How much will you bet me that that’s a triad you will never see again?

(5-minute read)

Image by Annie Spratt, courtesy of Pixabay. Forde Abbey, Somerset, UK.

Now, to explain. In re-reading and deeply savouring Mansfield Park, I keep coming across things that a lexicographer cannot just let pass.

(Incidentally, I think the only way to appreciate the subtlety and irony of Austen’s lengthy, semi-coloned periods is to read them aloud. However, that becomes exhausting in long doses. At which point an audiobook seems like a suitable option. But will it contain the whole text?)

First of all, this, as the opening sentence of Chapter 2:

The little girl [Fanny Price] performed her long journey in safety; and at Northampton was met by Mrs. Norris, who thus regaled in the credit of being foremost to welcome her, and in the importance of leading her in to the others, and recommending her to their kindness.

‘Ello, what’s this’, thought I, ‘regale as a transitive verb?’ Generally, you regale someone with something.

It turns out that according to the OED this intransitive verb use of regale is ‘rare’ yet ‘obsolete’. I don’t know if that is code for ‘only found once, in Jane Austen’.

Even more exciting was to discover that to regale is a loanword…from Spanish. At least, it is according to the third edition OED, which presents convincing evidence in support. Other dictionaries give a French origin.

In modern Spanish, the verb regalar is to give someone a gift and it’s ditransitive – it has an indirect and direct object, e.g me regalaron un reloj de oro, ‘they gave me a gold watch’.

Not only is ‘to regale’ a loanword; it was first used in early seventeenth-century translations of Spanish into English in which it was not actually translated. (As an aside, it’s easy to forget quite how much knowledge of European languages, and in particular Spanish, there was in England in Jacobethan times.)

I began to Regalar him, and to serue him; presenting him still with one thing or other, inlarging my hand like a Prince.

1622   J. Mabbe tr. M. Alemán Rogue ii. 170  

This is from a translation of Mateo Alemán’s picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache.

At the time, the Spanish could mean ‘to pamper’ and that is presumably how it is being used here.

It was only in 1642, again in a translation from Spanish, that the verb to regale was used in one of the meanings it still has today, which is, as the OED puts it: ‘To please or delight (a person, the mind, soul, etc.) with some agreeable activity or event; to entertain or amuse, now esp. with a story, speech, song, etc.)

This time the author being translated is St Teresa of Avila as she addresses God:

O how good a friend, dost thou make thy self, to thy friend, O my Lord; and how dost thou goe enduring him, and regaling [Sp. regalando] him?

T. Matthew tr. St. Teresa of Avila Flaming Hart viii. 90  

To regale has had other meanings over time, which the OED labels obsolete. The only other two that survive today in any strength are, first, ‘to furnish lavishly with food and drink’. This is first recorded in an early English monolingual dictionary, Blount’s Glossographia of 1656. Evelyn Waugh used it in this rather elegant phrase – about wine, presumably:

We were regaled with bottles, some of dignified age, some in turbulent youth.

1965   E. Waugh Ess. Articles & Rev. (1986) 634  

The other meaning that survives is the reflexive, ‘to treat oneself to something’. First recorded by Aphra Behn:

In this hot part o’th year, he goes to Regale himself with his She Slaves.

1682   A. BEHN False Count III. i. 28  

a more recent quotation refers to Dickens ‘regaling himself’ with what seems to modern tastes extremely corseted self-indulgence:

Occasionally he regaled himself with a culinary treat, like coffee and bread and butter in a coffee room.

1988   F. Kaplan Dickens ii. 42  

At the top I mentioned parts of speech, so here’s the next Austenian surprise. Out of context, it is hard to appreciate how much of a further character assassination of the loathsome, hypocritical, ridiculous Mrs Norris the following is. Suffice it to say, she is cheated of her histrionics:

The earliest intelligence of the travellers’ safe arrival at Antigua, after a favourable voyage, was received; though not before Mrs. Norris had been indulging in very dreadful fears, and trying to make Edmund participate them whenever she could get him alone; and as she depended on being the first person made acquainted with any fatal catastrophe, she had already arranged the manner of breaking it to all the others, when Sir Thomas’s assurances of their both being alive and well made it necessary to lay by her agitation and affectionate preparatory speeches for a while.

To make Edmund ‘participate them’? Participate as a transitive verb? Yessir. That sense the OED labels obsolete and defines as ‘To take or have a part or share of or in; to share in; to possess or enjoy in common with another or others.’

And it appears in the very same year and work in which the intransitive first appeared, Sir Thomas Elyot’s Renaissance masterpiece The boke of the Governour, in a phrase that encapsulates an essence of contemporary belief:

The one [sc. the soul] we participate with goddes, the other [sc. the body] with bestes.

1531   T. Elyot Gouernour iii. xxiii. sig. gvv  

And the moral of this story is: nothing in language is fixed. As de Saussure wrote:

Le temps change tout; il n’y a aucune raison pour que la langue échappe à cette loi universelle.

Time changes all; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

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