December 26, 2007

Blame it on Kipling

Faulty Diction, featured in Arnold's post on "Be that as it will", is a hoot. Here's the entry for blame on:

It's true that the OED's earliest citation for blame (something) on (someone) is only dated 1903 -- and what's more, it's from the pen of that notorious radical Rudyard Kipling:

1903 KIPLING Five Nations 22 We will blame it on the deep. 1910 —— Rewards & Fairies 175 If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.

Earlier examples are easy to find, though their contexts do seem somewhat informal. The earliest example of "blame it on ..." in the New York Times archive seems to be  in a quotation from a baseball player -- "Captain" Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings -- in a story from August 7, 1885 that starts like this:

and ends this way:

As the Chicagos left the field they presented a pitiful spectacle. They strolled along dragging their bats behind them, and looked like mourners returning from a funeral. Capt. Anson was the saddest man in the party. Visions of the championship began to fade from his gaze, and as he journeyed toward his carriage he was evidently in an unhappy mood.

"Tough luck," Abner Dalrymple ventured to remark.

"Yes," was the answer.

"Those fellows played good ball," interpolated right-fielder Kelly.

"But they had the umpire with them," said the copulent Williamson.

"Let's blame it on the umpire," was Anson's rejoinder.

'That's so," echoed his colleagues.

They seemed to derive a little consolation from this, and all agreed that the umpire lost the game.

A search in APS yields an article from the Saturday Evening Post of June 2, 1849, "Letters to Country Girls", by Mrs. Swisshelm, which starts in a distinctly informal style

Well positively, girls, you are too much trouble. I do believe girls were created on purpose to annoy susceptible young gentlemen and nervous old ladies! Here, Meg has gone off a visiting, and left me to keep house a whole week, with nobody but Mary for help; she would rather make a "play house" than wash dishes. Well, I have been very industrious, and yesterday was office day! When I went there, what was waiting for me amongst the rest of my troubles but the longest, sauciest letter "from a Country girl!" It is too bad; and if the world continues getting worse at this rate, the people must all move out of it. - Just to think the way girls will talk to old folks! It was not so in my young days!

After some further ritual recitation from the liturgy of Young People Today, Mrs. Swisshelm takes up her main theme, which is that poor health, bad complexions and premature aging are all caused by eating too much ("The Irish famine never killed half as many people as the American surplus has done"). In the middle of this, she deploys a nice example of "blame it on":

Did you never observe the brilliant complexions, beautiful teeth and full forms of Irishwomen when they first come to this country? But they are not long here until they look like the rest of us, and people blame it on the climate; but it is not half so much that as the diet.

Whatever the historical details turn out to have been, the blame it on battle has been over for a long time: Mrs. Swisshelm and Rudyard Kipling won, and Faulty Diction lost. In fact, this is one of those usage battles that has been so thoroughly lost that few people today are even aware that there was ever a battle at all. Even in 1915, I suspect that the objection to blame on was an isolated curmudgeonly prejudice, rather than a spirited defense of formal norms against the colloquial hordes.

Prescriptive strictures against the use of specific complement structures with specific verbs often seem to be of this especially pathetic kind, where the general educated public is not so much disobedient as simply unaware. Thus Edwin Newman, Strictly Speaking, 1974: "You may convince that. You may convince of. You may not convince to.".

Nor, when it comes to verbal complements, can you convince not to. But they never learn.

[Arnold Zwicky writes:

OED has

1835 Fraser's Mag. XI. 617, I call this bad management, and I blame it upon you.

which MWDEU takes to be the first attestation of "blame on".

Clearly there were many attestations before the 1903 Kipling, since (according to MWDEU) by 1881 Ayres was ranting that "blame on" "is a gross vulgarism, which we sometimes hear from persons of considerable culture".

I hope to write a note on the topic -- as far as I can tell, the antipathy towards "blame on" was entirely a consequence of its being a 19th-century innovation. (but Ayres's opinion was echoed by a pile of usage writers from 1906 through 1983 (MWDEU lists 16 of these).

I left out the 1835 citation, since it was "blame it upon" rather than "blame it on". But I should have checked MWDEU, which as usual has an insightful and informative entry, observing that "Ayres does not stop to explain why it is a vulgarism or how such cultured persons are capable of using such a vulgarism". (Ayres' 1881 work was The Verbalist, "A Manual Devoted To Brief Discussion Of The Right And The Wrong Use of Words, And To Some Other Matters of Interest To Those Who Would Speak And Write With Propriety").

Ayres' perspective in this case is an inspired one, precisely by virtue of lacking any pretense of logical or empirical support. There are no grounds for refutation -- grammatical logic is irrelevant, and if many excellent writers often use the construction, that simply shows that their culture, although perhaps "considerable", is in fact inadequate.

Still, it's shocking to find that OUP and Bryan Garner have retained, in the 2000 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, this entry for blame:

In the best usage, one blames a person; one does not, properly, blame a thing on a person. E.g.: "I blame the fires on him." (Read: I blame him for the fires .)

Bryan Garner is not a snob, but "in the best usage" is an empty gesture in the direction of elite culture -- just as irrefutably empty as Ayres' phrase "a gross vulgarism, which we sometimes hear from persons of considerable culture".

On this view, Robert Louis Stevenson demonstrated his imperfect cultural background when he wrote in his Vailima Letters, published in 1896: "I, for one, blame it on Madam Saumai-afe without hesitation". The Wall Street Journal revealed its essential underlying vulgarity when in 1909, it used the following, apparently with editorial approval, as a filler: "President Roosevelt has two convenient formulas for dealing with trouble. One is to blame it on Loeb and the other is to send Taft to straighten it out."

No one ever invited I.F. Stone to a debutante ball, and so it's perhaps no surprise to that Stone's 1937 The Court Disposes had a chapter entitled "Can we blame it on the fathers?" It may be slightly more surprising, to some, that in 1937 the New Yorker's Talk of the Town headlined a piece on the World's Fair "Blame it on Jacqueline" -- but Harold Ross was "the son of an Irish immigrant and a schoolteacher", and sooner or later, class will tell.

In a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia framed a sentiment not without relevance to the present case:

Deferring to our colleagues' own error is bad enough; but enshrining the error that we ourselves have improvidently suggested and blaming it on the near-unanimous judgment of our colleagues would surely be unworthy.

But Justice Scalia fell short of the "best usage", and should instead have expressed himself like this:

Deferring to our colleagues' own error is bad enough; but enshrining the error that we ourselves have improvidently suggested and blaming the near-unanimous judgment of our colleagues for it would surely be unworthy.

John Updike's short story "My father's tears", published in the New Yorker in 2006, starts this way:

Come to think of it, I saw my father cry only once. It was at the Alton train station, back when the trains still ran. I was on my way to Philadelphia to catch the train that would return me to Boston and college. I was eager to go, for already my home and my parents had become somewhat unreal to me, and college, with its courses and the hopes for my future they inspired and the girlfriend I had acquired in my sophomore year, had become more real every semester; it shocked me—threw me off track, as it were—to see that my father's eyes, as he shook my hand goodbye, glittered with tears.

I blamed it on our shaking hands: for eighteen years, we had never had occasion for this ritual, this manly contact, and we had groped our way into it only in the past few years.

Updike's fans will be disappointed to learn that his usage is not "the best" -- Shillington, PA was apparently not entirely corrected by Harvard -- so that the last sentence ought to be rewritten as:

I blamed our shaking hands for it: for eighteen years, we had never had occasion for this ritual, this manly contact, and we had groped our way into it only in the past few years.

Abandoning irony for a moment, let's observe that both Scalia and Updike's sentences were better as they were written, not as Garner would have them re-written to conform to "the best usage". But I doubt that there is any constellation of facts or opinions that could prevent Ayres' little off-hand expression of prejudice from echoing down the centuries in the unconsidered repetitions of his cultural copyists.

From a functional perspective, this is an ideal sort of prescriptive norm. Since it's an entirely artificial policy, with no basis in the past century of speaking and writing, there's no way to learn it simply from attending to even the "best" speakers and writers. The only possible source is works on usage. This adds essential value to such works, by giving those who read them carefully and credulously a reason to feel superior to everyone else. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 26, 2007 08:56 AM