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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

It drives me mad

With the recent release of a new film version of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, many people once again have the opportunity to get the title wrong and call it Far from the Maddening Crowd.

Hardy's title is an ironic allusion to Thomas Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751, in which the  poet refers to those buried there and their humble rural life:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Although Hardy's novel does take place in rural Dorset, the passions which tear the characters apart make their life anything but a cool sequestered vale.

But why did Gray use "madding" rather than "maddening" in the first place? 

"Madding" is in fact an earlier word than "maddening". It meant both "becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied" and "driving mad", though it is the first sense that Gray was using in his poem.  "Madding" was derived quite regularly from a verb that used to exist, "to mad", meaning "to be or to become mad; to act like a madman, rage, behave furiously." This in turn was quite normally derived from the adjective "mad" (yes, really, it's ok to turn an adjective into a noun, see this post: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/whats-wrong-with-this-verb/)

This verb had its day from the mid 1300s to the early 1800s, and then was replaced in both senses by its much younger (dating from the mid 1700s) offspring, "madden". For some reason, "madden" ceased to be used in the "go mad" sense early in the 20th century, leaving us, surprisingly, without a handy one-word verb for this sense. 

I have fond memories of being taken to see the 1967 movie of Far From the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, which I just recently learned comes in at just under 3 hours in length.  I am amazed that my parents thought, "Hey let's take the kids to a 3-hour-long adaptation of a Victorian novel about the destructive nature of passion; they'll love it!" But we did love it, and I went home and read the book! I was 9 years old. (Much later, I called one of my cats "Bathsheba".) The moral of the story is: don't expose your children to Thomas Hardy at an early age.

They may become lexicographers.


On a completely unrelated topic, if you are interested in Jewish contributions to ballet, please check out my lecture series starting June 1: 

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1 comment:

  1. So interesting, thanks for pointing this out! I've always called it "maddening," despite being reasonably well educated.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.