Monday, May 31, 2010

The Words, According to Emily Post

Older readers may recall the English teacher of a couple of generations ago who told her class, “There are two awful slang words in current use that I hope you will never use: one is swell, and the other is lousy.”  “Okay,” replied one student, “what are they?”

In that same era—around about 1940—the doyenne of etiquette, Emily Post, provided her own list of proper and improper words and phrases—the rationale for many of which is impossible to fathom in this permissive age.  According to Emily—uh, I mean Mrs. Post—you should never call anyone “wealthy”; say “rich” or “well-to-do” instead. (She is silent on how to refer to poor people.)  Never say someone has an “elegant home”; it should be “beautiful house.”  “Close friend”?  Uh-uh—it should be “best friend” or even (woo-hoo!) “intimate friend.” And as for those horrid truncated words—phone, auto, photo, and mints—don’t dare think of using them instead of the more proper telephone, automobile, photograph, and peppermints!

Some of her directives are peculiar.  While it’s okay to call an unmarried young woman a “girl” until her mid-twenties, any male over 21 must be called a “man” and never a “boy.”  A “lady friend” and a “gentleman friend” are not what well-bred people have; instead they have a “woman friend” or “my best girl” and “a man who is a friend of mine.”

Don't ask the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, "Who was that lady friend I saw you with?" He’s not talking.  Instead, he is trying to rhyme, and only partly succeeding:

            I’m sorry if my words offend,
            It isn’t what I meant a bit:
            I said that you were my best friend--
            And should have said that we were intimate.

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