LINGUIST List 13.499

Sat Feb 23 2002

Sum: James D. Nicoll Quote

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  • kemmer, James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved

    Message 1: James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved

    Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2002 13:52:01 -0600 (CST)
    From: kemmer <>
    Subject: James D. Nicoll quote - mystery solved

    Last week I posted a query requesting the source of the following quote, which I was unable to locate in published sources and which recently began to ricochet around the internet quoted from my "Words" course webpage.

    "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." --James D. Nicoll

    I got several answers that allow me to declare the mystery solved. I must be a victim of false memory syndrome, because I could have sworn I got the quote out of an old book on the English language. Far from it--but now I have no idea where I came across it.

    The quote is original with James Nicoll and was posted on a science-fiction newgroup (the msg ID is given in several replies below) in 1990. The thread was an argument about prescriptivism titled "The King's English". Originally the post had the word "riffle" instead of "rifle"; in a later posting on the same thread Mr. Nicoll identified this as a typo.

    Rosvita Vaska attributed the quote to Booker T. Washington. To me, the style was far more reminiscent of Mark Twain than Washington!

    Greg Shenaut tentatively suggested that the attribution might be incorrect: "it sounds like a guy named Henry James Nicoll, who wrote a book called Landmarks of English Literature, which was published in 1883 but with a "2nd edition" that came out in 1973."

    Geoffrey Sampson correctly traced the quote to North America, based on the use of "cribhouse", the fact that the author uses a middle initial (I guess instead of signing himself "J. Nicoll" like a good Brit), and the use of the word "whore" which according to Prof. Sampson "has a rather literary flavour on this side of the Atlantic" [the British side --s.k].

    "Cribhouse", says J L Speranza, is based on "crib", an old word for brothel. I don't see this def. in the OED entry for "crib", but the attested senses of 'narrow wooden bed'; 'small habitation, cabin, hovel; narrow room; confined space'; and (thieves' slang) 'a dwelling house, shop, public house' could easily lead to a meaning extension to 'whorehouse'.

    Below I excerpt the most relevant parts of the responses I got.

    Many thanks to: Ficus strangulensis Prop, Neil Fulton, Michael R Weholt, Larry Horn, Geoffrey Sampson, Michael J. Lowrey, Greg Shenaut, Gordon Tisher, Rosvita Vaska, William H. Fletcher, Lance Nathan, Stanley Dubinsky, J L Speranza, and James Nicoll.

    - Suzanne Kemmer

    - --------------------

    1. "James Nicoll is a well-known denizen of the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup, among others. He lives in Kitchener, Ontario, I believe." --Gordon Tisher

    2. "James Nicoll is the former owner of a specialist s-f bookstore in Ontario, and a well-known figure in fannish circles. As far as I know, the lines you quote are original to him, and first appeared in a Usenet posting to the newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers on May 15 1990." --Neil Fulton

    3. "I know this contradicts your memory of seeing it in print in the 1960s, but take a look at

    ...Notice that this is signed "JDN" and is from jdnicoll; I'd be pretty positive that this (a newsgroup post from 1990) is the origin of the quote. Nicoll was and is a frequent poster to the sf fandom newsgroups like rec.arts.sf-lovers. " --Lance Nathan

    4. "The following article on appears to be the original post:

    [connect that all into one line, of course]

    As you will note, it's dated May 15, 1990. View the "Complete Thread" link for context.

    James is now a regular denizen of, among other newsgroups, rec.arts.sf.fandom. " --Michael R Weholt

    5. "Mr. Nicoll posted the original of this as a message to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers, with the subject heading "The King's English" on 15 May 1990, 15:53:09 GMT. The Usenet Message-ID is <>; it can be found on Google's Usenets search function.

    As to "Who the hell is James D. Nicoll?": well, other than:

    - a man who has defied death in more fascinating ways than Frank Buck,

    - a man who discusses science fiction (and lesser topics) with wit and insight,

    - the recently-retired owner of the excellent game store "Imperiums To Order" in Kitchener, Ontario, and

    - a fine argument for the superiority of science fiction fans and/or Canadians,

    I decline to state, and invite you to ask the man himself. Nowadays, he is at:

    <from a followup msg:> (Several of us in rec.arts.sf.written are particularly proud of James for being mistaken for a half-century-old English textbook cite.) " --Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey [and, I might add, for Booker T. Washington too! -s.k.]

    6. Finally, a response from James Nicoll himself (who gave permission for his email address,, to be broadcast in this posting):

    "If I had only known that was going to be my fifteen minutes of fame, I'd have run that sucker through a spell checker and taken more care while writing the surrounding material." --James Nicoll