Sound and vision blog

03 April 2018

An Elegant Sufficiency, or the Curious Case of a Victorian Meme

PhD placement student Rowan Campbell writes:

It sometimes strikes me just how much chance and canny timing have to do with the way we experience the world. While cataloguing audio files, I came across the following speaker (born 1944, London) who tells us that her great-grandmother used to say “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency”, which then became a family saying for when you have had enough to eat.

C1442 uncatalogued ELEGANT SUFFICIENCY

It is fairly common for kitchen table lingo to be submitted to the Evolving English WordBank, and having never heard it before, I assumed it to be one of these idiosyncratic family phrases and thought no more of it.

But the universe must have decided that this wasn’t good enough, and presented me with the phrase the very next day. To my offer of a second helping, a dinner guest replied, “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency, any more would be superfluity.” This was a phrase used by their grandmother at least two generations later than attested by the woman above, and I was now intrigued enough to dig further into where it might have come from.

It seems that I’m not the only one who is curious about it – a Google search reveals more questions about it than answers, with many believing it to be a phrase or joke unique to their family. It is attested in places as far-flung as the UK, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway and a Swiss finishing school; variations of it crop up in novels by Margaret Atwood and Fred Chappell, and even more recently in radio and television shows The Archers and Last Tango in Halifax. So much for having died out in the sixties – although it does seem to exhibit age-grading tendencies, with each generation associating it with their grandparents.

Something about its verbose formality may have always seemed old-fashioned, and Frederic G. Cassidy’s investigation suggests that it rose out of the need to have politely appropriate stock phrases to hand, since “the spur of the moment can urge a speaker to disastrous infelicities.” The association with etiquette is taken further by one Guardian commenter who describes a class-based trickle-down effect whereby irony in the aristocracy is mistaken for gentility by the middle classes, then adopted by the “upper lower class” in a “valiant attempt” to better themselves. This is also implicit in the clip above, where the phrase immediately follows an ‘elocution lesson’ and exhortation to ‘speak properly’ from the speaker’s grandmother.

“An elegant sufficiency” first appears in James Thomson’s 1728 poem Spring, albeit in a context devoid of food. In the years between then and 1840, where Cassidy traces it back to, it seems to have become something of a pre-digital-age meme. Cassidy explains that it became “fashionable” to “invent new, amusing elaborations” on the two-part formula outlined above – much like the humorous and self-replicating concepts known as memes since the commercialisation of the internet in 1995.

In the North American context, this appears to have given rise to variations of “My sufficiency is fully surancified; any more would be obnoxious to my fastidious taste.” The word at the core of this has a variety of spellings and pronunciations, presumably due to not existing in any dictionary, but seems to have fossilised into phrases like sufficiently suffonsified and elephants and fishes eggs.

Unfortunately, however, I am not sufficiently suffonsified by my investigation. How did this concept proliferate and propagate without the internet, or at least written records? Will my millennial generation finally finish it off with our disregard for etiquette? Or will this blog help to enshrine it and give it a new lease of life for future generations?