February 27, 2005

Smart kids

You know those really smart schoolboys? Edward Cook at Ralph the Sacred River tracks them back to 1840:

I believe it was Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) who discovered the Brilliant Schoolboy, as this quotation shows: "Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa" (from his 1840 essay "Lord Clive").

I can do a bit better, finding them mentioned in Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), vol. I, Lecture XVII:

I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: "Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere."

Well, strictly speaking, LION found them -- all I did was ask. LION also told me that in 1837, Catharine Maria Sedgwick introduced their female counterpart in chapter XV of Live and Let Live; or, Domestic Service Illustrated:

Every schoolgirl now acquires a certain facility at talking French. Mrs. Hartell was educated before
this was considered one of the necessaries of polite life, and she set an undue value upon it.

For finicky readers who insist on an exact match of words in order to register an instance of this sort of snowclone, there's chapter III of vol. I of George Gissing's 1891 novel New Grub Street:

And he hadn't even a competent acquaintance with his paltry subject. Will you credit that he twice or thrice referred to Settle's reply to "Absalom and Achitophel" by the title of "Absalom Transposed," when every schoolgirl knows that the thing was called "Achitophel Transposed"!

I have a feeling that the brilliant schoolboy ought to occur in classical literature somewhere, but the closest thing I was able to find was a passage in a letter from Cicero to his brother Quintus (3.1.1) (English translation here), where he writes

miror tibi placere me ad eam rescribere, praesertim cum illam nemo lecturus sit si ego nihil rescripsero, meam in illum pueri omnes tamquam dictata perdiscant.

(I am surprised at your saying that you think I ought to answer it [a speech of "Calventius Marius"], particularly as, while no one is likely to read that speech, unless I write an answer to it, every schoolboy learns mine against him as an exercise.)

Just a few years ago, discovering this much would have required extraordinary scholarly dedication. Today, it's the work of a few minutes with the appropriate search engines (here LION and Perseus). While this inquiry was recreational at best, it's the sort of thing that worthwhile scholarship sometimes depends on. The fact that such research is now many orders of magnitude easier, and thus accessible to many more people, is no thanks to Michael Gorman.

[Update: Mark Goodacre explores the other end of the ranking: "schoolboy errors". One of his commenters traces the concept (though not the phrase) back to Boswell.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 27, 2005 07:20 AM