Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son (September 27, 1748)
DEAR BOY: I have received your Latin “Lecture upon War,” which though it is not exactly the same Latin that Caesar, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid spoke, is, however, as good Latin as the erudite Germans speak or write. I have always observed that the most learned people, that is, those who have read the most Latin, write the worst; and that distinguishes the Latin of gentleman scholar from that of a pedant. A gentleman has, probably, read no other Latin than that of the Augustan age; and therefore can write no other, whereas the pedant has read much more bad Latin than good, and consequently writes so too. He looks upon the best classical books, as books for school-boys, and consequently below him; but pores over fragments of obscure authors, treasures up the obsolete words which he meets with there, and uses them upon all occasions to show his reading at the expense of his judgment. Plautus is his favorite author, not for the sake of the wit and the vis comica of his comedies, but upon account of the many obsolete words, and the cant of low characters, which are to be met with nowhere else. He will rather use ‘olli’ than ‘illi’, ‘optume’ than ‘optima’, and any bad word rather than any good one, provided he can but prove, that strictly speaking, it is Latin; that is, that it was written by a Roman. By this rule, I might now write to you in the language of Chaucer or Spenser, and assert that I wrote English, because it was English in their days; but I should be a most affected puppy if I did so, and you would not understand three words of my letter. All these, and such like affected peculiarities, are the characteristics of learned coxcombs and pedants, and are carefully avoided by all men of sense.