What may incommode the venture: a brief linguistic history of the bothersome

As I was nearing the end of Barbara Tuchman’s marvelous book A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century, my eye paused on the word “incommode.” For a flickering second, I imagined it to be a calque (loan translation) from French or Spanish. I quickly remembered that this was, indeed, a legitimate word in English, although I could not remember seeing it in any modern text. I looked it up in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and there it was, together with its variation discommode. As I have never translated the Spanish verb “incomodar” as “incommode” or “discommode,” I decided to do a little research. Was my instinctive reluctance to use the perfectly legitimate “incommode” instead of “bother,” inconvenience,” or “trouble” a personal hang-up, or was Tuchman’s use of it in the 1970s a whimsical backward glance at the language she mastered so well?

When I had a spare moment, I googled the word. Apart from a modern treatise on Islam, all the examples churned up in a keyword search dated back to the nineteenth century. As the documents I found through Internet search were limited to compendiums of periodicals published in the 1800s now available online by virtue of their exemption from copyright law, my amateur linguistic conclusions cannot bear up under scientific scrutiny. However, it appears that Barbara Tuchman had dusted off a word seldom used in the 1970s as she drew her history of fourteenth-century Europe to a close.

My Google search turned up various examples of the usage of “incommode” during the 1830s and 40s, beginning with an article that appeared in volume 92 of the Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1822. The word was tucked away inside a voluminous sentence contained in “On the Moral Speculations of Johnson and Helvetius” that I have reduced to spare the reader’s patience:

Assuredly the Philosopher who labored in his speculations connected with ethics to inculcate that all our perceptions and sentiments originate in the sordid and sensual influences of matter,—that the views of men of whatever description so as they did not incommode society or in any way disarrange the course or the order of his own happiness, were perfectly matters of indifference that motives of justice, of honor, of piety of religion, had a place in the human breast no further than as they were so many perceptions of private interest and private good will . . .

It also appeared in an article titled “Fielding, or Society” featured in Waldie’s Select Circulating Library vol. 11, dated January 16, 1838:

“I never thought any body could be so eloquent,” said I, “upon a stage-coach and wonder less than ever at the sign I so frequently see, of the coach and horses; still less now, at your taste for a house so near the road. Yet I should think dust and noise might incommode you enough to make you sometimes wish for the retirement you so dislike in a park.”

The word appears to have been popular during this period, as the writer of another text located in the Google search, this time an article published in the New York Mirror on Saturday, July 20, 1839, also employed the word: “Do not incommode yourself! If you will allow me, I will assist you, as I have nothing whatever to do.

Nevertheless, it was an online version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that illustrated precisely how the word was used in the 1800s. Scanning the entire novel using a search and find tool, I established that the author had used verb “incommode” twice in the novel. Her characters were constantly incommoded by a wide range of inconveniences; my search and find tool located at least twenty incidences of the word “inconvenience” used as a noun in the book. Austen never used “inconvenience” as a verb in Sense and Sensibility. It appears that the verb form of inconvenience was either unpopular in the 1830s and 40s or the word inconvenience had not yet been exploited as a verb.

Austen writes in chapter 4: “She gave her an answer which marked her contempt, and instantly left the room, resolving that, whatever might be the inconvenience or expense of so sudden a removal, her beloved Elinor should not be exposed another week to such insinuations.” Again, in chapter twenty-five, one character frankly informs another:  “Don’t fancy that you will be any inconvenience to me, for I shan’t put myself at all out of my way for you.”   “Incommode” makes its first appearance in chapter five: “No sooner was her answer dispatched, than Mrs. Dashwood indulged herself in the pleasure of announcing to her son-in-law and his wife that she was provided with a house, and should incommode them no longer than till every thing were ready for her inhabiting it.”

I leave it to a true linguist to weigh in as to the exact date that English speakers began to replace the verb “to incommode” with the verb “to inconvenience.” My initial curiosity as to whether I was being lax in unconsciously ruling out the use of “incommode” to translate “incomodar” has been satisfied. It was interesting to see how some nineteenth-century authors divided words fused today such as “anybody” and “stagecoach” and to have the opportunity to compare nineteenth-century writing styles, grammar, and punctuation with today’s usage. In any case, there are many ways to translate the Spanish word “incomodar.” Apart from inconveniencing someone, the word can also mean making another person feel uncomfortable or awkward, putting them out, putting them to trouble, molesting them, or bothering them. If something is “incómodo,” it can be inconvenient, embarrassing, awkward, uncomfortable, or just a plain old nuisance.

Although the English word “commode” functions as an adjective form meaning “able” or “convenient,” its status as an adjective is now greatly overshadowed by its use as a noun. Most people think of commode as the name given to a low chest of drawers, a portable washstand, or a piece of furniture that holds a chamber pot. In the seventeenth and eighteen century, it was the name given to an ornate women’s cap. With so much antiquated baggage in its wake, it appears that this word may need to lie fallow for a few more generations before it adopts a new and more modern meaning.

As for Barbara Tuchman’s use of the verb “incommode,” an editor would need to think hard before suggesting any alternative to “The Papal schism did not incommode the venture.” I suppose that one could restructure the sentence so as to state that none of the interested parties found the Papal schism to be inconvenient, or that it did not in any way impede the venture (which was a proposed crusade). However, despite the quaintness of her choice, one can understand Tuchman’s instinct to draw deep from the wealth of English vocabulary to flesh out a picture of fourteenth-century events.

Although younger readers might consider Tuchman’s writing style a bit overwrought, it’s clear that her books still bring past events to life for readers of all ages. Young customers give her books consistently high ratings on Amazon.com and other book websites. I have had an eye out for a secondhand copy of the Spanish edition of Tuchman’s The Guns of August for some time at the request of a client in his thirties who has been searching for years for a copy of this out-of-print classic.

The “incomodidades” (inconveniences, nuisances, discomforts) that we suffer throughout our lives are relative. Looking back in time, they are no more than personal points of inflection. The last chapter of Sense and Sensibility contains a frank conversation in which one character says to another, “But does it follow that had he married you, he would have been happy?—The inconveniences would have been different.” Viewed from this angle, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century have something in common: both explore the  age-old struggle between humanity’s natural proclivity for following its passions and a disciplined submission to reason.