Wardour Street English

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Wardour Street English, sometimes simply Wardour Street, refers to a pseudo-archaic form of diction affected by some writers, particularly those of historical fiction.[1] The allusion is to Wardour Street's former reputation as a centre for dealers in antique and reproduction furniture and the supposed propensity of their kind for passing off modern imitations as the genuine article.

Often attributed to H.W. Fowler,[2] the phrase was in fact coined by the historian Archibald Ballantyne in an article entitled Wardour Street English, published in Longman's Magazine in 1888,[3] in which, for example, he characterized William Morris's translation of the Odyssey as “not literary English of any date; this is Wardour-Street Early English—a perfectly modern article with a sham appearance of the real antique about it.”[4] The phrase appeared sporadically thereafter in literary criticism, particularly in reference to Morris's work,[5] and there is a brief mention of "antiquarian rubbish, Wardour Street English" in The King's English,[6] by the brothers H.W. and F.G. Fowler, but it was the article Wardour Street in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, written by H.W. Fowler after his brother's death, that gave the expression broad currency.[7] In his typical idiosyncratic style, Fowler wrote:

As Wardour Street itself offers to those who live in modern houses the opportunity of picking up an antique or two that will be conspicuous for good or ill among their surroundings, so this article offers to those who write modern English a selection of oddments calculated to establish (in the eyes of some readers) their claim to be persons of taste & writers of beautiful English.

Words deprecated by Fowler include such examples as anent, aught, ere, erstwhile, haply, maugre, oft, perchance, thither, to wit, varlet, withal and wot. Some words that Fowler found objectionable, such as albeit, for(e)bears and proven have found their way into normal English idiom and have been replaced in more recent editions of Modern English Usage by, amongst others, betimes, peradventure, quoth and whilom.[8] None of these lists is exhaustive.

Wardour Street English includes not only an incongruous choice of vocabulary, but also pseudo-archaic sentence structure. Fowler, in the first edition of Modern English Usage, criticized the use of inverted protasis with had, should and were (as in 'Had he done this, then…', rather than 'If he had done this, then…'), although this objection does not appear in later editions. A more recent edition[9] gives as examples the, at first glance, almost incomprehensible 'Bread and wine needs a man to fight and die' and 'Us enchants he, but eke frightens.'

As Butterfield[10] points out, 21st Century critics are more likely to be exercised by what is in many respects the opposite process, namely the incongruous use of modern vernacular in popular broadcast period dramas. An example of this is the number of web pages devoted to pointing out, and arguing over, anachronistic language in the popular British television programme Downton Abbey.[11] Although much of this is probably accidental,[12] unlike the deliberate Wardour Street English, the producers have agreed that the language has been modernized in order to allow modern audiences to "relate to" the characters.[13]

See also


  1. ^ See entry for Wardour Street in The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, p. 3575
  2. ^ See, for example, Collinson (1927) p. 127; Wordsworth (2011).
  3. ^ Ballantyne (1888)
  4. ^ Ballantyne (1888) p. 589
  5. ^ See, for examples, Anonymous (1890), Sainsbury (1912) p. 435, Ball (1931) p. xxxv
  6. ^ Fowler and Fowler (1906) p. 3
  7. ^ Fowler (1926) p. 700
  8. ^ Burchfield (2004) p. 833
  9. ^ Butterfield (2015) p. 870
  10. ^ Butterfield (2015) p. 870
  11. ^ Examples, among many others, include "Downton Abbey": Tracking the Anachronisms; Prochronisms: Downton Abbey, Season 4; Did You See This? Downton Abbey Anachronisms; Downton Abbey Anachronisms, Season Finale edition; More linguistic anachronism in Downton Abbey
  12. ^ To give a visual, rather than linguistic example, the presence of a plastic water bottle on a mantlepiece in a publicity photograph was certainly inadvertent. See BBC: Downton Abbey: Plastic bottle appears in promotional photo
  13. ^ Daily Telegraph: Downton Abbey producer admits language is dumbed down to make characters sound more 'like us'


  • Anonymous (1890). Mr. William Morris's Story, (Unsigned review). The Spectator, lxv, 8 Feb, pp. 208–209.
  • Ball, A.H.R (1931). Selections from the Prose Works of William Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ballantyne, Archibald (1888). "Wardour Street English". Longman's Magazine, 12 (Oct), pp. 585–594.
  • Burchfield, R.W. (2004). Fowler's Modern English Usage, 3rd Edn. (1996) reissued with title change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Butterfield, Jeremy (2015). Fowler's Modern English Usage, 4th Edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Collinson, W.E. (1927). Contemporary English: A Personal Speech Record. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner Verlag.
  • Fowler, H.W. (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Fowler, H.W. and Fowler, F.G. (1906). The King's English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Sainsbury, George (1912). A History of English Prose Rhythm. London: Macmillan and Company.
  • Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th ed. (2007). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wordsworth, Dot (2011). Little lists for word lovers. The Spectator, 3 Sept.
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