took its name from Lancashire, England, in 1729 ... The name Lancaster is interesting in itself, with an antique flavor, and means "The Camp at Lan" -- Lan-castra. It comes down to us, with slight change of spelling, from the Roman occupation of Great Britain nearly two thousand years ago, when the Romans had their camps at strategic points on the island. "Lan" was one of these localities, named by the original inhabitants; "castra" was the Roman word for camp; therefore, "the Lan camp" or "the camp at Lan." In time, with the passing away of the Romans, "Lan-castra" became our home word Lancaster..."

Year Book of The Pennsylvania Society 1908 (New York, 1908) p. 100

15
  • 4
    Mind, That was a home word of Pinkerton's refers to “What I can't see is why you should want to do nothing else", it does not refer to **bourgeois.
    – philphil
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:41
  • 1
    Don't agree. Would it make sense to write bourgeois on the portico of every school of art?
    – philphil
    Oct 30, 2023 at 16:50
  • 1
    Possibly related to the expression "What's that when it's at home?" which is a phrase used to ask for a simpler or better-known word when you hear one you don't recognize. Often it suggests that the speaker is being somewhat pompous or using specialized jargon unnecessarily, and you'd prefer more down-to-earth language.
    – barbecue
    Oct 31, 2023 at 0:17
  • 1
    While I agree that this instance of that is anaphoric, the word in itself can also be cataphoric, and a context like this would be a likely place for it. This hypothetical rewrite seems perfectly fine to me, for example: “… and fallen in mind to a thing perhaps as low as an exclusive artist. That was a home word of Pinkerton's: bourgeois, a man made dull by immersion in a single business”. That still relates to the previous sentence, but in a more exophoric manner, and its direct postcedent is bourgeois. Oct 31, 2023 at 17:40
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet I'd need to see other examples of cataphora with that, as I don't quite buy it there with your rewrite, and I can only come up with exophora: "Yes" said the mad scientist. "That's it. I'll take over the world!" -- where the referent of "that" is the thought at first unspoken (anaphora), and then repeated aloud. Oct 31, 2023 at 18:47
5

I can't be 100% sure, but the OED has the following for home, adj.,

3.b.† Of, relating to, or concerning oneself; intimate, private, personal. Obsolete.

and the following attestation

1880 - He knew something of what Miss Ammah's home word was likely to touch upon. A. D. T. Whitney, Odd, or Even? (1881) xlix. 499

Source: “home, adj., sense 3.b”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, September 2023.

Note: the above link is behind a login, but here's a screenshot if it helps.

3
  • The full text of Odd, Or Even? by Adeline Dutton Train Whitney (1881) is on Google Books if you search for the above quote: the phrase "home word" appears multiple times on page 499. It quite clearly means what today would probably be called "a private word", i.e. a short conversation held discreetly or in confidence.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 31, 2023 at 10:52
  • @StuartF - that's good to know, but quite how this relates to the OP's quoted text is still unclear. That's why I said that I'm not 100% sure even though the dictionary has this attestation of the very term in question.
    – Billy Kerr
    Oct 31, 2023 at 10:59
  • @StuartF - I like your answer BTW. Upvoted+1
    – Billy Kerr
    Oct 31, 2023 at 11:36
1

This is not a common phrase in English. I would even go so far as to say that it's probably not even correct from a prescriptive stance, it's either something the writer made up for this use or an error. But English is extremely forgiving of made-up words and phrases with enough context, so native speakers are likely to gloss over it as mearly poetic writing and keep going.

On the assumption that the author believed this phrase had meaning (as opposed to an editing error or something) we can try to figure out what the author thought that meaning was based on the context.

I believe the intended meaning is that Pinkerton had a strongly held belief that one should not be fat and lazy and (possibly) that he told people this regularly. An actual English phrase would be common refrain. Another option is motto, which fits both meanings: a guiding principal, and a phrase inscribed on a building relating to it's character.

In your sentence:

That was a motto of Pinkerton's, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can't see is why you should want to do nothing else.”

Or you could be more verbose, "it was a closely held belief of his"...

To break this interpretation down word-by-word:

That refers back to the preceding sentences but not to any individual word but rather the overall concept.

Home is used in a metaphorical sense to mean something innate or closely held, similar to (but not exactly the same as) the metaphorical usage in "that struck home" or "home truth".

Word doesn't mean an actual single word but something like truth or belief, as in "the word of God", "I give you my word", etc.

Making up an example with similar structure using common refrain, "My parents brought me up to always have a tidy room. It was a common refrain with them: "No one will take you seriously with a messy bed.""

0

I browsed the OED once again and found this:

OED:
home, n.¹ & adj. That strikes home; direct, to the point; effective, appropriate. Now rare except in home truth, n. and home thrust, n.

Since 1607 - up to now (see above)

I think this strikes home in this context, doesn't it?

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .