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Words must advertise: Dorothy L. Sayers in the OED

Words must advertise: Dorothy L. Sayers in the OED

Dorothy L. Sayers, born in 1893, was a detective novelist, Christian writer, Dante translator, a glorious wordsmith, and a true daughter of Oxford, blood and bone: her father was chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral School, and she took first class honours in medieval literature at Somerville in 1915. An American such as myself daring to reflect on Sayers’ word usage must do so with trepidation, lest a folded-lipped, golden-tongued spirit emerge from the Bird and Baby and smite this audacious Miss Schuster-Slatt.*

Early in her career, Sayers worked as an advertising copywriter, until starting to publish her famous Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. In later life she devoted herself to religious and scholarly interests, most notably her brilliant translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but all her works display her remarkable qualities of erudition and her love of language. In this she resembled her aristocratic detective hero, who when asked “Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?” answered, “So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.”

Sayers is most widely known and loved for these classic detective novels; her paean to Oxford, Gaudy Night, thought by some to be the crowning achievement of the series, set more Americans a-dreaming of spires, and wanting to visit them, than perhaps any other book since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Gaudy Night is packed with scholarship, quotations, and allusions sufficient for the happy re-reader to chase down for years, and reflecting Sayers’ tongue-in-cheek precept: “I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking.”

Gaudy Night provides several examples of the 52 words/senses in the Oxford English Dictionary for which Sayers currently provides the earliest evidence, for instance balloon, in the sense of ‘a rounded outline, typically in a margin, containing notes or corrections to written or printed matter’: “I’m afraid it’s rather full of marginal balloons and interlineations.”

The best of Sayers’ novels use settings she inhabited herself, and The Nine Tailors, her bell-ringing mystery, evokes her father’s Fenland rectory. The book is memorable for its windswept atmosphere and onomatopoeic bells, which Sayers uses to peal out an ominous theme:

“Softly, tremulously, high overhead in the tower, Sabaoth began to speak, and her sisters after her as the ringers stood to their ropes. ‘Tin-tin-tin,’ cried Gaude in her silvery treble; ‘tan-tan,’ answered Sabaoth; ‘din-din-din,’ ‘dan-dan-dan,’ said John and Jericho, climbing to their places; ‘bim, bam, bim, bam,’ Jubilee and Dimity followed; ‘bom,’ said Batty Thomas; and Tailor Paul, majestically lifting up her great bronze mouth, bellowed ‘bo, bo, bo,’ as the ropes hauled upon the wheels.”

Murder Must Advertise has cleverness and verisimilitude based on Sayers’ own copywriting experiences, which included a madly successful Colman’s Mustard campaign. It is perhaps in Murder Must Advertise that her detective hero comes to full piffling flower. For Lord Peter is, like his creator herself, the consummate piffler (though the word piffle – ‘to talk or behave in an ineffectual way’ – dates back to 1847). As his love-interest, Harriet Vane, tells him, “If anybody does marry you it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle.” In the final book of the series, Busman’s Honeymoon, his own mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, comments on his verbal facility: “Peas on a hot shovel are nothing to it.”

A fantastical character, Lord Peter is recognizably a creature of the 1920s, perhaps partly inspired by P.G. Wodehouse‘s Bertie Wooster, but throughout the series he matures satisfyingly from prat to philosopher. Even his piffle ripens.

Not surprisingly, given this context, the largest number of Sayers’ current OED “earliest evidence” quotations are from Murder Must Advertise, and they bespeak a shattering modernity, as suits the advertising world. Several, alarmingly, deal with the illegal drug trade:

“A dope-addict’s dream”

“The crookedness of dope-trafficking”

Dope-pedlar (also dope-peddler)
“You must be the dead spit of some habitual dope-peddler”

But I like the ones that tootle cheerfully with advertising slogans, such as:

To meet one’s Maker
“The wretched man had gone to meet his Maker in Farley’s Footwear.”

Sayers revels in product names, advertising terms, and slang, and some of my favourites include swizz (“What a swizz!”), Serpently (for certainly), buttinski (“such a bunch of buttinskis”), and Attaboy!

Yet the word-intoxicated Sayers cannot resist an obscure literary reference to the 18th-century play by Henry Carey, The Tragedy of Chrononhotonthologos, managing the neat trick of working its unwieldy words into a conversation about ad copy.

Another of her myriad literary references features the invention of the word vulgarisateur:

“I obtained an introduction to her through what…that incomparable vulgarisateur, Charles Dickens – abominably calls a mutual friend.”

“You and your uncle,” said Harriet [to Lord Peter’s nephew] “should be set to turn phrases for a living.” Certainly Sayers herself did just that, with her ingenious detective plots, characters wittily observed for social class and speech patterns, and fabulous dollops of learning, prismatic, and yet playful.

Above all, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote meticulous English, and opined: “Those who prefer their English sloppy have only themselves to thank if the advertisement writer uses his mastery of the vocabulary and syntax to mislead their weak minds.”


*The pushy American character in Gaudy Night.

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