Verbal Delicacy by Albany Poyntz

There are certain words which appear to offend public delicacy more than the very objects they designate; till it might almost be inferred that all the sensitiveness of human nature had concentrated itself in the ear. The study of ancient and modern languages will attest the truth of this assertion; for many things are to be learned in a vocabulary besides the idiom it pretends to teach.

The stern Romans, for instance, who affected so stoical a disregard of death, would not allow the word to be pronounced in their presence; though the lives of their children was by the law placed at their mercy. Their sense of delicacy would have been offended had it been mentioned before them that such a one was “dead.” It was necessary to say, “he hath lived.” In the noble defence of Milo, by Cicero, he dared not qualify by the appropriate word the act of assassination committed by the slaves of his client; but declared by periphrasis that under these circumstances, “the slaves of Milo did what it became them to do.”

To the title of King, the Romans had vowed an eternal hatred, created by the traditionary opprobrium of the Tarquins, and their contempt of the innumerable Kings subjected to their arms, and dragged behind their triumphal cars. But when Cæsar proclaimed himself Emperor, and assumed a more sovereign power than the history of nations had as yet recorded, the Roman people applauded the kingly office presented to them under any other than the name abhorred. The same circumstance occurred in France at the commencement of the present century. The French, after devoting themselves to the extermination of Kings, hailed with delight the coronation of an Emperor; though to proclaim himself “King” would have ensured the premature downfall of Napoleon.

Of late years, the ears of the world have become more than ever chaste and refined; and certain words freely used by Shakspeare, in presence of the Court of the Virgin Queen, and by Molière, in presence of that of the most dignified of European monarchs, are now utterly proscribed, and expunged from the modern stage. The fluctuations of opinion on these points, are highly diverting. Dean Swift relates that, in his early days, the word “whiskers” could not be mentioned in a lady’s presence; a fact we should be inclined to class among the ingenious fictions of the Dean of St. Patrick; but that at the present day, that rational nation, the Americans, have not courage to pronounce the word leg, even in talking of the limb of a table or of a partridge. The false delicacy of the English takes refuge in a foreign language. All such articles of dress or furniture as are held of a nature unmentionable to ears polite, are named in French; as if the word chemise were a less explicit designation of an indispensable under garment than the matter of fact word shift! All this is contemptible hyprocrisy, and a silly compromise with common sense. Such an abbreviation as crim. con. conveys fully as indelicate an allusion as the same words written and pronounced in full.

The author of the School for Scandal objected to so great a variety of words as coarse and indelicate from female lips, that there sometimes existed a difficulty in narrating to him the ordinary events of life.

On the other hand, it is surprising how much may be effected by a change of name with those whose ears are more impressionable than their understanding. The French had signified pretty loudly at the revolution their national opposition to a conscription, and to the droits réunis. Against these exercises of administrative tyranny, they were prepared to break into rebellion. Instead, however, of arguing with their pertinacity, the Government wisely applauded it; substituting for a conscription, the recruiting system, and for the droits réunis the contributions indirectes. We should be glad if any one would point out to us what was changed in these two important departments of public service, besides the name? This paltering, in a double sense, reminds us of the story of a Frenchman, who was examining a library with persons more enlightened than himself. “Ah! there are the works of my friend, Cicero,” cried he. “Cicéron, c’est le même que Marc-Tulle.