Monday, February 4, 2008

Some More Word Confusion

One word that keeps reappearing in the text is "condescend," yet it is not used in the same way it is generally though of today. To me, "condescend" means to talk down to, to treat someone as an inferior, to patronize. Dictionary.com gives as its first definition of the word: 'to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity.' The word, in this connotation, is negative and unfriendly.
In Clarissa, however, "condescend" is used to mean something different. To condescend, in Richardson's prose, is to disregard one's superiority or station and purposely assume equality with one in need. This definition is at once similar to the first, yet in a way its opposite, for it suggests a benevolence and decency not usually associated with the word.

Of her uncle Harlowe, Clarissa quotes:
"I only came to make my earliest court to you, were his condescending words" (294)
Lovelace appeals to Clarissa:
"Yet, I must, I do, insist upon your promise--or that you will condescend to find better excuses for the failure." (270)
When first confined to her bedroom, Clarissa often talks of her mother "condescending" to see her, despite her stubbornness of the rest of her relatives.

It is interesting that Richardson uses the term "condescend" to mean something positive. When Clarissa writes of being "condescended to," it is equal to being humored, indulged, or accommodated by those who otherwise should or would treat her with disdain. It seems that this usage has faded in popularity, for I have always connected the word to impoliteness and arrogance.

[And to anyone who was as curious as I was about this word:]
"Wrens and sparrows are not too ignoble a quarry for this villainous goshawk!" (284)
Clarissa writes these angry words when she is under the impression that Lovelace has seduced the young "Rosebud."
Apparently, "goshawk" is a large powerful hawk having broad rounded wings, a long tail, and gray or brownish plumage.

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