Thursday, 15 July 2010


I'm not sure, dear reader (I never am), but the following may be the most beautiful paragraph to which the English language has ever given birth, or ever will.

Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory Track and narrow Path of Goodness: Pursue Virtue virtuously: Leven not good Actions nor render Virtues disputable. Stain not fair Acts with foul Intentions: Maim not Uprightness by halting Concomitances, nor circumstantially deprave substantial Goodness.
   - Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

And when I formed that opinion I didn't even know what funambulatory meant. I didn't care either. Sense can often mar the wonder of a word and meaning murders beauty. It turns out that funambulatory means "like a tightrope walker". So you, ambitious reader, can use it yourself in phrases such as "That finance meeting was a bitch: trying to play off the CEO and the CFO and that guy from HR... I tell you, my morning's been bloody funambulatory. Fancy a pint?"

But you will never write a sentence as sweet as Browne's.

I still haven't worked out what concomitances are.

Mrs Malaprop commuting to work


  1. I'm not sure what concomitances are either - I thought it would be as easy as looking it up in the OED online, but of course it isn't so simple, otherwise you would have worked it out.

    The OED defines it as co-existence, or the fact of being concomitant, or an accompaniment, which doesn't shed much light on it. There is also a theological sense in which it refers to the co-existence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

    My first interpretation was that he meant "keep going to Communion", but I don't think this is right.

    I think the meaning hinges on whether "halting" is a verb or an adjective. I am going to venture that it is an adjective meaning "maimed, imperfect, faulty" or "wavering" (both senses are listed by the OED) - and that he is therefore reiterating the instruction not to taint virtuous actions with behaviour or intentions which are not virtuous.

  2. I think you're exactly right. But the trick with Browne is not to understand it, merely to luxuriate in its ineffable beauty.

  3. When I read "I didn't even know what "funambulatory meant", I thought I'd take a guess...and I decided to think it meant "up in the air." I was close. And I think that if I had never learned what the definition is, I would have still enjoyed the paragraph in the same way. So,you are right...meaning can murder beauty, and in my case, my meaning was just right anyway for that paragraph.

  4. Anon, I whimsically imagined a FUNeral procession, so you are much cleverer than I.]

    I now want to start a novelty undertaking business, just so I can have the slogan "Putting the FUN back in FUNereral".