Now here is a turn of phrase I’ve never seen before: “merely often.”
I came across it in a Sanford Schwartz review of two shows of l’Art Brut – “In Their Own Worlds” (NYRB - June 7 issue). Schwartz was pointing out that the scroll form, which is seldom used by most artists, is a particular favorite of inspired crazies. It’s a fresh idea – at least it was to me – so I’ll give you the entire paragraph (my italics):
Wölfli and Darger are very different creators, but both worked with scroll-shaped formats. Darger did so regularly, with his horizontal spreads frequently eight feet wide. Wölfli used the shape merely often, and he could make his similarly long, narrow pictures go vertically or horizontally. This is how Ramírez, who also made long, narrow pictures at times, did it, too. The point may be a small one. Yet few other twentieth-century artists, whether professional or self-taught, employed this format with the same power and consistency.
The idea that “often” is mere, compared with “regularly,” is peculiar. I suppose it might be true, technically. An action performed “regularly” may be performed more frequently than the same action performed “often.” On the other hand, an action performed annually on a regular basis might be performed less frequently than the same action performed often.
For the sake of argument let’s accept that as a rule an action performed “regularly” is performed more frequently than one performed “often.” Still – “merely often?”
Webster’s on-line defines “merely” as “only; nothing more than.” “Merely” or “only” is an adverb which limits what it modifies – in our case, “working with scroll-shaped formats.” In Schwartz’ mind, “often working with scroll-shaped format” is limited, compared with “regularly working with scroll-shaped formats.”
“Often” is quantitative modifier (an adverb, in our example) of high degree. (“Seldom” is its corresponding quantitative modifier of low degree.) In his NYRB article, Schwartz’ “regularly” is a quantitative adverb of a higher degree than “often,” so “merely often” – that is, “nothing more than often” – is logical. But is it idiomatic? That is, is “merely often” a phrase you might hear spoken, or might come across in your reading?
The answer is yes. Occasionally one encounters “only” or “merely” or “nothing more than” in a comparison of things which are both rated extreme – above average – quantitatively or qualitatively.
“An elephant weighs five tons; a rhinoceros weighs merely two tons.”
“Mosquitos carry malaria; ticks carry nothing more than Lyme disease.”
“Sidney drinks incessantly; Leslie drinks only often.”
But in all those comparisons, which are perfectly idiomatic, “only” is used ironically. You think Leslie drinks a lot? Not compared to Sidney!
Can you wring the irony out of “only” in the above examples? I can’t. “Only” meant literally, without irony, in a comparison between things similarly extreme (heavy, harmful, frequent) is unidiomatic
There is no irony in Schwartz’ “merely” in “Darger did so regularly... Wölfli [did so] merely often.” Where did that unidiomatic “only” come from?
I have a theory, as follows:
Schwartz originally wrote something like: “Wölfli and Darger are very different creators, but both worked with scroll-shaped formats. Darger did so often, with his horizontal spreads frequently eight feet wide. Wölfli used the shape merely on occasion.” Then Schwartz did some checking, took another look at Wölfli’s work, and amended his opinion. He found that Wölfli used the scroll shape often – not as often as did Darger, for whom scrolls were his regular format, but still well above the norm. He thus changed Wölfli’s “on occasion” or “occasionally” to “often.” That required replacing Darger’s “often” with an adverb denoting a higher level of frequency. Schwartz chose “regularly.” He retained “only” only because he was not, at the moment of writing, thinking as clearly as he was when he wrote the bulk of his essay; note his failure, also, to catch the problem with the definition of “regularly,” which can refer to a pattern of behavior, and not its frequency.
(The above is only, merely, nothing more than, a theory.)
“Merely often” is a quirky little glitch that in no way detracts from Schwartz’ essay. If any “blame” for it is to be assigned, it is on the head of the NYRB copyeditor who went over the piece for publication and didn’t catch it.
I’m glad they didn’t, though. It gave me something to think about.