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- Hold Up Your Heads, Girls! - 3/19 -
Being honest, still adapt yourselves to new people as you would to new scenes: talk with the Englishman on such subjects as he prefers. When you are speaking with honest country people about the beauty of their fields, do not talk about "Flora spreading her fragrant mantle on the superficies of the earth, and bespangling the verdant grass with her beauteous adornments." Use baby talk to babies; kind and simple words to the aged; a good, round, cheerful word to the girls, almost slang,--though no, not quite that! Make the grocer feel you have an interest in groceries; the seamstress an interest in sewing, as of course you have; and the doctor an interest in sickness. In fact, make each one with whom you come in contact realize that you care for him and what he specially does. Just put yourselves into the places of others, and the words will take care of themselves.
The intellect is not such a supreme factor in conversation as the points of character I have so far named. Mr. Mathews, in his "Great Conversers," writes, "The character has as much to do with the colloquial power as has the intellect; the temperament, feelings, and animal spirits even more, perhaps, than the mental gifts." I add this remark from De Quincy: "More will be done for the benefit of conversation by the simple magic of good manners (that is, chiefly by a system of forbearance) applied to the besetting vices of social intercourse than ever _was_ or _can_ be done by all varieties of intellectual power assembled upon the same arena."
But there are certain things the mind must do in connection with the disposition. Concentrating the thoughts is one of these things,--very hard for young or old to acquire. Persons resort to very queer methods to obtain it,--some scratch their heads, others rub their chins. I have seen a public speaker try to wreak thoughts out of a watch-chain. Another jerked at the rear pockets of his swallow-tailed coat to pick out a thought there. You know the story Walter Scott tells about the head boy? He always fumbled over a particular button when he recited; so, one day, the button being furtively removed by Walter, the boy became abstracted, and Scott passed above him. Madame De Stael, as she talked, twisted a bit of paper, or rolled a leaf between her fingers. (Some have attributed this to her vanity, as she had very beautiful hands.) I believe friends came to note her necessity, and supplied her with leaves. Well, do what you will that is harmless, if it but serve to pin your attention right down to the matter before you.
The great conversers of literature are wrongly called so. Set topics do not often lead to genuine conversation, and those who occupy the time by delivering their ideas on given subjects are really lecturers. Johnson as well as Coleridge talked right on while all the rest sat and listened.
Conversation that is real implies give and take. We do not talk to illuminate the minds of others only, but to get their ideas also. And, don't you see, we never quite know what our own thoughts are till we come to try to make them clear to others? "Intercourse is, after all, man's best teacher. 'Know thyself is an excellent maxim; but even self- knowledge cannot be perfected in closets and cloisters." [Footnote: Mathews.] Three or four expressing ideas on the same subject give one a larger range of thoughts, make one more liberal and less obstinate.
If you care for a girl's opinion because it is just like yours, maybe it is her sympathy you are after and not her opinion. An interchange of ideas sometimes leads to discussion, and that is admirable for the growth of mind, provided it does not degenerate into dispute.
It is not necessary that conversation should roll around a given point. I think that is the most entertaining, restful, and real talk which is the most roving. You may begin in Portland and end in San Francisco. You may start talking about preserving peaches, and halt on the latest sensation. It is often very amusing to trace the line of such converse: it moves in a zigzag course, and terminates many miles out of the original direction. By this discursiveness I do not mean gossip. Of course talk of that kind has no good part in conversation: it is the slave of ignorance and bad character. I might, however, differ from some as to what gossip is,--whether there may not be certain kinds of talk miscalled gossip. I am quite sure that criticising the misfortunes of others, and watching a chance for dilating upon their lot, with your neighbors on the next doorstep, would come under the head of worse than gossip. It might be well to distinguish between gossip and scandal: the one is goodness adulterated; the other is evil unmixed.
Good conversation is the mark of highest culture. That is why, in spite of shabby dresses, unbanged hair, tremendous mouths, and large noses, some persons are purely delightful. We have seen that this is so, yet have not added that something lies in the voice as well as in the manners and words of such people. From nervousness, and other causes which I have not been able to trace, girls are apt to pitch their voices too high, as though they thought to be better able to speak distinctly. A gruff, mannish voice is worse than a piping, shrill tone in a woman; but fulness of tone prevents no melody, and this comes from a medium pitch. In the very modulations of the voice are detected excellence and refinement. The human voice, in its sounds and accents, is a record of character: trust it as the key-board of the human being.
May I remind you here, girls, of the harm arising from loud talk in public places? How many times do we suffer annoyance from the noisy voice in the car, the station, or on the street! How bold and immodest such tones are! Some persons seem to think the public is not to be regarded, and that it has no right to criticism. They appear to believe that a train is no different than an open field, where the voice needs no restraint, and where manners are not the most refined. They treat the passengers with as little care as they do the cars; for, while they make a waste-basket of the latter, they regard the former as so many brazen images to be stared at _ad libitum_. Passengers have ears, though they themselves be removed from the talkers by the distance of a seat or two.
Now about the words you use, girls. I fully realize the expressiveness of slang and the convenience of exaggeration. But if a peach pie is almost "divine," and the Hudson River "awfully lovely," what can be said of the New Testament and Niagara Falls? What is to become of the poor innocent words in the English language which mean only delicious and beautiful? By a girl's words know her; but, oh! never by the slang she uses. This use of slang is really a serious matter. Honest words are so misconstrued, and propriety in the employment of them so injured,--phrases are capable of so many interpretations,--that even serious people use slang in a very pathetic way without ever knowing the words are slang. Girls not only hurt themselves, but go to work to defame the very English language and the people who speak English.
When a young woman, who makes much pretension to fine manners and an elegant education, takes the steam-car for a rostrum, and exclaims about her French teacher as "awfully funny but awfully horrid, don't you know; awfully lovely sometimes, but awfully awful at others!" we wonder why she gives so much attention to French when her English vocabulary seems to have reduced itself to the scanty proportions of one word. Oh, I know how pertinent certain kinds of slang are! I acknowledge that a few peculiar expressions convey ideas more emphatically than whole pages of classical English.
The dangers from the habitual use of slang cannot be too strongly presented. Imagine a girl of the period versed in the loose expressions of the day. She goes away; but, after an absence of five years in a country where she hears little except in a foreign tongue, she returns, and with her comes her slang. How common, how witless, her talk appears! Her slang has long since gone out of fashion. The best of English never changes its style.
Girls, especially very young girls, must have their secret signs, their language of nods and becks and shrugs; but young ladies who have outgrown "eni, meni, moni, mi; husca, lina, bona, stri," ought to outgrow signs which are suggestive of coarse, rude acts, and which, with the slang expressions that accompany them, have often originated in some theatre of questionable character.
The responsibility rests with you, girls, to stop this increasing use of slang, and of words of double meaning. I say you can prevent it because you are so much regarded. Your influence is wide, wider than you suppose. If you do not cease speaking slang, your younger sisters will not, your friends and acquaintances may not. More than this: if you use coarse words, or those which may be interpreted in various ways, then coarse manners will soon follow coarse tones, and a general swaggering and lawlessness. My dear girls, I am only prophesying what will be if no prevention is employed. Surely you will give no cause for censure, if you seriously think about this matter.
It is a part of youthful exuberance to exaggerate. Children always want a thing as long as "from here to Jerusalem," and stretch their tiny arms out till they nearly fall backwards, trying to make an inch as long as a mile. But, _cave canem_! the fault of exaggerating once powerful over you, not only the bounds of the English language are leapt, but truth is unconsciously set at nought. We always allow for the words of some persons, for with them a scratch is a wound; a wind, a hurricane; one dollar, a thousand; and all they do in life, a big, big bluster. The only way to bring back English to a state of purity--for it has been outraged by slang, imitation, technical expressions, a straining after long words, and a regular system of exaggeration--is to speak simple words, using all necessary force and emphasis in the voice instead of in the number of syllables, saying what you mean by just the words that will convey the meaning. Of course the dictionary must be frequently used. There is no help so sure as that which it affords to one who would use language properly.
Do not be troubled if you hesitate in conversation, and cannot immediately find the proper word. Search in your mind till you get the expression, then next time it will come more rapidly. One of the best ways to increase fluency of speech is to avoid repetition of words as much as possible. Turn the name of an object or of an idea into a phrase, or substitute a synonym, and in this way you add variety and words to your vocabulary. Do not use foreign words when English will do as well. There are times when it will not, though it is a very copious language. Never think English inferior. Hear its music in Tennyson and Longfellow, De Quincey and Ruskin. See its beauty in the pages of Hawthorne and Irving. Do not use technical terms with those unacquainted with science or art. It shows a lack of good sense.
I want once more to insist on the value of good conversation, more particularly because of its suggestiveness. I believe there are few things really great and good which have not this power of suggestion. The picture is not wonderful that can be appreciated at a glance, the book is not remarkable which will not bear a second reading, music is not good unless it awakes harmonies, a thought is not valuable unless it suggests another thought.
The graces of conversation none can wear as well as woman. They are most becoming to you, my dear girls,--even brighter and richer and dearer than any jewels with which you may adorn yourselves. They consist mostly of pleasant, well-chosen words, sympathetic, hearty tones, sprightliness, and certain winsome modulations of voice.
When every other accomplishment fails to entertain, there is always left the resource of good talk, pleasing to old and young. We cannot sit at Luther's table, and hear him utter life-giving words, "If a
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