Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bah, humbug, everyone!

If Thanksgiving comes, can Christmas be far behind? In a New York Times review of the new movie A Christmas Carol, A. O. Scott commends the producers for retaining “much of the flavor of Dickens’s prose—not just the catchphrases like ‘Bah, humbug’ and ‘God bless us everyone,’ but also the formal diction and the moral concern.”  Well, okay, but to retain the flavor of Dickens’ catchphrases, you ought to catch ‘em the way he threw ‘em.

Ebenezer Scrooge never says “Bah, humbug”—run together, as Mr. Scott writes it, in a single utterance with only a comma between the two words.  Scrooge says “Bah!” (an interjection expressing contempt) only twice in the tale and both times it is followed not by a comma, but by an exclamation point, making it a complete and emphatic statement. “Humbug!” (a fraud or a hoax) follows, in both instances, as a separate statement with its own terminal punctuation.

A trivial point, I hear you say.  Bah!  Humbug!  What is punctuation, after all, but a few needless squiggles? WellIllsaymaybeyourerightbutmaybeyouarent.

Of more consequence is Mr. Scott’s parsing of “God bless us everyone.” What the absurdly cheerful Tiny Tim actually shrieks is “God bless us every one!”  I’m not so concerned about Mr. Scott’s omission of the exclamation point in this case—although its lack does give Tim’s outburst a curiously muted feeling for so festive an occasion—but more so about the running together of the two words every and one.  What Tim says, and what he undoubtedly means, is that he hopes that God will bless “us”—i.e. the Cratchit family—“every one,” that is each member of the family, without exception.  The use of the pronoun everyone, which means “all people,” goes far beyond the familial intent of Tim, whose exuberant benison follows the consumption of a slug of gin with lemon juice (what Dickens calls “hot stuff”).  No wonder he is so exuberant. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, not so fortunate as to be in the gin-infused state of euphoria that motivated Tiny Tim, threw a lump of coal on the fire, dipped his quill into the inkpot, and scratched out these sober words for the season:

    For all the joys of Christmas,
    We offer thanks galore
    To Charles John Huffam Dickens
    (And also Clement Moore).

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