The American Language/Chapter 22

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The American Language by H. L. Mencken
Expletives and Forbidden Words

When we come to words that, either intrinsically or by usage, are improper, a great many curious differences between English and American reveal themselves. The Englishman, on the whole, is more plain-spoken than the American, and such terms as bitch, mare and on foal do not commonly daunt him, largely, perhaps, because of his greater familiarity with country life; but he has a formidable index of his own, and it includes such essentially harmless words as sick, stomach, bum and bug. The English use of ill for sick I have already noticed, and the reasons for the English avoidance of bum. Sick, over there, means nauseated, and when an Englishman says that he was sick he means that he vomited, or, as an American would say, was sick at the stomach. The older (and still American) usage, however, survives in various compounds. Sick-list, for example, is official in the navy, [1] and sick-leave is known in the army, though it is more common to say of a soldier that he is invalided home. Sick-room and sick-bed are also in common use, and sick-flag is used in place of the American quarantine-flag. But an Englishman hesitates to mention his stomach in the presence of ladies, though he discourses freely about his liver. To avoid the necessity he employs such euphemisms as Little Mary. As for bug, he restricts its use very rigidly to the Cimex lectularius, or common bed-bug, and hence the word has highly impolite connotations. All other crawling things he calls insects. An American of my acquaintance once greatly offended an English friend by using bug for insect. The two were playing billiards one summer evening in the Englishman’s house, and various flying things came through the window and alighted on the cloth. The American, essaying a shot, remarked that he had killed a bug with his cue. To the Englishman this seemed a slanderous reflection upon the cleanliness of his house. [2]

The Victorian era saw a great growth of absurd euphemisms in England, including second wing for the leg of a fowl, but it was in America that the thing was carried farthest. Bartlett hints that rooster came into use in place of cock as a matter of delicacy, the latter word having acquired an indecent significance, and tells us that, at one time, even bull was banned as too vulgar for refined ears. In place of it the early purists used cow-creature, male-cow and even gentleman-cow. [3] Bitch, ram, boar, stallion, buck and sow went the same way, and there was a day when even mare was prohibited. Bache tells us that pismire was also banned, antmire being substituted for it. To castrate became to alter. In 1847 the word chair was actually barred out and seat was adopted in its place. [4] These were the palmy days of euphemism. The delicate female was guarded from all knowledge, and even from all suspicion, of evil. “To utter aloud in her presence the word shirt,” says one historian, “was an open insult.” [5] Mrs. Trollope, writing in 1832, tells of “a young German gentleman of perfectly good manners” who “offended one of the principal families … by having pronounced the word corset before the ladies of it.” [6] The word woman, in those sensitive days, became a term of reproach, comparable to the German mensch: the uncouth female took its place. [7] In the same way the legs of the fair became limbs and their breasts bosoms, and lady was substituted for wife. Stomach, under the ban in England, was transformed, by some unfathomable magic, into a euphemism denoting the whole region from the nipples to the pelvic arch. It was during this time that the newspapers invented such locutions as interesting (or delicate) condition, criminal operation, house of ill (or questionable) repute, disorderly-house, sporting-house, statutory offense, fallen woman and criminal assault. Servant girls ceased to be seduced, and began to be betrayed. Syphilis became transformed into blood-poison, specific blood-poison and secret disease, and it and gonorrhea into social diseases. Various French terms, enceinte and accouchement among them, were imported to conceal the fact that careless wives occasionally became pregnant and had lyings-in.

White, between 1867 and 1870, launched several attacks upon these ludicrous gossamers of speech, and particularly upon enceinte, limb and female, but only female succumbed. The passage of the Comstock Postal Act, in 1873, greatly stimulated the search for euphemisms. Once that amazing law was upon the statute-book and Comstock himself was given the inquisitorial powers of a post-office inspector, it became positively dangerous to print certain ancient and essentially decent English words. To this day the effects of that old reign of terror are still visible. We yet use toilet, retiring-room and public comfort station in place of better terms, [8] and such idiotic forms as red-light district, disorderly-house, social disease and white slave ostensibly conceal what every flapper is talking about. The word cadet, having a foreign smack and an innocent native meaning, is preferred to the more accurate procurer; even prostitutes shrink from the forthright pimp, and employ a characteristic American abbreviation, P. I.—a curious brother to S. O. B. and 2 o’clock. Nevertheless, a movement toward honesty is getting on its legs. The vice crusaders, if they have accomplished nothing else, have at least forced many of the newspapers to use the honest terms, syphilis, prostitute and venereal disease, albeit somewhat gingerly. It is, perhaps, significant of the change going on that the New York Evening Post recently authorized its reporters to use street-walker. [9] But in certain quarters the change is viewed with alarm, and curious traces of the old prudery still survive. The Department of Health of New York City, in April, 1914, announced that its efforts to diminish venereal disease were much handicapped because “in most newspaper offices the words syphilis and gonorrhea are still tabooed, and without the use of these terms it is almost impossible to correctly state the problem.” The Army Medical Corps, in the early part of 1918, encountered the same difficulty: most newspapers refused to print its bulletins regarding venereal disease in the army. One of the newspaper trade journals venereal sought the opinions of editors upon the subject, and all of them save one declared against the use of the two words. One editor put the blame upon the Post-office, which still cherishes the Comstock tradition. Another reported that “at a recent conference of the Scripps Northwest League editors” it was decided that “the use of such terms as gonorrhea, syphilis, and even venereal diseases would not add to the tone of the papers, and that the term vice diseases can be readily substituted.” [10] The Scripps papers are otherwise anything but distinguished for their “tone,” but in this department they yield to the Puritan habit. They are not alone; even some of the New York papers remain squeamish. On April 29, 1919, for example, the New York Tribune printed an article quoting with approbation a declaration by Major W. A. Wilson, of the Division of Venereal Control in the Merchant Marine, that “the only way to carry on the campaign (i.e., against venereal disease) is to look the evil squarely in the face and fight it openly,” and yet the word venereal was carefully avoided throughout the article, save in the place where Major Wilson’s office was mentioned. Whereupon a medical journal made the following comment:

The words “the only way to carry on the campaign is to look the evil squarely in the face and fight it openly” are true, but how has the Tribune met the situation? Its subhead speaks of preventable disease; in the first paragraph social diseases are mentioned; elsewhere it alludes to certain dangerous diseases, communicable diseases and diseases, but nowhere in the entire article does it come out with the plain and precise designation of syphilis and gonorrhea as venereal diseases. The height of absurdity is reached in the Tribune’s last paragraph. Presumably it wants to say that venereals are being kept in France until cured; but being too polite to say what it means, it makes a very sweeping statement indeed. Flat feet are a preventable disease, but the Tribune can hardly suppose that no soldier with flat feet is allowed to return home until he has been cured. [11]

Alas, even medical men yet show some of the old prudery. I am informed by Dr. Morris Fishbein, of the Journal of the American Medical Association, that not a few of them, in communications to their colleagues, still state the fact that a patient has syphilis by saying that he has a specific stomach or a specific ulcer, and that the Journal lately received a paper discussing the question, “Can a positive woman have a negative baby?”—i.e., can a woman with a positive Wassermann, indicating syphilis, have a baby free from the disease? But a far more remarkable example of American prudery—this time among laymen—came to my notice in Philadelphia some years ago. A one-act play of mine, “The Artist,” was presented at the Little Theatre there, and during its run, on February 26, 1916, the Public Ledger reprinted some of the dialogue. One of the characters in the piece is A Virgin. At every occurrence a change was made to A Young Girl. Apparently, even virgin is still regarded as too frank in Philadelphia. [12] Fifty years ago the word decent was indecent in the South: no respectable woman was supposed to have any notion of the difference between decent and indecent. To this day many essentially harmless words and phrases are avoided in conversation because they have acquired obscene significances. The adjective knocked up, so common in England, means pregnant in America, and is thus not used politely. American women use unwell in a certain indelicate significance, and hence avoid its use generally. In Kansas, I am informed, even bag is under the ban; when they hear it out there they always think of scrotum. [13]

In their vocabularies of opprobrium and profanity English and Americans diverge sharply. The English mucker, rotter and blighter are practically unknown in America, and there are various American equivalents that are never heart in England. A guy, in the American vulgate, simply signifies a man; there is not necessarily any disparaging significance. But in English, high or low, it means one who is making a spectacle of himself. When G. K. Chesterton toured the United States, in 1920-21, “some reporter in the West referred to him as a regular guy. At first Mr. Chesterton was for going after the fellow with a stick. Certainly a topsy-turvy land, the United States, where you can’t tell opprobrium from flattering compliment.” [14] The American derivative verb, to guy, is unknown in English; its nearest equivalent is to spoof, which is used in the United States only as a conscious Briticism. The average American, I believe, has a larger profane vocabulary than the average Englishman, and swears rather more, but he attempts an amelioration of many of his oaths by softening them to forms with no apparent meaning. Darn (= dern = durn) for damn is apparently of English origin, but it is heard ten thousand times in America to once in England. So is dog-gone. Such euphemistic written forms as damphool, helluva and damfino are also far more common in this country. [15] All-fired for hell-fired, gee-whiz for Jesus, tarnal for eternal, tarnation for damnation, cuss for curse, holy gee for holy Jesus, cussword for curse-word, goldarned for God-damned, by gosh for by God, great Scott for great God, and what’ell for what the hell are all Americanisms; Thornton has traced all-fired to 1835, tarnation to 1801 and tarnal to 1790; Tucker says that blankety is also American. By golly has been found in England so early as 1843, but it probably originated in America; down to the Civil War it was the characteristic oath of the negro slaves. Such terms as bonehead, pinhead and boob have been invented, perhaps, to take the place of the English ass, which has a flavor of impropriety in America on account of its identity in sound with the American pronunciation of arse. [16] At an earlier day ass was always differentiated by making it jackass. Another word that is improper in America but not in England is tart, a clipped form of sweetheart. To a Londoner the word connotes sweetness, and so, if he be of the lower orders, he may apply it to his best girl. But to the American it signifies a prostitute, or, at all events, a woman of too ready an amiability. However, it is also of a disparaging significance in several of the English provincial dialects.

An English correspondent, resident in the United States for half a dozen years, tells me that many American expletives seem to him to be of Irish origin. Son-of-a-bitch, and its euphemistic American daughter, son-of-a-gun, are very seldom heard in England. “True oaths,” says this correspondent, “are rather rare among the English. There are a number of ugly words, probably descendants of true religious oaths, and a few that are merely dirty, and beyond that practically nothing. Sound rather than significance, it appears, gives a word evil qualities. Men have been put in jail for using meaningless words. There is, however, the same tendency to euphemism as in America. Just as God damn becomes gol darn here, Christ becomes crikey there. God damn is rare in England, and Englishmen say ‘I don’t care a damn’ much more often than ‘I don’t give a damn.’ Jesus is never used as an oath, and I never met any of the charming ones beginning with ‘Holy, jumping, bandy-legged, sacrificing …’ until I came to America. A Trinity College man here tells me the Irish don’t say Jesus; but he is the son of a schoolmaster. Without Jesus there could be no bejabers. In England, as I say, damn usually stands alone. God damn seemed as quiant as egad or odsblood when I heard it first. I had climbed into a hayloft without a ladder, and my dear father remarked that one of these days I would break my God damned neck. I think my father, too, realized the quaintness of the oath; usually he, like any Englishman, would have said bloody. The word Christer has two meanings in England. It is used by printers to designate an exclamation point, and by other people in a sense which I can best explain by illustration. A Harvard professor, an Englishman, was discussing a certain English journalist then in this country, and he said to me: ‘Oh, he’s a simply fearful Christer; preaches in chapel every Sunday, and all that.”’ Dirt, to designate earth, and closet, in the sense of a cupboard are seldom used by an Englishman. The former always suggests filth to him, and the latter has obtained the limited sense of water-closet.

But the most curious disparity between the profane vocabulary of the two tongues is presented by bloody. This word is entirely without improper significance in America, but in England it is regarded as the vilest of indecencies. The sensation produced in London when George Bernard Shaw put it into the mouth of a woman character in his play, “Pygmalion,” will be remembered. “The interest in the first English performance,” said the New York Times, [17] “centered in the heroine’s utterance of this banned word. It was waited for with trembling, heard shudderingly, and presumably, when the shock subsided, interest dwindled.” But in New York, of course, it failed to cause any stir. Just why it is regarded as profane and indecent by the English is one of the mysteries of the language. It came in during the latter half of the seventeenth century, and remained innocuous for 200 years. Then it suddenly acquired its present abhorrent significance. Two etymologies have been proposed for it. By the one it is held to be synonymous with “in the manner of a blood,” i. e., of a rich young roisterer; this would make bloody drunk equivalent to as drunk as a lord. The other derives it from by our Lady. [18] But both theories obviously fail to account for its present disrepute. As drunk as a lord would certainly not offend English susceptibilites, and neither would by our Lady. An Englishwoman once told me that it grated upon her ears because it somehow suggested catamenia; perhaps this affords a clue to the current aversion to it among the polite. It is used incessantly by the English lower classes; they have even invented an intensive, bleeding. So familiar has it become, in fact, that it is a mere counter-word, without intelligible significance. A familiar story illustrates this. Two Yorkshire miners are talking. “What do they mean,” asks one, “by one man, one bloody vote.”

So far no work devoted wholly to the improper terms of English and American has been published, but this lack will soon be remedied by a compilation made by a Chicago journalist. It is entitled “The Slang of Venery and Its Analogues,” and runs to two large volumes. A small edition, mimeographed for private circulation, was issued in 1916. I have examined this work and found it of great value.


Notes[edit]

  1. Cf. Dardanelles Commission Report; London, 1916, p. 56, § 47.
  2. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” is called “The Golden Beetle” in England. Twenty-five years ago an Englishman named Buggey, laboring under the odium attached to the name, had it changed to Norfolk-Howard, a compound made up of the title and family name of the Duke of Norfolk. The wits of London at once doubled his misery by adopting Norfolk-Howard as a euphemism for bed-bug.
  3. A recent example of the use of male-cow was quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 17, 1917, advertising page 24.
  4. The New York Organ (a “family journal devoted to temperance, morality, education and general literature”), May 29, 1847. One of the editors of this delicate journal was T. S. Arthur, author of Ten Nights in a Bar-room.
  5. John Graham Brooks: As Others See Us; New York, 1908, p. 11.
  6. Domestic Manners of the Americans, 2 vols.; London, 1832; vol. i, p. 132.
  7. Female, of course, was epidemic in England too, but White says that it was “not a Briticism,” and so early as 1839 the Legislature of Maryland expunged it from the title of a bill “to protect the reputation of unmarried females,” substituting women, on the ground that female “was an Americanism in that application.”
  8. The French pissoir, for instance, is still regarded as indecent in America, and is seldom used in England, but it has gone into most of the Continental language, though the French themselves avoid it in print, and use the inane Vespasien in place of it. But all the Continental languages have their euphemisms. Most of them, for example, use W. C., an abbreviation of the English water-closet, as a euphemism. The whole subject of national pruderies, in both act and speech, remains to be investigated.
  9. Even the Springfield Republican, the last stronghold of Puritan Kultur, printed the word on Oct. 11, 1917, in a review of New Adventures, by Michael Mohahan.
  10. Pep, July, 1918, p. 8.
  11. Social Hygiene Bulletin, May, 1919, p. 7.
  12. Perhaps the Quaker influence is to blame. At all events, Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities, and thus probably leads the world. Early in 1918, when a patriotic moving-picture entitled “To Hell with the Kaiser” was sent on tour under government patronage, the word hell was carefully toned down, on the Philadelphia billboards, to h—.
  13. I do not go into nursery euphemisms. They are very numerous, and deserve investigation. It is my observation that they differ considerably in different parts of the country.
  14. Murray Hill Bids Mr. Chesterton Goodby, Bookman, June 21, 1921, p. 309.
  15. Both of the great American telegraph companies have rules strictly forbidding the acceptance of telegrams containing profane words. Some time ago a telegram if mine containing the harmless adjective damndest was refused by both. I appealed to the higher authorities of the Western Union. After I had solemnly filed a brief in defense of the term, Mr. T. W. Carroll, general manager of the Eastern Division, as solemnly decided that the company “must take the position that, if there is any question or doubt on the subject, the safest plan is to request the sender to so modify his language as to make his message acceptable.” In other words, any locution which happens to scratch the prudery of a telegraph clerk (however imbecile) must be omitted.
  16. Cf. R. M. Bache: Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech; Phila., 1869, p. 34 ff.
  17. April 14, 1914. In 1920 the English Licenser of Stage Plays ordered bloody expunged from a play dealing with labor. Cf. English, Oct., 1920, p. 403.
  18. Swift, in his Journal to Stella, says: “It grows by ’r Lady cold, and I have no waistcoat on.”