How Language Is a Process of Natural Selection

Posted on: 22/12/2009

John Dennis was a London playwright who no doubt dreamt of achieving immortality. He pulled it off, but not in the way he imagined. In 1709, for a performance of Appius and Virginia, his tragedy about ancient Rome, he devised a new way to imitate the sound of thunder. That show failed, but the theatre management later used Dennis’s technique in a performance of Macbeth, to Dennis’s intense annoyance. He rose from his seat and shouted: “That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play.”

It was the first time in history that a writer suggested he held moral copyright on a sound effect. More important, it was the first accusation of thunder-stealing ever hurled at anyone, except perhaps a Greek god.

Dennis, it turned out, had by a fluke carved out his small place in history. He not only generated a fresh metaphor, he did it on an occasion that can be dated. So we know that this year his creation reached its 300th birthday. As it has for all that time, it remains a lively element in the language.

A Financial Post writer reported in November that Research In Motion investors thought their company “needed to steal thunder” from Apple and in early December another Post writer suggested that Canadian skiers won’t “let upstart snowboarders steal their thunder.” Discussing the Golden Globe nominees on Dec. 14, Emily Blunt (one nomination) joked that Matt Damon (two nominations) was “apparently trying to steal my thunder.”

Susie Dent, a lexicographer and the language expert on a British TV show called Countdown, mentions Dennis’s contribution to everyday speech in What Made the Crocodile Cry? 101 Questions about the English Language (Oxford University Press). That title suggests the up-to-date corporate style of Oxford: The once stern adjudicator of English now shows a touching desire to be a popular, lovable version of an academic publisher. And who can blame it? Everybody’s in show business now, from golfers to politicians.

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