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Old-fashioned look

Q From Colleen Sullivan: Can you tell me any more about the origin and usage of the phrase an old-fashioned look? From what little I can find online, people seem to define it as merely disapproving. But I first encountered it in Terry Pratchett’s work; he seems to mean something more subtle than that, less “I don’t like what you’re doing” but more scepticism of someone else’s naiveté or foolishness. Is Pratchett using the phrase in a weird way?

A I don’t think so. I agree there’s more to this originally British expression than just disapproval. This is one of several examples by Terry Pratchett, in which it is certainly being used in the way you describe:

He looked Carrot up and down. “Joining the watch, are you?”
“I hope to prove worthy, yes,” said Carrot.
The guard gave him what could loosely be called an old-fashioned look. It was practically neolithic. “What was it you done?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” said Carrot.
“You must of done something,” said the guard.
“My father wrote a letter,” said Carrot proudly. “I’ve been volunteered.”
“Bloody hellfire,” said the guard.

Guards! Guards!, by Terry Pratchett, 1989.

The problem with subtle idioms is that their meaning is often hard to tease out. I can remember being puzzled by it long ago, since so few appearances are in contexts that make the sense obvious. My sympathies are with a character in Celia Brayfield’s recent novel Mister Fabulous and Friends who complained, “I wasn’t giving you an old-fashioned look. I wouldn’t know how to give an old-fashioned look.”

The idiom appears early in the twentieth century. This is the first I’ve so far found:

“Would you have me give pain to our good Queen Osburga by breaking the King’s commands?”
“No,” said Alfred, with a quick, old-fashioned look. “We cannot do that, boys.”

The King’s Sons, by George Manville Fenn, 1901.

Old-fashioned, as a way to describe a style from an earlier era, hence antiquated, begins to appear in the written record in the late sixteenth century. Almost immediately, it also begins to refer to values, attitudes or tastes that belong to an earlier time.

Somehow, our current idiom grew out of this. It may derive from the stereotypical attitudes of older people disapproving of modern ways: “They didn’t do that in my day.” Early users, in a time of changing attitudes at the end of the Victorian period, may have been looking back at the supposedly prissy and moralistic views of the previous century, so an old-fashioned look may have communicated similarly old-fashioned views.

The giver of the look may indeed be gently exasperated about foolishness or naiveté, as in this exchange about prison:

“It’s not unusual, you know, stabbings and that. Happens all the time. There’s some pretty bad people in there.”
“Dealing drugs?”
She gave him an old-fashioned look. “No, dancing round their handbags.”

Disturbia, by Christopher Fowler, 1997.

But other emotions may lie behind it. In her story The Tiger’s Bride, Angela Carter wrote, “He offered me what my old nurse would have called an ‘old-fashioned look’, ironic, sly, a smidgen of disdain in it.” In Where Did It All Go Right? of 2002, Al Alvarez comments: “She gave me what she used to call an ‘old-fashioned look’ — amused, sceptical, out of the corners of her eyes.”

My impression is that old-fashioned look is itself becoming rather old fashioned. Many recent examples are prefixed by “as my granny used to say” or similar comments that put its popularity back a generation or two.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Oct. 2013

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 12 October 2013.