Polite language is a duplicitous business. It is the go-to linguistic tool used by gentlemen and scoundrels alike; it can indicate sincere concern and respect or it can mask nefarious intentions of a disingenuous speaker—and nowhere is this duplicity more insidious than in the arena of love. It is no wonder then that books have been written to sort through the true, the false and—mostly—the equivocal of decorous speech. The Dictionary of Love (1753), a tongue-in-cheek hybrid of reference, humor and conduct genres, is one such work.
In addition to standing on its own as a noteworthy eighteenth-century publication and an entertaining read, the DOL is also valuable for what it can illuminate about contemporary literature, much of which satirizes, condemns or otherwise deals with the goings-on of polite society. The following essay will discuss some sociolinguistic tenets regarding the nature and function of polite language, utilizing illustrative examples from Samuel Richardson's Pamela and suggesting the role the DOL might play in interpreting the novel.
In the most basic sense, polite language can be used to draw someone in or to keep someone out. The first few sections of Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded (1740) illustrate both of these functions: Mr. B attempts to win the young serving-woman's virtue, if not her heart, using genteel speech and ostensibly magnanimous gestures; Pamela, rightfully suspicious of her master's interest in her, constructs a barrier of propriety to shield herself from his troubling attention.
Pamela's first letter relates how Mr. B is very kind to her after her mistress's death. Initially, she finds his solicitude endearing and does not doubt his honor when he tells her, "I will take care of you all, my good maidens; and for you, Pamela...for my dear mother's sake, I will be a friend to you, and you shall take care of my linen" (25). Both his speech and his behavior paint him as a noble-minded master, aware of the responsibility connected to his station and well worthy of his position. This is how Pamela, naïve and herself artless, views the exchange.
To one with a more experienced, or perhaps simply more cynical, mind, his actions raise a red flag. Pamela's parents caution their daughter against accepting Mr. B's generosity too freely. His politeness and goodness seem over-the-top, so to speak, and are therefore causes for concern rather than gratitude. Carey McIntosh wisely notes in Common and Courtly Language: The Stylistics of Social Class in Eighteenth-Century English Literature that "courtly-genteel language is a reliable sign of aspirations to upper-class rank, not necessarily an index of true good breeding" (114). Although McIntosh's examination of "courtly-genteel language" refers to specific words, such as 'honor', 'duty', and 'interest,' it is certainly reasonable to suppose that polite language in general could function in the same way.
Pamela would have done well in this situation to have read the DOL, which is aimed largely at "the fair sex, whose mistakes are the most dangerous." Indeed, had Pamela run across the entry for 'friend,' she may have been more wary of Mr. B's commitment to her when he says, "I will be a friend to you":
Friend: This character, from a man to a lady, is often no other than a mask worn by a lover obliged to disguise himself, and who is the more to be feared, for his dissembling his designs, and watching the advantages of a critical moment. The women should admit no friend that may possibly become a lover. They love their danger who do not attend to this advice.
For her part, Pamela girds herself with decorum, not only keeping herself above reproach but also at times reproving her master of his conduct. Toward the beginning of the novel, Mr. B comes upon Pamela in the summer house and commands her not to run off, as she usually does. Flustered, Pamela answers, "It does not become your good servant to stay in your presence, sir, without your business required it; and I hope I shall always know my place" (34). Because she is in all other ways at the mercy of her master, Pamela must stand her ground with the only weapon she has: her words. Pamela's adherence to societal conventions confers on her a certain, if limited, authority because she is in the right, according to the rules of politeness.
Pamela's situation is not unlike that described by modern-day sociolinguists who suggest that women are more likely to use authoritative, standard speech variants because that kind of "symbolic capital is the only kind that women can accumulate with impunity" (Eckert 34). In other words, women's inability to gain real economic and/or other types of influence results in their use of prestigious or standard variants as a means of securing at least the semblance of power through their mastery of the language (Trudgill, Labov). Additionally, some researchers submit that women use more standard variants to avoid being seen as lower class, which carries connotations of sexual promiscuity, a quality which is still highly stigmatized for women (Gordon). Thus, women's politeness can be seen as a mechanism of gaining, or at least not losing, status and subsequently, power.
Having learned to be somewhat artful herself after suffering through Mr. B's many plots and harassments, Pamela chooses her words carefully to defend herself against the sham-marriage her master has designed for her. She again insists upon propriety when she tells him, in carefully chosen words, "Your poor servant is far unworthy of this great honour; for what will it be but to create envy to herself, and discredit to you?" (209). He responds angrily; however, she observes "if it was a piece of art of his side, as I apprehended, to introduce the sham-wedding, (and, to be sure, he is very full of stratagem and art,) I think I was not so much to blame" (209).
Of course, power struggles in love are not always as serious as those between Pamela and Mr. B. Courtship rituals involve games of all kinds, including verbal sparring, which is the domain of the DOL. Specifically, the purpose of the DOL is not to simplify the love language, but to decipher it—and it often compounds the circumlocutory or euphemistic characteristics in the process. It encourages mastery of indirectness rather than promoting directness in speech:
All arts are distinguished by terms peculiar to them. Physic and Heraldry are scarcely sciences, but in virtue of their hard technical nomenclature. Love itself, having lost its plain, unsophisticated nature, and being now reduced into an art, had recourse to particular words and expressions: of which it no more behoves lovers to be ignorant, than for seamen to be unacquainted with the terms of navigation. Neither is the glossary of it so easily acquired as might be imagined. (vi-v)
According to linguists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, being indirect is part of "the language of formal politeness," at least in most western cultures (57). Eighteenth- century England was no exception to this general rule.
Even John Cleland's Fanny Hill declares "Truth! stark naked truth, is the word" and says, "I will not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze-wrapper on it..." (39). Well, truth it may be, in content, but that does not prevent Cleland's descriptions from being dizzyingly periphrastic. In fact, as McIntosh notes, "the most erudite students of language may make fools of themselves in their attempts to employ it as an instrument for expressing truth" (40). Thus, those seeking to express a sincere sentiment often choose either to say nothing at all (perhaps the wiser course) or to vainly pursue their intended meaning through reams of explication.
However, if one did elect to speak, one was faced with the paradox that made it desirable to use the most inconspicuous language to reveal the most profound emotions. In describing the "polite letters of the eighteenth century," McIntosh observes that they "must be at once natural and new; they must do the job brilliantly without calling attention to themselves" (141). During courtship then, the most successful candidates had to be masters or mistresses of their craft so as not to let any strings show when they performed. Although the DOL appears to have been marketed toward women, Richardson's Mr. B suggests that it is men who need the instruction more:
What the deuse do we men go to school for? If our wits were equal to women's, we might spare much time and pains in our education; for Nature learns your sex, what, in a long course of labor and study, ours can hardly attain to. (202)
The DOL emphasizes that Nature's only worthwhile purpose is to provide art with a disguise so that it will not "[defeat] its ends by being too transparent" (vi). According to these two statements, Nature/disguise/indirectness seems to be a talent of women, and the DOL seems designed to hone those skills, aiding its readers in developing an artful, but well-camouflaged, style that would certainly have been an advantage in navigating the courtship rituals of the eighteenth century.
Ultimately, Pamela's success in marriage is due to her staunch commitment to remaining virtuous; she is rewarded for her transparent and honest nature. How realistic such an unblemished ascent might be remains a topic of debate; it is safe to assume that booksellers peddling the DOL would not have been too keen on anyone promoting such a single-minded approach to love and happiness. But in fact, even the virtuous Pamela's transition to happy Mrs. B is not achieved without knowledgeable and skillful manipulation of language.
As shown above, she must use her words to defend her honor when she has no other recourse. Additionally, once she becomes Mrs. B, she again relies on a sense of decorum to prove to Lady Davers that she belongs in her new role. Her politeness becomes more aggressive than defensive: she now employs polite language not to protest her unworthiness but to demand her acceptance. In both cases, she is essentially using a studied formality to remind her tormentors to mind their manners, a reproach which would have carried a great deal of weight in the eighteenth-century:
Now, pray, madam, said I, (but got to a little distance,) be pleased to reflect upon all that you have said to me, since I have had the honour, or rather misfortune, to come into your presence; whether you have said one thing befitting your ladyship's degree to me, even supposing I was the wench and the creature you imagine me to be? (325)
McIntosh writes that "people's use of language in ... eighteenth century England correlated directly with their position in society" (8). It does not necessarily follow that upper-class speech was any more effective than lower-class speech in expressing things—in fact, it may have been just the opposite, given the numerous conventions attached to more polite language. However, there is no doubt that "[having] access to higher dialects" was an advantage to those in the lower middle class (McIntosh 37). As we see in Pamela's first few letters, she was fairly well-educated by Mr. B's mother; Mr. B himself notes that she "write[s] a very pretty hand" (26). Though she is from a humble background, Pamela clearly has a way with words—a way, moreover, that often makes her appear more genteel than many of her superiors.
Although they seem unlikely to share a common goal, Pamela and the DOL both impress readers with the importance of understanding polite language and social conventions. While the novel provides comprehensive social and moral models for young men and women to follow, the DOL encourages them to learn the specific terms used in love, which could, have a significant impact on their ability to move successfully in society.