24 September 2012

“She couldn’t climb down, Jim”

L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz contains this dialogue between Dorothy Gale and the old horse Jim about Dorothy’s pet kitten:
“Why, where’s Eureka?” cried Dorothy, suddenly.

They all looked around, but the kitten was no place to be seen.

“She’s gone out for a walk,” said Jim, gruffly.

“Where? On the roof?” asked the girl.

“No; she just dug her claws into the wood and climbed down the sides of this house to the ground.”

“She couldn’t climb down, Jim,” said Dorothy. “To climb means to go up.”

“Who said so?” demanded the horse.

“My school-teacher said so; and she knows a lot, Jim.”

“To ‘climb down’ is sometimes used as a figure of speech,” remarked the Wizard.

“Well, this was a figure of a cat,” said Jim, “and she went down, anyhow, whether she climbed or crept.”
I used the Google Ngram Viewer to test how often people writing in English used “climb/climbed/climbing down” over time.

The results show uses of “climb down” in various forms were relatively rare when Baum went to school. There was a marked ascent in the 1880s and ’90s, followed by a temporary turndown halfway through the next decade—precisely when Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz was published.

As a control, use of the verb “climb” in the same three forms rose steadily over most of the same period, with a much less pronounced dip (mostly for the “climbed” form) in the first decade of the 1900s.

That pattern seems consistent with “climb down” becoming popular in Baum’s adulthood, and thus coming to people’s attention as a “modern” usage even though there had been examples for decades earlier.

TOMORROW: And then there was a pushback.

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