"Speak, That I May See Thee"
24 July 2004
[chapter 7 of Class (Ballantine, 1984) by Paul Fussell]
Regardless of the money you've inherited, the danger of your job, the place you live, the way you look, the shape and surface of your driveway, the items on your front porch and in your living room, the sweetness of your drinks, the time you eat dinner, the stuff you buy from mail-order catalogs, the place you went to school and your reverence for it, and the materials you read, your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things. "One's speech is an unceasingly repeated public announcement about background and social standing," says John Brooks, translating into modern American Ben Jonson's observation "Language most shows a man. Speak, that I may see thee." And what held true in his seventeenth century holds even truer in our twentieth, because we now have something virtually unknown to Jonson, a sizable middle class desperate not to offend through language and thus addicted to such conspicuous class giveaways as euphemism, genteelism, and mock profanity ("Golly!").
But at the outset it's well to recognize the difficulty of talking accurately about the class significance of language. It's easy to get it wrong when talking about classes, or traditions, not one's own, the way the Englishman H.B. Brooks-Baker recently got American class usage quite wrong when he offered an "American Section" of upper- and lower-class terms in Richard Buckle's U and Non-U Revisited (1978). Mastery of this field takes years, and it's admittedly hard to hear accurately across the Atlantic. Still, Brooks-Baker's list of twenty-six expressions said to be avoided by upper Americans errs dramatically. For example, he tells us that affair is a non-upper word for party. But any American of any of the classes knows that the two are different things entirely, not different names for the same thing. An affair is a laid-on commercial catering event like a bad banquet or reception. Unlike a party, you don't go to an affair (unless it's a love affair) expecting to have a wildly good time. Again, Brooks-Baker informs the reader that folding-stuff is prole for money. No, it's simply archaic slang, as much heard today as mazuma or greenbacks. Brooks-Baker also says that in the U.S.A. proles say tux, uppers tuxedo. Wrong again. Proles say tux, middles tuxedo, but both are considered low by uppers, who say dinner jacket or (higher) black tie. But even getting our hero decently home from his tuxedo affair (i.e., black-tie party), Brooks-Baker slips up. Proles say limo, he asserts, uppers limousine. Wrong on both counts. Proles say big black shiny Cad, (sometimes Caddy). Middles say limosine, and the thing would be called a limo only behind the scenes by those who supply rented ones for funerals, bar mitzvahs, and the like. What, then, is this vehicle called by the upper orders? It's called a car, as in "We'll need the car about eleven, please, Parker."
Brooks-Baker's slips are useful reminders of the hazards of interpreting language class signals aright. Alexis de Tocqueville's errors in prophecy also provide a handy warning against overconfidence there. De Tocqueville overestimated the leveling force on language of "democracy," and imagined that this new kind of political organization would largely efface social distinctions in language and verbal style. Looking about him at mid-nineteenth-century America, he thought he heard everyone using the same words, and conceived that the line was ceasing to be drawn "between...expresssions which seem by their very nature vulgar and others which appear to be refined." He concluded that "there is as much confusion in language as there is in society." But developments on this continent have proved him wrong about both language and democratic society. Actually, just because the country's a democracy, class distinctions have developed with greater rigor than elsewhere, and language, far from coalescing into one great central mass without social distinctions, has developed even more egregious class signals than anyone could have expected. There's really no confusion in either language or society, as ordinary people here are quite aware. Interviewed by sociologists, they indicate that speech is the main way they estimate a stranger's social class when they first encounter him. "Really," says one deponent, "the first time a person opens his mouth, you can tell."
Because the class system here is more complicated than in England, less amenable to merely binary categorization, language indicators are more numerous and subtle than merely those accepted as "U" (i.e., upper) or stigmatized as "non-U" by Nancy Mitford in her delightful 1955 essay in Encounter, "The English Aristocracy." Still, a way to begin considering the class meaning of language in the U.S.A. is to note some absolute class dividers. Probably the most important, a usage firmly dividing the prole classes from the middles and highers, is the double negative, as in "I can't get no satisfaction." You're as unlikely to hear something like that in a boardroom or premises frequented by "houseguests," or on a sixty-five-foot schooner off Nantucket, as you are likely to hear it in a barracks, an auto-repair shop, or a workman's bar. Next in importance would rank special ways of managing grammatical number, as in "He don't" and "I wants it." And these are not just "slips" or "errors." They signal virtually a different dialect, identifying speakers socially distinct from users of the other English. The two can respect each other, but they can never be pals. They belong to different classes, and if they attempt to mix, they will inevitably regard each other as quaint and not quite human.
If it's grammar that draws the line between middles and below, it's largely pronunciation and vocabulary that draw it between middles and above. Everyone will have his personal collection of class indicators here, but I have found the following quite trustworthy. Words employed to register (or advertise) "cultural experience" are especially dangerous for the middle class, even crêpes, which they pronouce craypes. The same with most words deployed to display one's familiarity with the foreign, like fiancé, which the middle class prefers to boyfriend and delivers with a ridiculous heavy stress on the final syllable: fee-on-say'. The same with show-fur', a word it prefers to the upper-class driver. Some may think pronouncing the h in Amherst an excessively finicking indicator of middle-classhood, but others may not. The word diamond, pronounced as two syllables by uppers, is likely to be rendered as three by the middle class. Similarly with beautiful -- three syllables to uppers, but, to middles, bee-you'-tee-full. The "grand" words exquisite, despicable, hospitable, lamentable invite the middle class to stress the second syllable; those anxious to leave no doubt of their social desirability stress the first, which is also to earn some slight, passing Anglophilic credit. As the middle class gets itself more deeply entangled in artistic experience, hazards multiply, like patina, a word it likes a lot but doesn't realize is stressed on the first syllable. High-class names from cultural history pose a similar danger, espeically if they are British, like Henry Purcell. President Reagan's former adviser Edwin Meese III clearly signaled his class when, interviewed on television, he chose to exhibit his gentility by using the word salutary instead of the common wholesome or healthy, but indicated by his pronunciation that he thought the word salutory. that's the pure middle-class act: opt for the showy, and in so doing take a pratfall. Class unfortunates who want to emphasize the largeness of something are frequently betrayed by enormity, as in "The whale was of such an enormity that they could hardly get it in the tank." (Prole version: "The whale was so big they couldn't hardly get it in the tank.") Elegance is the fatal temptation for the middle class, dividing it from the blunter usages of uppers and proles alike. Neither of these classes would warn against two people's simultaneously pursuing the same project by speaking of "duplicity of effort." The middle class is where you hear prestigious a lot, and to speculate about the reason it's replaced distinguished or noted or respected in the past twenty years is to do a bit of national soul-searching. The implications of prestige, C. Wright Mills observes, are really pejorative: "In its origins," he says, "it means dazzling the eye with conjuring tricks." And he goes on: "In France, 'prestige' carries an emotional association of fraudulence, of the art of illusion, or at least of something adventitious." The same in Italy and Germany. Only in the U.S.A. does the word carry any prestige, and looking back, I see that I've depended on prestige quite a lot when talking about high-class colleges.
Some of these class dividers are crude. Others are subtle. The upper and upper-middle classes have a special vocabulary for indicating wearisome or unhappy social situations. They say tiresome or tedious where their social inferiors would say boring; they say upset or distressed or even cross where others would say angry or mad or sore. There's a special upper-class diction of approval too. No prole man would call something super (Anglophilic) or outstanding (prep school), just as it would sound like flagrant affectation for a prole woman to designate something seen in a store as divine or darling or adorable. Nice would be the non-upper way of putting it.
But it's the middle-class quest for grandeur and gentility that produces the most interesting effects. As we've seen, imported words especially are its downfall. It will speak of a graffiti and it thinks chauvinism has something to do with gender aggression. Pseudo-classical plurals are a constant pitfall: the middles will speak learnedly of a phenomena and a criteria and a strata and (referring perhaps to a newspaper) a media. A well-known author is a literati. It thinks context a grander form of the word content, and thus says things like "I didn't like the context of that book: all that blood and gore." Or consider the Coast Guard officer reporting a grievous oil spill in San Francisco Bay: cross is too vulgar a term for the occasion, he imagines, and so he says that "several ships transited the area." When after a succession of solecisms of this kind a middle-class person will begin to suspect that he is blowing his cover, he may try to reestablish status by appliquéing a mock-classical plural ending onto a perfectly ordinary word like process. Then he will say process-sees. The whole middle-class performance nicely illustrates the conclusion of Lord Melbourne. "The higher and lower classes, there's some good in them," he observed, "but the middle classes are all affectation and conceit and pretense and concealment."
All classes except sometimes the upper-middle are implicated in the scandal of saying home when they mean house. But the middle class seems to take a special pleasure in saying things like "They live in a five-hundred-thousand-dollar home," or, after an earthquake, "The man noticed that his home was shaking violently." We can trace, I think, the stages by which house disappeared as a word favored by the real-estate business as a way of warming the product, that is, making the prospect imagine that in laying out money for a house he was purchasing not a passel of bricks, Formica, and wallboard but snuggly warmth, comfort, and love. The word home was then fervently embraced by the customers for several reasons: (1) the middle class loves to use words which have achieved cliché status in advertising; (2) the middle class, like the real-estate con men, also enjoys the comforting fantasy that you can purchase love, comfort, warmth, etc., with cold cash, or at least achieve them by some formula or other; (3) the middle class, by nature both puritanical and terrified of public opinion, welcomed home because, to its dirty mind, house carried bad associations. One spoke of a rest home, but of a bawdy, whore-, fancy, or sporting house. No one ever heard of a home of ill fame, or, for that matter, a cat home. So out went house for the same reason that madam has never really caught on in middle-class America. But curiously, users of home to describe domestic shelters make one exception. A beach house is so called, never a beach home. Because of the word's association with current real-estate scams, a home, or something appropriately so designated, does tend to suggest something pretty specific: namely, a small pretentious, jerry-built developer's rip-off positioned in some unfortunate part of the country without history, depth, or allusiveness. You don't speak of a "two-hundred-year-old white clapboard frame farmhome" in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont. Homes are what the middle class lives in. As it grows progressively poorer, it sells its homes and moves into mobile homes (formerly, trailers) or motor homes.
Home is by no means the only advertising word embraced by the middle class. "Come into the living forum," you may hear as the corporate wife ushers you into the living room. Or, "I think I left your coat in the reception galleria" (front hall). Or "Would you care to go directly up to your sleeping chamber?" And because of its need for the illusion of power and success that attend self-conscious consumerism, the middles instinctively adopt advertisers' -wear compounds, speaking with no embarrassment whatever of the family's
nightwear (or sleepwear)
eyewear (i.e., spectacles)
and they feel good uttering the analogous -ware compounds:
or sometimes, when they get into their grand mood, crystal. (Uppers, whome the middles think they're imitating, say glasses.) Because it's a staple of advertising, the middle class also likes the word designer, which it takes to mean beautiful or valuable. Thus roll paper towels with expensive patterns printed on them cease to be stupid and ugly once they're designated designer towels. The Dacron bath towels of the middle class, the ones with the metallic threads, are also usually called designer towels.
Advertising diction feeds so smoothly into the middle-class psyche because of that class's bent toward rhetorical fake elegance. Aspiring to ascend, it imagines that verbal grandeur will forward the process. Thus enormity, salutory, duplicity -- and of course gourmet. "The theater still has a certain nicety to it," says an actor in a TV interview. He means delicacy, but he also means that he's middle-class and slavering to be upper. A fine example of middle-class bogus elegance is the language of a flyer circulated recently to advertise a new magazine aimed at a Northeastern suburb. The town was formerly a fairly classy venue, but it has inexorably been taken over (see the material on Prole Drift in the next chapter) by people who respond enthusiastically to rhetoric like this:
The greater ___ area represents a way of life. It is a life-style. It is fine living...crystal for a special dinner...a gourmet restaurant...the joy of a well written book.... It is life at its best...quiet elegance...creative...beauty and grace.... ___ Magazine will let you share in the dreams, talents, contributions and achievements of a community of people who stand apart from the crowd and set high standards for themselves.... ___ Magazine is for intelligent, sensitive men, women and children. ___ Magazine is you!
One could search widely without locating a more exemplary fusion of insecurity and snobbery, the one propping up the other to produce that delicate equilibrium which sustains the middle class.
Cornball-elegant also is the rhetoric of the airlines and of airports, whose clients are 90 percent middle-class. If one couldn't infer the hopeless middle-classness of airports from their special understanding of the ideas of comfort, convenience, and lug-zhury, one could from their pretentious language, especially the way they leap to designate themselves "International" or even, like Houston, "Intercontinental." They will do this on the slightest pretext, like having a plane take off now and then for Acapulco or Alberta, while remaining utterly uncontaminated by any sign of internationalism, like dealing in foreign currencies or speaking languages or sympathizing in any way with international styles.
On the aircraft itself, virtually everything said or written accords with the middle-class insistence that words shall be bogus, from such formulations as "motion discomfort" and "flotation device" to "beverages" and "non-dairy creamer." On a recent flight from New York to London, a steward announced, "Smoking is not permitted while you are making usage of the lavatory facilities" -- a perfect example, almost a definition, of the middle-class pseudo-elegant style. The little menu cards given out by transatlantic airlines, ostensibly to indicate the components of the meal but actually to tout the duty-free goods (including "designer" neckties and scarves), constitute a veritable exhibition palace of the fake elegant. One I've encountered on a TWA flight does forget itself and slip once, calling beverages drinks in a thoroughly upper-class way, but generally it holds the line, especially in describing the meals offered (I have added italics): "FILET TIPS DIJONNAISE. Tidbits of Beef Tenderloin in a Mild Creamy Mustard Sauce Presented with Pommes Chateau and Petit Pois." Another meal is said to be "Complemented by Buttered Broccoli." And then, to cap it all: "Please accept our apologies if due to previous passenger selections, your entree preference is not available." Or, as a civilized person would put it, "Not all items available," the corollary of "No smoking in the toilets."
But toilets does not recommend itself to middle-class speakers, who prefer lavatories or rest rooms, euphemism as well as elegance being their hallmarks. One of their treasured possessions is a whole vocabulary of euphemized profanity and obscenity, so that when you hear "Holy Cow!" or "Holy Moses!" or hear that someone has done "a whale of a job," you know that a member of the middle class is nearby. It's hard to believee that after the numerous strains and scandals of the mid-twentieth century any relics survive of that class that used to say "O pshaw!" or "Botheration!" when it meant not just "O hell!" but "Shit!" -- but we find the American Brigadier General Dozier, back home after weeks of bondage and humiliation at the hands of the most cruel and vicious Italian kidnappers, saying, "It's doggone good to be home." It's the middle class that insists still that pregnant be replaced by expecting or starting a family (being in a family way, on the other hand, is prole), and it has virtually legislated that all the rest of us make love instead of what we used to do. But in the face of all this the uppers stand firm. Jilly Cooper reports, "I once heard my son regaling his friends: 'Mummy says pardon is a much worse word than fuck.'" And of course the middle is where you hear false teeth called dentures, the rich called the wealthy, and dying called passing away (or over). (Proles are likely to be taken to Jesus.) Drunks are people with alcohol problems, the stupid are slow learners or underachievers, madness is mental illness, drug use is drug abuse, the crippled are the handicapped (sometimes, by a euphemism of a euphemism, the challenged), a slum is the inner city, and a graveyard is a cemetery or (among those more susceptible to advertising) memorial park. You can probably identify those sociologists who are firmly middle-class by their habit of calling proles the supporting classes. Discovering a few years ago that sour in the phrase "sweet and sour pork" conveyed bad associations to its middle-class clientele, your standard "Chinese" restaurant adjusted the language and came up with the safer "sweet and pungent" formula. Secure high-class people continue to say -- indeed, insist upon saying -- "sweet and sour" -- a way of indicating that they've caught on to this dishonorable euphemistic act and disapprove of it vigorously. But the middle class, always delighted to accede to euphemisms whenever offered, and especially when offered by people selling anything, say "sweet and pungent," and feel good about it.
The middles cleave to euphemisms not just because they're an aid in avoiding facts. They like them also because they assist their social yearnings toward pomposity. This is possible because most euphemisms permit the speaker to multiply syllables, and the middle class confuses sheer numerousness with weight and value. Jonathan Swift amused himself by imagining spoken syllables as physical entities with "weight," density, specific gravity, and other purely physical attributes. The contemporary middle class acts as if embracing Swift's conception but without a trace of his irony. Thus instead of now it will say, weightily, as of this time, and instead of later, subsequently. It's like the middle-class trick of dressing up to go shopping. Hugh Rawson, in his invaluable Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk (1981), delivers the essential principle:
The longer the euphemism the better. As a rule,...euphemisms are longer than the words they replace. They have more letters, they have more syllables, and frequently, two or more words will be deployed in place of a single one. This is partly because the tabooed Anglo-Saxon words tend to be short and partly because it almost always takes more words to evade an idea than to state it directly and honestly.
Rawson goes on to develop a nice pseudo-social-scientific "Fog or Pomposity Index," by which a euphemism's relation to the word or phrase it replaces can be quantified, high numbers indicating the greatest multiplication of syllables, or euphemistic success. Rawson's arithmetical details need not concern us. We can just note that the FOP Index of prostitute in relation to whore is 2.4, and in relation to harlot, 1.4. One of the highest FOP Indexes Rawson notes is earned by the designation Personal Assistant to the Secretary (Special Activities), given to his cook by a former Cabinet member. This euphemism registers an FOP number of 17.8, which must be close to an all-time record.
So terrified of being judged socially insignificant is your typical member of the middle class, so ambitious of earning a reputation as a judicious thinker, indeed, almost an "executive," that it's virtually impossible for him to resist the temptation constantly to multiply syllables. He thus euphemizes willy-nilly. Indeed, it's sometimes hard to know whether the impulse to euphemize is causing the syllables to multiply, or whether the urge toward verbal weight and grandeur through multiplication is hustling the speaker into euphemism. The question confronts us when, inquiring what someone does, he answers not that he's a junk man, or even in the junk business, but in the scrap-iron business, or even the recycling business or reclamation industry. Occupational euphemisms always seem to entail multiplication of syllables. In many universities, what used to be the bursar is now the disbursement officer, just the way what used to be an undertaker (already sufficient as a euphemism, one would think) is now a funeral director, an advance of two whole syllables. (In raising funeral director to grief therapist, there's of course a loss of two syllables, but a compensating gain in "professionalism" and pseudo-medical pretentiousness.) Selling is raised to retailing or marketing, or even better, to merchandising, an act that exactly doubles its syllables, while sales manager in its turn is doubled by being raised to Vice-President, Merchandising. The person on the telephone who used to provide Information now gives (or more often, does not give) Directory Assistance, which is two syllables grander. Some sociologists surveying the status of occupations found that druggist ranked sixth out of fifteen. But when a syllable was added and the designation changed to pharmacist, the occupation moved up to fourth place.
Syllable multiplication usually occurs also in the euphemisms by which the middle class softens hard facts or cheerfulizes actuality. It's all in aid of avoiding anything "depressing." But you can aim for the verbally splendid at the same time. Thus correctional facility for prison, work stoppage or industrial action for strike, discomfort for pain, homicide for murder, self-deliverance for suicide, fatality for death. Slum clearance (three syllables) becomes urban renewal (five). Nuclear device has it over atom bomb both by a lot of euphemism and by two full syllables. Being by nature unmagnanimous (cf. Ronald Reagan), the middle class has always hated to tip, regarding it as a swindle, etc., but when you call a tip a gratuity, you take a little of the sting out.
The occasions when the middle class can, in its view, achieve high status by multiplying syllables are virtually infinite. Here we can list only a few examples. It is thought more impressive to say:
cocktails than drinks
individuals " people
position " job
albeit " although
roadway " road
purchase " buy
conflagration " fire
billiard parlor " poolroom
launder " wash
affluent " rich (or "loaded")
currently " now
massive " big
meet with or meet up with " meet
proceed " go
request " ask
subsequently " later
terminate " end
utilize " use
at the local level " locally
Sometimes this middle-class urge to add syllables propels the speaker toward grammar that is more prole than he might normally approve. Thus, sensing that before is a poor word compared with previous, he will say, "I had not been there previous." The motive is like that of the policeman at the Watergate hearings who, dissatisfied with the class standing of mere went, testified, "We then responded down the hall and into the office."
The passive voice is a great help to the middle class in multiplying syllables. Thus the TV newsman will say "No injuries were reported" (eight syllables) when he means "No one was hurt" (four). Pseudo-Latinism is another useful technique. In colleges has a measly four syllables, but in academia has six, just as in the suburbs has four but in suburbia five, and in addition conveys the suggestion that the speaker is familiar with the classical tongues. (A real Latinist would honor the accusative case and say in suburbiam, but let that pass.) Another way of arriving at the goal of adding syllables is simply to mistake one word for another, as the airline steward did with use and usage. Thus the instructions on a bottle of Calgon Floral Bouquet (formerly bath salts) are headed, classily, Usage Directions. We can infer the middle-class (rather than prole) origins of most terrorist groups by their habit of leaving behind, after their outrages, communiqués rather than notes, or even messages. A benign, all-wise, and all-powerful editor and supervisor of expression among the middle class would have a busy time wielding his blue pencil. One man asked by Coleman and Rainwater if he's better off than his father answers yes, and explains: "I have an M.A. and my father just finished high school. This has meant that I am able to engage in higher-paying areas of employment." Here the editor would strike words with the four syllables of I can earn more. The ad for TV's Brideshead Revisited says, "This week Sebastian's drinking problem grows worse." The kind editor simply crosses out problem, and now the speaker's unfortunate middle-classhood is much less conspicuous.
Because, as De Tocqueville and Whitman were aware, a special social anxiety is built into the American setup, this middle-class habit of adding syllables lest one risk being unimpressive sometimes spreads out and infects other classes. One can hear even fairrly classy people in the theater speaking not of one-acts but of one-acters. We'll never know who conceived that vocalist was a more impressive word than singer, but now regardless of class any American is likely to ask, "Who's the vocalist on that record?" On the pediment of the Supreme Court building are the words EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW. In Washington Itself (1981), E.J. Applewhite points out that people secure in their reputation for seriousness, wisdom, and social adequacy would not have multiplied syllables but inscribed simply JUSTICE, having scrutinized the five extra syllables and perceived that all were implied in that one simple word. But being Americans, they were afraid someone would find them elemental and modest and thus socially unsatisfactory unless they canted it up.
Before turning to a closer examination of the special idiom of the proles, we should note a few more middle-class signals. An excessive fondness for metaphors is one, things like grinding to a halt or running the gamut or boggling the mind, which are never recognized as clichés, and indeed, if they were so recognized, would be treasured all the more. Middle-class speakers are also abnormally fond of acronyms (Mothers United for Fiduciary Security: MUFFS), certainly as an exclusionary mechanism to keep the uninitiated and the impure (i.e., the proles) at a distance, but also as an inclusionary device, to solidify the in-group or corporate or team consciousness (cf. "Officers' wives") without which the middle class flies all apart. Although the middles don't quite use such expressions as milady and mine host, advertisers understand that when such expressions are aimed at them, they will not gag. The middle class likewise thinks quite elegant the expression (corporate?) over drinks (or over coffee or over dinner) rahter than with or at: "Let's discuss it over drinks." (It's the impulse toward metaphor again -- fancier than the literal.) The classes not anxious about their own sophistication would more likely say, "Let's have a drink and talk about it." A similar impulse to splendor motivates the middle class to inscribe "Regrets Only" on their social invitations, where the more unpretending classes would say "No's Only," a way of implying less about the desirability of the party. As middles grow worse educated, they tend to employ more pretentious, pseudo-scientific terms to dignify the ordinary or to suggest noble purpose in normal or commonplace behavior: the word parenting is an example. Saying parenting is virtually the equivalent of telling us on your bumper that you always brake for small animals.
When we hear speakers entirely careless of the former distinction between less and fewer ("Less white prisoners are in our penal institutions today....") or bothering to add the is concerned or goes to the phrase as far as ("as far as the Republican Party..."), we now we're approaching the idiomatic world identifiable as prole. Proles signal their identity partly by pronunciation, like the Texan on the Buckley show who said pro-mis-kitty and "I am a prole" at the same time. Proles drop the g on present participles, saying it's a fuckin' shame, as well as the -ed on past participles: thus corned beef becomes corn beef (or better, corm beef), and we hear also of bottle beer, dark-skin people, old-fashion bake beans, and Mother's High-Power Beer. "first come, first serve" is a favorite axiom. Roger Price, the student of Roobs or urban hicks, has located more prole pronunciations. He observes that "in Southern California even newscasters say 'wunnerful' and 'anna-bi-od-dicks' and in-eress-ting.' The word 'interesting,' pronounced in this manner, with the accent on the third syllable, is the infallible mark of the Roob." Or, as we call it, the prole. To Price other signs of Roobhood are saying
fack for fact
fure " fewer
present " president
oney " only
finey " finally, and
innaleckshul " "nondemocratic"
To say én-tire, like the Rev. Rex Humbard, the TV evangelist, is to indicate that you're a high or mid-prole, but to say merring-gew when you mean the foamy egg-white stuff on top of pies is low.
Proles of all types have terrible trouble with the apostrophe, and its final disappearance from English, which seems imminent, will be a powerful indication that the proles have won. "Modern Cabinet's," announces a sign in the Middle West, comparable to its Eastern counterpart, "Rutger's Electrical Supply Company." Sometimes the apostrophe simply vanishes, as in Ladies Toilet. But then, as if the little mark were, somehow, missed, it, or something like it, is invoked anomalously as if its function were like underlining:
Your driver: 'Tom Bedricki'
Proles like to use words that normally appear only in newspapers. They don't realize that no one calls the Pope the pontiff except in pretentious journalese, or a senator a lawmaker, or the United States the nation, or a scholar an educator. This last is not objected to by high-school teachers and administrators, who rather embrace it as an elevating professional euphemism. Thus it's purely for social-class reasons that university professors object to being denominated educators, because the term fails to distinguish them from high-school superintendents, illiterate young teachers with temporary "credentials," and similar pedagogic riffraff. The next time you meet a distinguished university professor, especially one who fancies himself well known nationally for his ideas and writings, tell him it's an honor to meet such a famous educator, and watch: first he will look down for a while, then up, but not at you, then away. And very soon he will detach himself from your company. He will be smiling all the time, but inside he will be in torment.
Prole fondness for newspaper words tempts them into some extravagant malapropisms. A writer in the London Sunday Times not long ago testified to hearing that attempts were being made to pervert a strike, and that somewhere a priest had been called in to circumcise a ghost:
Readers notify me of the lady with a painful "Ulster" in her mouth; the shrines you can see in Catholic countries in commemoration of "St. Mary Mandolin"; the police at the scene of a crime, who threw "an accordion" round the street; the touching sight of the deceased George V lying in state on a "catapult"...the student who was always to be found "embossed" in a book; the pilot who left his aircraft by means of the "ejaculation seat";...the drowning swimmer who was revived by means of "artificial insemination"; and the rainbow which was said by an onlooker to contain "all the colors of the rectum."
You're likely to hear from high-prole speakers the word penultimate used to mean absolutely the last, or absolutely the most, as in "Nuclear weapons are the penultimate threat." A serious moment in cultural history occurred a few years ago, marking a significant takeover of public rhetoric by proles. I'm referring to gasoline trucks changing the warning word on the rear from INFLAMMABLE to FLAMMABLE. Widespread public education had at last produced a population which no longer recognized in- as an intensifier. The proles for whom the sign FLAMMABLE was devised will be impelled when they hear that something (like a book or a work of art) is invaluable to toss it into the trash immediately. The rhetorical situation grows funny when prole ignorance of inflammable joins with middle-class pretentiousness to produce an artifiact like this label on a bath mat: "Flammable...Should not be used near sources of ignition." The author of this presumably imagines that slow learners so dull as to require flammable will be able to figure out that sources of ignition means fire.
If unexpected silence is one sign of the upper classes (necessary, for example, as Nancy Mitford notes, after someone has said, on departing, "It was so nice seeing you"), noise and vociferation identify the proles, who shout "Wahoo!" at triumphant moments in games (largely hockey and pro football) they attend. Speaking to Studs Terkel, a Chicago policeman (high-prole, probably) indicates his awareness of one important distinction between his class and those below. "If my mother and father argued," he reports, "my mother went around shutting down the windows because they didn't want the neighbors to hear 'em. But they [i.e., the lower sort of proles] deliberately open the doors and open the windows, screaming and hollering...." The prole must register his existence and his presence in public. Thus the conversations designed to be overheard (and admired) in public conveyances, and the prole way of humming tunes audibly, as if hoping to be complimented on pitch, tempo, or attack. The middle class, fearing ridicule or social failure, doesn't do these things: it leaves them to proles, who are not going anywhere. Noise is a form of overstatement, and one reason the upper orders still regard selling anything as rather vulgar is that the art of moving merchandise is so dependent on overstatement. Thus minimal utterance is high-class, while proles say everything two or three times. "Ummmm" is a frequently heard complete sentence among the uppers.
By what other language signs are proles to be known? By their innocence of the objective case, for one thing. Recalling vaguely that it is polite to mention oneself last, as in "He and I were there," proles apply this principle uniformly and come up with "Between he and I."There's also a prole problem with like. Proles remember being told something by middle-class schoolmarms about the dangers of illiteracy the use of like invites, but not being able to remember exactly, they hope to stay out of trouble by always using as instead. They finally say things like "He looks as his father." Another prole signal is difficulty with the complex sentence, resulting in structures displaying elaborate pseudo-"correct" participles like "Being that it was a cold day, the furnace was on." Because the gerund is beyond their reach, they are forced to multiply words (always a pleasure, really) and say, "The people in front of him at the show got mad due to the fact that he talked so much" instead of "His talking at the show annoyed the people in front." (People, however, is not quite right: individuals is more likely.) Just as the prole dimly recalls a problem with like, he also remembers something about lying and laying. But what? Because he can't recall, he simplifies his problem and uses laying for everything. People thus lay on the beach, the bed, the grass, and the sidewalk, without necessarily any suggestion that they're engaged in sexual performances. And there's a final prole stigma. Proles adore being called "Mr. [First Name] Prole." Thus proles who have made it to celebrated stations in life are customarily addressed or referred to in public by that title, no matter how inappropriate it may seem to the sophisticated. Thus we hear of "Mr. Frank Sinatra" and "Mr. Howard Cosell." And on the radio: "Ladies and Gentlemen, [portentous pause], Mr. Frank Perdue."
If each class has one word it responds to uniquely, the upper class probably likes secure or liquid best. The word of the upper-middle class is right, as in doing the right thing: "I do want everything right for Muffy's wedding." The middle class likes right too, but the word that really excites the middles is luxury ("Those beautiful luxury one-room apartments"). Spotless (floors, linens, bowels, etc.) is also a middle-class favorite. High proles are suckers for easy -- easy terms, six easy lessons. And the word of the classes below is free: "We never go to anything that's not free," as the low-prole housewife said.
A very little attention to the different idioms of the classes should persuade the most sentimental not only that there is a tight system of social class in this country but that linguistic class lines are crossed only rarely and with great difficulty. A virtually bottomless social gulf opens between those who say "Have a nice day" and those who say, on the other hand, "Goodbye," those who when introduced say "Pleased to meet you" and those who say "How do you do?" There may be some passing intimacy between those who think momentarily means in a moment (airline captain over loudspeaker: "We'll be taking off momentarily, folks") and thos who know it means for a moment, but it won't survive much strain. It's like the tenuous relation between people who conceive that type is an adjective ("She's a very classy type person") and people who know it's only a noun or verb. The sad thing is that by the time one's an adult, these stigmata are virtually unalterable and ineffaceable. We're pretty well stuck for life in the class we're raised in . Even adopting all the suggestions implied in this chapter, embracing all the high-class locutions and abjuring the low ones, won't help much.