Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Phrases Avoided In Good Society

It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature.

To liken Best Society to a fraternity, with the avoidance of certain seemingly unimportant words as the sign of recognition, is not a fantastic simile. People of the fashionable world invariably use certain expressions and instinctively avoid others; therefore when a stranger uses an "avoided" one he proclaims that he "does not belong," exactly as a pretended Freemason proclaims himself an "outsider" by giving the wrong "grip"—or whatever it is by which Brother Masons recognize one another.

People of position are people of position the world over—and by their speech are most readily known. Appearance on the other hand often passes muster. A "show-girl" may be lovely to look at as she stands in a seemingly unstudied position and in perfect clothes. But let her say "My Gawd!" or "Wouldn't that jar you!" and where is her loveliness then?

And yet, and this is the difficult part of the subject to make clear, the most vulgar slang like that quoted above, is scarcely worse than the attempted elegance which those unused to good society imagine to be the evidence of cultivation.

People who say "I come," and "I seen it," and "I done it" prove by their lack of grammar that they had little education in their youth. Unfortunate, very; but they may at the same time be brilliant, exceptional characters, loved by everyone who knows them, because they are what they seem and nothing else. But the caricature "lady" with the comic picture "society manner" who says "Pardon me" and talks of "retiring," and "residing," and "desiring," and "being acquainted with," and "attending" this and that with "her escort," and curls her little finger over the handle of her teacup, and prates of "culture," does not belong to Best Society, and never will! The offense of pretentiousness is committed oftener perhaps by women than by men, who are usually more natural and direct. A genuine, sincere, kindly American man—or woman—can go anywhere and be welcomed by everyone, provided of course, that he is a man of ability and intellect. One finds him all over the world, neither aping the manners of others nor treading on the sensibilities of those less fortunate than himself.

Occasionally too, there appears in Best Society a provincial in whose conversation is perceptible the influence of much reading of the Bible. Such are seldom if ever stilted or pompous or long-worded, but are invariably distinguished for the simplicity and dignity of their English.

There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the "best sellers" have no literary merit whatsoever.

To be able to separate best English from merely good English needs a long process of special education, but to recognize bad English one need merely skim through a page of a book, and if a single expression in the left-hand column following can be found (unless purposely quoted in illustration of vulgarity) it is quite certain that the author neither writes best English nor belongs to Best Society.

       Never Say:        Correct Form:
In our residence we retire early (or arise) At our house we go to bed early (or get up)
I desire to purchase I should like to buy
Make you acquainted with (See Introductions)
Pardon me! I beg your pardon. Or, Excuse me! Or, sorry!
Lovely food Good food
Elegant home Beautiful house—or place
A stylish dresser She dresses well, or she wears lovely clothes
Charmed! or Pleased to meet you! How do you do!
Attended Went to
I trust I am not trespassing I hope I am not in the way
(unless trespassing on private property is actually meant)
Request (meaning ask) Used only in the third person in formal written invitations.
Will you accord me permission? Will you let me? or May I?
Permit me to assist you Let me help you
Brainy Brilliant or clever
I presume I suppose
Tendered him a banquet Gave him a dinner
Converse Talk
Partook of liquid refreshment Had something to drink
Perform ablutions Wash
A song entitled Called (proper if used in legal sense)
I will ascertain I will find out
Residence or mansion House, or big house
In the home In some one's house or At home
Phone, photo, auto Telephone, photograph, automobile

"Tintinnabulary summons," meaning bell, and "Bovine continuation," meaning cow's tail, are more amusing than offensive, but they illustrate the theory of bad style that is pretentious.

As examples of the very worst offenses that can be committed, the following are offered:
"Pray, accept my thanks for the flattering ovation you have tendered me."
"Yes," says the preposterous bride, "I am the recipient of many admired and highly prized gifts."
"Will you permit me to recall myself to you?"
Speaking of bridesmaids as "pretty servitors," "dispensing hospitality," asking any one to "step this way."

Many other expressions are provincial and one who seeks purity of speech should, if possible, avoid them, but as "offenses" they are minor:
Reckon, guess, calculate, or figure, meaning think.
Allow, meaning agree.
Folks, meaning family.
Cute, meaning pretty or winsome.
Well, I declare! 'Pon my word!
Box party, meaning sitting in a box at the theater.
Visiting with, meaning talking to.

There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago "elegant" was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery. "Refined" is on the verge. But the pariah of the language is culture!

A word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation. To speak of the proper use of a finger bowl or the ability to introduce two people without a blunder as being "evidence of culture of the highest degree" is precisely as though evidence of highest education were claimed for who ever can do sums in addition, and read words of one syllable. Culture in its true meaning is widest possible education, plus especial refinement and taste.

The fact that slang is apt and forceful makes its use irresistibly tempting. Coarse or profane slang is beside the mark, but "flivver," "taxi," the "movies," "deadly" (meaning dull), "feeling fit," "feeling blue," "grafter," a "fake," "grouch," "hunch" and "right o!" are typical of words that it would make our spoken language stilted to exclude.

All colloquial expressions are little foxes that spoil the grapes of perfect diction, but they are very little foxes; it is the false elegance of stupid pretentiousness that is an annihilating blight which destroys root and vine.

In the choice of words, we can hardly find a better guide than the lines of Alexander Pope:

"In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside."

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Things to Avoid in Making Good Conversation

In conversation the dangers are very much the same as those to be avoided in writing letters. Talk about things which you think will be agreeable to your hearer. Don't dilate on ills, misfortune, or other unpleasantnesses. The one in greatest danger of making enemies is the man or woman of brilliant wit. If sharp, wit is apt to produce a feeling of mistrust even while it stimulates. Furthermore the applause which follows every witty sally becomes in time breath to the nostrils, and perfectly well-intentioned, people, who mean to say nothing unkind, in the flash of a second "see a point," and in the next second, score it with no more power to resist than a drug addict can resist a dose put into his hand!

The mimic is a joy to his present company, but the eccentric mannerism of one is much easier to imitate than the charm of another, and the subjects of the habitual mimic are all too apt to become his enemies.

You need not, however, be dull because you refrain from the rank habit of a critical attitude, which like a weed will grow all over the place if you let it have half a chance. A very good resolve to make and keep, if you would also keep any friends you make, is never to speak of anyone without, in imagination, having them overhear what you say. One often hears the exclamation "I would say it to her face!" At least be very sure that this is true, and not a braggart's phrase and then—nine times out of ten think better of it and refrain. Preaching is all very well in a text-book, schoolroom or pulpit, but it has no place in society. Society is supposed to be a pleasant place; telling people disagreeable things to their faces or behind their backs is not a pleasant occupation.

Do not be too apparently clever if you would be popular. The cleverest woman is she who, in talking to a man, makes him seem clever. This was Mme. Recamier's great charm.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The False "Omniscience" Of The Wealthy

Why a man, because he has millions, should assume that they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, is something which may be left to the psychologist to answer, but most of those thrown much in contact with millionaires will agree that an attitude of infallibility is typical of a fair majority.

A professor who has devoted his life to a subject modestly makes a statement. "You are all wrong," says the man of millions, "It is this way——". As a connoisseur he seems to think that because he can pay for anything he fancies, he is accredited expert as well as potential owner. Topics he does not care for are "bosh," those which he has a smattering of, he simply appropriates; his prejudices are, in his opinion, expert criticism; his taste impeccable; his judgment infallible; and to him the world is a pleasance built for his sole pleasuring. But to the rest of us who also have to live in it with as much harmony as we can, such persons are certainly elephants at large in the garden. We can sometimes induce them to pass through gently, but they are just as likely at any moment to pull up our fences and push the house itself over on our defenseless heads.

There are countless others of course, very often the richest of all, who are authoritative in all they profess, who are experts and connoisseurs, who are human and helpful and above everything respecters of the garden enclosure of others.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Few Important Details Of Speech In Conversation

Unless you wish to stamp yourself a person who has never been out of "provincial" society, never speak of your husband as "Mr." except to an inferior. Mrs. Worldly for instance in talking with a stranger would say "my husband," and to a friend, meaning one not only whom she calls by her first name, but anyone on her "dinner list," she says, "Dick thought the play amusing" or "Dick said——". This does not give her listener the privilege of calling him "Dick." The listener in return speaks of her own husband as "Tom" even if he is seventy—unless her hearer is a very young person (either man or woman), when she would say "my husband." Never "Mr. Older." To call your husband Mr. means that you consider the person you are talking to, beneath you in station. Mr. Worldly in the same way speaks of Mrs. Worldly as "my wife" to a gentleman, or "Edith" in speaking to a lady. Always.

In speaking about other people, one says "Mrs.," "Miss" or "Mr." as the case may be. It is bad form to go about saying "Edith Worldly" or "Ethel Norman" to those who do not call them Edith or Ethel, and to speak thus familiarly of one whom you do not call by her first name, is unforgivable. It is also effrontery for a younger person to call an older by her or his first name, without being asked to do so. Only a very underbred, thick-skinned person would attempt it.

Also you must not take your conversation "out of the drawing-room." Operations, ills or personal blemishes, details and appurtenances of the dressing-room, for instance, are neither suitable nor pleasant topics, nor are personal jokes in good taste.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bore

A bore is said to be "one who talks about himself when you want to talk about yourself!" which is superficially true enough, but a bore might more accurately be described as one who is interested in what does not interest you, and insists that you share his enthusiasm, in spite of your disinclination. To the bore life holds no dullness; every subject is of unending delight. A story told for the thousandth time has not lost its thrill; every tiresome detail is held up and turned about as a morsel of delectableness; to him each pea in a pod differs from another with the entrancing variety that artists find in tropical sunsets.

On the other hand, to be bored is a bad habit, and one only too easy to fall into. As a matter of fact, it is impossible, almost, to meet anyone who has not something of interest to tell you if you are but clever enough yourself to find out what it is. There are certain always delightful people who refuse to be bored. Their attitude is that no subject need ever be utterly uninteresting, so long as it is discussed for the first time. Repetition alone is deadly dull. Besides, what is the matter with trying to be agreeable yourself? Not too agreeable. Alas! it is true: "Be polite to bores and so shall you have bores always round about you."

Furthermore, there is no reason why you should be bored when you can be otherwise. But if you find yourself sitting in the hedgerow with nothing but weeds, there is no reason for shutting your eyes and seeing nothing, instead of finding what beauty you may in the weeds. To put it cynically, life is too short to waste it in drawing blanks. Therefore, it is up to you to find as many pictures to put on your blank pages as possible.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Good Etiquette in Stores and Shops

Lack of consideration for those who in any capacity serve you, is always an evidence of ill-breeding, as well as of inexcusable selfishness. Occasionally a so-called "lady" who has nothing whatever to do but drive uptown or down in her comfortable limousine, vents her irritability upon a saleswoman at a crowded counter in a store, because she does not leave other customers and wait immediately upon her. Then, perhaps, when the article she asked for is not to be had, she complains to the floor-walker about the saleswoman's stupidity! Or having nothing that she can think of to occupy an empty hour on her hands, she demands that every sort of material be dragged down from the shelves until, discovering that it is at last time for her appointment, she yawns and leaves.

Of course, on the other hand, there is the genuinely lethargic saleswoman whose mind doesn't seem to register a single syllable that you have said to her; who, with complete indifference to you and your preferences, insists on showing what you distinctly say you do not want, and who caps the climax by drawling "They" are wearing it this season! Does that sort of saleswoman ever succeed in selling anything? Does anyone living buy anything because someone, who knows nothing, tells another, who is often an expert, what an indiscriminating "They" may be doing? That kind of a saleswoman would try to tell Kreisler that "They" are not using violins this season!

There are always two sides to the case, of course, and it is a credit to good manners that there is scarcely ever any friction in stores and shops of the first class. Salesmen and women are usually persons who are both patient and polite, and their customers are most often ladies in fact as well as "by courtesy." Between those before and those behind the counters, there has sprung up in many instances a relationship of mutual goodwill and friendliness. It is, in fact, only the woman who is afraid that someone may encroach upon her exceedingly insecure dignity, who shows neither courtesy nor consideration to any except those whom she considers it to her advantage to please.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Restaurant Check

Everyone has at some time or other been subjected to the awkward moment when the waiter presents the check to the host. 

For a host to count up the items is suggestive of parsimony, while not to look at them is disconcertingly reckless, and to pay before their faces for what his guests have eaten is embarrassing. Having the check presented to a hostess when gentlemen are among her guests, is more unpleasant. 

Therefore, to avoid this whole transaction, people who have not charge accounts, should order the meal ahead, and at the same time pay for it in advance, including the waiter's tip. Charge customers should make arrangements to have the check presented to them elsewhere than at table.