Episode #004: Beyond Good and Evil in Grammar

In this episode, Max discusses how a change in usage stalked and murdered a perfectly nice poem.

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Full Transcript

Snidely Whiplash in greenface

Robert Couse-Baker – Flickr

In this episode, I’m going to continue talking about the tricky matter of right versus wrong in the use of language. And I’m going to tell a story about a nasty trick that history played on a poet who probably deserved better.

In the last episode, I made the bold statement that if you could only afford to buy one book to help you with your use of words, your first book shouldn’t be a dictionary. Today I’m going to elaborate on that a little.

First of all, I want to say that it’s very important to have a reference that allows you to look up the definitions of words. But if you have internet access most of the time, the World Wide Web serves that need pretty well. It’s actually not a hard service to supply. What’s harder is to help you know, when you’re writing, which word you should choose out of several candidates. That’s where neither the web nor a dictionary can necessarily be counted on.

Dictionaries are better for reading than for writing

dictionary forbidden

Well, not forbidden, but…

Let’s look at this through a different lens. Use of language is either passive or active. You’re using language passively when you’re taking it in. You’re using language actively when you’re moving it outward, in other words, when you’re speaking or writing. With that concept in place, I can say what I’m saying about dictionaries pretty easily: they’re good for passive use of language, less so for active. When you’re reading and you meet a word you don’t know, the dictionary or the web will let you look up that word. On the other hand, when you’re writing, you might look up a word if you think you know its definition but you aren’t sure. And that can be helpful. But it’s not all the help you need. If you’re not sure you know what a word means, then you’re probably not very familiar with that word. That should be a red flag. It means that although you may be choosing a word with the right denotation, which is its dictionary definition, it still might not carry the right connotation, and dictionaries aren’t a great deal of help with connotations. In fact, it’s hard for dictionaries, even online ones that are easily updated, to keep up with changes in connotation.

In the last episode, I talked about two instances in which non-native English speakers used a word they were able to find in a dictionary, but which I’d never heard a native speaker use.

Today’s story is about a word that changed its connotation at almost the very time a writer decided to use it, spoiling his poem for all posterity.

Time, you thief… How changing usage ruined a good poem


John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier – Boston Public Library – Flickr

John Greenleaf Whittier was a 19th century American poet, best-known as a leading voice of the abolitionist cause. He also wrote on religious and spiritual matters, and he wrote some historical poems. He was once challenged by a woman friend to write a love poem. She said she doubted he was capable of producing one. To a nationally famous poet, this was something like a double-dog dare.

He went home that night and penned a pretty nice little love poem.

The piece deals with the love of a squire or a groom—in any case, some sort of servant—who is deeply in love with the high-born lady he serves. This servant speaks of the irony that, although she’s untouchable because of her lofty station, yet, precisely because she doesn’t even notice him, he has a delicious intimacy with her:

Oh, proud and calm! she cannot know

Where’er she goes with her I go;

Oh, cold and fair! she cannot guess

I kneel to share her hound’s caress!


The hound and I are on her trail,

The wind and I uplift her veil;

As if the calm, cold moon she were,

And I the tide, I follow her.

His intimacy with her, in fact, is greater than that of the noblemen who come to court her:

Gay knights beside her hunt and hawk,

Faithful servant with his lady's hawk.

Photo by Brent Flanders (proforged on Flickr)

I rob their ears of her sweet talk;

Her suitors come from east and west,

I steal her smiles from every guest.

And yet, a faithful servant in every way, he will never dream of taking any sort of advantage of the closeness he enjoys:

World-wide apart, and yet so near,

I breathe her charméd atmosphere,

Wherein to her my service brings

The reverence due to holy things.


Her maiden pride, her haughty name,

My dumb devotion shall not shame;

Within the world’s rigid class structures he can’t possibly rise above his station. Yet he feels, inwardly, that his very servanthood, so faithfully expressed, ennobles him:

The love that no return doth crave

Medieval lay on horseback

Jonnie3 – Flickr

To knightly levels lifts the slave,


No lance have I, in joust or fight,

To splinter in my lady’s sight

But, at her feet, how blest were I

For any need of hers to die!

How to title your poem for oblivion

As I say, a nice little love poem. Not a great one, perhaps, but not bad. But here’s the punch line that history, not Whittier, tacked onto this poem.

The title of this poem is “The Henchman”. I repeat. The title of this poem is “The Henchman.”

I live in the United States. It’s just possible that I have to explain this to English speakers overseas. Perhaps you in the UK, or Australia, or New Zealand or South Africa, don’t hear the word henchman the way we do here. Perhaps you hear only the same, very old, meaning that Whittier heard, which is virtually synonymous with groom, a servant who handles and cares for horses, or page, an attendant who travels on foot waiting on a noble. But there’s another definition, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a stout political supporter or partisan” or, especially in the U.S., “a mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another.” The first instance of this use in America that appears in the OED is in 1875, two years before Whittier wrote this poem. It’s possible that Whittier never heard this usage. Alas for his poem, though, as if mercenary and venal didn’t sound sinister enough, in America the word only got nastier. Al Capone had henchmen. Hitler had henchmen. So deeply has the word been overtaken by sinister connotations that the verb “hench” appears on urbandictionary.com with the definition:

the act of doing assorted tasks whilst dressed in a uniform similar to one’s peers, usually in the service of an egomaniacal villain

Freelance Henchmen

“freelance henchmen” by den_of_thieves – Flickr

Or, in other words, to hench is to do what a henchman does, and what a henchman does is usually criminal. This meaning, with its increasingly nasty connotations, has absolutely swamped any earlier definition of the term henchman. This swamping was probably quite well along within two decades after this poem was published, and was certainly complete by the 1930s. I have to say, I feel sorry for Whittier and his pretty nice poem. How is his work to be taken seriously with that title? Here, I’m going to read you a stanza I’ve already read; notice how much more like a stalker this persona sounds now that he’s been labeled a henchman!

The hound and I are on her trail,

The wind and I uplift her veil;

As if the calm, cold moon she were,

And I the tide, I follow her.

Every move your poem makes, I’ll be there to break its legs

Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, oh, how I’ll watch and watch and watch you…

Ahem. Alas for this poem, it’s been spoiled forever. And alas for Whittier. He thought he knew English, but one day he woke up and found her a stranger. His poor heart aches.

As I say, this was a case of linguistic change sneaking up on an author after the fact and spoiling his work for posterity. But writers who use words without knowing how the English-speaking culture actually hears them will spoil their own work in the same way. The very day it’s written, the work is already poisoned.

Garner's Modern American Usage front cover

A very useful book.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I say that the writer’s most important English language reference is not a dictionary, but Garner’s Modern American Usage. No, it can’t keep you safe from every possible faux pas you might be tempted to commit as a writer. But Garner focuses on the issues in usage that are most likely to cause trouble, and gives excellent advice for keeping out of that trouble. Also, Garner frequently notes how American usage differs from British, making his book valuable even for English-language writers beyond America’s shores.

Resources for writers

I hope you understand that, by recommending Garner even over a dictionary, I’m not saying dictionaries aren’t important or helpful. In fact, I believe that if you’re serious about developing strength as a writer or speaker, you’ll do well to gather and use a wide variety of resources. Podcasts can be very helpful, and I hope you’ll make a habit of listening to mine.

Grammar Girl devotee official badge

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl

I listen to Mignon Fogerty’s “Grammar Girl” podcast every week. And even after the many years I’ve worked as a writer and editor, I’m still sometimes surprised to learn something there that I’d overlooked. And I’m always grateful to be reminded of what I already knew, because English is so complex that if we’re not careful, we can sometimes forget the good things we know. Besides the content, I appreciate Grammar Girl’s presentation. Her explanations are carefully thought through and wonderfully clear.

There are many other resources I recommend. You’re probably better off going to my blog to find a complete list rather than listening to it on the podcast. I will repeat something I said last week, though. If you want to buy a book on English, check to see what editions are available. If a book is used in classrooms, the latest edition is likely to be overpriced, and not much different from earlier editions. In these cases, you’re better off paying the lower price for an older edition. I’ll go so far as to say this: if you have eighty dollars burning a hole in your pocket, rather than spend it on the latest edition of the Little, Brown Handbook, excellent as that is, I think your money would be better spent on a used compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I prefer the older ones in 2 volumes. They’re costing about $65 these days, and that will leave you enough to buy an older edition of Little, Brown to fill in your library.

I’ve given a few examples of how we can get ourselves in trouble with unfamiliar words. Next week we’re going to climb up to a higher elevation, and start to talk about a whole approach to language that will help you strengthen your writing and speaking.

Until then, this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week and effective communication.

Thanks for listening to Word Shots. Our theme music is “Cue the Moose”, by Gary Paul Bryant, and is used by license.

Good-bye now.

[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]

5 Responses to “Episode #004: Beyond Good and Evil in Grammar”

  1. BrianY says:

    Max, “every move your poem makes, I’ll be there to break its legs” really did make me laugh out loud! Thanks.

    Great insights into JGW, also–coincidentally, I had been looking through Bill Jolliff’s collection of his poems just this past weekend, marking several that I wanted to come back to–but I’m pretty sure that “The Henchman” is not in that book at all, for obvious reasons.

    Thanks again.

    1. Max Christian Hansen says:

      I haven’t seen the Joliff book. I’m interested to see what he selected.

      There are a number of ironies in Whittier.

      1. He wrote a poem inveighing against music in church–and it got turned into a hymn (The Brewing of Soma->Dear Lord and Father of Mankind).

      2. A lovely, horribly titled love poem.

      3. His very best poetry is mostly forgotten for yet another reason: it was about slavery, which we prefer mostly to forget about. Whittier’s writing only rose to true brilliance when his dander was up. A fine condition for a Quaker!

      Thanks for reading, Brian!

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