Colvin steps in with vim
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.
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.