Who’s that (interesting) boy?

We are on a journey to find out why the word ‘interesting’ took on a special meaning for a short time between about 1800 and 1850 — and a meaning never yet defined in any dictionary.

The epithet ‘interesting’  was used a lot during those years. It seems, in context, to describe a characteristic of children of both sexes up to adulthood. Grown-ups may be many things, but they are not classed as ‘interesting’. When the word is used in newspaper reports it is left unexplained, though probably about personality; sometimes other words such as ‘pretty’, ‘intelligent’ and so on are also used. If anything, ‘interesting’ has a positive tone, though often a melancholy one, describing as it did remembrance of a dead child.

Take as an example the death in 1830 of Edward Turner Mercer, “an interesting boy, aged about six”. First he was thought to have been stolen away by ‘vagabonds’ visiting his home town of Leamington Spa England for the recent races. But no, he had fallen into a disused ice house used to dump ashes and he had drowned. Aside from “interesting” the boy “endeared to all who knew him by his docility, intelligence and sweetness of temper”.

That does not rule out one plausible theory that First Night Design put forward as a likely explanation. So the question before us is this; did ‘interesting’ mean ‘touched’ in some way? Did it imply one of a myriad of mental disorders that we now choose to differentiate and name (whether or not they can be cured)? The evidence points to the answer being no.

It is almost impossible to track the future lives of most of  the girls and boys described in their childhood as ‘interesting’ to adulthood. By enlarge even if they were survivors of what ever brought them to public attention, their later lives if they had any are subsumed in history. What we need is someone famous enough to have their adulthood recorded.

The poet Lord Byron wrote to a correspondent named Moore from Genoa in 1823. “I have also seen here Henry Fox, Lord Holland’s son, with the beauty of whose countenance I am much delighted. I saw him last, an interesting boy [my italics] without a neck-cloth and dressed in a little jacket.” Fox confirmed the meeting. Long after his death his diaries were published in which he wrote: “Ld Byron has written a flattering letter about me to Moore. My vanity is tickled. To be approved of by one I so enthusiastically (but not blindly) admire is very pleasant.”

Later records show that Fox was not mentally challenged in any fashion as far as one can make out. Fox inherited the title as the 4th Baron Holland and grew up to become an MP and distinguished diplomat.

So I must conclude that ‘interesting’ did not imply what the Victorians might call a “happy idiot”

The search continues…

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7 Responses to Who’s that (interesting) boy?

  1. Thanks for the mention, Martin.


  2. Reblogged this on First Night Design and commented:
    I’m still enjoying a high old time with my niece so here’s a reblog from Acton Books which happens to mention First Night Design!
    Take care and keep laughing!


  3. I found this article (post) quite INTERESTING!


    • actonbooks says:

      Yes indeed,I take the point… that’s exactly the way that I would use the word. In fact the same way that the 18th and latter half of the 19th centuries used the word, but I stumbled upon this brief window where interesting meant something else. The readers knew what it meant, obviously, but dictionaries did not capture what part of interesting was a five year old.

      Thanks for the comment. If you have any suggestions…?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. actonbooks says:

    I agree, but in context no writer ever utilises the word interesting as a cause of why they are writing. An autistic child (thought they never used the word of course) or one with learning difficulties might wander into harm’s way, but if so the writer;s might make the point.

    I could understand if it meant engaging, or beautiful, or clever, but it does not seem so — in context.

    I will, no really, I will, get to the answer, or at least an answer.



  5. I like the ambiguity of the Chinese saying: “May you have an interesting life.”


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