Thursday, August 26, 2010

Word of the day: namby-pamby

You probably know what namby-pamby means. As an adjective: “Of literary or artistic style, a composition, etc.: weakly sentimental, insipidly pretty, affectedly or childishly ”; “Of a person or group of people: inclined to weak sentimentality, affectedly dainty; lacking vigour or drive; effeminate in expression or behaviour.” As a noun: “Weakly sentimental insipid style or writing; an example of this”; “A weak, fussy, or affected person.” But did you know where the word comes from? The Oxford English Dictionary, source of these definitions, explains:

Namby Pamby, a disparaging alteration (a reduplication with variation of initial consonant and suffixation … in imitation of childish speech) of the name of Ambrose Philips (1675-1749), author of sentimental poems (especially concerning children).

Philips’s poems were ridiculed in print by Henry Carey, John Gay, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift; the nickname Namby Pamby was used by Carey as the title of his parody of Philips’s verse, and subsequently by Pope in the Dunciad.
I have Ambrose Philips on my mind this week, having used his namby-pamby translation of a Sappho fragment alongside other (better) translations as a way into thinking about reading ancient poets. (’m teaching Backgrounds of Western Literature, or Backwards in Western Lit.) Here is Philips (1711):
In sharp contrast, Mary Barnard (1958):
From galloping couplets to William Carlos Williams-like enjambment (“he // who,” “of / your”), from a glowing bosom and “dewy Damps” to flame and dripping sweat. Note too that Philips’s translation is far from clear on the direction of the speaker’s desire, which is not for the youth/godlike man but for the woman speaking to that man. That Sappho was a woman who wrote of love between women always surprises some students, who assume that the poem presents a heterosexual love triangle. (Not that there’d be anything wrong with that!) Such a triangle is the scenario in Catullus’s Latin adaptation of this poem, which “straightens” Sappho’s lyric into an expression of male heterosexual desire.

There’s nothing namby-pamby about Sappho, or Catullus, or Mary Barnard.

comments: 2

Other Elaine said...

Since schools in ancient times were for males, I read both of these translations as having male voices--a student witnessing a favored 'rival' sitting at the feet of the teacher. All guys, all the time.

But I see these poems can swing...several ways! But how did we get here from 'namby-pamby?' Oh, however: you'd never call a woman 'namby-pamby,' so perhaps I was predisposed to expect a male viewpoint...?

Awaiting enlightenment.

Michael Leddy said...

The voice in Sappho’s poetry is sometimes that of an older woman teaching younger women. The so-called “new” poem (pieced together in 2005) is along those lines. One legend of Sappho’s life has her a teacher of young aristocratic women. We really have no idea though.

I’d see the situation in this poem as purely social. A gathering of some sort, the poet (the “I”) seeing her beloved with this god-like man. Sappho’s poetry is often sardonic about studly, god-like men: Raise high the roof beam carpenters! (Because here comes this great big guy!)

If we think of Sappho as performer of her poems, it’s easy to think of the poet turning the space of her performance into the space of this poem, perhaps directing her song to a particular pair.