Saturday, 31 October 2015

On Nicknames (essay) by William Hazlitt

On Nicknames                                                                     William Hazlitt

William Hazlitt is a great English essayist and he has written essays on various subjects such as politics, sports and games. In this essay he writes about nicknames which may be a silly subject, but it gives us an insight into his vast knowledge about everything under the sun and he writes easily and fluently in a conversational style. He says that nicknames govern the world and have serious effects.  Nicknames are by themselves trifles, meaningless terms, but they govern the world. The history of every field such as politics, morals and religion is the history of nicknames. Many massacres, tortures, imprisonment and wars are all committed on account of nicknames. So nicknames are compared to talismans or magical objects.  They arouse all wicked human passions and more effective than reasoning power.  Although nicknames are worthless and silly, they are capable of dividing people and countries and create hatred and contempt in the minds of human beings.

Hazlitt says that if we turn the pages of history of politics, religion, literature, morals and even the private lives of individuals, we can see that their ups and downs may be traced to nicknames. States and kingdoms are overthrown, wars are fought and thousands of people are killed on account of nicknames. The author quotes famous writers. Foxes “Book of Martyrs” and Daniel Neale’s “History of the Puritans” explain that nicknames are more powerful than anything else in the world. The martyrdom mentioned in Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” is due to two nicknames such as Roman Catholics and Protestants in Christianity. Thousands of Protestants were killed or imprisoned in 16th and 17th centuries in England. Thus the two nicknames destroyed peace and love in England and killed many human beings.

The author says that a nickname is a shortened form of expressing one’s hatred and contempt and it is more effective than cutting with a sword. He quotes from the famous Elizabethan play “The Beggar’s Opera” in which the priest calls the lawyer a cheat because the lawyer is able to get an innocent man convicted and a criminal acquitted. So a lawyer is a cheat. In return the lawyer calls the priest a knave because priests don’t know anything about religious truths, but loudly speaks to congregation on religious beliefs. Thus the “cheat” and “knave” are the two nicknames given to lawyer and priest respectively.

William Hazlitt says that in using nicknames as powerful weapons, both the savages and the civilized people are equal. The savage is uneducated and uncivilized. So he does not know anything about political and religious nicknames. But savages are divided into many tribes and they kill each other because every tribe is differently tattoed. Thus the savage kills his enemy and eats his flesh as a tasty meal.  Similarly the educated civilized men abuse each other by means of nicknames.

William Hazlitt says that nickname is powerful weapon to arouse racial and national prejudice. The French hate the British merely because they are English and the Englishmen have contempt for the French only because they are French. This is the case with other countries and religions in the world.  The French hates Shakespeare and says

that he is a barbarian.  Similarly the English looks down upon the great French writer Racine.

William Hazlitt says that a nickname is the only figure of speech that can excite a strong idea without any evidence. He quotes William Shakespeare who has stated that “brevity is the soul of wit”. .  Shakespeare uses this beautiful sentence in his famous play “Hamlet”. If it is true, a nickname is the shortest as well as the most powerful argument one can use against his enemy. The victim cannot retort or demand proof.  Thus nickname is a mortal blow given to a man by his enemy.

Hazlitt, speaking of the dangerous effect of nickname on an individual, says that even a wicked man can smash his enemy to pieces with a nickname and the victim cannot retaliate, because the bystanders are so amused that they don’t listen to the complaint of the victim. Hazlitt compares the use of nickname to the act of giving a bad name to a dog and hanging it. Again Hazlitt quotes a great English writer Sir Thomas Browne who said that nickname is the heaviest stone thrown at a man by the devil. Such is the dangerous effect of nickname on an individual. His good name is destroyed for ever.

Nicknames give full scope to imagination because they are not based on facts or reason. They open up all wicked passions such as anger, jealousy and contempt. The operation of nicknames start immediately and spread everywhere like a wildfire. It is the most dangerous weapon a man can use against his enemy and the victim cannot oppose or retaliate it because the bystanders are so amused that they use it for ever. It arouses passion without proof. Its aim is to create trouble and it achieves its purpose by playing upon the imagination. If a nickname is applied to our dearest friend, it can destroy our friendship for ever.
Annotate the following
1.  Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” and Neale’s “History of the Puritans” are comments on the same text.  The fires in Smithfield were fanned by nicknames, and a nickname set its seal on the unopened dungeons of the Holy Inquisition” ans: 1st & 2nd paragraphs.

2.  “The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, the lawyer beknaves the divine” – 1+3rd para. 
3. The unenlightened savage makes a meal of his enemy’s flesh, afater reproaching him with the name of his tribe, because he is differently tattoed; and the literary cannibal cut up the character of his opponent by the help of a nickname   - 1+4th para.

4.  In France they damn Shakespeare in the lump, by calling him a barbare; and we talk of Racine’s verbiage with inexpressible contempt and self complacency. – 1+5th para.

5.  “Brevity is the soul of wit” and of all eloquence a nickname is the most concise of all arguments the most unanswerable. – 1+6th para.

6.  Give a dog an ill name and hang him, is a proverb.  “A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man”. – 1st para + 7th para.

  Paragraph questions:


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