Works in the Herald 1934

The other day I suffered the indignity of being referred to as a "person". More humiliating still, the exact phrase employed was "that person," and it is hardly necessary to add that the speaker was a lady.

Fortunately, the devastating reference was not uttered in my presence; and, here again, it is almost unnecessary to add that it was conveyed to me vicariously by yet another lady.

I do not know, even now, what I had done to merit the contemptuous appellation seemingly so devoid of any least hint of abuse, but apparently my fault, whatever it may have been, was sufficiently grave to deserve the most scathing abuse couched in words of dove-like innocence.

Ladies are like that - they are subtle; they are past-mistresses in getting in a swift and dirty left without in any way contravening the laws of scandal or the Marquis of Queensberry rules or contravening and least convention. So to this particular lady I was merely and publicly "that person" - a phrase harmless enough when written, but spoken in a manner that defies any attempt to transfer it to paper.

Now, had a man wished to cry my name in derision before the multitude he would have employed quite other and far less innocent terms. In his coarse and clumsy way he would have had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade; yet would have conveyed not one half the venom contained in the simple phrase aforesaid.

"What?" he would have shouted, while the flush of fury crept above his collar. "You mean that @!*? son of a !!*!*? Him? I've got no time for him."

And he would probably have let himself in for an action for slander, and would still have raved profanely whenever my name arose. The poor mutt.

Yet, lisped in softly feminine numbers, and with exactly the right inflexion, "That person" is by far the deadlier insult of the two.

And all this gives one to wonder what there is about the word "person" that can, on occasion, make it so grievously objectionable. My dictionary gives its definition as: "An individual human or divine being." That seems fair enough. Further "personable" is defined as "good-looking," while a "personage" attains the dignity of "an eminent individual."

Well, there seems to be nothing wrong about that; on the whole it tends to be rather flattering. Yet, by feminine subtlety that harmless word "person" can be invested with such malignant meaning as to humble one to about the level of something very nearly approaching a human toad.

We use other terms that can rarely be made one eighth so offensive even by the most accomplished purveyor of brutally polite innuendo.

There are, for example, the "nice little bodies," the "sweet young things" and the "good old souls" who can hear such terms at second hand quite unmoved to wrathful humiliation.

But "that person" has a ring about it of such contemptuous patronage, such social degradation and such utter and humiliating repudiation as to reduce one to a condition of fatuous futility.

Personally, I should never seek to use the phrase, even were I capable of that rarely bitter inflexion necessary to put the sharpest sting in its tail. Indeed, I trust I should never permit myself ever to employ the tactics of that class of person.

And, in that last phrase, I am hopeful that I have got a little of my own back.

Herald, 7 April 1934, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2004