‘Wardour-Street English’: meaning and origin

Of British-English origin, the derogatory phrase Wardour-Street English designates artificially archaic language, especially as affected by authors of historical novels.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of The Sheriff of Nottingham (New York: Viking, 1992), a novel by the U.S. author Richard Kluger (born 1934)—review by the British historian Simon Schama (born 1945), published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Sunday 16th February 1992:

The dilemma of how to make ancient language sound authentic without committing either pseudoarchaism or anachronism was squarely faced by Walter Scott and beautifully articulated in the sardonic dedicatory epistle to “Dr. Dryasdust” that prefaces “Ivanhoe.” Criticizing the 18th-century poet Thomas Chatterton for wanting to imitate medieval language so faithfully that he actually concocted a strange-sounding tongue that had never been spoken by anyone, Scott freely confessed that he had modernized while trying to retain the cadence and impression of old speech patterns. This admission did not protect him from being accused of creating “Wardour Street English” (after the street that once sold spurious antiques).

The phrase Wardour-Street English alludes to the fact that, in the 19th century, Wardour Street, in London, became known for its many shops specialising in imitations of antique furniture—hence, Wardour-Street English came to refer to similarly inauthentic archaic language.

There is an isolated early occurrence of the phrase Wardour-Street slang in the following review of A Walk through the Art-Treasures Exhibition at Manchester, under the Guidance of Dr. Waagen (London: John Murray and W. H. Smith & Son, 1857), by the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen (1794-1868)—review published in The Athenæum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (London, England) of Saturday 1st August 1857:
—However, in this review, the phrase Wardour-Street slang seems to refer to language of the kind used by antique dealers on Wardour Street rather than to artificially archaic language:

With Mr. Scharf’s learned and Mr. P. Cunningham’s pleasant catalogues we do not know that Dr. Gustav Waagen was much wanted, particularly as Dr. Waagen is an eclectic admirer of old Art, good and bad, and is rather overloaded with the pedantry of technicalities. There is a little too much of the oracle in his little book, which is addressed, not to connoisseurs, to whom it might be useful, but to the general public, who look at pictures for pleasure and not for instruction. Men who want such books do not care about Jan Steen being “careful and solid,” if he paints brutal and degraded subjects, nor about Ruysdael’s “excellent keeping,” so he paints treacle waterfalls. Dr. Waagen, coming like a second Solomon, professes to correct erroneous titles and to select for hasty visitors the best pictures, and above all, as often as Abernethy, to bid men buy his book. There is no progress in Dr. Waagen, he looks back and sees no promised land in the future. There is no hope in him, and he is not one of the faithful. We want men who know no finality in Art, and have a boundless belief in its possibilities. Faint-hearted men who worship everything old, and never move their brush without thinking how somebody else did it before them, we cannot accept for guides. We Englishmen want no half-scornful approval of our fast-growing Art. We may have better men amongst us than Raphael Chisa! In young men the possibility is boundless. Our great objection to this book as one of instruction is that it is overloaded and stuffed with Wardour-Street “slang.” Such phrases as “graceful motives,” “juicy colour,” “silvery tone,” “warm and clear in the chiaroscuro,” “full body,” “juicy in golden tones,” abound. This is the true dead language of the old time of the Georges, and which still abounds in Germany. These phrases save all thinking and apply to anything. If a picture is not warm, it is cold,—if it is not lively in motive, it is graceful in motive,—if it is not juicy in colour, it is cold in its impasto. There is no escape from the universal net of this pedantry, which condemns nothing and pronounces its veto and approval on all, discrowning this and recrowning that. If common sense is once trod under foot by this pedantry simple human nature will no longer deem it worth while to buy pictures it cannot understand, that appeal to neither heart nor brain. We want pictures that require no education to enjoy them, to laugh at them, to weep with them, but the beauties of which the training of life will only enable us the more thoroughly to appreciate. Could we say this of Jan Steen or Claude?

The earliest occurrences of the phrase Wardour-Street English are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the review of Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript (London: N. Trübner and Co., 1867), edited by John W. Hales and Frederick James Furnivall—review published in The Spectator (London, England) of Saturday 29th June 1867:

The new edition of the older part of Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry will take all but a few students by surprise. It would ill become us to be ungrateful to a scholar of the eighteenth century, who did priceless work in collecting the fragments of early ballad literature, and preparing them for the public in such fashion as the public could understand. But like the worthy churchwardens of the last century, who covered up under layers of whitewash paintings and tracings that would otherwise have perished, Bishop Percy did almost as much to conceal as to preserve. Having become the possessor of “an ancient folio manuscript,” containing “compositions of all times and dates, from the ages prior to Chaucer to the conclusion of the reign of Charles I.,” he “was long in doubt whether, in the present state of improved literature, they could be deemed worthy the attention of the public.” There is something very wonderful in the mental attitude of a man who was able to admire our early poetry, but thought it far inferior to the polished productions of Shenstone and Akenside. Unhappily, Bishop Percy acted upon this opinion. He omitted all that was rough and fragmentary, and much apparently that had no fault except length, from his compilation. If the beauty of an unfinished piece attracted him, he expanded it, as in the case of “The Child of Elle,” into a finished poem. If part of an early ballad seemed inappropriate, he rewrote it after the improved fashion of his times, killing Sir Cawline, for instance, instead of giving him a wife and fifteen sons. With the text itself he dealt as Tyrwhitt did with Chaucer’s, constructing a Wardour-Street English that had no counterpart in any single century of our history, and bore no truer resemblance to our primitive language than the “Jeames’ Letters” bear to nineteenth-century conversation.

2-: From an essay titled Wardour-Street English, by Archibald Ballantyne, published in Longman’s Magazine (London, England) of October 1888—William Morris (1834-1896) was a British designer, author, translator and visionary socialist:

At the present day there is a little band of English writers who […] are possessed by a fantastic linguistic spirit. Their motto, if they had one, would be: ‘The English language for the English people;’ or, ‘The English language, the whole English language, and nothing but the English language.’ In spite of all temptations they remain Englishmen. A word of foreign origin in an English sentence is in their eyes an abomination. They are true to what they are fond of calling our grand old mother-tongue, our strong old Saxon speech, our pure, homely, strong Saxon-English. In their instinctive rejection of any word unstamped with the Anglo-Saxon hall-mark, they remind one of the man who looked with such horror upon under-cooked meat or anything resembling it, that he once sent away a cinder because it was red. In short, these good people are so intensely Anglo-Saxon that they would have been quite at home at a soirée at Cynewulf’s or at a conversazione to meet Caedmon.
A considerable number of them may be reckoned as very unimportant offenders. Such, for instance, are many of the writers of the countless little primers on History and Literature which swarm every year from the press. Everyone knows the curiously archaic style affected by many of the authors of these little books. They seem to find some inexplicable pleasure in writing such sham-simple sentences as: ‘Howbeit there reigned in 593 a king in Northumberland, named Ethelfrith, a very mighty man.’ This is the sort of king who, in this literary style, ‘waxes very wroth,’ and ‘slays the folk.’ Men wounded in battle are ‘sore hurt,’ and when there is a famine in the land ‘much folk dies of hunger.’ All this is a very harmless kind of thing, though to anyone with the slightest sense of humour it is irresistibly ludicrous. Neither is much harm done when sundry learned professors and indefatigable editors divert themselves and their readers with the eccentricities of their Anglo-Saxon dialect. We are all, for example, grateful to Mr. Furnivall (though one’s gratitude seldom reaches the length of spelling his name correctly), and if the little oddities of his vocabulary please him, why, then, let them please us too. Why should he edit, if he prefers to ‘put forth’? Let his prefaces, by all means, be ‘forewords,’ and let manuscripts, in his dialect, be ‘skin-books.’ It is all harmless enough. But when vagaries of this sort find their way into what is meant for serious English literature and reign rampant there, the affair is altogether different. The style of the mere antiquarian, the style of the editor of Early English Texts, is not a matter of much literary moment; the question of the style of the poet and of the genuine man of letters stands on a different footing. The author of the Earthly Paradise—a work strangely referred to by a recent French writer as the Earthen Paradise—has secured for himself a place among modern English poets; but what strange linguistic ways are those of Mr. William Morris in his recent translation of the Odyssey! When Mr. Morris was busy with themes supplied to him by early Scandinavian legend and mythology, he might, perhaps, have pleaded that English of an antique and archaic cast was in keeping with his subject, and that his style should be at least as Teutonic, if not as Scandinavian, as he possibly could make it. Though even in that case the simple reader does not see why it is not quite as Teutonic and quite as poetical to say ‘I was a smith,’ as it is to say ‘A smithying-carle was I.’ But let it be granted that in, for instance, the story of Sigurd, it is appropriate and poetical to talk about smithying-carles, and men-folk, and All-father, and the burg of heaven, and the joyful yea-saying, and the hungry cow-kind. Let this be so; but where, in the name of all that is appropriate and poetical, is the room for Wardour-Street English of this kind in a translation of Virgil or Homer? Yet in Mr. Morris’s version of the Odyssey the reader finds himself more than ever annoyed and irritated by the profuse employment of sham Saxon. Here again we are among the men-folk, and the god-folk, and the thrall-folk, and the sheep-kind; here servants are swains of service, and butlers are wine-swains; Ulysses is the Burg-bane, Hermes the Flitter, and Zeus the Cloud-packs’ Herder. When Athena appeared to Telemachus and counselled him to go in search of his long-absent father, she advised him to get twenty rowers and the best ship he could find. In Morrisian English, Athena’s language is:—
Do thou dight thee a twenty-banked ship right good.
‘Dight,’ indeed, is a terribly overworked word. Used once or twice it might pass; at the thousandth repetition it becomes tedious. Of Penelope we are told:—
Within the house of her homestead hath she dight her a warp of worth.
Or again, when the Cyclops destroys the comrades of Ulysses:—
And then he shredded them limb-meal and both for his supper dight.
What a sham, what an undignified sham it all is! This is not literary English of any date; this is Wardour-Street Early English—a perfectly modern article with a sham appearance of the real antique about it. There is a trade in early furniture as well as in Early English, and one of the well-known tricks of that trade is the production of artificial worm-holes in articles of modern manufacture. The innocent amateur, seeing the seemingly worm-eaten chair or table, is filled with antiquarian joy, and wonders how so precious a relic of the past can be so exceedingly cheap. So in the Wardour Street of literature. Take whole handfuls of dights and cow-kinds and men-folk; season, according to taste, with howes and mayhappens and smithying-carles: and you have an English literary article which—well, which the professional dealer knows is not in genuine English language of any period at all.

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