Friday, February 26, 2010

Annals of peevology: "Fix"

A true scholar, Maximilian Schele de Vere was usually more interested in explaining than in denouncing language. But in "Americanisms: The Language of the New World" (1871), he joined in the widespread condemnation of our national fondness for fixing things:
Fix, to, may be safely called the American word of words, since there is probably no action whatever, performed by mind or body, which is not represented at some time or other by the universal term. It has well been called the strongest evidence of that national indolence which avoids the trouble of careful thought at all hazards, and of that restless hurry which ever makes the word welcome that comes up first and saves time.
Whatever is to be made, whatever needs repair, whatever requires arrangement -- all is fixed. The farmer fixes his gates, the mechanic his workbench, the seamstress her sewing-machine, the fine lady her hair, and the schoolboy his books. The minister forgets to fix his sermon in time, the doctor to fix his medicines, and the lawyer to fix his brief. At public meetings it is fixed who are to be the candidates for office; rules are fixed to govern an institution, and when the arrangements are made, the people contentedly say: "Now everything is fixed nicely." Americans must have had an early weakness for the word, for already, in 1675, the Commissioners of the United Colonies ordered "their arms well fixed and fit for service." (Quoted by J. R. Lowell.)* It is not to be wondered at, after this, that Americans should be so continually in a fix -- an expression which, in England only slang, is here used in serious language.
"A poor woman and her orphan chicks,
Left without fixtures, in an awful fix." 

*Schele de Vere (and Lowell) were mistaken in calling this fix an American invention, according to the OED. Its earliest citation for the sense -- "To adjust, make ready for use (arms, instruments, etc.); to arrange in proper order" -- comes from Pepys's Diary (1663): "I found ... the arms well fixed, charged, and primed." But the 19th-century usagists took for granted that most extensions of fix beyond the basic meanings --  "attach, fasten, set" -- were the work of American yokels.


Galadriel said...

Don't forget about fixing your pet! :)

Charles Matthews said...

Or as we used to say down South: I'm fixin' to get ready.

jhm said...

I really love that "fixin' to" construction. Is it really a Southern thing? Up here in New England, it seems natural as well; but maybe I'm thinking of "with all the fixin's."

Jed Waverly said...

Every now and then my wife and I need to drive down to the ocean at our favorite State Park to get our "ocean fix."