A few weeks ago, a superb (and, these days, superbly useful) word cropped up on the HH Twitter feed:
If you’ve been keeping up with our new weekly newsletter, you’ll know that a few weeks ago we promised to explain the brilliant story behind the very first ultracrepidarian. So, without further ado, here it is.
As some of you pointed out on Twitter, this etymological story begins with a chance meeting between a shoemaker and a renowned artist, Apelles of Kos, back in fourth century BC Greece.
According to legend, the shoemaker in passing happened to point out an error that Apelles had made in drawing a shoe in one of his artworks. Bowing to the shoemaker’s better knowledge, Apelles gratefully accepted the criticism, but the shoemaker wasn’t done yet. Encouraged by Apelles’ gratitude, he went on to point out what he considered to be another error in his work—only this time, Apelles wasn’t quite so open to criticism.
According to Pliny the Elder (the Roman scholar whose Natural History is the source of this story), Apelles responded to the shoemaker’s follow-up with the words “ne supra crepidam judicaret”, or “do not judge beyond the shoe”. Essentially, Apelles was none-too-subtly implying that the shoemaker was only qualified to pass judgement on shoe-related subjects, and should not give advice beyond the limits of his own expertise—namely, the crepida, or sole of a shoe or sandal.
Published in the first century AD, Pliny’s account of Apelles’ stinging comeback is the origin of the term ultracrepidarian—but it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that the word itself first appeared in English.
In 1819, the writer and literary critic William Hazlitt wrote a scathing 6,000-word letter to fellow critic and poet William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review. He began:
You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of anyone you don’t like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it. You say what you please of others; it is time you were told what you are.
Wow. How many times over the last week or so have you wanted to write a letter like thDONTANSWERTHAT. But after that sit-up-and-take-notice beginning, things only got worse.
Gifford was labelled “a little person”, “a considerable cat’s paw”, a master of “the patois and gibberish of fraud”, and “a dull, envious, pragmatical, low-bred man” whose “wary self-knowledge shrinks from a comparison with any but the most puny pretensions, as the spider retreats from the caterpillar into its web.” His journal was dismissed as “a receptacle for the scum and sediment of all the prejudice, bigotry, ill-will, ignorance and rancour afloat in the kingdom”. Its readers were “hypocrites, as well as knaves and fools.” “To crawl and lick the dust is all they expect of you,” Hazlitt went on, “and all you can do.” Ouch.
Then, roughly halfway through his masterclass of invective, Hazlitt came out with this:
You have been well-called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic. From the difficulty you yourself have in constructing a sentence of common grammar, and your frequent failures, you instinctly presume that no author that comes under the lash of your pen can understand his mother-tongue ... There is an innate meanness and vulgarity in all you do.
Although Hazlitt’s letter provides us with the earliest record of an ultracrepidarian, it’s questionable whether or not he coined the word himself (not least because he seems to allude to Gifford having already being labelled with it in his letter).
Moreover, Apelles’ anecdote was, we can presume, once so well known that derivatives and variations of the word have been used in print for quite some time. Samuel Taylor Coleridge referred to the practice of ultracrepidation, and used the verb ultracrepidate (defined as “to venture beyond one’s scope” in the OED), as early as 1800. And in a letter to the Bishop of London in 1640, the Oxford scholar and Bishop of Peterborough John Henshaw complained of “ultra-crepitasts ... that will teach Saint Paul divinity”.
Clearly, then, the ultracrepidarian word family is nothing new. And nor, for that matter, are the ultracredipdarians themselves.