John O’London on good English

Taken from Is it Good English ? by John O’London (1924)

 Jot 101 Is it Good English cover

Words whose meanings have changed over the years

1) Evince

John O’ London complained in 1924 that the word ‘evince’ should be avoided. Since then your Jotter has seen it used several times, but usually not by journalists or by others whose job it is to  write lucidly. Here is Mr O’ London’s case for rejecting it out of hand:

‘A word which careful editors are constantly striking out of accepted manuscripts is ‘ evince. ‘It is used unbecomingly in all such phrases as “ he evinced a great desire “ or “ his passion for study was evinced by his fine library.”. To evince means, in its primary but now obsolete sense, to subdue or conquer, and is so used by Milton: “ Error by his own arms is best evinced.” Its proper meaning, now, is to prove, to make manifest, to show in a clear manner. It is too strong a word for either of the above phrases. A man may” have”, “ show”, or “ reveal” a desire ; his passion for study may be “ indicated “ or “ betoken “ by his library. Good writers have little use for the verb “ evince.”

1)  Phenomenal

A word that has all but turned somersault. It is now widely used —but never by good writers—in the sense of unusual or wonderful, and we even meet with the phrase ‘ almost phenomenal ‘. A phenomenon is not a wonderful event or spectacle, but simply an event, spectacle, or observed process, as in the sentence ( Huxley’s): ‘ Everyone is familiar with the common phenomenon of a piece of metal being eaten away by rust.’ But one cannot take up a newspaper without finding ‘ phenomenal’ used in the sense of extraordinary. This is no figure of speech; I have just reached out my hand to the newspaper lying nearest to me, one of distinction, and within   a minute I have read: ‘ By the December of the following year the death-rate had dropped to the phenomenally low figure of forty-three.’ That fact is not’ phenomenal’ in the sense intended by the writer; any fact or any figure would have been ‘ phenomenal ‘, although it would have been superfluous to say so. Roget in his invaluable Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, gives other examples. Shameful and shameless mean nearly the same thing; nervous can mean either strong or weak. Many like oddities of divergent or opposed meanings in the same word could be adduced, and I hope that in giving these examples I have distracted my readers without distracting them

2) Prevent.

Prevent did not originally mean to hinder, but merely to go before. When the author of the 119th Psalm wrote, ‘ I prevented the dawning of the morning…mine eyes prevent the night watches, that I might meditate in thy word,’ he did not mean that he caused the sun to stand still, or forbade the dusk to fall while he worshipped.

3) Nice

One cannot say that nice ever meant nasty, but to Chaucer it meant foolish, and there is little doubt that this was its meaning in Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote (in 2Henry IV, 4,1)’ every idle, nice and wanton reason.’ Halliwell defines ‘ nice ‘ ( medievally) as ‘ foolish, stupid, dull, strange.’ It came to mean ‘effeminate’ in a very opprobrious sense. In fact there was a period when ‘ nice ‘was a nasty word. Later, but in a derogatory sense, it meant particular, fastidious, finical; later still, and in a laudatory sense, discriminating or refined. It also had the meanings of shy and reluctant. It meant also, closely logical, as in ‘ a nice distinction ‘, and it has the meaning still. But chiefly it is now the weak equivalent of pleasing, agreeable—as in ‘ a nice man,’ whatever kind of man that may be.

4) Demean

Meant simply to behave, or to conduct oneself. Hence Shakespeare wrote, ‘ If York have ill demeaned himself.’ He might have well demeaned himself. Again, ‘ They have demeaned themselves like men born to renown.’ In Shakespeare’ s time the word had not come to mean to lower or to degrade, and the only passage in which it could be thought to bear this meaning is that in the ‘Comedy of Errors’, in which the courtesan says:–

‘ Now , out of doubt Antipholus is mad

Else would he never demean himself .’

But there to demean has the sense of to conduct ( would he never so conduct himself’). Demean is from the French demener, and has nothing to do with meanness. The noun demeanour contains no such suggestion. Thackeray wrote: ‘ He would demean himself by a marriage with an artist’s daughter’; but the fact that such expressions will be found in good writers does not mean them good. The proper verbs are to humble, to lower, to degrade, and others.

Correct English


1) ‘ Like’ and ‘As’.

A correspondent wrote:-

‘ Sir Henry Hadow recently stated that ‘ the use of like instead of as , a terrible vulgarism, was coming into popular use.’ Would you kindly explain exactly what is meant? Is the word used wrongly in the two following sentences, for instance: 1) ‘ I intend to do my hair like yours.’—2) I intend to do my hair like you do yours.’

The first sentence is correct, or will pass. The second is grossly incorrect: it should be ‘ I intend to do my hair as you do yours.’ ‘ As’ appertains to verbs, ;’ like ‘ to nouns. One thing is ‘ like ‘another ; you do a thing’ as’ someone else does it.

Mr O’London has nothing to say on the use of ‘ like ‘ by teenage girls conversing with other teenage girls, as in ‘ Like’ I really don’t understand what she meant. Like it was really like confusing’

Has anyone noticed that it is almost always girls who talk in this strange way ?

2) The function of ‘ Function ‘.

Is it correct to write:–

‘ The council declined to function.’ ‘ The car had travelled half the distance when the engine refused to function’ etc.?

The use of ‘function’ as a verb is perhaps admissible in writing of machinery, but quite improper in such a sentence as ‘ The council declined to function’; and the use of the word as a noun, to mean any kind of assembly, such as a garden-party or a reception, is as indefensible as it is common [R. Healey]

2 thoughts on “John O’London on good English

  1. Angus

    I don’t know whether the mistake is John O’London’s or simply an error in transcription, but the line “Else would he never demean himself” should of course read “Else would he never so demean himself” (the scansion gives it away). The correct version leaves the argument in tatters, doesn’t it?

  2. Jot 101 Post author

    Many thanks Angus– point taken, you’re not wrong, I bow to your superior knowledge etc., will check with RH the maker of this jot to see if what he says, if contactable…


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