Monday, December 10, 2012

Poisonous Words: The Fallout in the Early Twentieth Century

In the course of doing some JSTOR research, I stumbled across this absolute gem from the British Medical Journal (1900). It's from an article called "Speech as a Septic Influence":

"Not long ago Hubener raised his voice in warning as to the infective possibilities of the surgeon's beard, and recommended that ornamental appendage to be enclosed in what may be called a bacterium net. One may conjure up a prophetic vision of the twentieth-century surgeon with antiseptic mask, beard-bag, gloves, and sterilised robe, operating within a glass sanctuary into which no one is admitted except after the fullest disinfectant lustration. But Fluegge's doctine [that speech puts forth germs into the world] has a much wider application... If speech has these hitherto undreamt-of dangers for the audience, Parliamentary and pulpit orators will have to wear germ-catching muzzles; this, besides protecting their hearers, will doubtless have the further advantage of making their eloquence less copious as well as more sanitary. Society would find in the same sanitary appliance an effective safeguard against bores." (Feb. 17, pg 401)

I love this passage for a number of reasons (principal among them, the idea of a "beard-bag," which I'm trying to imagine appearing on a show like ER or Grey's Anatomy.) I think the most interesting (and the most terrifying) thing about the piece, though, is the way that it couples light sarcasm with the idea of sanitary measures. After all, nobody understands the extent to which germs can be verbally transmitted yet: preventative measures like antiseptic masks (for doctors) and "germ-catching muzzles" (for preachers!) are spoken of as equally possible necessities. At the same time, delightfully, the author is implying that both measures are also equally ludicrous. I'm tempted to pull this out in a classroom setting, ask what the author is doing rhetorically, and then ask the students what we're saying today that will look equally hilarious (and terrifying) in a hundred years...