Mind your language

The fascinating history of dullness

As a word for men who love sheds, it has nothing to do with blades that don’t cut

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

At least I’ve got my husband’s Christmas present sorted out: the Dull Men of Great Britain calendar. It is no doubt intended ironically, as travelling the country photographing old pillar-boxes, for example, does not strike me as being in the least bit dull.

I had thought that dull, in reference to people, was a metaphor from dull in the sense of ‘unshiny’. ‘Dieu de batailles!’ as the Constable of France in Henry V exclaims of the English, ‘where have they this mettle?/ Is not their climate foggy, raw and dull?’ But I was quite wrong, as so often. It started off (in the form dol) meaning ‘foolish’. In English almost as old as you could care to have it, the author of The Seafarer declares: Dol bith se the him his dryhten ne ondrædeth; cymeth him se death unthinged. ‘Foolish is he who fears not his Lord; to him unreconciled comes death.’ I like unthinged, as I do, in a different way, Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary’s underdoctored, despite its connotations of understrapping.


The village of Dull in Perthshire (twinned with Boring in Oregon) means ‘meadow’, they tell me, and has no connection with the English word. I suppose the most accomplished anatomy of English dulness is Pope’s Dunciad. It has such vivid phrases: ‘Nonsense precipitate, like running lead,/ That slipp’d through cracks and zig-zags of the head.’ The amplified edition in four books ends with the well-known couplet: ‘Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;/ And universal darkness buries all.’ Perhaps it isn’t all that well known, but in 1987 Nirad C. Chaudhuri thought it would do for a volume of autobiography written in his 90th year, Thy Hand, Great Anarch! I’m not sure it sold all that well. Anyway, the conclusion of the earlier version of the Dunciad ran: ‘To their first Chaos Wit’s vain works shall fall,/ And universal Dulness cover all!’

Today the world’s turned upside down. Those who complain that classical music, poetry and art are dull and boring are themselves the dullards. Those who dare to be dull have the most interesting time.

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  • Arthur Thistlewood

    But the thing about Dullness as developed by Pope in ‘the Dunciad’ is that, in fact, it includes exactly the kind of activity which the article celebrates – mental activity that is all data and no information, all details and no ideas, all evidence and no conclusions, all particulars and no general truths. The ‘Argument’ of Book Four disparages “the study of Butterflies, Shells, Birds-Nests, Moss, etc. …” which the Goddess Dullness recommends to her followers. Thus, in the verse following:
    ” O! would the Sons of Men once think their Eyes
    And Reason given them but to study Flies!”
    Valerie Rumbold’s brilliant,painstaking and comprehensive edition of ‘The Dunciad’ (all four books) tells more.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Guys, stop beating yourselves up or even blaming yourselves for your
    lack of popularity or social acceptance. Consider for a moment that it may not be your fault. “It’s the people you meet in this life that really get you down.” If you are unfortunate enough to reside in UK where Trash Culture has become the mainstream culture, naturally you are surrounded by shallow banal knuckle-dragging Muppets for whom education and learning is seen as elitism, where triviality is the height of wit. You raise an intellectual topic and everyone turns away and back football, soaps, incidents of stupid behaviour and road rage, punctuated by catch phrases from trashy TV shows.
    If on the other hand you are resident abroad in a hardship posting, your choice of fellow Caucasians is by necessity severely restricted. So you find yourself being pleasant to people you wouldn’t normally entertain in the woodshed. Obviously, those with the moral courage to have escaped YUCK have made the short list, but that that doesn’t automatically make them amiable or interesting. Too many Brits bring their pub culture hang ups with them, and it can take several decades to purge the negative influences absorbed as a prisoner of Mother England. Because face it, Britain’s a nation of bullies.
    Rule of Thumb: The further and longer a Brit is removed from UK, the nicer person he is likely to become. Distance offers perspective at the expense of the fine detail.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Herewith contains a sample of a collected essay of the mad, schizophrenic rantings of a Japanese who also obviously has Autism, and who for no apparent reason likes to publicly claim and call himself British instead just because he likes the sound of it, yet at the same time he wants to slag off anyone, anything, everyone and everything (apart from him, who is never a Briton anyway) remotely British, as he has done so all over the Internet since the year 2004.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Eat shit and die, looney.

        • Paddy Kilshamus

          I think you two are in fact one severely conflicted person. A self hating troll. The giveaway is in the deliberate ambiguity of the names. Jackthesmilingblack does not sound like he has the experience of a black man. George Smiley (deceased) is obviously alive. The element of subterfuge is strong in both.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Got enough for your doctorate thesis, Paddy? You’re completely and totally wrong of course, but don’t let a detail like that stand in your way.

          • Paddy Kilshamus

            Actually I haven’t seen George recently.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Try the Psychiatric Ward of Rochdale Hospital.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Why so cross, Jock? Has your wheel chair run a bearing?

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