Daily Archives: July 5, 2017

Pecksniffery

Pecksniffery is a word for doings of a Pecksniffian character, which is to say characteristic of a Pecksniff. It is, in short, the output of Pecksniffianism.

If this sounds like an eponym from a Charles Dickens novel, you have it exactly. Seth Pecksniff is an architect – or, well, he runs an architecture school, lives off the students’ tuition, and passes off their work as his own. His assistant and former student is Tom Pinch. But it is another student, and his travails and detour to the United States, who is the title character of the book: Martin Chuzzlewit.

I could really go into the characteristics of Dickensian names, but I’m not going to. Here, take this Wikipedia cataloguing of them and play a drinking game: read them aloud in turn and every time someone laughs they have to do a shot. You’ll all be under the table.

But if you were all Pecksniffs, you would not be, or would not admit to being. A Pecksniff, as we use the term now, is a person who presents a high moral character and proclaims moral virtues but in practice has pretty much none of them. As Dickens wrote, “Some people likened him to a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there.”

A useful detail of a Pecksniff, unlike some other kinds of hypocrite, is that a Pecksniff may well truly believe himself (or herself) to be a person of virtue. A Pecksniff also tends to be a busybody. You likely know some such people (though you may keep them at arm’s length – or farther). A person who, for instance, is an ardent outspoken advocate for the rights of others (perhaps some group of which he or she is not a member), never failing to shame and control anyone who might be accused of some minor transgression or sin of omission against those others, but somehow never doing anything actively helpful for those whose concerns he or she uses as cudgels. Or a business owner who adamantly refuses to allow the business to support or condone certain things on moral grounds but somehow manages to justify questionable activities that sluice money to violent criminals.

The world is full of Pecksniffery. In truth, nearly all of us probably have at least some small amount of Pecksniffianism in us, talking a great show, wanting to be seen as good people, denouncing others for failings, but, when it comes down to it, being a bit too busy or financially pinched or or or… Our high moral pronouncements need to be taken with a grain of salt. Or several kilograms of it.

Or a pinch of snuff, I suppose. A pinch? No, a pinch is a moderate amount. More like a peck (which, since we don’t use such measures anymore, I will tell you is two dry gallons, which is a quarter of a bushel – and, yes, that means a literal ten-gallon hat would be a bushel and a peck). I’m not going to say that Dickens had immoderate amounts of snuff in mind when he named Pecksniff, but I do note that his assistant – a fellow of moderation and genuine good character – is named Pinch.

I suppose you could say that’s a test of a person’s character: whether they come through in a pinch… or come through as a Pecksniff.