Friday, November 02, 2007
As I believe I’ve mentioned, so soon as I finished Dracula, I started in on Our Mutual Friend. It turns out there’s an odd linguistic connection between the two, which underscores my point that Dickens really does have the knack for sentimental uncanniness.
During the past two or three days several cases have occurred of young children straying from home or neglecting to return from their playing on the Heath. In all these cases the children were too young to give any properly intelligible account of themselves, but the consensus of their excuses is that they had been with a “bloofer lady.” It has always been late in the evening when they have been missed, and on two occasions the children have not been found until early in the following morning. It is generally supposed in the neighborhood that, as the first child missed gave as his reason for being away that a “bloofer lady” had asked him to come for a walk, the others had picked up the phrase and used it as occasion served. This is the more natural as the favourite game of the little ones at present is luring each other away by wiles. A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be the “bloofer lady” is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture. It is only in accordance with general principles of human nature that the “bloofer lady” should be the popular role at these al fresco performances. Our correspondent naively says that even Ellen Terry could not be so winningly attractive as some of these grubby-faced little children pretend, and even imagine themselves, to be.
And when one of the victims wakes, in hospital:
“Even this poor little mite, when he woke up today, asked the nurse if he might go away. When she asked him why he wanted to go, he said he wanted to play with the ‘bloofer lady’."
You recall, I trust, that Lucy Westenra turns out to be the vampiric ‘bloofer lady’, taking the children. ‘Bloofer lady’ is a curious compound, from the mouths of babes. Where does it come from? From a dying child in Dickens!
But, Johnny murmuring something with his eyes closed, and Mrs. Boffin not knowing what, old Betty bent her ear to listen and took pains to understand. Being asked by her to repeat what he had said, he did so two or three times, and then it came out that he must have seen more than they supposed when he looked up to
see the horse, for the murmur was, ‘Who is the boofer lady?’ Now, the boofer, or beautiful, lady was Bella; and whereas this notice from the poor baby would have touched her of itself; it was rendered more pathetic by the late melting of her heart to her poor little father, and their joke about the lovely woman. So, Bella’s behaviour was very tender and very natural when she kneeled on the brick floor to clasp the child, and when the child, with a child’s admiration of what is young and pretty, fondled the boofer lady.
And, dying in his hospital bed:
With a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking Rokesmith’s face with his lips, said:
‘A kiss for the boofer lady.’
Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairs in this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it.
His ‘boofer lady’, Bella, is not a vampire - merely, as she says, thoroughly ‘mercenary’. It’s interesting that Dickens little touches are so readily convertible into classic horror effects. Googling around, others have already figured out that Stoker’s ‘bloofer lady’ probably derives from Our Mutual Friend, so I’m not making any discovery here, merely a rediscovery.
[Note: the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols below may not make it through the pipeline. I’ve tried to make clear in the surrounding prose what they are meant to represent.]
I think that Dickens takes it for granted that readers will understand “boofer” as a child version of “beautiful.” This works esp. well in modern standard British English (and in southern British generally, including London ‘Cockney’ vernacular, which is probably Johnny’s dialect). These accents have diphthongized the tense high back vowel [u:] ("oo" as in “boot") to [ɪʊ] ("ew", as in the common interjection of disgust “eewww!"). Together with the loss of postvocalic “r” in these accents, this means that the spelling “boofer” would be used to represent a child pronunciation of the type [bɪʊfə]—and this is indeed a very likely child form for the word “beautiful.” (In Cockney, the “t” of this word would be realized as a glottal stop, and the final “l” would be heavily vocalized or even lost, making [bÉªÊfÉ] even more plausible as a child pronunciation for the word.)
Stoker’s transposition of the “l” into an initial bl- cluster is intriguing. This is not too improbable, either; “l” often undergoes metathesis (switching of position) in child language. But it does suggest that Stoker is intending to represent the speech of children of a higher social class. These children are presumably HEARING the “l” at the end of “beautiful”, but METATHESIZING (transposing) it in their speech to initial position. In the usual Cockney-type pronunciation that Johnny would likely have been exposed to, there is basically no final “l” left to transpose.
Again, part of the problem for us Americans is dialectal: in standard American, “b(l)oofer” seems a rather unlikely child deformation of “beautiful,” but assuming southern British accent and spelling conventions, it works quite well. Southern British speakers (Cockney or standard) would hardly require an explanation here, though we may be left wondering…