Holmes and the Art of the Skewer

One more lesson on good writing from the masters.



I've been talking this week about principles of good writing that can be learned from Lincoln, Churchill, Holmes, and others whose words have stood the test of time. The ideas are drawn from this new book.

Yesterday's post showed how Oliver Wendell Holmes used some of the same methods Lincoln did to create memorable sentences. Holmes had an instinct for contrasts. Polarities that ran throughout his writings gave them great force.

Holmes often would say something twice: once in Latinate words, then in words that are Saxon and also highly visual, often because they use a metaphor. In these next examples we see the Saxon finish that has now become familiar, but other kinds of action, too:

I don't believe in the infinite importance of man—I see no reason to believe that a shudder could go through the sky if the whole ant heap were kerosened. —Holmes, letter to Harold Laski (1921).

No doubt behind these legal rights is the fighting will of the subject to maintain them, and the spread of his emotions to the general rules by which they are maintained; but that does not seem to me the same thing as the supposed a priori discernment of a duty or the assertion of a preexisting right. A dog will fight for his bone. —Holmes, Natural Law (1918).

Both examples end with a run of Saxon words that stand out in contrast to the Latinate flavor of what came before. They also end in animal metaphors, for which Holmes had a deft touch. And in both cases the simple, visual clincher at the end is really a restatement of what he had just said differently. In effect he makes his claim twice, in two languages: once for the head, once for the gut. The second example shows how this can be done in separate sentences.

Those passages also show something else: how the flow of the diction can follow the sense of the words. The higher and more pompous idea is put in words that came into English from Latin (a priori discernment, infinite importance). The hard truth that follows is put mostly in older and simpler words (dog, fight, bone, shudder, sky, ant, heap); kerosene is from Greek, but it now has some of the easy visual qualities of a Saxon word.

The point: Holmes liked to skewer pompous claims. He also liked to blow up linguistic balloons and then pop them. The two habits went together.

Tomorrow I'll make a few more general remarks about other kinds of contrasts. In the meantime, you can find more about all these themes in the book from which these posts are drawn.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: June 25, 1997

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  1. “The point: Holmes liked to skewer pompous claims.”

    Holmes may have liked to skewer pompous claims, but what he really loved to skewer were women who had been raped by their foster families when they were 17. Ho boy was that some good skewering. And no doubt his disdain for “pompous” claims like people having inherent worth or natural rights made it all the more fun. Silly woman thinking she has the right to decide for herself whether or not to have more children–that’s for the state to decide. Just to show her who’s the boss, let’s have the state sterilize not just her but daughter too.

    Sometimes it’s not the law that’s the ass, just the justices.

  2. I highly recommend all of Farnworth’s “Classical” books as well as his book on stoicism. They are short and to the point. They also demonstrate how the the format of a book can enhance its eleemosynary effect.

  3. “Sky” is actually Old Norse in origin. I’ve always found Norse loan words even more vivid than “indigenous” English ones—the viking had little patience for things impalpable.

  4. One of my student, Holly Astle, wrote about Diction and Writing: Latinate vs. Anglo Saxon Words in her first article at Writersdomain. I was proud to see examples of numerous metaphors (taken from Holmes’ letters) for a linguistic contrast.

    https://essaydune.com/ Jason Shrumm, Invited Professor, researcher, Department of English and General Linguistics at The Institute of Lodz

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