Dr. Fleming, Mr. Cadfael, and now Mr. Navrozov in recent posts have opened a fruitful discussion of the American tendency to debase the language with prettified terms in order to disguise reality and enforce conformity of thought. Actually this is nothing new and is in part a product of what our two most penetrating foreign observers, Tocqueville and Solzhenitsyn, identified as the predominant American passion for respectability and conformity. Respectability is achieved, so it is thought, by exhibiting a shallow but pretentious learning, the pseudo-intellectualism that is the fatal curse of American public discourse, far more so than outright lies. Two things that characterize honest speech have been missing a long time from such discourse—genuine learning and common sense.
James Fenimore Cooper, in his Littlepage Manuscripts, imagines the sad fate of a little town in New York. The original sturdy, plain-speaking Dutch settlers had called it “Satanstoe” after a familiar geographic feature. Then newcomers from Connecticut swarmed in and insisted on changing the name to a respectable “Dibbleton.” As a famous New Englander was later to remark, “the business of America is business,” and who wants to do business in a place named Satanstoe?
Another Connecticut contribution to American culture was Noah Webster and his “American Dictionary.” It was not an American dictionary but a New England attempt to impose its own style on other Americans. Previously, Americans spelled with gentlemanly freedom. Webster wanted to establish a standard of usage that would show its user to be respectably educated. In the process he tried to abolish some familiar English spellings which he considered inefficient. It is not at all widely known, but in fact everybody except New Englanders ignored Webster until after 1865.
Perhaps I can put some of my wasted idleness in studying movies to work and contribute some examples to this discussion, taken from sales advertisements for various films.
And ad for “The Lost Battalion,” based on a real World War I incident, tells us that the Germans “brutally attacked” Americans. Apparently American attacks are not “brutal” and those mean old Germans just don’t know how to behave in war. Americans are good and should never be attacked “brutally.”
The film “Alvarez Kelly” is a fiction account of a real incident in which a small group of Confederate cavalrymen rustled a large herd of beef cattle from Grant’s army in order to feed the under-nourished Army of Northern Virginia. In the ad the Confederate commander in the raid is called “a sadistic Confederate general.” As played by Richard Widmark, the character is tough and dedicated, but cannot be called “sadistic.” But in the minds of the little twits from Haverford and Vassar who write these things, Confederate generals are always “sadistic.” The real person in the case was General Thomas Lafayette Rosser, who, after his Confederate service, settled in Minnesota where he became an popular citizen. He served as a U.S. consul in Canada and volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War. I wonder how Minnesota could tolerate such a sadist?
Then there is the PBS production of a “Prince Among Slaves.” We are told that this African prince endured “40 years of imprisonment on a Mississippi plantation.” It is very hard for people today, who have, as Grandad used to say, been educated beyond their intelligence, to understand, but an antebellum Southern plantation was not a prison. There was no barbed wire to keep people in, no armed guards, no watch-towers, not even very many locks. Certainly many fewer locks and guards than those that affluent liberals cower behind these days. Has this hack never been to Mount Vernon or Monticello?
The concept of an African “prince” seems a little dubious also, designed to suggest that Africans enjoyed regimes of European-style legitimate monarchy. But African rulers were spectacularly polygamous and nobody could keep up with who were the legitimate “princes.” The ruler was generally the last survivor of a bloodbath and someone who was away for 40 years was not a likely contender.
Perhaps some day somebody will pay for what Americans have done to debase the magnificent language which they inherited. Meanwhile, a people who use weasel words to evade the truth are bound sooner or later to have an unpleasant encounter with reality.
Clyde N. Wilson is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a Contributing Editor to Chronicles. Dr. Wilson is best known as the editor of the 28-volume documentary edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the author or editor of a dozen other books—including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture—and has published over 700 articles, essays, and reviews. He is also the co-owner of Shotwell Publishing.