Prescriptivism in etiquette books

by Paul Nance

While language usage guides are our best source of information about the history of language prescriptivism, another source is usage guides of a different sort: guides to etiquette. By placing speech in the context of manners and decorum, these other guides demonstrate how some prescriptivists evaluate speech as a marker of class. Most etiquette usage guides have a chapter on Conversation, confined to such issues as appropriate topics, avoiding witticisms and puns, and proper use of the voice. But a few guides give quite specific advice on word choice, pronunciation and grammar.

Our Deportment (copyright Paul Nance)John H. Young’s Our Deportment: or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society (Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Publishing Co., 1881) devotes two pages in the chapter titled “Conversation” to “Correct Use of Words,” advising those who would “escape the unfavorable criticism of an educated listener” (p. 94). Young covers many of the usual grammatical shibboleths (lay/lie, who/whom, sit/set, it was me/it was I; p. 95), but also includes semantic or morphological issues no longer of concern (banister/baluster, spoonfuls/spoonsful) and a few that are difficult to understand. What, for instance, is the issue between off-set and set-off?

Frontispiece Our Deportment (copyright Paul Nance)

Language usage guides may also be found in the etiquette sections of manuals of household management. The Household Guide of Domestic Cyclopedia (Naperville, IL: J.L. Nichols & Company, c. 1905) has two pages on “Etiquette in Your Speech”, containing advice on both grammar and word choice.

Vogue (copyright Paul Nance)

A later example is Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (New York: Conde Nast Publications, 1925), which has an entire chapter titled “Speech and Its Vulgar Refinements”. Many of these vulgarisms are well-known from language guides (shall/will, lay/lie, he don’t/he doesn’t). The Vogue editors spend much more space, however, on advising their readers to avoid the language of commerce or the press (store for shop, rocker for rocking chair, stylish for fashionable) and ornamental language “employed with too evident effort and elegancy by second-rate people” (p. 114). Examples of this last are residence for house, pardon me for I’m so sorry), but also hypercorrections such as He gave it to William and I, and the use of gotten rather than got, which Vogue describes as “a tiresome overelegancy” (p. 108).

In mid-century, Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette (Garden City NY: Doubleday & Company, c. 1967) includes a section “Words and Phrases Often Incorrectly Used and Pronounced.” The list contains words the authors considers common or vulgar (folks for family, gent for gentleman), including many from the language of commerce or the press.

All of these works present themselves as guides to etiquette, including proper language as one of many behaviors necessary to fit into polite society. But even some language usage guides frame their advice in terms of etiquette. Josephine Turck Baker, editor of the magazine Correct English from 1889 until 1942 and author of more than a dozen language usage books, couched her advice in terms of etiquette and with reference to class. Christopher Gould, in his article “Josephine Turck Baker, Correct English, and the Ancestry of Pop Grammar” (The English Journal, Vol. 76, No. 1, Jan., 1987, pp. 22-27), tells us that Baker “was unabashed about equating ‘correct’ English with social class and intelligence”. Her purpose in these works was to help her readers learn “to conduct themselves in proper (i.e. elite) society”.

(Published 8 May 2015)

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