Chapter XII. Tone, Or Degrees Of Dignity
§56. If yon look through a few pages of any good tin-abridged dictionary, you will note that certain uses of words are described as Colloquial; others as Cant; others as Vulgar.
Colloquial means used in ordinary spoken English, but not adapted for written English. It is from Latin colloquor, to speak together.
Cant meant originally the secret jargon of thieves, gypsies, and tramps, and thence means the special jargon of any trade or profession. The name is probably from the French chant, referring to the whining or singing tone used by beggars.
Vulgar means pertaining to the crowd. It includes the obscene, but is a wider term.
Such a phrase as "folks" for "family" is colloquial. "Long green," for money, is cant. "Boodle" is vulgar. "Graft" was originally cant, but is now colloquial in America.
These distinctions are by no means fixed and exact; they are constantly changing, so that what is literary English today may become vulgar tomorrow, and vice versa. But it is obvious that they are all differences in degree of dignity. We may call them, for the sake of brevity, differences of Tone.
At the top is literary English; at the bottom vulgar English. And there are differences of Tone even within these classes. The language of prayer is more dignified than that of sermons; the language of diplomatic international notes is more dignified than that of literary correspondence; the language of historical essays is more dignified than that of humorous or light essays. As for vulgar English, even that has grades of vulgarity. At the bottom is a group of words so gross that they are never printed, and are never spoken by self-respecting men. Above that are various shades of slang which vary from month to month.
§ 57. It is quite clear that business English cannot always be literary English. Business affects all classes and conditions of men. Sales cannot be made except in a language which the buyer understands. Colloquial language is often demanded, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
On the other hand, educated people sometimes buy things, and they do not care to be solicited in slang, or remonstrated with in billingsgate. People who have good taste, without much money to gratify it, prefer to be told that the basement contains "inexpensive" things rather than "cheap" things. Our British cousins have made the phrase "cheap and nasty" so well known that one word suggests the other. I imagine, however, that the word cheap will in time get back its tone. When quality rather than quantity comes to count - and it is daily coming more and more to count - educated people will not be afraid of the word cheap. Poor people, however well educated, will take pride in buying good things cheap. The word is Anglo-Saxon, and means sale. To cheapen a thing was merely to sell it. We are beginning to understand that the way to sell a thing is to keep up quality and a fair price, not to cut either. So it is not impossible that some day "cheapen" may again mean to sell a good thing at a fair price.
Business English must admit colloquialisms. It may even admit fresh slang now and then. But nobody likes stale slang, and few buyers care for even fresh slang all the time. Mr. Walter D. Moody, in his "Men Who Sell Things," remarks: "The purest of king's English will secure an audience and hold attention for the salesman anywhere, while slang and short cuts of speech often excite distrust and offend the ear of the truly refined." As a general proposition this is sound and unassailable.
But just what is here meant by "the purest of king's English" is not so clear. As one turns the leaves of Mr. Moody's vigorous and optimistic book, one sees that he is writing to commercial travelers, and has been taught expressions that a college-bred man has been taught to reject. Mr. Moody never uses the word "drummer"; he evidently considers that below tone. On the contrary he dignifies the word "salesman" all he can, even calling him an "ambassador plenipotentiary." That is high-toned language, surely; perhaps a trifle too high-toned. But some words which Mr. Moody uses might fairly be called drummer's English rather than the English of ambassadors. Take the phrase "persevering hustle" (p. 25). It is rather good, is it not? "Hustle" is slang, but "persevering" is literary, and the combination is clear and fresh. Chapter III is headed," The Knocker." That is slang for The Disgruntled Man, or The Critic, or The Complainer. Mr. Moody uses it because he knows that it means a great variety of unpleasant qualities to the traveling man. It fits the tone of the road. He would not seriously maintain that it would be the best word to employ in every business situation. He would not advise a correspondent to begin a letter thus: "My dear Madam: Your knock received and contents noted."
I have no desire to cast discredit on Mr. Moody's book, the general tone of which is much above that of ordinary salesman English. It is not so dignified as Mr. Balmer's little volume, "The Science of Advertising," but its purpose is different. Its purpose is to arouse courage, optimism, the spirit of persevering hustle. As such it is bound not to be too dignified.
§ 58. The line above, beginning "My dear Madam," suggests the fact that tones are often mixed in the same sentence. All the words in that sentence are dignified except "knock." Don't mix your tones unless you do it deliberately, for a humorous purpose. Let me write a sentence to illustrate what I mean. Let us say: Do not descend from a dignified tone unless for purposes of force or humor you deliberately desire to slump. Here the word "slump" is below tone; but it is so for a purpose.
In Mr. Glass's delightful stories of Potash and Perlmutter are captured some delicious examples of mixed tones. Let me quote here three letters, the very absurdity of which will drive home the point we are trying to make.