Tuesday, May 18, 2021

'No More Obnoxious and Pestiferous Idiot'

The adjective pestiferous might have been coined by if not for H.L. Mencken. Understandably, he relished the word. It has an elevated, finicky, pompous sound. One can imagine W.C. Fields pronouncing it. On this date, May 18, in 1910, Mencken published an article in the Baltimore Evening Sun headlined “The Pestiferous Fly,” which is little more than a public service announcement from the American Civic Association of Washington. Or is this Mencken’s parody of condescending do-gooder-ism, a prescient subverting of the nannyism of our own age? Among the “Six Important Don’ts” reported are: 

“Don’t have feeding places where flies can load themselves with ejections from typhoid or dysenteric patients.”


“Don’t allow your fruits and confections to be exposed to the swarms of flies.”


“Don’t let flies crawl over the baby’s mouth and swarm upon the nipple of its nursing bottle.”


The assumption behind such warnings is that people are mush-headed defectives, too dumb to take common-sense sanitation measures. In “A Boon to Bores,” Mencken’s 1922 assault on the telephone,” he writes: “There is in the whole world no more obnoxious and pestiferous idiot, no more villainous enemy of civilized decency and quiet, than the modern telephonomaniac.” In “The Life of Man” (Prejudices: Third Series, 1922), Mencken turns his scorn species-wide: “[M]an is a local disease of the cosmos—a kind of pestiferous eczema or urethritis.”


Pestiferous predates Mencken by more than three centuries, The OED’s first citation is from the fifteenth century. The primary meaning has become “morally or socially harmful; pernicious,” including a usage by Joseph Conrad (a Mencken favorite) in his 1909 story “The Secret Sharer”: “I knew well enough the pestiferous danger of such a character where there are no means of legal repression.”


Subsequent definitions include “bringing or producing plague, esp. bubonic plague; injurious to health, noxious, deadly; pestilent, pestilential,” “infected with a contagious disease, esp. bubonic plague,” and “of an organism, esp. an insect: harmful, destructive.”


The OED does not site a favorite usage of pestiferous, from Chap. XI of Bleak House, in Dickens’ description of Nemo’s graveyard: "a hemmed-in church-yard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who are not departed . . .”

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