Pertinent and Impertinent

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/June 1913

A LITANY: Canto V.

From the key of F sharp minor, and from the human foot in the nude; from the New York Herald, and from fat women in straight-front corsets; from neuralgia in the eye-ball, and from the International Sunday school lessons; from young lawyers, and from old lawyers; from varicose veins, and from the job of writing this litany; from Pierre Loti, and from people who talk about “technique”; from maternity, eternity and the Germans—also the Irish; from dramatic critics, and from Philadelphia cream cheese; from lady Nietzscheans, and from virgin males—Good Lord, deliver us!


The Standard American pronunciation of foreign proper names:

Bach                            Batch

Beethoven                   Be thove-’n

Bjornson                     Be-jorn-s’n

Carreño                       Care-ee-no

Chopin                        Shop-’n

Flaubert                      Flaw-bert

Goethe                        Goat-y

Koch                           Coke

La Boheme                  Lay Bo-heem

Paderewski                 Paddy-roo-ski

Tannhauser                 Tan-how-ser

Tchaikovsky               Shay-cow-sky

Ysaye                          I-say

Nietzsche                    Nit-ski

Bayreuth                     Bay-ruth


Patient: the physician’s temptation.


Last Resorts:


The pawnbroker’s.


The poorhouse.


Atlantic City.


Free Lunch.

Kissing the stenographer.

Hair tonic.

The medical specialist.



A want ad.


Night school.

The public library.

Key West cigars.

Christian Science.

“The Star-Spangled Banner.”


The fire escape.

A convent.





Democracy is the theory that intelligence is dangerous. It assumes that no idea can be safe until those who can’t understand it have approved it. It defines the truth as anything which at least fifty-one men in every hundred believe. Thus it is firmly committed to the doctrines that one bath a week is enough, that “I seen” is the past tense of “I see,” and that Friday is an unlucky day.

Osseocaput—A wearer of union suits—a lawn sprinkler—a believer in signs—a bonehead.

Silicaput—One who belongs to lodges—a lover of mankind—a Progressive—a gravelhead.

Ferrocaput—One who thinks Dickens a great novelist—a contributor to foreign missions—a taxpayer—an ironhead.

Lithocaput—A leading citizen—one of nature’s noblemen—a Knight of Pythias—a muleteer—a stonehead.

Plumbocaput—A Chautauqua lecturer—an apostle of fair play—a consumer of medicinal waters—a transcendentalist— a leadhead.

Obscenocaput—A vice crusader—a matador of virtue—a sky pilot—a professional moralist—a smuthound—a lewdhead.

Hydrocaput—a teetotaler—a member of the Lake Mohawk conference—a waterhead.


The object of all morality is to teach man what to do. The object of all science is to help him do it. The object of all art is to make him want to do it.


American Synonyms for Clergyman:

Sky pilot


Fire escape

Hell buster


The man who is unable to laugh at his god is a man who does not quite believe in his god. In the Middle Ages, when Christians were really Christians, the burlesque mass flourished, and even bishops took part in it. Today, with not enough faith left in Christendom to make a single martyr, a burlesque mass would end in a lynching—and Jews and Protestants would help pull the rope. Who loosed the loudest yells against “The Playboy of the Western World”? The very Irishmen who would consider it penal servitude to be sent back to Mayo.


Feminine Fairy Tales:

“You are the first …”

“These shoes are too large for me. . . .”

“No. . . .”


The one thing that may be said in favor of militant morality is that it is a self-limiting disease. For a few weeks or months it may spread and rage, paling the cheeks, raising the hair, popping the eyes, but then the system throws it off. What has become of the crusade against the Mormons? The war upon cigarettes? The old jehad against bare shoulders? The campaign for a theater censorship? Gone, alas, and almost forgotten! We grandsons of the rhesus are incurably sinful, immovably resistant to moral infections. Let the germs of virtue but penetrate to our veins, and at once the phagocytes of inherent depravity tackle them, gnawing their shins, blinding them with seltzer siphons, planting torpedoes and banana skins in their path. Great moralists have shot them into us for ten thousand years, chaining us to the operating table, anesthetizing us with the fumes of brimstone, tapping our arteries with crowbars and corkscrews, filling us to the gunwales with moral bacteria, pious protozoa, chaste spirochaeta—and yet in this year of grace 1913, for all that remedial doping, for all that ardent and ecstatic inoculation, seven of the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States still chew tobacco!


The Ten Triumphs of Human Invention:

1 . The corkscrew.

  1. Infant damnation.
  2. The Bismarck herring.
  3. The limerick.
  4. The electric chair.
  5. The union suit.
  6. False teeth.
  7. The slapstick.
  8. Monogamy.
  9. Suicide


Popular Literary Claptrap:


Quartier Romance:

A little old cafe.

Paul, unknown artist.

Clothilde, a model.

C’est la vie.”

An unwelcome child.

Paul’s fiancée.

Dark waters beneath Pont Neuf .


Society French Romance:

Undulating shoulders.

Lieutenant Dessault.

A davenport.

Valenciennes lace.

Tubercle bacilli.


How little it takes to make life unbearable! A pebble in the shoe, a roach in the macaroni, a woman’s laugh. . . .


From persons who know the difference between Bergson and Eucken, but don’t know the difference between a Manhattan and a Martini cocktail—Good Lord, deliver us!


Amendments to Roget.

Polygamy—The risks of monogamy multiplied by x.

Conviction—An opinion supported by sophistry.

Prejudice —The same opinion unsupported.

Hope —A great comfort to married men.

Divorce —The renaissance of romance.

Palmist —One who cannot read the future by the lines of the hand.

Martyr—One so self-satisfied that he would rather die than question his own superiority—the last word in egoism.

Actor—A man who has missed his vocation.

Gentleman—A well-known figure in American mythology.

Optimism—The last resort of the hopeless.

Man—The sex intermediate between women and tenors.


Where are the heroes and heroines of yesteryear? Where the darlings of the yellowing yellow journals? What of Col. Carl. Browne? Mary Ellen Lease? Dr. Mary Walker? Amos Rusie? Nan Patterson? Get-Rich-Quick Miller? Jake Kilrain? George Fred Williams? Gas Addicks? Maud S? Steve Brodie? What has become of Dr. Cook? Roland Molineux? The unkissed Dowie fils? Mormon Roberts? May Yohe? Madeleine Pollard? Arlie Latham? Nancy Hanks? Is Geronimo still alive? Count Boni de Castellane? The Earl of Yarmouth? Richard Achilles Ballinger? J. Adam Bede? Charles J. Bonaparte? Bourke Cockran? General Tom Thumb? Lydia Pinkham? Terry McGovern? Camille Flammarion? Pat Tebeau? William Travers Jerome? Evelyn Nesbit Thaw? Bill Devery? Golden Rule Jones? Potato Patch Pingree? Who knows the last resting place of J. Gordon Cooglar? Jerry Simpson? Peter Jackson? Butcher Weyler? Lotta? Dr. Jameson? Giff Pinchot? Admiral Rodjestvenski? Abe Ruef? Abe Hummel? The Duke of the Abruzzi? The Earl of Dunraven? Pawnee Bill? Lombroso? Charlie Mitchell? Edouard de Rezske? Capt. Webb? Bathhouse John? The Rev. Charles H. Sheldon? Nels Aidrich? Father Kneipp? Mike the Bite? Dr. Schenck? Ignace Jan Paderewski? Captain Dreyfus? Eleanora Cisneros? Theodore Roosevelt? Seth Low? Is Anthony Comstock still among us? Jim Jeffries? Death Valley Scotty? The Mad Mullah? Kerry Mills? William Winter? Jem Mace? Mr. Leslie Carter? Jack McAuliffe? The Harlem Coffee Cooler? Mary McLane? Beefsteak John? Josie Mansfield?