The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Colvin steps in with vim

with 8 comments

Sidney Colvin, as we know, acted as editor of Stevenson’s works while he was in the South Seas and then after his death. It is a curious human frailty to regard our own point-of-view as having a higher status than that of others, and Colvin was no less human in this respect than any of the rest of us. It is not often, however, that we have an example of his feeling of being right pursued to the extent illustrated below.

Talk and Talkers

In ‘Talk and Talkers’ (1882) Stevenson, in a kaleidoscopic sequence of similes, brilliantly characterizes (and imitates) the conversational style of his cousin Bob:

He doubles like the serpent, changes and flashes like the shaken kaleidoscope, transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so, in the twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a triumphant conjuror. […] I can fancy nothing to compare with the vim of these impersonations

After the essay was reprinted in Memories and Portraits in 1887, Colvin wrote to Stevenson, taking him to task for his Latin:

in another essay you have ‘with or by his vim‘, where equally of course it ought if anything to be vi, not objective but ablative. But the rule is that when you borrow a Latin word in an English sentence that way, you don’t decline it at all, but treat it like an English word, content yourself with the nominative for all cases alike, […] vis. Please have […] vim altered on the plates [i.e. on the stereotyped plates produced to print the volume]

But RLS wasn’t going to have any of this and replied (L6, 86; 24 Dec 1887):

vim is a good Scottish at least – if not (as I am tempted to think) a good English word; never a thought of Latin was in my mind; I used a current and a very general and definite colloquialism. Thank you for your explanations.

Edinburgh Edition

Despite that dismissal (‘Thank you for your explanations…’), Colvin was clearly not happy about ‘vim’ and in preparing the essay for publication in the first volume of the Edinburgh Edition he felt this and a series of other things ought to be changed. He either sent proofs or a series of points to RLS , to which RLS replied in early November 1894, clearly irritated at the liberties Colvin was taking  (L8, 384). Interestingly, two passages of Stevenson’s comments about Colvin’s changes, amounting to over seventy words, have been actually cut out of the letter. (Who could have done this? One suspects of course that it was Colvin himself, erasing Stevenson’s objections from the record.) What remains includes the following:

always make a reference to me before correcting. I should say as to vim that it is a word always used in my family — and I suspect always used in Scotland — and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears. Whether or not I shall be pleased with the substitution of vigour I cannot tell, not having the context before me.

Unfortunately, volume I of the Edinburgh Edition was published later that same month, undoubtedly before this letter could reach Colvin, so we don’t know if he would have made any changes as a result. The word printed in the essay there is ‘vigour’. (However, in the 1924 Tusitala edition it is once more ‘vim’; perhaps Colvin had a part in restoring it.)


Incidentally, the OED (in a fascicule published in 1917) says the word is ‘originally US’ and takes the side of RLS as to its non-Latin origin: ‘Commonly regarded as from Latin vim, accusative singular of vis strength, energy; but the early adverbial use […] suggests a purely imitative or interjectional origin.’

Citations start from the Yale Literary Review 1850 (where it seems to be presented as a Latin word), then two citations from Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor” (1850), and N.Y Herald (1875).

Google Advanced Book Search, however, reveals a use in 1876 in The Life of a Scottish Probationer by James Brown, Minister of St. James’s church, Paisley (the fiddler ‘whacked off’ a series of Irish dance tunes ‘with inconceivable vim and vigour’), the first UK use found so far, which suggests that the word may have been adopted early in Scotland — or even that it had an unrecorded history in Scotland before being taken across the Atlantic. (It is not in the online SND, however.) Indeed RLS’s comment (‘vim […] is a word always used in my family […] and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears’) strongly suggests that he heard it in Edinburgh in the 1850s and 60s.

The one-volume Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (1912, reduced from the earlier 7-volume Slang and its Analogues) defines the word as ‘Spirit, activity, energy’: orig. Univ. slang [Latin]. (1869)’, which suggests that one of the two editors, John S. Farmer or W. E. Henley, or one of their contributors, had heard the word in this (and presumably British) context about that year.


Written by rdury

24/05/2013 at 4:34 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I am not sure this is even remotely relevant, but in the Corpus of Modern Scottish Writing I found the following:

    **On the ancient Tomb of the Naesmiths in The Grayfriars Church yard there is a very remarkable motto.
    “Remarkable” as it so perfectly describes and is most appropriate to the History of almost Every individual
    of the Family Especialy the Branch of the Nasmyths from whence my Father was more
    immediately descended. The motto in question is as under


    which I translate or render thus

    art is to me STRENGTH in contending with Fate or “art gives me my strength whereby I contend
    against Fate” **

    (Autobiographical Account by James Hall Nasmyth, 1850,


    24/05/2013 at 4:45 pm

  2. ‘He got nimbly to his legs again, dealt two kicks this time with a little more vim than usual, and remounted.’ (‘The Metaphysics of Bear Hunting: an Adventure in the San Saba Hills’, The American Whig Review, V. 2 : 2, Aug 1845, p. 178)

    The explosion startled the Colonel’s barb, who, rearing up on his hind legs, executed a semi-somerset forward, which shot his rider from the saddle, and deposited him atop of the prostrate Aukley, who was still floundering in the puddle, coming down on him with considerable vim[emph.], to judge by the squelching grunt which it elicited therefrom, as the Colonel’s “noggin” bolted into Aukley’s breadbasket, after a very unceremonious fashion.’
    (Reverdy Lacy, ‘Reedyrill’, The United States Democratic Review, V. 29 : 160, Oct 1851, p. 338)

    There’s a Shetland word ‘vimmer’, noun and verb: a ‘state of trembling, a flutter’; and ‘to quiver, tremble, flutter’. Perhaps in the movement implied in the meaning there is something which could be seen as similar to the energy, or vigour, of ‘vim’. Don’t know of any use in Scots, though.

    Neil Brown

    24/05/2013 at 9:13 pm

    • Your two early examples seem to confirm the ‘orig. US’ note in the OED (what search procedure did you use, by the way?). RLS’s attestation of use in his home in Edinburgh may of course be a confusion: he may have heard it a lot from Americans and not realised this was where he heard it first—but we do have that interesting Scottish use in 1876.


      25/05/2013 at 6:16 am

      • ‘Cornell Making of America’ for magazine sources; they’re not all quite so humorous! ‘Vim’ was heard often by me in the mouths of some of the older generation – mother, aunt – in Edinburgh in my younger days.

        Neil Brown

        25/05/2013 at 11:04 am

  3. …and a bit of personal trivia: I lived for three years in a Hall in Granby Row, central Manchester, where the “Vimto” soft drink was first produced in 1908 as “Vim Tonic” (so by 1908 then the word must have been fully familiar).


    25/05/2013 at 3:18 pm

    • Disgusting stuff, but not so bad tasting as ‘Vim’ scouring powder made by Lever at Port Sunlight from 1904!

      Neil Brown

      25/05/2013 at 3:45 pm

  4. […] 2549), and also in Colvin’s edition of the letters (Tusitala 35: 17-18). We have seen in a previous post how Colvin actually physically cut out parts of another letter from 1887 referring to differing […]

  5. […] is nothing in the previous post that you mention – ‘Colvin steps in with vim’, 24 May 2013 – about any […]

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