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Smelling of the lamp

Q From Ed Shaw: Anthony Cave Brown writes in his Bodyguard of Lies of a deception plan being considered by the Allies at the beginning of the Second World War: “Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s plan was not only thought to smell of the lamp ...” I wonder if you might tell me what he meant by that strange phrase, and what its origin might be.

A The smell of the lamp is what remains when you have burnt the midnight oil.

You have — say — toiled over a work with immense effort, working late into the night to revise and polish and perfect your creation. The end of all your efforts is likely to be a work with the vitality and freshness of a three-day-dead rat. Your overwrought effort has lost the spontaneity and ease of good writing. James Thurber once described a much-reworked piece in the New Yorker as exhibiting the “strains of rewrite”, another way of expressing the same idea. In the book that you mention, it’s probably suggesting that the plan is over-designed — too complex and theoretical to be useful.

The expression is first recorded in English in 1579, in Sir Thomas North’s translation of a work of two millennia ago by the Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch. Its figurative force remained obvious until gas and electric lighting allowed writers to slave into the night without the aid of oil lamps.

The editor of a short-lived theatrical review in Dublin two centuries ago put it like this in his inaugural issue:

Such a man may produce a good paper, but then it will smell of the lamp. ... The strife and struggle of his style will render his sentiments cramp and pedantic.

The Stage, 9 Apr. 1821. Cramp is in an old sense of being difficult to make out or comprehend; a cramp-word was difficult to say or understand.

The phrase has often had a flavour of academic hackwork. It had a brief flurry of popularity in the early 1800s but has otherwise never been common. This is a rare modern appearance:

Rose [Wilder Lane] wrote adult novels of pioneering life, stealing her mother’s material but substituting the sourness of maturity for the warm-heartedness of Wilder’s children’s fiction. They smell of the lamp.

The Guardian, 29 Dec. 2012.

Page created 3 Aug. 2013

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Last modified: 3 August 2013.