Pertinent and Impertinent

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/April, 1912

FROM pale parsons with translucent ears and from little girls who speak pieces; from the scent of tuberoses and from medicated lingerie; from dinner invitations from friends who have wives who have sisters who have no living husbands; from tight collars and from “No Smoking” signs; from elderly ladies who have sure cures for toothache, and from barbers with perfumed fingers; from the nocturnes of Chopin, and from the New Thought; from persons who pasture their children in the hallways of hotels, and from postage-due stamps; from the harsh cacophony of liquorish snoring, and from imitation mahogany furniture; from professional G.A.R. men, and from squeaky piano pedals; from adult males who wear diamonds, and from all high functionaries in fraternal orders; from bier-fisch, and from loose rugs on hard wood floors; from obscene novels by lady novelists, and from eczema; from grass butter, and from detachable cuffs; from fat women who loll grotesquely in automobiles, and from theater orchestras; from female bachelors of arts and from drizzly Sundays; from Fletcherism and from actors who speak of their “art;” from transcendentalism and from delirium tremens; from the Declaration of Independence and from cold dinner plates; from the key of B flat minor and from the struggle for existence; from pedants who denounce split infinitives, and from chemical purity; from canned book reviews and from German adverbs; from basso-profundos with prominent Adam’s apples, and from platitudes; from Asiatic cholera and from the Harvardocentric theory of the universe—good Lord, deliver us.

Socialism—the theory that the desire of one man to get something he hasn’t got is more pleasing to a just God than the desire of some other man to keep what he has got.


Morality—the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong—and that ninety-nine per cent of them are wrong.


Love—the delusion that one woman differs from another.


Contributions toward a pronouncing dictionary of foreign words adopted into the American language:


Monsieur                    Mont-sewer

Scherzo                       Shirts-o

Menu                           May-noo

Rathskeller                 Rats-killer

Cafe                            Kaif

Paresis                        Par-ee-sis

Fiancee                       Fy-ance-y

Hofbrau                       Huff-brow

Entree                         En-tree

Wurst                          Worst

Debut                          De-but

Foyer                           Foir

Lingerie                      Linger-ee

Connoisseur                Conny-sewer

DepOt                         Dee-poh

Fete                             Feet

Habitue                       Hab-it-choo

Protégé                        Pro-teege

Nee                              Nee

Decollet                      De-coll-ty

Amateur                      Am-ma-choor


Sunday—a day devoted by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.


Newspaper—a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.


Change the sex of the devil and nine men out of ten would begin to believe in her.


America is still the land of religious freedom—but the definition of religious freedom has changed. Once it meant the right of every man to state his own beliefs freely. Now it means the duty of every man to accept and approve the other fellow’s. Once its antithesis was enforced silence. Now its antithesis is free speech.


Adventures in the American language:

Give every man whatever is theirn.

I have never saw nothing more uniquer.

What sort of automobile was that I seen you goin’ down Broadway last Tuesday mornin’ about nine o’clock in?


That New York judge who lately advocated placarding the shops of short weight grocers, as a measure more sapient and effective than fining them, put his finger upon a weakness which the so-called progress of civilization has introduced into our criminal jurisprudence. I allude to the weakness of restricted and unprotean unpunishments, of hobbled and denaturized judges. Time was when it was the business of a judge, not merely to determine the quantity of a punishment, but also and more especially to determine its quality. Far from being a mere clerk of penalties, he was also their inventor and embellisher. What he sought to devise and inflict in any given case was some punishment which met exactly the character and conditions of the crime to be punished— which arose out of and had its roots in that crime, and suggested and commented upon it in every detail—some punishment appropriate to the one crime alone, or at least more appropriate to the one crime than to any other.

Such was the theory and practice of the criminal law in the spacious Middle Ages, before men began to be ashamed of honest instincts and simple reasons. For a runaway villein the obvious punishment was hamstringing, and being obvious, it was executed without further ado. For a perjurer, the removal of a schnitzel from the tongue. For the scoundrel who bit in clinches, extraction of the teeth. For the rowdy housewife and husband beater, prolonged immersion in a horsepond—i.e., enforced and painful silence. For the pickpocket, excision of the offending digits. For the strolling actor, an egg, a kick and a running start. A judge, in those days, had to be a fellow of resource and ingenuity. His superiors expected him, not only to punish crime, but also to punish it in some germane and felicitous fashion. If he could get a touch of humor into his sentence, so much the better, for the common people remember a jocosity much longer than they remember a syllogism. But in any event he had to maintain a logical and obvious connection between the offense and its penalty. If, finding the application of capsicum plasters an efficient punishment for napping catchpolls, he next day prescribed it for a pirate, a witch or a well poisoner, then he was himself brought into court for malfeasance in office—and probably condemned to death for felonious idiocy. In brief, he had to keep his wits about him if he would keep his job and his head. The law presumed him to be a man of sagacity, of ingenuity, of resource ; and if, by any stupidity, he showed that he wasn’t, its wrath consumed him.

The judge of today needs no such virtues. He is not the agent of justice, but its mere lackey. A great body of law protects the felon against his effort to find out the crime, and another great body of law protects the felon against his effort to fit the punishment to that crime. There are, indeed, but three penalties remaining in his repertoire. First, he may sentence the convicted evildoer to death; secondly, to imprisonment; and thirdly, to pay a fine. The first penalty is so rarely prescribed, and so rarely inflicted when prescribed, that we may safely disregard it. And the third is not a punishment at all, but merely a means of avoiding punishment—a device whereby the criminal who has made his trade pay is given a chance to buy his freedom by sharing his spoils with the community.

Consider, for example, the case of the short weight grocers mentioned above. Does fining them really punish them? Does it give society any genuine protection against them in future? Not at all. All it does is to decrease, more or less, the profits of their chicanery—to take from them, for the public use, a portion of their private stealings. In Turkey or China a man accused of such a crime pays a bribe to the judge personally and so gets his freedom; in the United States he bribes the judge as agent for the community.

There remains the other penalty of our modern law—that of imprisonment. A punishment, it must be admitted, of undoubted efficacy in many cases. So long as a man is in jail it is obviously impossible for him to commit many of the common crimes. He cannot rob banks; he cannot kidnap children; he cannot perform piracies upon the high seas; he cannot stuff ballot boxes. And the mere possibility, the threat of imprisonment is sufficient to deter many weak and pessimistic men from venturing into crime at all. But if we proceed from these merely latent criminals (i.e., from the general run of men) to the actual, or professional criminal, then we find that the value of imprisonment as punishment or deterrent begins to shrink and fade away. Only so long as it endures is it either the one thing or the other. The moment the burglar, or pickpocket, or yeggman emerges from prison he resumes his burgling, his picking of pockets, his yegging. In the case of these and many other crimes the amateur is practically unknown. Once a man begins picking pockets, for example, he usually keeps on picking pockets to the end of the chapter. He is sworn to the trade, ipso facto and from the start. To be bagged now and then, to make occasional sojourns in prison—all that is mere professional risk. When, by some mischance, he is nabbed and jailed, he lays the business to the fortunes of war, as a surgeon does when a patient dies or a lawyer when a client is hanged. As soon as he has paid his debt to the law he resumes the practice of his profession. If anything, a term in prison heartens and emboldens him, for he commonly debits it, not to the acts preceding it, but to the acts following it. In brief, he regards it as a sort of fee or license paid to the community for the privilege of extracting wallets. And thus it fails to punish him, and at the same time fails to deter him.

Now, really, how much shrewder and more efficient were the punishments of an elder and less maudlin day! The aim then, as we have seen, was to link crime and punishment together indissolubly—to make the relation of one to the other obvious and painful—and, finally, to make it measurably more difficult, once a given man had committed a given crime, for that same man to commit that same crime again. Thus the hamstringing of runaway villeins, the disentonguing of perjurers, the complete dedentalization of biters in clinches. And thus, to come back to our chief example, the amputation of pickpockets’ fingers. Send a pickpocket to jail and you merely exchange one method of supporting him at the public expense for another method. But cut off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, or even only the first phalanges thereof, and he goes at once upon the retired list. He is substantially as fit as any other man for nine-tenths of the honest trades and professions—but not for picking pockets! To live at all, he must learn something new. A single blow of the correctional cleaver has at once amply punished him for all his past offenses and made it impossible for him to repeat them.