The Most Unkindest Cut of All

By Maeve Maddox

Some of my readers and I experienced an episode of mutual astonishment the other day.

In a post about the abbreviation e.g., I wrote the following sentence:

The most unkindest cut of all regarding the use of e.g. and its ilk came to my attention in 2008 when I read an article in the London Telegraph about a movement in Britain to purge English of such long-established Latin shortcuts.

The emails began to fly:

Were you serious in the use of the following sentence?  I am making reference to the use of “most unkindest”.

The most unkindest cut…”  Hmm.  This one threw me, Maeve.

“most unkindest” … assuming that’s an editing error and not a grammatical error!

“Most unkindest”. Did you really mean that? Isn’t it, “most unkind”?  Would you please comment?

“The most unkindest cut of all…” I think one should use either “The unkindest…” or “The most unkind…”

Can you believe he/she wrote “the most unkindest”. It should be the most unkind or the unkindest.

At the time I wrote the sentence, I had the feeling that someone might twit me for the use of a word like ilk, but it never occurred to me that anyone would turn a hair at the quotation from Julius Caesar.

Many years have passed since I studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the ninth grade, but I still remember the speech in which Antony refers to the dagger thrust made by Brutus as “the most unkindest cut of all.”

Antony’s funeral oration over the corpse of Caesar is very long. My classmates and I memorized the first section, beginning with these lines:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

We memorized up to where Antony pauses the first time to let his words sink in:

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The speech continues. It’s an excellent example of the way a clever speaker can manipulate the sentiment of a hostile, ignorant crowd. Antony pulls out all the rhetorical stops. At the very end, he wins the mob with a sentimental “show and tell,” making Caesar’s death personal and tangible. He holds up Caesar’s bloody mantle and spreads the holes with his fingers, putting names to them:

Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through.
See what a rent the envious Casca made.
Through this the well-belovèd Brutus stabbed.
And as he plucked his cursèd steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar followed it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knocked, or no.
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all.

NOTE: According to the historical record, Caesar’s assassins stabbed him twenty-three times.

“Most unkindest cut of all” is nonstandard English. The rule for comparison, as my dismayed readers point out, does not permit a most to attend an adjective ending in -est.

But Shakespeare was writing iambic pentameter. He needed a line with ten syllables. And besides, his intention was to have Antony wring out as much emotion as he could from the mob. The cut made by Brutus wasn’t simply unkind or most unkind, or the unkindest, it was absolutely the pinnacle of unkindness, hence the most, the -est, and the “of all.”

When I quoted Shakespeare’s line, I was emphasizing the dismay I felt at the thought that branches of officialdom—in Britain of all places—could believe that it could be in the public interest to purge words from the English vocabulary. The very idea calls to mind a quotation from another of my favorite authors:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.—Orwell, 1984

I don’t have a conclusion to this post. We’re living along a seam in time. Some of us have had one kind of education, others a different kind. The practice of quoting from the English literary canon in articles intended for a general audience belongs to a passing generation. Is this is a bad thing? According to Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

As King Arthur says at the end of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King,

The old order changeth, yielding place to new.

Related posts:
When Most Is Enough
Slipping into Newspeak

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11 Responses to “The Most Unkindest Cut of All”

  • thebluebird11

    He holds up his MANTEL, or his MANTLE? I’m fine with the most unkindest cut, knew it was Shakespeare!

  • Portia McCracken

    Thank you for a most charming post. I was captivated by your regretful longing for a passing generation.

  • Maeve

    thebluebird11,
    GOOD GRIEF! I’ve even written about this one:
    2. mantle / mantel
    A mantle is a cloak. The prophet Elijah designated Elisha as his successor by throwing his mantle over him. A mantel is the ornamental shelf above a fireplace on which people display trophies and knick-knacks.

    Chee.

  • Angela

    I’m with thebluebird11. Just had the occasion to research mantle vs mantel and in current use I believe it is mantle.

  • B Rambo

    I’m surprised that so many who follow this excellent blog (mailing list?) didn’t get an allusion to the Julius Caesar quote. I sometimes get similar questions when I quote Dickens’ pithy and sorrowfully too-true note: “If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

  • Jason

    Thanks for the clarification! I am humbled that I did not recognize the allusion. Under other circumstances, I too would be appalled at the phrase “most unkindest.” I agree that quoting classic literature is something that most people no longer understand. It may not be “good or bad,” but I find it rather disheartening.

  • venqax

    I had a similar experience with two young boys, referring in an unkind if not unkindest manner to a third:

    Younger Boy:
    “He is just dumb. D-O-M ! !”
    Older Boy (gently, but with a tiny bit of condescension):
    “No, D-O-M-B.”

    Of course the first boy was not purposely going for a certain effect. But you get the idea. “We correct others’ language at our own parallel.”

  • Roberta B.

    Bravo! My sentiments, exactly. I saw your comments under “Introducing Examples” and was astounded. I couldn’t have topped the many clever comments that followed. So, I remained silent and entertained! The dumbing down of an acceptable education truly is disheartening. Thanks for keeping the light on.

  • Mister Furkles

    To be precise, a mantel is an ornamental shelf from which kitties shove trophies and various knick-knacks to watch them break upon hitting the hearth.

  • Mike Rose

    I could Google it, but I think I want to remain in the dark as to how, exactly, people may “twit” someone. I feel highly confident that my ignorance of this term is not nearly as embarrassing as a lack of any frame of reference for “the most unkindest cut of all.” Mom tossed out the Shakespeare from time to time when I was a child, probably with regard to a pie crust that had over-browned. Less dramatic than it sounds and more intentional hyperbole, of course, Mom being no dummy. From the context, I suppose I have a solid notion of what’s going on when people are “twitting” other people. Likely we do this in America but it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds. I always wash my hands immediately after I’ve twitted someone and I only twit if I have a damn good reason.

  • Jake Marek

    I get the same raised eyebrows when I use the phrase “Curiouser and curiouser.”

    Flabbergasted am I to imagine even casual readers of your column that are unfamiliar with “most unkindest cut of all.”

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