Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 151

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

Page 151

of the change going on that the New York Evening Post recently authorized its reporters to use street-walker. 54 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.” 55 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