Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Pick your own nits

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e5117 (Published 30 July 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5117
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

If there is a single law of literary life, it is that nit pickers will have their own nits picked. My copy of Essays and Studies by W A Osborne establishes this clearly. Osborne (1873-1967) was professor of physiology at the University of Melbourne. Born of a Presbyterian clergyman in County Down, he was a rationalist with a particular dislike of Catholicism. He was an expert in nutrition, and advised Captain Scott before his ill fated Antarctic mission. Scott did not take his advice, however, with unfortunate results.

Osborne was also a literary scholar of distinction, speaking several languages fluently. He was undecided whether to take the chair of physiology or that of English, and perhaps preferred literary studies to scientific ones. He was always disappointed not to be elected to the Royal Society and that he received no decorations.

My copy of his collection of occasional essays—some delightful, some pedantic, ranging from the price fixing edict of Diocletian to the development of the gas mask—was inscribed by him to Major-General Sir Kingsley Norris, who was head of the Australian army’s medical service. Since Norris was knighted in 1957, Osborne must have been at least 84 when he presented the book, published in 1946, to him.

There is also a rather moving typed letter addressed to Norris, dated from Magnetic Island, Queensland, on 4 December 1965, when Osborne was 92:

Dear Norris,

I am now living at the above address, “wearing out life’s evening grey.” I have just realised that I shall never be able to travel southward again and face the climate of Melbourne. This means a long farewell to that city and my many friends there. I particularly wished to see you . . .

The memory of that dinner [at the club you gave for me] will remain with me for the short time I have yet to live as particularly sweet and vivid and I thank you from the bottom of my heart . . .

It is clear that Osborne had difficulty with his typewriter, which must have been a temperamental instrument, and his signature is that of a man who can no longer firmly hold his pen. In the circumstances I hesitate to mention that “grey” in the quotation should be spelt “gray,” for fear of being thought a nit picker.

The first essay in the book is on scientific errors in literature and art. After enumerating various astronomical howlers, he goes on to zoological ones: “That extinct animals were of enormous size is still a popular belief; but no skeleton yet unearthed is as large as the sperm whale of today. Sir Kingsley (for I at first assumed it was he) has crossed out the word “sperm” and written “blue” in the margin in pencil.

In his essay on the horrors of sibilant sounds in English poetry, Osborne writes: “One can as an exercise in English turn out verse without an ‘s’ sound but the art is unconcealed. Anyhow here goes.” The word “goes” is heavily scored out in ink, as if it were offensive, being in the context vulgar, and is replaced by “is an attempt.”

Looking closely at the writing, however, it occurred to me that it was not the recipient who had corrected the text, but the author himself, who did not want to be discovered in error or vulgarity. What a joyous discovery for a pedant, a nit picker, such as I.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5117

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