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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IV. American and English Today

4. Euphemisms

BUT such euphemisms as lady-clerk are, after all, much rarer in English than in American usage. The Englishman seldom tries to gloss menial occupations with sonorous names; on the contrary, he seems to delight in keeping their menial character plain. He says servants, not help. Even his railways and banks have servants; the chief trades-union of the English railroad men is the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He uses employé in place of clerk, workman or laborer much less often than we do. True enough he often calls a boarder a paying-guest, but that is probably because even a lady may occasionally take one in. Just as he avoids calling a fast train the limited, the flier or the cannon-ball, so he never calls an undertaker a funeral director or mortician, or a dentist a dental surgeon or odontologist, or a real estate agent a realtor, or a press-agent a publicist, or a barber shop (he always makes it barber’s shop) a tonsorial parlor, or a common public-house a café, a restaurant, an exchange, a buffet or a hotel, or a tradesman a storekeeper or merchant, or a fresh-water college a university. A university, in England, always means a collection of colleges. He avoids displacing terms of a disparaging or disagreeable significance with others less brutal, or thought to be less brutal, e.g., ready-to-wear, ready-tailored, or ready-to-put-on for ready-made, used or slightly-used for second-hand, popular priced for cheap, mahoganized for imitation mahogany, aisle manager for floor-walker (he makes it shop-walker), loan-office for pawn-shop. Also he is careful not to use such words as rector, deacon and baccalaureate in merely rhetorical senses. Nor does he call mutton lamb, or milk cream. Nor does he use cuspidor for spittoon, or B. V. D.’s as a euphemism for underwear, or butterine for oleomargarine.

“Business titles,” says W. L. George, “are given in America more readily than in England. Men are distinguished by being called president of a corporation. I know one president whose staff consists of two typists. Many firms have four vice-presidents. Or there is a press-representative, or a purchasing-agent. In the magazines you seldom find merely an editor; the others need their share of honor, so they are associate (not assistant) editors. A dentist is called a doctor. The hotel valet is a tailor. Magistrates of police-courts are judges instead of merely Mr. I wandered into a university, knowing nobody, and casually asked for the dean. I was asked, ‘Which dean?’ In that building there were enough deans to stock all the English cathedrals. The master of a secret society is royal supreme knight commander. Perhaps I reached the extreme at a theatre in Boston, when I wanted something, I forget what, and was told that I must apply to the chief of the ushers. He was a mild little man, who had something to do with people getting into their seats, rather a come-down from the pomp and circumstance of his title. Growing interested, I examined my program, with the following result: It is not a large theatre, but it has a press-representative, a treasurer (box-office clerk), an assistant treasurer (box-office junior clerk), an advertising-agent, our old friend the chief of the ushers, a stage-manager, a head-electrician, a master of properties (in England called props), a leader of the orchestra (pity this—why not president?), and a matron (occupation unknown).” George might have unearthed some even stranger magnificoes in other play-houses. I once knew an ancient bill-sticker, attached permanently to a Baltimore theatre, who boasted the sonorous title of chief lithographer.

I have already spoken of the freer use of Jew in England. In American newspapers it seems likely to be displaced by Hebrew, largely through the influence of Jewish advertisers who, for some strange reason or other, look upon Bebrew as more flattering. The Jews in England—that is, those of enough public importance to make themselves heard—are in the main of considerable education, and so they are above any silly shrinking from the name of Jew. But in the United States there is a class of well-to-do commercial Jews of a peculiarly ignorant and obnoxious type—chiefly department-store owners, professional Jewish philanthropists, and their attendant rabbis, lawyers, doctors, and so on—and the great majority of newspapers are disposed to truckle to their every whim. Along about the year 1900 they began to protest against the use of the word Jew to differentiate Jewish law-breakers from the baptized, and, soon thereafter, to be on the safe side, the newspapers began to employ Hebrew whenever it was necessary to designate an institution or individual of the Chosen. Thus, one often encounters such absurdities as Hebrew congregation, Hebrew rabbi and Hebrew holidays. A few years ago a number of more cultured American Jews, alarmed by the imbecility into which the campaign was falling, issued a “Note on the Word Jew” for the guidance of newspapers. From this document I extract the following:

  1. The words Jew and Jewish can never be objectionable when applied to the whole body of Israel, or to whole classes within that body, as for instance, Jewish young men.
  2. There can be no objection to the use of the words Jew and Jewish when contrast is being made with other religions: “Jews observe Passover and Christians Easter.”
  3. The application of the word Jew or Jewish to any individual is to be avoided unless from the context it is necessary to call attention to his religion; in other words, unless the facts have some relation to his being a Jew or to his Jewishness.… Thus, if a Jew is convicted of a crime he should not be called a Jewish criminal; and on the other hand, if a Jew makes a great scientific discovery he should not be called an eminent Jewish scientist.
  4. The word Jew is a noun, and should never be used as an adjective or verb. To speak of Jew girls or Jew stores is both objectionable and vulgar. Jewish is the adjective. The use of Jew as a verb, in to Jew down, is a slang survival of the medieval term of opprobrium, and should be avoided altogether.
  5. The word Hebrew should not be used instead of Jew. As a noun it connotes rather the Jewish people of the distant past, as the ancient Hebrews. As an adjective it has an historical rather than a religious connotation; one cannot say the Hebrew religion, but the Jewish religion.

Unfortunately this temperate and intelligent pronunciamento seems to have had but little effect. Potash and Perlmutter still insist that the papers they support refer to them as Hebrews, and the thing is docilely done. In the vaudeville journal, Variety, which is owned and edited by a Jew, Hebrew is invariably used. I have often observed references to Hebrew comedians, Hebrew tragedians, the Hebrew drama, the Hebrew holidays and even the Hebrew church. For an American newspaper to refer to Jewry would be almost as hazardous as for it to refer to the ghetto. When the New York papers desire to discuss the doings of the Jewish Socialists on the East Side, they are forced to retire behind East side agitators or soap-boxers. Years ago, being city editor of a newspaper in a large city, I employed a reporter to cover the picturesque and often strikingly dramatic life of the Russian and Polish Jews in its slums. He staggered along for two or three months, trying in vain to invent terms to designate them that would not offend the large Jewish advertisers. Finally, the business office bombarded me with so many complaints that I instructed him to abandon the Jews, and devote himself to the Italians and Bohemians, who were all poor and without influential compatriots uptown.

Save in this one particular I believe that the American newspapers have made appreciable progress toward the use of plain English in recent years. The gaudy style of a generation ago has perished, and with it have vanished its euphemisms—casket for coffin, obsequies for funeral, nuptial ceremony for wedding, happy pair for bridal couple, and consigned to earth for buried. A death notice offers an excellent test of a reporter; if he is an idiot he will invariably show it when he writes one. Save in the small towns and in some of the cities of the South—where an aged Methodist sister still “goes to her heavenly father” or “falls asleep in the arms of Jesus”—the newspapers of the Republic now deal with death in a simple and dignified manner. On account of their sharp differentiation between news and editorial opinion, they even avoid the “we regret to announce” with which all English journals begin their reports of eminent dissolutions. Nine-tenths of them are now content to open proceedings by saying baldly that “John Smith died yesterday.” Nor do they slobber as they used to over weddings, balls, corner-stone layings and other such ceremonies.

The use of Madame as a special title of honor for old women of good position survived in the United States until the 70’s. It distinguished the dowager Mrs. Smith from the wife of her eldest son; today the word dowager, imitating the English usage, is frequently employed in fashionable society. Madame survives among the colored folk, who almost always apply it to women singers of their race, and often to women hairdressers, dressmakers and milliners also. It is felt to be a shade more distinguished than Miss or Mrs., and is applied to married and unmarried women indiscriminately.