November 14, 2003

Linking "which" in Patrick O'Brian

Because the movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" opens today, at least in this part of the world, I'm starting a small series of posts about linguistic aspects of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. (The movie's name combines the titles of the first and tenth books in the series, on the two sides of the colon -- I'm not sure what this means about the plot).

Obscure words -- naval, historical, scientific, dialectal -- are the raisins in the spotted dog of O'Brian's prose. Dean King's A Sea of Words is a good present for an O'Brian fan. Certainly I was happy to get it from John Fought for my birthday a few years ago. However, there are some things that it doesn't help with. Here's a passage that illustrates the point (from "The Far Side of the World", p. 78 in th 1992 W.W. Norton paperback; the speakers are Jack Aubrey and his steward Preserved Killick):

   'What luck?' asked Jack.
   'Well, sir,' said Killick, 'Joe Plaice says he would venture upon a lobscouse, and Jemmy Ducks believes he could manage a goose-pie.'
   'What about pudding? Did you ask Mrs Lamb about pudding? About her frumenty?'
   'Which she is belching so and throwing up you can hardly hear yourself speak,' said Killick, laughing merrily. 'And has been ever since we left Gib. Shall I ask the gunner's wife?'
   'No, no,' said Jack. No one the shape of the gunner's wife could make frumenty, or spotted dog, or syllabub, and he did not wish to have anything to do with her.

King's lexicon informs us that lobscouse is "A common sailor's dish consisting of salted meat stewed with vegetables, spices and crumbled ship's biscuit"; that frumenty is "A porridgelike dish made of wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon, sugar and sometimes dried fruits" ; that spotted dog or spotted dick is "A suet pudding containing currants or raisins (the spots)"; and that syllabub is "A drink, or dessert if gelatin is added, made of sweetened milk or cream mixed with wine or liquor."

So far so good. But what about which? Killick's use in this passage, typical of him and of other sailors of his class in the books, seem distinctly non-standard. It connects a descriptive clause ("she is belching ...") to the noun phrase that it describes ("Mrs Lamb"), across two prepositional phrases and a conversational break. The function is roughly like a linking phrase such as "with respect to her".

Alas, there is no entry for "which" in "A Sea of Words".

The OED comes through, more or less, in section 14.a. of its entry for which:

14. a. (as pron. or adj.) With pleonastic personal pronoun or equivalent in the latter part of the relative clause, referring to the antecedent, which thus serving merely to link the clauses together: (a) with the pers. pron. (or the antecedent noun repeated) as subj. or obj. to a verb (principal or subordinate) in the relative clause, which is usually complex; [...]

Among the quotes the OED gives for this usage: "1690 LOCKE Govt. II. v. 42 (1694) 196 Provisions..which how much they exceed the other in value,..he will then see. 1726 G. SHELVOCKE Voy. round World Pref. p. vii, Scandalous and unjust Aspersions..which, how far I deserve them, I shall leave to the candid opinion of every unprejudiced Reader. 1768 STERNE Sent. Journ. II. Fragment, The history of myself, which, I could not die in peace unless I left it as a legacy to the world."

It's nice to know that Locke and Sterne used a version of this construction. But why "linking which" works as a marker of lower-class speech in O'Brian's novels is a question that the OED doesn't answer.

Which it does contain the interesting truth about some strange uses of mere in O'Brian's books, however, as I'll explain tomorrow :-)...

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 14, 2003 06:28 PM