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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

A lost Victorian phrase?


'Not but what'.

This looks like a familiar phrase, but I don’t think I had ever come across it until I recently started reading the novels of Anthony Trollope. ‘Not but what’ I don’t think I shall start to use the phrase. Still confused?

This is from Phineas Finn, (1869)

"You should be more gentle with her. You should give her time to find out whether she likes you or not."

"She has known me all her life, and has found that out long ago. Not but what you are right. I know you are right. …" 
I still don’t think I would get it from that. Try this quote from Barchester Towers (1857):

'Yes,' continued Ethelbert; not at all understanding why a German professor should be contemptible in the eyes of an Oxford don. 'Not but what the name is best earned at Oxford. In Germany the professors do teach; at Oxford, I believe they only profess to do so, and sometimes not even that. You'll have those universities of yours about your ears soon, if you don't consent to take a lesson from Germany.'

It appears twice in Phineas Finn, twice in Phineas Redux (1874) and four times in both The Kellys and O’Kellys (1848) and The Eustace Diamonds (1873).  But you won’t find the phrase in The Warden (1855), or The Duke’s Children (1880); nor, curiously, in He Knew He Was Right (1869).

Dickens uses it four times in Great Expectations (1861) but not at all in Pickwick Papers (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), A Christmas Carol (1843), Dombey and Son (1848), Bleak House (1853), or Little Dorrit (1857). And not in Our Mutual Friend (1865) or The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870).

(In all of these I am giving the year of the publication of the final instalment of the serialised form.)

George Eliot uses it four times in Middlemarch (1872) – though I can’t say I noticed it on a recent reading – and a massive eight times in The Mill On The Floss (1860). It’s there twice in Adam Bede (1859), but not in Daniel Deronda (1876). You won’t find it in the novels of George Meredith (between 1856 and 1910), but you will find it three times in Mary Barton (1848), five times in North and South (1855) and an impressive eleven times in Wives and Daughters (1865), all by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Hardy uses it once in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886):

"He worked his way up from nothing when 'a came here; and now he's a pillar of the town. Not but what he's been shaken a little to-year about this bad corn he has supplied in his contracts."

And it appears three times in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), but not at all in Jude the Obscure (1895). H G Wells does not use it in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) or The War of the Worlds (1898).

So it seems to have enjoyed some usage in literary English from the 1840s. Not but what I don’t recall reading it in any twentieth-century work (and I would like to hear of quoted instances). Not but what I looked for it in the OED. I couldn’t find it. Not but what I’ll go on looking.