Posts Tagged ‘Hazlitt’

Girl in the window, Salvador Dali
The girl in the window, Salvador Dali, mid-1920s

Some of the writing on WordPress is utterly charming. Emily Hauser’s work at In My Head often attains a flow of such effortlessly fluid competence that it leaves me, as a fellow professional, gasping. I have her to thank for many a heart-warming or thought-provoking start to my day.

I warmly recommend her musings on her childhood newspaper delivery round at

In the UK, being a paper boy was even more exhausting than Emily remembers from her Chicago childhood.

Unlike the USA, where papers are vaguely flung in the direction of the front yard, in the UK they were always delivered through the letterbox, which was usually an impossibly narrow or idiotically positioned integral component of a front door, rather than a decent-size receptacle intelligently stuck on a pole at the front gate. And the front door was invariably up the end of a path or driveway, which was always, equally certainly, covered in treacherously invisible black ice mysteriously laid down in the frigid pre-dawn.

Bikes were impractical; you’d have been on and off the thing 500 times a morning. So, rain, hail, snow or shine, one walked, carrying a bag weighing about the same as a small car on one’s ten year old frame. A bag that was made of a sort of hessian, that got heavier and smellier as it got wetter from the freezing rain that always came in horizontally off the English Channel in that seaside town of blessed memory.

Sooner or later the papers inside would get wet, and start to glutinously stick together, until eventually the whole interior started to resemble a sort of papier mâché sculpture of indistinct design.

Oh, how we laughed.

Just as it became almost overwhelmingly tempting to dump the whole bag behind the vast hedge at Miss King’s the piano teacher and run away to sea, there was something to live for.

Every morning, Sophie, the new girl with impossibly blue eyes who had moved into the yellow house down the road, used to wave at me as she sat in her bedroom window eating her rice crispies , as I vainly tried to squeeze the Daily Telegraph through their impossibly small letterbox, usually shredding it in the process.

Her father, who became infamous for writing a letter complaining about the state of the roads to the local paper, (in those days an impossibly infra dig* thing to have done), must have cursed me daily. Sophie just gazed down, like an imprisoned princess in a tower of sunflower weatherboards and slate tiles, a sudden ray of sunshine on a sodden day.

She went away the next year, to big school, until a famously hot summer some eight years later, when we endured one awful first – and last – kiss in the back of a taxi after an awkward shared meal of chicken chow mein and egg fried rice where neither of us could think of anything to say. We should have left it at a lonely wave and a gentle smile that made the unendurable worthwhile.

Never go back, Dear Reader. Never go back.

*Infra dig: a phrase beloved of my mother, one of the genteel poor, meaning unbecoming of one’s position or beneath one’s dignity.

It derives from the Latin infra dignitatem, literally ‘beneath (one’s) dignity’. It is first recorded by William Hazlitt in Table talk; or, Original essays on men and manners, 1822:

“Among other things, the learned languages are a ready passport to this sort of unmeaning, unanalysed reputation. They presently lift a man up among the celestial constellations, the signs of the zodiac (as it were) and third heaven of inspiration, from whence he looks down on those who are toiling on in this lower sphere, and earning their bread by the sweat of their brain, at leisure and in scorn. If the graduates in this way condescend to express their thoughts in English, it is understood to be infra dignitatem …”

The first person to put the shortened infra dig. version into print was Sir Walter Scott. He uses it in his 1825 novel Redgauntlet:

“It would be infra dig. in the Provost of this most flourishing and loyal town to associate with Redgauntlet.”

If ever used, it is now more commonly written without the full stop. Even most of those who realise it is an abbreviation now consider it to be well-enough established not to require it, as amp – short for ampere – is now accepted without a full stop.

What is beneath one’s dignity is obviously a matter of judgment. The group most often associated with the term are the British upper middle classes, a mindset rather than a measurement of purchasing power, although they might now consider it infra dig ever to use it.