What is ‘brave’ about Brave New World? When book titles don’t mean what you think
While browsing the library shelves, you might come across some book titles that aren’t immediately clear, or whose meaning has changed over the decades. I don’t mean just things like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which has lost the mildly futuristic edge it had in the late 1940s, replaced instead with lingering memories of Stevie Wonder just calling to say he loves you, and Wham! putting in a request to be woken up before you go-go. No, sometimes the meanings of words have changed – and sometimes the books were themselves referring to older uses of words – and it takes a moment or two to work out exactly what was meant.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World tells of a dystopian future where citizens are manufactured in laboratories. You might already know that ‘brave new world’ is a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda’s famous last lines:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
It’s ironic in Huxley’s title, and it’s also ironic in Shakespeare’s play – as the people of the island aren’t quite how Miranda perceives them.
But what of the word brave? It doesn’t make much sense for any world to be described as ‘ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage’ – and this, indeed, is not how Shakespeare and Huxley are using the term here. Though Shakespeare was the first (according to the current Oxford English Dictionary entry) to use the most common modern sense of brave, in Henry VI, Part 1, an earlier sense was ‘a general epithet of admiration or praise’, akin to ‘good’. This dates back to the late sixteenth century, but is now considered archaic.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Many of the titles that include potentially troublesome words turn out to be quotations from earlier works – and Far From the Madding Crowd is no different. Published in 1874, it references Thomas Gray’s 1751 poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
You might think that madding is an elision of maddening, or intended to indicate that the crowd is mad – but it simply means ‘frenzied’. It’s first found (according to current evidence) in the writing of the sixteenth-century poet Edmund Spenser. It does ultimately come from the word mad you’ll know and love, via the now-obsolete verb mad (‘to be or to become mad; to act like a madman’). Meanwhile, did you know that earliest uses of mad as an adjective referred to an abnormally aggressive or rabid animal?
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
As my brother is fond of quipping about this 1861 novel, ‘I read it – it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be.’ Expectation is now used to mean ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case’, with a rather more complex definition in the realm of mathematics that I’ll leave to someone better qualified than I.
The most common sense is also the earliest, being found at least as early as 1523 in the State Papers of Henry VIII. And while Dickens was doubtless punning on this meaning, the sense that is most relevant to Pip’s plot in the novel is the now-archaic ‘one’s prospects of inheritance’, particularly of wealth or property. Both senses come ultimately from the same Latin root: ex- and spectare, from which we get the modern ‘spectate’. Either expectation gives something to look forward to.
The Quick and the Dead by Ellery Queen
I’ll be honest, I thought The Quick and the Dead was a novel by Graham Greene – it turns out I made that up, but it is a title that’s been used by various writers over the years: Bill Waterton, Joy Williams, Louis L’Amour, George Grant, and Ellery Queen among them. You might also know it is as the title of various films. But why are people being divided into those who are fast and those who are dead? Speedy people might be able to escape deathly situations… but, no.
The phrase is a quotation from the Bible, first appearing in William Tyndale’s sixteenth-century English translation. Churchgoers might be familiar with it from the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed – the statements of faith shared by the congregation:
He [Jesus] ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty
And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead
You’ve probably guessed by now that quick, here, means ‘alive’. This use dates back to Old English, while the sense ‘moving, or able to move, with speed’ followed by early Middle English, probably developing as one of many extensions of quick to denote various qualities that signified life. Speed and mental alertness are the two most familiar uses to us now, but concepts of inanimate objects suggesting living things led to quick being used of naturally occurring sulphur, a fresh complexion, burning coal, and many more.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
It’s perfectly possible to enjoy and understand Sense and Sensibility (1811) without fully recognising what sensibility would have implied to its reading audience as the modern and the archaic senses are relatively close. Indeed, they are gathered together under the same subsection of the OED, and what could be closer than that?
The most common meaning today – ‘the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity’ – seems completely positive. But we see in the novel (warning: nineteenth-century spoilers!) that Marianne suffers as the result of being the ‘sensibility’ of the title, while Elinor is also rather stymied for a time by being the ‘sense’. Well, from approximately the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, sensibility was also used to mean ‘highly or overly developed emotional and artistic awareness; extreme, excessive, or affected sensitivity or sympathy’. While Austen probably wanted her reader to think of both meanings while reading her title, some of the subtlety has been lost over the decades – though it’s still more subtle than the novel’s working title, Elinor and Marianne.