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By Jove! The language of P.G. Wodehouse

My dad introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse when I was a teenager. Not for a moment did it occur to him that a 14-year-old girl whose first language was Afrikaans and who had never left the African continent might not find immediate resonance with Bertie Wooster, Lord Ickenham, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and co., or that she’d find Wodehouse’s books anything other than enchanting. And how right he had been.

Devouring book after book, unlikely escapade after far-fetched frolic, I became hooked on the world of Wodehouse. It was the comic writer’s turn of phrase, more than the light-hearted plots that often veered into slapstick, that captured my imagination. I could recite whole passages, and my dad and I would quote him at each other: “Revolting. It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word”, he might say (perhaps describing my teenage brother inhaling a plate of sandwiches as an aperitif before dinner). “The flesh creeps briskly,” I might say at the prospect of a daunting exam, and we’d laugh ourselves silly. We delighted in the mix of understatement, exaggeration, literary allusion, surprising juxtapositions, linguistic inventiveness, and a certain Wodehousian what-is-it that blend into a species of harmonious literary soup fit to be served alongside one of Anatole’s (Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s chef’s) best creations.

What ho! What ho! What ho! And so forth

When I first set foot in London some years later, I felt an unreasonable sense of disappointment not to find the world of Bertie Wooster. Gazing at Trafalgar Square, and the Ritz, and Piccadilly, I tried to imagine Bertie and his fellow Drones toddling to the club for a spot of lunch and then trickling back to the flat; but that world had, of course, disappeared without a trace (or so it seemed) long before Wodehouse stopped writing about it. As he was writing his novels, Wodehouse already acknowledged that the characters and plots were anachronistic. In the foreword to Joy in the Morning, he writes:

I suppose one thing that makes these drones of mine seem creatures of a dead past is that with the exception of Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, they are genial and good tempered, friends of all the world. In these days when everybody hates everybody else, anyone who is not snarling at something – or at everything – is an anachronism. The Edwardian knut was never an angry young man. He would get a little cross, perhaps, if his man Meadowes sent him out some morning with odd spats on, but his normal outlook on life was sunny.

His books, Wodehouse argues in the same foreword (in a self-confessed, tongue-in-cheek “defiant mood”), are “historical novels”.  But they aren’t entirely without contemporary flavour: acutely conscious of the changing literary trends of the time, Wodehouse writes about characters whose literary output are the antithesis of his own. Such an example is the slim volume of verse penned by the stern young modern poet Ralston McTodd, entitled Songs of Squalor, which features in Leave it to Psmith. This novel was published in 1923 – just one year after T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Wodehouse, the OED, and several synonyms for squiffy

As a record of their time, Wodehouse’s books are invaluable. Robert McCrum, Wodehouse’s biographer, highlights that there are over 1,750 quotations from Wodehouse’s pen in the Oxford English Dictionary. He currently provides the very first evidence for 23 entries, including plonk (1903), ritzy (1920) and pottiness (1933). Unsurprisingly, several of the OED’s Wodehouse quotations refer to alcohol (the imbibing thereof, and the after-effects). McCrum writes:

In retrospect, his creative zenith (the years of the first Jeeves and Blandings stories) was the 1920s, one of the great alcoholic decades of the 20th century. Unique in the canon of English literature, almost none of Wodehouse’s characters is indifferent to the temptations of a quiet snort. Wodehouse’s Drones will make for the bar like buffalo for a watering-hole. Their lexicon for inebriated includes: awash; boiled; fried; lathered; illuminated; oiled; ossified; pie-eyed; polluted; primed; scrooched; stinko; squiffy; tanked; and woozled. Every one of these words, and many other phrases, betrays their author’s delight in the vernacular.

You can read Robert McCrum’s full article about Wodehouse’s education, writing, and contribution to the OED here.

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