Gelett Burgess.

Are You a Bromide? The Sulphitic Theory Expounded and Exemplified According to the Most Recent Researches into the Psychology of Boredom Including Many Well-Known Bromidioms Now in Use online

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Produced by Marvin A. Hodges and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team





_Including many well-known Bromidioms now in use_



Author of "Goops and How to Be Them," "The Burgess Nonsense Book,"
"Vivette," &c., &c.


Decorations replaced with five asterisks
* * * * *



This essay is reprinted, with revisions and enlargement additions,
from "The Sulphitic Theory" published in "The Smart Set" for April,
1906, by consent of the editors._








The terms "Bromide" and "Sulphite" as applied to psychological rather
than chemical analysis have already become, among the _illuminati_, so
widely adopted that these denominations now stand in considerable danger
of being weakened in significance through a too careless use. The
adjective "bromidic" is at present adopted as a general vehicle, a
common carrier for the thoughtless damnation of the Philistine. The time
has come to formulate, authoritatively, the precise scope of intellect
which such distinctions suggest and to define the shorthand of
conversation which their use has made practicable. The rapid spread of
the theory, traveling from Sulphite to Sulphite, like the spark of a
pyrotechnic set-piece, till the thinking world has been over-violently
illuminated, has obscured its genesis and diverted attention from the
simplicity and force of its fundamental principles.[1] In this, its
progress has been like that of slang, which, gaining in popularity, must
inevitably decrease in aptness and definiteness.

[Footnote 1: It was in April that I first heard of the Theory from the
Chatelaine. The following August, in Venice, a lady said to me: "Aren't
these old palaces a great deal more sulphitic in their decay than they
were originally, during the Renaissance?"]

In attempting to solve the problem which for so long was the despair of
philosophers I have made modest use of the word "theory." But to the
Sulphite, this simple, convincing, comprehensive explanation is more;
it is an opinion, even a belief, if not a _credo_. It is the
_crux_ by which society is tested. But as I shall proceed
scientifically, my conclusion will, I trust, effect rational proof of
what was an _a priori_ hypothesis.

* * * * *

The history of the origin of the theory is brief. The Chatelaine of a
certain sugar plantation in Louisiana, in preparing a list of guests
for her house-party, discovered, in one of those explosive moments of
inspiration, that all people were easily divided into two fundamental
groups or families, the Sulphites and the Bromides. The revelation was
apodictic, convincing; it made life a different thing; it made society
almost plausible. So, too, it simplified human relationship and gave
the first hint of a method by which to adjust and equalize affinities.
The primary theorems sprang quickly into her mind, and, such is their
power, they have attained almost the nature of axioms. The discovery,
indeed, was greater, more far-reaching than she knew, for, having
undergone the test of philosophical analysis as well as of practical
application, it stands, now, a vital, convincing interpretation of the
mysteries of human nature.

* * * * *

We have all tried our hands at categories. Philosophy is, itself, but a
system of definitions. What, then, made the Chatelaine's theory
remarkable, when Civilization has wearied itself with distinctions? The
attempt to classify one's acquaintance is the common sport of the
thinker, from the fastidious who says: "There are two kinds of
persons - those who like olives and those who don't," to the fatuous,
immemorial lover who says: "There are two kinds of women - Daisy, and
the Other Kind!"

* * * * *

Previous attempts, less fantastic, have had this fault in common: their
categories were susceptible of gradation - extremes fused one into the
other. What thinking person has not felt the need of some definite,
final, absolute classification? We speak of "my kind" and "the other
sort," of Those who Understand, of Impossibles, and Outsiders. Some of
these categories have attained considerable vogue. There is the
Bohemian versus the Philistine, the Radical versus the Conservative,
the Interesting versus the Bores, and so on. But always there is a
shifting population at the vague frontier - the types intermingle and
lose identity. Your Philistine is the very one who says: "This is
Liberty Hall!" - and one must drink beer whether one likes it or not. It
is the conservative business man, hard-headed, stubborn, who is
converted by the mind-reader or the spiritualistic medium - one extreme
flying to the other. It is the bore who, at times, unconsciously to
himself, amuses you to the point of repressed laughter. These terms are
fluent - your friends have a way of escaping from the labeled boxes into
which you have put them; they seem to defy your definitions, your
Orders and Genera. Fifteen minutes' consideration of the great
Sulphitic Theory will, as the patent medicines say, convince one of its
efficacy. A Bromide will never jump out of his box into that ticketed

* * * * *

So much comment has been made upon the terminology of this theory that
it should be stated frankly, at the start, that the words Sulphite and
Bromide, and their derivatives, sulphitic and bromidic, are themselves
so sulphitic that they are not susceptible of explanation. In a word,
they are empirical, although, accidentally it might seem, they do
appeal and convince the most skeptical. I myself balked, at first, at
these inconsequent names. I would have suggested the terms "Gothic" and
"Classic" to describe the fundamental types of mind. But it took but a
short conversation with the Chatelaine to demonstrate the fact that the
words were inevitable, and the rapid increase in their use has proved
them something more real than slang - an acceptable and accepted
terminology. Swallow them whole, therefore, and you will be so much
better for the dose that, upon finishing this thesis you will say,
"Why, _of course_ there are no other words possible!"

Let us, therefore, first proceed with a general statement of the theory
and then develop some of its corollaries. It is comparatively easy to
define the Bromide; let us consider his traits and then classify the
Sulphite by a mere process of exclusion.

* * * * *

In this our world the Bromides constitute, alas! by far the larger
group. In this, the type resembles the primary bodies or other systems
of classification, such as the Philistines, the Conservatives, the
Bores and so on, _ad nauseam_. The Bromide does his thinking by
syndicate. He follows the main traveled roads, he goes with the crowd.
In a word, they all think and talk alike - one may predicate their
opinion upon any given subject. They follow custom and costume, they
obey the Law of Averages. They are, intellectually, all peas in the
same conventional pod, unenlightened, prosaic, living by rule and rote.
They have their hair cut every month and their minds keep regular
office hours. Their habits of thought are all ready-made, proper,
sober, befitting the Average Man. They worship dogma. The Bromide
conforms to everything sanctioned by the majority, and may be depended
upon to be trite, banal and arbitrary.

So much has a mere name already done for us that we may say, boldly,
and this is our First Theorem: that all Bromides are bromidic in every
manifestation of their being. But a better comprehension of the term,
and one which will perhaps remove the taint of malediction, will be
attained if we examine in detail a few essential bromidic tendencies.
The adjective is used more in pity than in anger or disgust. The
Bromide can't possibly help being bromidic - though, on the other hand,
he wouldn't if he could.

* * * * *

The chief characteristic, then, seems to be a certain reflex
psychological action of the bromidic brain. This is evidenced by the
accepted bromidic belief that each of the ordinary acts of life is, and
necessarily must be, accompanied by its own especial remark or opinion.
It is an association of ideas intensified in each generation by the
continual correlation of certain groups of brain cells. It has become
not only unnecessary for him to think, but almost impossible, so deeply
these well-worn paths of thought have become. His intellectual
processes are automatic - his train of thought can never get off the

* * * * *

A single illustration will suffice for analysis. You have heard it
often enough; fie upon you if you have said it!

"_If you saw that sunset painted in a picture, you'd never believe it
would be possible!_"

* * * * *

It must be borne distinctly in mind that _it is not merely because
this remark is trite that it is bromidic_; it is because that, with
the Bromide, the remark is _inevitable_. One expects it from him,
and one is never disappointed. And, moreover, it is always offered by
the Bromide as a fresh, new, apt and rather clever thing to say. He
really believes, no doubt, that it is original - it is, at any rate,
neat, as he indicates by his evident expectation of applause. The
remark follows upon the physical or mental stimulus as the night the
day; he cannot, then, be true to any other impulse. Originality was
inhibited in him since his great-grandmother's time. He has "got the

Accepting his irresponsibility, and with all charity to his undeveloped
personality, we may note a few other examples of his mental reflexes.
The list is long, but it would take a large encyclopaedia to exhaust
the subject. The pastime, recently come into vogue, of collecting
Bromidioms,[1] is a pursuit by itself, worthy enough of practice if one
appreciates the subtleties of the game and does not merely collate
hackneyed phrases, irrespective of their true bromidic quality. For our
purpose in elucidating the thesis in hand, however, we need cull but a
few specimens, leaving the list to be completed by the reader at his

[Footnote 1: For this apt and cleverly coined word I am indebted to Mr.
Frank O'Malley of the New York "Sun," who has been one of the most
ardent and discriminating collectors of Bromidioms.]

* * * * *

If you both happen to know Mr. Smith of Des Moines, the Bromide
inevitably will say:

"_This world is such a small place, after all, isn't it_?"

The Bromide never mentions such a vulgar thing as a birth, but

"_The Year Baby Came_."

The Bromide's euphemisms are the slang of her caste. When she departs
from her visit, she says:

_"I've had a perfectly charming time."_

_"It's SO good of you to have asked me_!"

"_Now, DO come and see us_!"

And when her caller leaves, her mind springs with a snap to fasten the
time-worn farewell:

"_Now you have found the way, do come often_!"

And this piece of ancient cynicism has run through a thousand changes:

"_Of course if you leave your umbrella at home it's sure to

But comment, to the Sulphite, is unnecessary. These remarks would all
be in his Index Epurgatorius, if one were necessary. Except in jest it
would never even occur to him to use any of the following remarks:

* * * * *


"_I don't know much about Art, but I know what I like._"


"_My mother is seventy years old, but she doesn't look a day over


"_That dog understands every word I say._"


"_You'll feel differently about these things when you're


"_It isn't money, it's the PRINCIPLE of the thing I object to._"


"_Why aren't there any good stories in the magazines, nowadays?_"


"_I'm afraid I'm not educated up to Japanese prints._"


"_The Japanese are such an interesting little people!_"


"_No, I don't play chess. I haven't got that kind of a brain_."


"_No, I never intend to be married_."


"_I thought I loved him at the time, but of course it wasn't really


"_Funny how some people can never learn to spell_!"


"_If you'd only come yesterday, this room was in perfect order_."


"_I don't care for money - it's what I can do with it_."


"_I really oughtn't to tell this, but I know you understand_."


"_Why, I know you better than you know yourself_!"


"_Now, this thing really happened_!"


"_It's a great compliment to have a child fond of you_."


"_The Salvation Army reaches a class of people that churches never


"_It's bad enough to see a man drunk - but, oh! a woman_!"


"_It's a mistake for a woman to marry a man younger than
herself - women age so much faster than men. Think what she'll be,
when he's fifty!_"


"_Of course if you happen to want a policeman, there's never one
within miles of you._"


"_It isn't so much the heat (or the cold), as the humidity in the


"_This tipping system is terrible, but what can one do about it?_"


"_I don't know what we ever did without the telephone!_"


"_After I've shampooed my hair I can't do a thing with it_!"


"_I never read serials_."


"_No, let me pay! I've got to change this bill anyway_."


"_You're a sight for sore eyes_!"


"_Come up and see us any time. You'll have to take pot-luck, but
you're always welcome_."


"_There are as many chances to get rich in real estate as there ever
were - if you only knew where to find them_."


"_I'd rather have a good horse than all the automobiles made._"


"_The price of autos is bound to come down sooner or later, and then
you won't see horses except in menageries._"


"_I'd rather go to a dentist than have my photograph taken._"


"_Did you ever know of a famous man's son who amounted to


"_The most ignorant Italian laborer seems to be able to appreciate


"_I want to see my own country before I go abroad_."


"_Yes, but you can live in Europe for half what you can at home_."


"_You can live twenty years in New York and never know who your next
door neighbor is_."


"_No, I'd just as lief stand; I've been sitting down all day_."


"_Funny how people always confide their love-affairs to me_!"


"_I'd rather be blind than deaf - it's such a tax on your


_"I haven't played a game of billiards for two years, but I'll try,
just for the fun of it_."


"_If you could only write stories the way you tell them, you'd make
your fortune as an author_."


"_Nothing can stop a cold, unless you take it right at the


"_He's told that lie so often that he believes it himself, now_."


"_If you stay here a year you'll never want to go back_."


"_Don't worry; that won't help matters any_."

* * * * *

Sulphites are agreed upon most of the basic facts of life, and this
common understanding makes it possible for them to eliminate the
obvious from their conversation. They have found, for instance, that
green is restful to the eyes, and the fact goes without saying, in a
hint, in a mere word. They are aware that heat is more disagreeable
when accompanied by a high degree of humidity, and do not put forth
this axiom as a sensational discovery. They have noticed the
coincidences known as mental telepathy usual in correspondence, and
have long ceased to be more than mildly amused at the occurrence of the
phenomenon. They do not speak in awe-struck voices of supernatural
apparitions, for of all fiction the ghost story is most apt to be
bromidic, nor do they expect others to be impressed by their strange
dreams any more than with their pathological symptoms. Hypnotism, they
are convinced, has attained the standing of a science whose rationale
is pretty well understood and established, and the subject is no longer
an affording subject for anecdote. Sulphites can even listen to tales
of Oriental magic, miraculously-growing trees, disappearing boys and
what-not, without suggesting that the audience was mesmerized. Above
all, the Sulphite recognizes as a principle that, if a story is really
funny, it is probably untrue, and he does not seek to give an adjuvant
relish to it, by dilating with verisimilitude upon the authenticity of
the facts in the case. But your Bromide is impressive and asserts, "I
knew the man that died!" The Sulphite, too, has little need for
euphemisms. He can speak of birth and death without metaphor.

But to the Bromide all such matters of fact and fancy are perpetually
picturesque, and, a discoverer, he leaps up and shouts out
enthusiastically that two and two are four, and defends his statement
with eloquent logic. Each scene, each incident has its magic
spell - like the little woolly toy lamb, he presses the fact, and
"_ba - ba_" the appropriate sentiment comes forth. Does he have,
back in the shadows of his mind, perhaps, the ghost of a perception
that the thing has been said before? Who can tell! But, if he does,
his vanity exorcises the spirit. Bromides seldom listen to one
another; they are content with talk for talk's sake, and so escape
all chance of education. It is this fact, most likely, which has
endowed the bromidiom with immortality. Never heard, it seems always
new, appropriate, clever.

No, it Isn't so much the things they say, as the way they say them! Do
you not recall the smug, confident look, the assurance of having said a
particularly happy thing? They come inevitably as the alarm clock; when
the hands of circumstance touch the hour, the bromidic remark will
surely go off.

* * * * *

But, lest one make too much of this particular symptom, let us consider
a few other tendencies. The Bromide has no surprises for you. When you
see one enter a room, you must reconcile yourself to the inevitable. No
hope for flashes of original thought, no illuminating, newer point of
view, no sulphitic flashes of fancy - the steady glow of bromidic
conversation and action is all one can hope for. He may be wise and
good, he may be loved and respected - but he lives inland; he puts not
forth to sea. He is there when you want him, always the same.

Bromides also enjoy pathological symptoms. They are fond of describing
sickness and death-bed scenes. "His face swelled up to twice its
natural size!" they say, in awed whispers. They attend funerals with
interest and scrutiny.

* * * * *

We are all born with certain bromidic tendencies, and children are the
greatest bromides in the world. What boy of ten will wear a collar
different from what his school-mates are all wearing? He must conform
to the rule and custom of the majority or he suffers fearfully. But, if
he has a sulphitic leaven in his soul, adolescence frees him from the
tyrannical traditions of thought. In costume, perhaps, men still are
more bromidic than women. A man has, for choice, a narrow range in
garments - for everyday wear at most but four coats, three collars and
two pairs of shoes.

Fewer women become Sulphites. The confession is ungallant and painful,
but it must be made. We have only to watch them, to listen - and to

But stay! If there is anything in heredity, women should be most
sulphitic. For of all Bromides Adam was the progenitor, while Eve was a
Sulphite from the first!

Alice in Wonderland, however, is the modern type - a Bromide amidst

* * * * *

What, then, is a Sulphite? Ah, that is harder to define. A Sulphite is
a person who does his own thinking, he is a person who has surprises up
his sleeve. He is explosive. One can never foresee what he will do,
except that it will be a direct and spontaneous manifestation of his
own personality.

You cannot tell them by the looks. Sulphites come together like drops
of mercury, in this bromidic world. Unknown, unsuspected groups of them
are scattered over the earth, and we never know where we are going to
meet them - like fireflies in Summer, like Americans in Europe. The
Bromide we have always with us, predicating the obvious. The Sulphite
appears uncalled.

* * * * *

But you must not jump to the conclusion that all Sulphites are
agreeable company. This is no classification as of desirable and
undesirable people. The Sulphite, from his very nature, must
continually surprise you by an unexpected course of action. He must
explode. You never know what he will say or do. He is always sulphitic,
but as often impossible. He will not bore you, but he may shock you.
You find yourself watching him to see what is coming next, and it may
be a subtle jest, a paradox, or an atrocious violation of etiquette.

* * * * *

All cranks, all reformers, and most artists are sulphitic. The insane
asylums are full of Sulphites. They not only do ordinary things in
unusual ways, but they do unusual things in ordinary ways. What is more
intensely sulphitic than, when you have said your farewells, to go
immediately? Or, as you swim out to rescue a drowning girl, to keep
your pipe burning, all the while? They do not attempt to "entertain"
you, but let you choose your own pastime. When they present a gift, it
has either rhyme or reason to it. Their letters are not passed about to
be read by the family.

* * * * *

Hamlet was a Sulphite; Polonius a Bromide. Becky Sharp was sulphitic;
Amelia Sedley bromidic. So we might follow the line of cleavage between
the two groups in Art, Religion and Politics. Compare, for instance,
President Roosevelt with his predecessor in office - the Unexpected
versus the sedate Thermometer of Public Opinion. Compare Bernard Shaw
with Marie Corelli - one would swear that their very brains were
differently colored! Their epigrams and platitudes are merely the
symptoms of different methods of thought. One need not consult one's
prejudice, affection or taste - the Sulphitic Theory explains without
either condemning or approving. The leopard cannot change his spots.

* * * * *

But if, along with these contrasts, we take, for example, Lewis Carroll
as opposed to Dr. Johnson, we are brought up against an extraordinary
inconsistency. It is, however, only an apparent paradox - beneath it
lies a vital principle. Dr. Johnson was, himself, a Sulphite of the
Sulphites, but how intensely bromidic were his writings! One yawns to
think of them. As for Lewis Carroll, in his classic nonsense, so
sulphitic as often to be accused by Bromides of having a secret
meaning, his private life was that of a Bromide. Read his biography and
learn the terrors of his formal, set entertainments to the little girls
whom he patronized! They knew what to expect of him, and he never,
however agreeably, disappointed them. No, unfortunately a Sulphite does
not always produce sulphitic art. How many writers we know who are more
interesting than their work! How many who are infinitely less so! Your
professional humorist is usually a dull, melancholy fellow in his
private life - and a clergyman may preach infant damnation and be a
merry father at home.

* * * * *

Such considerations point inevitably to the truth that our theory
depends essentially not upon action or talk, but upon the quality and
rationale of thought. It is a question of Potentiality, rather than of
Dynamics. It is the process of reasoning which concerns us, not its
translation into conduct. A man may be a devoted supporter of Mrs.
Grundy and yet be a Sulphite, if he has, in his own mind, reached an
original conclusion that society needs her safeguards. He may be the
wildest-eyed of Anarchists and yet bromidic, if he has accepted
another's reasons and swallowed the propaganda whole.

It will be doubtless through a misconception of this principle that the


Online LibraryGelett BurgessAre You a Bromide? The Sulphitic Theory Expounded and Exemplified According to the Most Recent Researches into the Psychology of Boredom Including Many Well-Known Bromidioms Now in Use → online text (page 1 of 2)