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, andnever 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.