December 9th, 2015


"Quite refreshing"

I went to an interesting paper by one of my colleagues the other night about the propensity of nineteenth-century soldiers (in fiction and real life) to adopt children left orphaned on the battlefield. During her talk, she quoted Don Juan:

And one good action in the midst of crimes
Is 'quite refreshing,' in the affected phrase
Of these ambrosial, Pharisaic times,
With all their pretty milk-and-water ways.

"This is a job for Google Ngram!" says I. Had Byron spotted a linguistic trend? Apparently so...

Yes, it does seem at first blush as if the phrase has become a good deal more popular in the decades preceding the publication of the eighth canto of Don Juan in 1822. And those earlier usages are pretty unselfconscious.

After Don Juan, however, an awkwardness about its usage descends. There is an aura of scare quotes (as in Blacwoods in 1823, here): the phrase is used but attributed to someone else, as in this 1824 Portfolio and this 1825 issue of The London Magazine, or here in the 1826 Reminiscences of Michael Kelly; or indeed mentioned only to be repudiated, as here in Blackwoods magazine in 1825.

The habit of holding "quite refreshing" at arm's length, pinched between thumb and forefinger, may not begin with Byron, but so far I've seen no earlier instance of it. And, given the immense popularity of Don Juan, it's far from inconceivable that he single-handedly made it (at least for the time) a phrase unfit for polite society.

Which is a shame, because I find it, well, fairly invigorative.