A rude awakening

The Latin adjective rudis meant at its most literal ‘unwrought, untilled, unformed, unused, rough, raw, wild,’ and then more loosely ‘unpolished, uncultivated, unskilled, awkward, clumsy, ignorant, unacquainted with, inexperienced in.’ The word developed to Spanish rudo and to Old French rude, which is the form that English has borrowed. In addition to ‘rough, coarse,’ the Spanish and English versions of the word have added the sense ‘ill-mannered, impolite, discourteous.’

Going back to Latin, we note that the Romans combined ex ‘out of’ with rudis in its sense of ‘unskilled,’ to create the verb erudire, literally ‘to take out of a state of being unskilled.’ As in algebra and in English, that semantic double negative was equivalent to a positive, so the Latin verb erudire had the senses ‘to polish, educate, instruct, teach, make skilled, make cultivated.’ We’ve borrowed the past participle eruditus as erudito/erudite ‘well educated, highly learned, especially with knowledge acquired from books.’ The matching abstract noun erudición/erudition originally meant ‘teaching, instruction,’ but is now most often ‘the state of being well educated or highly learned.’ The 1913 Webster’s Dictionary gave an example attributed to Steele: “The management of a young lady’s person [i.e. body] is not be overlooked, but the erudition of her mind is much more to be regarded.”

Intrigued, I looked up the quotation and found that it’s from an article in the May 16, 1711, issue of The Spectator, by Richard Steele. How modern the statement sounds, though it appeared in print 300 years ago this very month. If you are as curious as I was, you can can continue reading below, where I give the context and cite the entire passage.


A woman wrote to The Spectator in much the same way that people still write to advice columnists:


“I take the freedom of asking your advice in behalf of a young country kinswoman of mine who is lately come to town, and under my care for her education She is very pretty, but you cannot imagine how unformed a creature it is. She comes to my hands just as nature left her, half finished, and without any acquired improvements. When I look on her I often think of the Belle Sauvage [Beautiful Savage] mentioned in one of your papers. Dear Mr. Spectator, help me to make her comprehend the visible graces of speech, and the dumb eloquence of motion; for she is at present a perfect stranger to both. She knows no way to express herself but by her tongue, and that always to signify her meaning. Her eyes serve her only to see with, and she is utterly a foreigner to the language of looks and glances. In this I fancy you could help her better than anybody. I have bestowed two months in teaching her to sigh when she is not concerned, and to smile when she is not pleased, and am ashamed to own she makes little or no improvement. Then she is no more able now to walk, than she was to go at a year old. By walking, you will easily know I mean that regular but easy motion which gives our persons so irresistible a grace, as if we moved to music, and is a kind of disengaged figure; or, if I may so speak, recitative dancing. But the want of this I cannot blame in her, for I find she has no ear, and means nothing by walking but to change her place. I could pardon too her blushing, if she knew how to carry herself in it, and if it did not manifestly injure her complexion.

“They tell me you are a person who have seen the world, and are a judge of fine breeding; which makes me ambitious of some instructions from you for her improvement: which when you have favored me with, I shall farther advise with you about the disposal of this fair forester in marriage: for I will make it no secret to you, that her person and education are to be her fortune.

“I am, Sir,
“Your very humble servant.


And here is Steele’s reply:

“The general mistake among us in the educating our children is, that in our daughters we take care of their persons and neglect their minds; in our sons we are so intent upon adorning their minds, that we wholly neglect their bodies. It is from this that you shall see a young lady celebrated and admired in all the assemblies about town, when her elder brother is afraid to come into a room. From this ill management it arises, that we frequently observe a man’s life is half spent, before he is taken notice of; and a woman in the prime of her years is out of fashion and neglected. The boy I shall consider upon some other occasion, and at present stick to the girl: and I am the more inclined to this, because I have several letters which complain to me, that my female readers have not understood me for some days last past, and take themselves to be unconcerned in the present turn of my writing.—When a girl is safely brought from her nurse, before she is capable of forming one single notion of anything in life, she is delivered to the hands of her dancing-master; and with a collar round her neck, the pretty, wild thing is taught a fantastical gravity of behavior, and forced to a particular way of holding her head, heaving her breast, and moving with her whole body; and all this under pain of never having a husband, if she steps, looks, or moves awry. This gives the young lady wonderful workings of imagination, what is to pass between her and this husband, that she is every moment told of, and for whom she seems to be educated. Thus her fancy is engaged to turn all her endeavors to the ornament of her person, as what must determine her good and ill in this life: and she naturally thinks, if she is tall enough, she is wise enough, for anything for which her education makes her think she is designed. To make her an agreeable person is the main purpose of her parents; to that is all their cost, to that all their care directed; and from this general folly of parents we owe our present numerous race of coquettes. These reflections puzzle me, when I think of giving my advice on the subject of managing the wild thing mentioned in the letter of my correspondent. But sure there is a middle way to be followed; the management of a young lady’s person is not to be overlooked, but the erudition* of her mind is much more to be regarded. According as this is managed, you will see the mind follow the appetites of the body, or the body express the virtues of the mind.

“Cleomira dances with all the elegance of motion imaginable; but her eyes are so chastised with the simplicity and innocence of her thoughts, that she raises in her beholders admiration and good-will, but no loose hope or wild imagination. The true art in this case is, to make the mind and body improve together; and, if possible, to make gesture follow thought, and not let thought be employed upon gesture.—R.”

* Erudition seems to be here used in an uncommon sense, for cultivation or instruction.

[You might think that the footnote is mine, but it’s in the 1876 annotated edition of The Spectator from which I’m quoting; in 1711 Steele was clearly still aware of the etymological ‘teaching’ sense of erudition that later died out.]

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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