Last week President Obama poked fun at Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, for describing the budget put together by Republican whiz-kid congressman Paul Ryan as “marvelous.” “It is a word you don’t often hear about budgets,” Obama said, and then paused to grin as his audience of newspaper publishers and editors chuckled. “That’s a word you don’t often hear generally,” he added, before launching into a detailed rebuttal of the House budget itself, “so here’s what this marvelous budget does.”
Numerous news sites—USA Today, Reuters, Topix.com, Hotair.com, Fiscal Times—naturally jumped on board and managed to all run the same quote from a political scientist at Hunter College, who explained what seemed to need little explanation. “It’s a word you kind of associate with the upper class, and I think that the intention was to tweak Romney for being wealthy and, you know, sort of brought up in the kinds of circles where they would say ‘marvelous.'”
Marvellous, according to the OED, means “to excite or astonish,” and comes from the Middle English mervel, which itself is from the Anglo-French merveille (a wonder or marvel), from late Latin mirabilia (“marvels”), from Latin, the neuter plural of mirabilis (“wonderful”), from mirari—”to wonder.”
Romney and Obama could find the word marvelous throughout the Bible, as in, for instance, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). Who knows where or when Obama last heard anyone use “marvelous”; it probably wasn’t in Washington, maybe not even in America. Does he read poetry? Could he know Wordsworth’s lyric poem “Resolution and Independence,” in which the poet describes Thomas Chatterton as “the marvellous Boy”? Might the Obamas perhaps listen to popular songs from the 1930s, conjuring the plummy “maah-vellous” from Noel Coward’s “I went to a marvellous party,” in which Coward—by his own admission “determined to travel through life first class”—describes giddy hijinks on the French Riviera? Or perhaps Obama heard the word dropped—with two l’s, of course, as “marvellous”—on PBS or in England. But in England “marvellous” has been around since the 14th century, and there it isn’t necessarily posh at all.
Sir John Standing, the acclaimed British actor who has performed a program of Noël Coward songs on both sides of the Atlantic and who as a 10-year-old boy actually met Coward himself, seemed a good person to consult. “’Marvellous’ isn’t an extraordinary word in England,” he says firmly. “It isn’t grand at all.” At which point Standing, the polite toff, shifts gears and class to illustrate his own marvellous range: “Bloody marvellous!” which could be anyone from a bookie at the races surveying the day’s takings or a London cabby complaining about the traffic.
It is unlikely, however, that Romney was aiming for such irony.