The Grammarphobia Blog

Measuring life in coffee spoons

Q: In Origin of the Specious, you quote Henry Fielding’s comment about “learned pedants whose lives have been entirely consumed in colleges and among books.” The idea of a life consumed is new to me. I have always thought of a life as being spent or, sadly, wasted, like when Prufrock measured his life out in coffee spoons. Well, I won’t consume yours by nattering on.

A: Thanks for the playful nattering.

As for Fielding, he was using a well-established meaning of “consume” in that quotation from Tom Jones, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Since early in its history (the 14th and 15th centuries), the verb “consume” has been used in three primary senses: (1) to destroy, (2) to use up, and (3) to fully engage.

In the first sense, to “consume” a thing or a resource is to destroy it by causing it to disappear, disperse, burn up, wear away, corrode, waste away, decompose, and so on.

In the second sense, “consume” is to use up by ingesting, exhausting, purchasing, spending, wasting, squandering, etc.

In the third sense, to “consume” is to entirely engage a person’s attention or energy, to overwhelm (as when someone is “consumed” by guilt or passion), or to absorb voraciously (as when we avidly “consume” a book).

Fielding was using the word in the second sense.

Perhaps T. S. Eliot imagined Prufrock consuming as well as measuring his life in coffee spoons.

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