275 Years Ago: The Man Who Murdered the English Language

Forget the death of the novel: 275 years ago, a man was tried and (more or less) convicted of murdering the whole of the English language. His name, largely lost to history, was Colley Cibber. And he was, to the chagrin of many, the poet laureate of England.

Cibber’s reputation, his esteem, was more the result of his business acumen in the theater than any literary prowess. A famous comedic actor who also wrote and produced, Cibber was known for his bowdlerized versions of Shakespeare. The Bard’s King John, for example, became Cibber’s The Life and Death of King John. To make matters worse, Cibber’s stripped and spoiled versions outcompeted actual productions of Shakespeare for audience attention.

For this and other crimes, Cibber became a human punching bag for an age of brilliant satirists — including Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope — who hated his guts. To be sure, if anyone remembers Cibber at all, it is most likely as “The King of Dunces” in Pope’s The Dunciad. In any case, the pummeling of Cibber was relentless, and it included idiotic, false versions of books written in his name. The hapless, hopeless, and witless Cibber, not knowing what to do about the proliferation of titles he’d “published,” simply kept quiet.

But it was the publication of Cibber’s blustery autobiography, the appropriately titled Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, that provoked Fielding — self-disguised as Captain Hercules Vinegar — to try the laureate for the murder of the English language in a 1740 issue of The Champion.

When the trial began, it was revealed that Cibber, asked to swear an oath of truth, did not know one hand from the other. Nevertheless, the proceedings were proceeding; a clerk read the indictment:

You stand indicted here… for that you, not having the Fear of Grammar before your Eyes… in and upon the English Language an Assault did make, and then and there, with a certain Weapon called a Goose-quill, value on Farthing, which you in your left Hand then held, several very broad Wounds but of no Depth at all, on the said English Language did make, and so you..the said English Language did murder.

The prisoner pled not guilty. But, unfortunately for Cibber, a witness, an illiterate maid named Anne Applepie, was called to testify against him. She confessed to seeing Cibber with “a Goose-quill in his hand, and a Bottle full of Liquor before him,” into which he “dipped the Weapon, and then made several scratches on white Paper.” Then, she confessed: “he would often ask me how I spelt several Words.”

After a brief cross-examination, wherein Cibber argued that he had “transconvey’d the fiery Rays of a lucid Understanding from one Town to another,” an additional witness was called, one who proved, circumstantially, that Cibber stole his idiotic Cibberisms from advertisements in shop windows. Nearly defeated, Cibber mustered a pathetic defense:

Sir, I am as innocent as the Child which hath not yet enter’d into Human Nature of the Fact laid to my charge. This Accusation is the forward Spring of Envy of my Lawrel. It is impossible I should have Enmity to the English Language, with which I am so little acquainted; if therefore I have struck any Wounds into it, they have rolled from Accident only.

He was clearly guilty, and the court was all but ready to convict the laureate, when it realized that two advertisements for his Apology were due to run in the forthcoming issue of The Champion. It then downgraded the crime to Chance-Medley, which is British law gibberish for “homicide by misadventure.”

All of which points to one thing: if you think the novel is dead, do an autopsy; if you think someone murdered it, have the nerve to put him on trial.