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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

As L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz suggests in the passage I quoted yesterday, there were people in America around the turn of the last century saying that the phrase “climb down” was incorrect. The logical problem was that “climb” implies going up. The real problem, most likely, is that the phrase had been identified as American, rather than proper, English.

Scholars of the language noted the idiom “climb down” as early as 1872, when Maximilian Schele de Vere wrote in Americanisms: The English of the New World:
Climb, to, is occasionally used in the extraordinary sense of climbing down, as in the account of the Rev. H. W. Beecher:— “I partly climbed down, and partly clambered back again, satisfied that it was easier to get myself in than to get the flowers out.” (Star Papers, p. 41.)
John S. Farmer echoed that in Americanisms, Old & New, published in 1889:
Climb-down, To.—A perversion of words to signify downward motion; to descend; comedown. Commonly colloquial.
Farmer’s Slang and Its Analogues from 1891 was a little more accepting, calling the phrase “At first American” and citing some usages.

Henry Frederic Reddall’s Fact, Fancy, and Fable, published in Chicago in 1892, listed:
Climb. In England this word is always used in the sense “to mount, to rise, to ascend.” In America, people climb down. Rev. H. W. Beecher, who may be considered a competent judge of correct English, in describing his visit to Oxford, says, “To climb down the wall was easy enough.”
The 1908 edition of the Fowlers’ The King’s English, published in Oxford in the same year as Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, took note of “climb down” as a slang term, but had nothing more to say about it.

The Google Ngram Viewer suggests that in the late nineteenth century the phrase became increasingly popular. But that also produced a backlash.

Most prominent among American prescriptivists, Ambrose Bierce (shown above) included “Climb down” in Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, published in 1909. He snapped: “In climbing one ascends.” And in The Correct Word, How to Use It, first published in 1915, Josephine Turck Baker wrote:
Climb indicates ascension; in consequence, “climb down” is censured. There seems, however, to be no good substitute for “climb down.”
Which was, really, Jim the cab-horse’s point.

COMING UP: Linking this dispute to Baum.


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