Mind your language

What parenting meant in 1914

And why an anachronism can make dramatic sense

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

10 January 2015

9:00 AM

‘Not still War and Peace!’ exclaimed my husband on 1 January during the all-day Tolstoy splurge on Radio 4. In reality he was glad to complain, as if it made him superior to the broadcasters. I quietly tuned the radio in the kitchen to long-wave and was able, while peeling the potatoes, to listen, through the atmospherics, to Home Front, the drama serial on Radio 4, set in Folkestone during the first world war.

It is not Downton Abbey. One does not listen to spot the anachronisms. But any historical drama is bound to include language impossible to have used at the time. The episode was written by Katie Hims and directed by Jessica Dromgoole but I don’t know if either introduced the word parenting into the script. It could not have been uttered in 1915, or rather, it might only have been used in a rare obsolete sense of ‘begetting’ or ‘giving birth’.

It’s a word that Samuel Pepys probably read on 10 April 1667, for on that day he returned from Deptford by boat ‘all the way reading a little piece I lately bought, called The Virtuoso or the Stoicke, proposing things paradoxical to our common opinions, wherein in some places he speaks well, but generally is but a sorry man’. Pepys used the running title, the book being published as Religio Stoici (to echo Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici of 1642) in several editions from 1663, anonymously. The ‘sorry man’ was George Mackenzie, a Scottish judge and politician. In the book he declares: ‘Who knows but my watch goes right, albeit it agree not with the publick clock?’ Pepys might even have met him later, as he fled Scotland in 1689 and did meet John Evelyn in London. Anyway, Pepys must have got to page 22, where Mackenzie wrote of ‘churlishness and close-handedness parented by avarice’.

In Home Front, parenting was used to mean ‘bringing up’. The daughter in the Graham household had advanced ideas on the matter. But she and her family would have called it ‘child-rearing’, for parenting in today’s sense is not recorded before 1959. No matter. The anachronism pointed up differences in ideas between then and now, which was perhaps the intention.

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