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Mind your language

The fascinating history of dullness

As a word for men who love sheds, it has nothing to do with blades that don’t cut

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

At least I’ve got my husband’s Christmas present sorted out: the Dull Men of Great Britain calendar. It is no doubt intended ironically, as travelling the country photographing old pillar-boxes, for example, does not strike me as being in the least bit dull.

I had thought that dull, in reference to people, was a metaphor from dull in the sense of ‘unshiny’. ‘Dieu de batailles!’ as the Constable of France in Henry V exclaims of the English, ‘where have they this mettle?/ Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull?’ But I was quite wrong, as so often. It started off (in the form dol) meaning ‘foolish’. In English almost as old as you could care to have it, the author of The Seafarer declares: Dol bith se the him his dryhten ne ondrædeth; cymeth him se death unthinged. ‘Foolish is he who fears not his Lord; to him unreconciled comes death.’ I like unthinged, as I do, in a different way, Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary’s underdoctored, despite its connotations of understrapping.


The village of Dull in Perthshire (twinned with Boring in Oregon) means ‘meadow’, they tell me, and has no connection with the English word. I suppose the most accomplished anatomy of English dulness is Pope’s Dunciad. It has such vivid phrases: ‘Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,/ That slipp’d through cracks and zig-zags of the head.’ The amplified edition in four books ends with the well-known couplet: ‘Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/ And universal darkness buries all.’ Perhaps it isn’t all that well known, but in 1987 Nirad C. Chaudhuri thought it would do for a volume of autobiography written in his 90th year, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! I’m not sure it sold all that well. Anyway, the conclusion of the earlier version of the Dunciad ran: ‘To their first Chaos Wit’s vain works shall fall,/ And universal Dulness cover all!’

Today the world’s turned upside down. Those who complain that classical music, poetry and art are dull and boring are themselves the dullards. Those who dare to be dull have the most interesting time.


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