H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
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 Tribunes 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.56
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 pruderythis time among laymencame 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.57 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.58
Note 57. 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. [back]
Note 58. 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. [back]