The Most Unkindest Cut of All
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.
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