This week Lizzie reports on an item discovered by the Lighting the Past team from within the ‘L’ section of the Copyright Deposit Collection. You can see the previous posts in the series here.
The Art of Reading: Or, the English Tongue made Familiar and easy to the meanest Capacity by P. Sproson, was a source of education for youth of the eighteenth century, but today provided a source of amusement in the Lighting the Past office. With table after table of phrases which are, as even Sproson admits, ‘a little trifling or childish’, one can find both familiar and absurd phrases within these pages.
Sproson’s audience, delicately described in his title as those of ‘the meanest capacity’ are clarified to be ‘that province of little people’. His aim was to create for them a text which taught English by a different method than that to which they were used, since ‘the long and the short, the easy and hard words are promiscuously jumbled together […] in all our primers and spelling-books, how can the entrance to learning be said to be easy?’
To solve the perceived inadequacies of previous works, Sproson proposed a new method, by which he sorts words ‘according to the number of letters in each word’. Within each section of words of increasing numbers of syllables, Sproson adds phrases to demonstrate. While some are composed from several words that might commonly be heard together, such as ‘an old man’, others are difficult to make any sense of, such as ‘we be to do so if ye do it’.
Some sections also provide more detailed practical uses of phrases, in the form of lists of ‘Familiar Forms of Speaking’ in various circumstances, such as ‘At meals’, or ‘Proverbs and other Moral Sayings’. Some of these latter phrases are still familiar to us today, such as ‘Rome was not built in a day’; ‘a cat may look upon a king’; and ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’. Some, however, are more unfamiliar and sound strange and amusing to a modern ear, such as ‘good wine needs no bush’; ‘great boast and small roast’; ‘children and chicken are always pecking’; and ‘hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings’.
Meanwhile, some of the phrases given as examples seem less than suitable for children. Among the ‘Familiar forms of speaking’ at meals, for example, are featured the two phrases ‘give me some small beer’ and ‘help me to a glass of ale’: phrases you would hope wouldn’t be said by or taught to a child today, but fitting for a time when beer was safer to drink than water! Others, in the ‘proverbs and moral sayings’ sections, seem downright bad advice for young children, such as ‘a bad excuse is better than none’, and are all the more amusing for being situated amongst advice for good Christians, particularly ‘Let truth adorn all your words, and good nature all your deeds: so shall you gain the love of God, and the esteem of all good men’.
Sproson’s colourful phrases give insight into the words and phrases used in the English language throughout history. Some, such as ‘pride will have a fall’, come from the ancient Aesopian fables, while, as is the way with the English language, some simply have no known origin, such as ‘a cat may look upon a king’. Others have all but died out, but live on in the weird and wonderful pages of Sproson’s book.
Lighting the Past Cataloguer