How you do go on!

Quoting myself: “And old folks do go on”. I knew this was a kind of a distant quote; the original-for-me is “(O(h)) la, sir, how you do go on!”, which I got from my friend The Beeb mumble-mumble years ago in Princeton. It was clearly a quote for her; if she has any idea where she got it from, I assume she’ll comment here or send me e-mail I can pass on. (La Beeb is my daughter’s godmother, which I suppose makes her my godsister, though I guess a woman could also get to be my godsister by sharing a godparent with me.)

The crucial parts of the Beeb Version are the interjection la, the vocative sir, and the core formula how you do go on. Plus the suggestion that the speaker is female (perhaps a servant, a naïve ingenue, or a coquettish woman, but certainly the recipient of male attention) and that the addressee is a man flirting with her. The first three ingredients are in principle independent of one another.

The vocative sir as a linguistic item isn’t especially interesting on its own, though it does seem to be formulaic, or at least pragmatically playful, in this linguistic context, since it’s used in situations where the speaker would not normally use it (as when La Beeb used the formula to me after I had complimented her).

According to OED2, the interjection la has been around at least since Shakespeare: Merry Wives (1598), “la you”. Then Congreve (“O la now”), Fielding (“La, ma’am”), Dickens (“La, Miss La Cheevy”), Willis 1844 (free-standing “la!”), Besant & Rice 1881 (finally: “la, sir”).

A lot of people seem to think the formula (the whole thing, or just the core part) comes from Scarlett O’Hara (in the 1939 movie rather than the book, I suppose, since that’s how most people these days come to Scarlett, Rhett, etc.); from Kent E. Lundgren, Tracks in the Sand — A Tale of the Border Patrol (2008; Signcutter Press, Yakima WA):

“Kate, I haven’t had a meal like that in, oh, I can’t remember when. Who’d guess the Irish could fix better spaghetti than the Italians.

“La, sir, how you do go on,” she replied in a faked Scarlett O’Hara accent, head slightly turned away and eyelids batting shamelessly at him.”

In other places, you can find references to “My, how you do go on”, said by someone ” in her best Scarlett O’Hara accent”. And to “How you do go on, Rhett” in fan-fic. One blogger recalls “Oh, Rhett, how you do go on” as a signature phrase of the movie.

Despite all that, none of the memorable-quote cites for GWTW seem to list the formula. Maybe it’s just “the sort of thing Scarlett would have said”. In any case, I leave this part of the investigation to textual search enthusiasts.

I have gotten “La, sir, how you do go on!” back as far as 1844, though I doubt that this is its first use (I pass that question on to the ever-alert Antedating Squad of ADS-L). It’s in volume I (p. 204) of The Jilt: A Novel (London: Richard Bentley), by Harriet Maria Gordon Smythies (Google Books displays a photocopy of the volume from the Bodleian Library).

The novel begins with one of those weather-framing passages sometimes warned against by people who give advice to fiction writers:

A heavy rain had been pattering all day against the dark windows, and upon the broad flagstones of London; and everything looked comfortless and dripping, from Kensington to Whitechapel.

Not quite Bulwer-Lytton material, but definitely wet. Eventually the characters make it through the gloom and damp, to this:

“… I declare you’re a fine woman; by Jove, you are!”

“La, Sir, how you do go on!”

I must confess that, overcome by giggling, I didn’t read on to see where this exchange led.

2 Responses to “How you do go on!”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    La Beeb writes:

    The expression “Oh, la, sir, how you do go on” – I acquired from a dear friend, a classmate in the class of 1959 at Bryn Mawr, during our senior year. A Latin and archeology major, she was taking a break from writing her honors paper – by reading a few Georgette Heyer novels A young lady in one of them turned aside the advances of an overly flowery and persistent swain by telling him, “Oh, la, sir…” We found it a hilarious remark and imagined all sorts of contexts in which to use it. Two years later when Arnold paid me a completely unexpected and delicious compliment (he said I had a pleasant singing voice – how astonishing!) – “Oh la, sir,…” sprang forth.

  2. Bear music « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « How you do go on! […]

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