My friend Tom Wayne, co-owner of Prospero’s Books in Kansas City, recently mentioned that he had come across the phrase “old school” in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, written and published serially from 1852-1853.
Curious, I looked it up. Dickens actually uses the phrase four times throughout the book and is kind enough to offer a definition of the term as it was used in his time. The first mention comes in Chapter Two, as Dickens describes a silent and secretive solicitor named Mr. Tulkinghorn.
The old gentleman is rusty to look at, but is reputed to have made good thrift out of aristocratic marriage settlements and aristocratic wills, and to be very rich. He is surrounded by a mysterious halo of family confidences; of which he is known to be the silent depository. There are noble Mausoleums rooted for centuries in retired glades of parks, among the growing timber and the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is of what is called the old school—a phrase generally meaning any school that seems never to have been young—and wears knee breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings.
Dickens later uses the phrase “An Oyster of the old school, who no one can open” to refer to the taciturn attorney.
So how far back does it go? How old school is old school?
My dictionaries aren’t much help for dates though The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it is “used, usually approvingly, to refer to someone or something that is old-fashioned or traditional.” That’s a pretty fair description. My 1969 Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate gives us “adherents to the policies and practices of the past” which really doesn’t cover the cool factor. People don’t talk about old school hip-hop because it sucked. They call it old school because it was awesome.
A trip to Google Books provides some clues as to age. The phrase was apparently in common usage a decade before Dickens employed it and one wag even published a book in London in 1840, Sketches of Country Life and Country Matters, and signed himself “One of the Old School.”
Washington Irving used the phrase freely – it shows up 13 times in The Complete Works of Washington Irving, published in 1834, and one of the stories in which it appears was first published in 1821. Irving uses it much in the same way we do now and refers to a retired general as a “blade of the old school.”
Going back even further we have Federalist author Joseph Dennie. Dennie attacked Jeffersonian democratic ideals so fiercely in an article published in 1803 he was actually tried for sedition. Jefferson was president at the time and Dennie’s use of a nom de plume did not help him escape trial though he was eventually acquitted. His pseudonym?
Beyond 1800 the trail gets colder. The phrase pops up here and there but generally in reference to an adherent of a previously popular style of art or medicine. But I think it’s safe to say that use of the phrase “old school” is indeed, itself, old school.
Photo by Dullhunk via Flickr/Creative Commons