May 13, 2011, 2:30 PM
Post #15 of 17
OK, here's another shot at this. I have gone through the contexts of the use of this term which are referenced in the OED from Shakespeare on. (There is a gap in its use from ancient times to Shakespeare.) There are two noteworthy points to be made. 1) ALL of them have something to do with being the swell, the playboy, the dandy. 2) NONE of them makes any direct or indirect reference to the distinction between professional and amateur.
Re: [terrulian] Corinthian
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The most instructive of these is from William Makepeace Thackeray in 1854, only 17 years before the founding of the Seawanhaka Yacht Club. It reads, in part: "The Corinthians were in the habit of drinking a great deal too much in Tom Cribb's parlor: they used to go and see "life" in the gin-shops...they perpetrated a vast deal of boxing...they attended cock-fights, and were enlightened patrons of dogs and destroyers of rats. Besides these sports, the delassemens of gentlemen mixing with the people, our patricians, of course, occasionally enjoyed the society of their own class." [delassemens is anglicized French and means "recreations."] In other words, Corinthians were a segment of the upper classes that went slumming with the common folk, not always with perfect civility. They were like the swells in New York City in the 'twenties who went uptown to the Cotton Club to see Duke Ellington.
Another telling passage is the one from Shakespeare. In Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act 2, Scene 4, Prince Henry tells us that “They take it already upon their salvation that though I be but Prince of Wales, yet I am the king of courtesy, and tell me flatly am no proud jack, like Falstaff, but a Corinthian, a lad of mettle, a good boy—by the Lord, so they call me…I can drink with any tinker in his language.” In this passage, Henry asserts that although he is royal, he is no braggart or snob, but can drink and converse with the common man. The educated gentleman of the time that the Corinthian tradition began in yachting would have known his Shakespeare, and this was a very popular play.
I now think that this sense of being able to mingle with commoners was the original meaning of the word when it was adopted by the first Corinthian sailors. The owners would not keep aloof from the men on the boats, but would be among them as equals. They would be joined by their friends, Corinthians all. The sense we now have of the amateur sailor developed when the earliest Corinthian clubs started setting up rules for non-professional racing, and this is now the primary meaning of the word.
It may be objected that the websites of the clubs that use Corinthian in their name trace the word back to the ancient city. But inquiries on this point have not been answered by the clubs in question. What I find amiss with this is that in 1871, the word was understood and commonly used in the sense Thackeray describes. To, at that time, have picked "Corinthian" because of some undocumented idea that Corinth's games were less professional than those in Olympia, while ignoring its popular contemporary meaning, seems unlikely. Though it may be cheeky to say so, if clubs now trace the term back to Corinth, it is because the folks writing the club histories were not around in 1871, but are writing at a time when the 16th-19th century usage has fallen by the wayside. It seemed reasonable to these modern writers to attribute it to the ancient city, though in fact it had a less noble reputation in antiquity than one might have hoped, and little evidence of amateurism. Today, no one uses the word in the sense that Thackeray or Shakespeare did, and it is limited to the world of amateur sport.
I’d be delighted if any of these clubs possessed an actual account by one of the founders on this point, and would be most happy to stand corrected. But if true, this version of the story is no less admirable than the one commonly accepted, as the patricians come down off the mountain to mix it up with the common Joes.