A FEW HINTS ON ETIQUETTE from Will Cuppy’s How to be a hermit (1929)

[Note: I have not laughed in a month. Will Cuppy amuses me. Amusement may help unstick me from whatever has caused me to be stuck in the first place. Readers may or may not find additional explanation at the end of this excerpt from Will Cuppy’s 1929 book How to be a Hermit.]


Etiquette, or dog, in the original Coptic, means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely essential. The ancient Copts were great sticklers for form, and you see what it got them. It is owing entirely to the Copts, as we know from hieroglyphics deciphered by certain scholars to their own satisfaction, that to-day at our state banquets and in our more exclusive American homes we do not eat pie with a knife.

Whether that is a good or a bad thing it is no part of my present purpose to go into. I’m not looking for trouble. It is not my intention to take sides on the pie question, but merely to clear up a few popular fallacies about minor problems of good form as applied to bachelors, especially if they happen to be book reviewers living on Jones’s Island. I am convinced that grave misunderstandings abound in this branch of learning. So would you be if you got a letter from a fair unknown ending, “P. S.—Do you wear a bib?”

Irrelevant illustration from Cuppy's 1931 How to tell your friends from the apes
Irrelevant illustration from Cuppy’s 1931 How to tell your friends from the apes

Perhaps the postscript was meant in jest, but it hurt, pointing so heartlessly at what is generally believed to be the bachelor hermit’s weak spot, namely, his table manners. Evidently my correspondent feels that an inhabitant of Jones’s Island would not be likely to grasp the subtle difference between dining and just shoveling in the provisions. Meanwhile I thank her for her recipe for warmed-over beans, her gift of a patent can-opener and her sympathy, and assure her that I do not wear a bib. I have a napkin. She would be surprised though, if she knew how many prominent people do wear bibs.

Moreover, napkin technique in my shack differs only slightly from that in respectable circles ashore. I favor the red bandanna type. It doesn’t show the soup, and it makes a gay spot of color wherever it happens to be left about the house. My napkin has seen its best days, but who hasn’t, for that matter? I’m not one to switch to a blue bandanna just because it is said to be very chic with a deep-dish huckleberry pie. At Jones’s, as elsewhere, the napkin is partly unfolded, if it ever was folded, and laid unostentatiously across the right knee of the overalls. Then let nature take its course.

Being so much alone, though, and with one thing and another, it is an undoubted and more or less deplorable fact that hermits do occasionally let down in their etiquette. This is because hermits, especially those of metaphysical bent, sometimes get to feeling, if only subconsciously, that where there is no eye to see it, there is no etiquette. Supposing, to put it in the classical manner, that a hermit is eating soup at a distance of several miles from the nearest human ear—his own doesn’t count, as he is absorbed in a book; can the sound waves resulting from the operation be said really to exist in the sense that—that—in the sense that—Oh, well, take it or leave it. According to the paradox of Zeno—No, that was about Achilles and the tortoise, and when I first heard that one I said that Achilles would eventually overtake the tortoise, and I still say it. In brief, can social errors be committed where there is no society? Does etiquette itself exist in such a situation? Indeed, hermits often get to wondering whether they themselves exist. They try to reassure themselves by repeating, “I think, therefore I am,” and even then some still, small inward voice is only too likely to whisper, “But do you?”

Where life is lived amid such uncertainties and complications, you can see how etiquette is bound to suffer. Take the book-reviewing hermit who is trying to eat a plate of lettuce salad and read “The Mystery of the Haunted Tooth” at one and the same time without missing a thrill or a mouthful, and perhaps write it up to boot. Sooner or later that hermit is going to cast aside the centuries of etiquette, tell the ancient Copts to forget it and cut up his lettuce with a knife and fork. After all, he figures, the main idea is to convey the nourishment from the plate to the alimentary canal with a minimum of accidents, and a writer is never at his best with the salad trimmings cluttering up his stock in trade, with perhaps a sprig of catnip or smilax worrying one ear and maybe a stray fish thickening the plot of his review.

At first my whole soul revolted at the notion of cutting up my lettuce before dinner merely that I might read, write and eat in comparative peace and content, with a fair degree of synchronization; but I got to thinking. It would be so easy, and who would ever know? And then, one day, I did it! I was without the pale, but nothing happened. In fact, my fortunes took a temporary turn for the better, as I managed to produce from two to five more book reviews per meal, not to speak of the saving in flying parsley, lettuce and sardines. Naturally, I take a vicious delight now in attacking my salad with a butcher knife when I am in a jam with my articles. “Ha! Ha!” I laugh. “One simply doesn’t do it, eh? Well, I do it!”

There is another, a darker side. Having once cut up his lettuce, and all for the sake of worldly success, one cannot escape the inevitable regrets. Blue devils assail one, hissing of what the future may bring forth. Shall I finally take to hacking my pancakes, my ham and eggs, my very clam fritters into small hunks—for a career? Shall I come to blowing in my soup, drinking out of my saucer, spilling crumbs on the floor and stacking my dishes? Shall I, in a word, become an out-and-out Goop?

I suppose the ever present realization of my own fault has made me something of a liberal in the matter of downing the trickier foods. Knowing but too well that I have failed in the ordeal by lettuce, my heart goes out to the millions of my fellow creatures who may be trying at this moment to consume asparagus, corn-on-the-cob, watermelon and squab in the manner prescribed by those tiresome Copts. Some of our best brains have literally worn themselves out inventing ways to eat green corn so that horrified observers will speak to them afterwards, and nothing much has come of it but blasted hopes and souls forsworn and ruined bridge-work. One keen thinker suggests having the others present blindfold themselves in the belief that it’s all a game, and then fall to. My own system is to yell “Fire! Murder!” at the psychological moment and have a gorgeous time with the corn under cover of the excitement.

As for asparagus, the Copts themselves were rather vague, but it should be evident to all that there is small æsthetic value in the widespread sword swallowing or trained seal method. Any one who has seen Mr. Ringling’s sea elephant having a snack will probably agree that everything humanly possible—particularly fish—should be treated as a fork food. Experience, however, has convinced me that to inhale a squab or other small bird in a way at once sufficient unto the censors and the basal metabolism is quite impossible. Wait until you’re among friends. Many such tactical problems arise in the eternal battle between the instinct of self-preservation and the urge to beauty. And since we have been countless ages learning to eat a lamb chop without getting more than half of it into our system, it would be kind of a shame to lose the art, wouldn’t it?

I fear that hermits, when out in company, are likely to eat too fast and too much, to grab the largest piece of chicken, spill the water right off the bat, play tunes on the glassware and dispose of grape-seeds in a manner of which the less said the better. But I think the Copts go too far in expecting the guest to take the piece of chicken nearest him when it is passed. Such a rule may impress the besotted, taboo-ridden social climber, but it will never frighten the able-bodied hermit who possesses any sense of fair play. Some hostesses are fully capable of fixing the platter so that they will get all the white meat. I think, therefore, that a little picking and choosing is allowable, and if anybody objects, tell him that you’re looking for the smallest piece.

I have gradually cured Rattlesnake Ned, the hermit of Crow’s Island, of all his worst gaucheries except using his pocket comb between courses, throwing butts into the finger bowl and leaving his spoon in his cup. When these things occur at luxurious functions a mere whisper, “Ship your oar, Ned!” or “Do you want to get us thrown out?” quickly mends matters for the time being. It is true that he recently assaulted and severely bit a wax pear that had been presented to our hostess’s grandmother by one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, but I had to laugh at that myself. I prefer not to tell what Ned did the time he got the mouthful of hot escalloped corn—probably the hottest thing on earth excepting hot escalloped tomatoes. At least, they might have let me explain.

I should never have set up as an authority on etiquette but for the fact that I’ve read it and Ned hasn’t; it’s in the back of my cook book, complete from ordinary neighbors on through ministers plenipotentiary and papal nuncios up to kings, queens and magazine editors. If I sometimes err when it comes to a showdown, I really know better. I have the book. I find, however, that hasty perusal of the full directions just before going to a dinner party has a tendency to confuse the hermit so that he’s certain to do something awful. My advice is to watch the hostess, but even then the hermit’s furtive glancing about, shifting of food from the wrong to the right plate, juggling with forks and generally spasmodic behavior gets him practically nowhere. Finally, when the attention of the whole bejeweled throng has concentrated itself upon the poor goof and his strange antics, the only thing left to do is to cut his own throat. Personally, I try to hold fast to the thought that the fork is never used for the thinner soups and that the drinking glass should never be raised to the perpendicular and rested upon the nose in the effort to drain the last drop unless the host or hostess has specially asked you to do a trick.

Remember, fellow hermits, clam diggers and oyster tenders, that the way you eat shows how you were raised, and that is a thing to be avoided at any cost. The main idea is to give the impression that food means less than nothing to you, that you’d as soon go hungry as not, and at the same time keep rolling it in. While I by no means advocate anarchy at the table, I cannot agree with my cook book that daintiness is the sum and substance of refined eating. Dainty is as dainty does. But let’s resolve, one and all, to become a little less uncouth during the coming year. I’m going to try, if I have to feed myself a bean at a time.


1. This excerpt is from Project Gutenberg of Australia. Thank you. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0607881h.html#A_FEW_HINTS_ON_ETIQUETTE

2. Anyone who is not familiar with Will Cuppy should correct that immediately http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Will_Cuppy

3. My rationale for mentioning Cuppy at all is part of a yet unplublished motto on December 2014 in which I have been attempting to describe my life, legacies, the importance of Thanksgiving (this year’s splendid fest now nearing old-hat status), the relevance of previous Thanksgivings to my life and daily work–spiritual (and, as the prayer books put it not to my liking) “profane, the importance of building cities and communities, and the sad reality of Detroit (for which I have written thousands of words, not getting it quite right for Joel’s Column for e-architect) still mourning the reality that Detroit is returning from the dead (no effective garlic at hand) with the ghost of Robert McNamara (who helped destroy the Ford Motor Company before JFK and LBJ chose him to lose the War in Vietnam as Secretary of Defense) [see David Halberbstam]. Understanding the limitations of  Detroit’s and America’s recovery from hubrus, an unwillingness to invest in innovation and infrastructure.

4. A technique I used was a discussion of Will Cuppy’s vivid use of footnotes, not shown here but available in bookstores as http://www.amazon.com/The-Decline-Fall-Practically-Everybody/dp/0879235144

5. Free peek first footnote on page one: “The ancient Egyptian word for South was ‘upstream.’ It was the wrong word.”