Imposition and Explode
Bill Long 2/20/06
Rediscovering Two Nineteenth Century Usages
I am just a normal guy who likes to read and write. And, when I come across a word that I don't fully understand, I usually stop, ponder and look it up. In this way I don't "get through" as much material as a lot of other people, but I think I have more fun. In the last few days I ran into these two terms in late 18th/early 19th century legal works used in ways I didn't understand, and I had to turn aside, like Moses, and see this great sight.
Every five year-old knows that "to explode" means "to cause (a gas, gunpowder, also a magazine, mine, etc.) to 'go off' with a loud noise; to 'blow up.'" "The gun-cotton was exploded under the pressure of a confined space." So clear is the meaning of explode that one normally would not have any reason to examine the dictionary definition. Until, that is, I ran into the following quotation from Richard Wooddeson, the third occupant of the Vinerian Chair (on the common law) at Oxford (late 18th century). When discussing how outmoded the common law doctrine of warranty was in his time, he said:
"(This doctrine) is now exploded, and a more reasonable principle has succeeded, that a fair price implies a warranty, and that a man is not supposed, in the contract of sale, to part with his money without expecting an adequate compensation."
For a brief minute after reading this sentence, I sat back and imagined what an exploded legal doctrine might look like. I saw, in my mind's eye, little pieces of fraud or mutual mistake sticking to the hallowed lecture hall's walls.
But then I returned to the dictionary and discovered what I should have realized from the beginning, that explode comes from the two Latin words "ex" and "plaudire," and that the latter means "to applaud" (we have the word "plaudit" in English). Thus, the original meaning was to "applaud" a person "off" the stage, not as a signal that you approved the performance but that you were, as it were, "hissing" him.*
[*I wonder if there is an essay here somewhere on the history of applause.]
The other OED meanings should not be lost: "To clap and hoot off the stage;" "to cry down; to banish ignominiously." This is the older and original meaning of the term. An example from Tom Jones (1749) will illustrate it: "In the playhouse..when he doth wrong, no critic is so apt to hiss and explode him."
Thus, the earliest linguistic field for explode includes only the notion of rejecting or banishing something from the stage. At the same time, however, the word was expanded to refer to any kind of rejection or discredit brought upon something or someone. And, as early as the 18th century the term could be expressly used in relation to religious or scientific "doctrine" which prevailed at the time. From 1764: "I was farther hired to explode their doctrine of predestination." Or, from 1808: "Cullen..labored to explode the humoral pathology." Thus, when Wooddeson says at the end of the 18th century that the doctrine of warranty is exploded, he means only to reject it, to hoot it off the stage as it were, and not to have little pieces of it stick to walls from the force of an explosion.
Emboldened by my success with explode, I decided to see if I could do the same with imposition. I became familiar with the word at a very young age, because my mother used it frequently in addressing me. When my mother said in (mock?) disgust: "Bill, you are such an imposition," she was, unbeknownst to her, referring to definition 4 in the OED: "The action of imposing or laying as a burden, duty, charge or task." The word is derived from the Latin, and means to "lay or place upon." Thus I learned early that it refers to a kind of burden or inconvenience I was placing upon people. I lived many years believing this was the most significant meaning of the term, even though I later learned that the "imposition" of hands had a theological meaning to it: "the laying on of hands in blessing, ordination, confirmation, etc."
But then I ran into the word in an early 19th century treatise on equity by John Fonblanque. While speaking of warranty law, he says:
"To excite that diligence which is necessary to guard against imposition, and to secure that good faith which is necessary to justify a certain degree of confidence, is essential to the intercourse of society."
It is not really a full sentence, but it is close enough for our purposes. What does it mean when it says that it is "necessary to guard against imposition"? We are not looking here at some kind of taxation or burden or ordination or other kind of "laying on," at least as it first appeared to me. So, I searched further in the defintions, and discovered definition 6: "the action of imposing upon or deceiving by palming off what is false or unreal; an example of this, an imposture."
Now things are beginning to make sense. Fonblanque was arguing here about the need to charge the buyer of goods with responsibility to check them out before purchase. That is, he was reaffirming the common law doctrine of caveat emptor. So, the meaning of the sentence is that the diligence necessary to guard against deception ought to be expected of purchasers. If we purchase, we ought to be fortified by our vigilance not to be deceived. If sellers and buyers are thus watching out for their own interests, maximum good for both results. Or, at least, that is the hope. But, this grew to be a vain hope in the late 19th and 20th centuries, as law struggled to "catch up" with consumer experience by developing doctrines of mutual mistake, unconscionability, and products liability in tort. But those are other stories for other occasions. For today, let's just be thankful that we have discovered two new words.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long