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Literature / The American Credo

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The American Credo is a philosophical tract originally written by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken in 1920. Subtitled "A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind," it attempts a serious examination of the often ludicrous ideas found to be common among Americans.

The main text of this work is an enumeration of myths, stereotypes, superstitions, nostrums and base beliefs of the American people, succinctly listed. The catalogue is preceded by an essay, which in the first edition takes up a greater number of pages than the 488 items themselves (much like those prefacing several of George Bernard Shaw's plays). The "Revised and Expanded Edition" published a year or so later supplied 381 additional items. The New American Credo (1927), which omits the original preface and was published under Nathan's name alone, renumbered, expanded and thoroughly updated the catalogue, bringing the number of items to 1231.


Tropes discussed in The American Credo and The New American Credo:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: "That professors are absent-minded, that they often come to their classes minus collar or tie, and that they sometimes walk into other people's homes by mistake while engrossed in deep thought." (#696; New #895)
  • Ahem: "That a man who habitually clears his throat before he speaks is generally a self-important hypocrite and a bluffer." (#191; New #311)
  • All Asians Know Martial Arts: "That the average Jap is so expert at jiu-jitsu that, if attacked by half a dozen truck-drivers, he can handily dispose of all of them." (New #877)
  • The Alleged Boat: "That all excursion boats are so old that if they ran into a drifting beer-keg they would sink." (#11; New #74)
  • Asexuality: "That a doctor knows so much about women that he can no longer fall in love with one of them." (#12; New #67)
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  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: "That in Japan an American can buy a beautiful geisha for two dollars and that, upon being bought, she will promptly fall madly in love with him and will run his house for him in a scrupulously clean manner." (#5; New #69)
  • Babies Make Everything Better: "That the birth of a child will insure harmony between its parents." (New #760)
  • Big, Friendly Dog: "That the larger the dog, the safer he is for children." (#332; New #545)
  • Brainless Beauty: "That a beautiful woman never has any brains." (#787; New #1060)
  • British Stuffiness: "That Englishwomen are very cold." (#466; New #697)
  • Bull Seeing Red: "That if a bull spots a man with a red necktie on, it will go after him post haste, whereas a man with a blue or green one on will leave the bull cold." (New #1223)
  • California Doubling: invoked "That all moving pictures of English country life are staged in Fort Lee, New Jersey." (#514)
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  • Chinese Launderer: "That all Chinese laundrymen sprinkle their laundry by taking a mouthful of water and squirting it out at their wash in a fine spray; and that, whatever the cost of living to a white man, the Chinese laundryman always lives on eight cents a day." (#271; New #410)
  • College Widow: "That middle-aged widows are very fond of college boys." (#651; New #858)
  • Conjoined Twins: "That the Siamese Twins were joined together by gutta percha moulded and painted to look like a shoulder blade." (#9; New #82)
  • Dirty Commies: "That it is necessary for the state police vigilantly to patrol the Croton water dam to keep the Bolsheviki from throwing prussic acid into it and poisoning the New York water supply." (New #37)
  • Dirty Foreigner: "That Rabindranath Tagore is a great mystic, but that he needs a bath." (New #416)
  • Disease Bleach: "That a sudden shock may cause the hair to turn grey over night." (#131; New #217)
  • Down to the Last Match: "That if one has only three matches left, the first two will invariably go out, but that the third and last will remain lighted." (#142; New #243)
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: "That if you are sleeping in a strange house, whatever you dream will happen in reality." (New #150)
  • Drunken Master: "That General Grant was always soused during a battle, and that on the few occasions when he was sober he got licked." (#422; New #649)
  • Eat the Evidence: "That when a military spy is caught he always has in his possession a small but extremely valuable piece of paper which he immediately proceeds to chew up and swallow." (#650; New #857)
  • Explosive Breeder: "That the philoprogenitive instinct in rabbits is so intense that the alliance of two normally assiduous rabbits is productive of 265 offspring in one year." (#1; New #62)
  • Extreme Omnigoat: "That a goat will wax fat on a diet of tin cans and back numbers of the Saturday Evening Post." (#495; New #605)
  • Fiery Redhead: "That red-haired girls are especially virulent." (#436; New #663)
  • Fighting Irish: "That whenever there is a funeral in an Irish family the mourners all get drunk and proceed to assault one another with clubs." (#313; New #508)
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: "That a nurse, however ugly, always looks beautiful to the sick man." (#136; New #235)
  • Fowl-Mouthed Parrot: "That all parrots are very proficient cussers, and that it is unwise for a young woman to have one around the house when her beau calls if she wishes to avoid embarrassment." (New #160)
  • Girl Watching: "That when a good-looking girl passes a group of men on the street, they instantly abandon the subject they were talking about and indulge in remarks about her shape." (New #284)
  • Give Away the Bride: "That the bride's mother always weeps as her daughter is being given away by her father." (New #51)
  • Glamorous Wartime Singer: "That, during the late war, Elsie Janis was always near the scene of battle to inspire the American troops to lay down their lives by singing selections from Oh, Boy and The Pink Lady and giving imitations of Eddie Foy and Ethel Barrymore." (New #204)
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: "That a man who smokes cigarettes in a long holder is a parlor-snake, but that the man who smokes a pipe is a 100 percenter." (New #1147)
  • Gossipy Hens: "That the old ladies on summer hotel verandas devote themselves entirely to the discussion of scandals." (#17; New #79)
  • Gratuitous Latin: "That Catholic priests conduct their private conversations in Latin." (#84; New #174)
  • Greedy Jew: "That before long all the money in the country will be in the hands of the Jews." (#657; New #866)
  • Hard Head: "That if one hits a negro on the head with a cobblestone, the cobblestone will break." (#213; New #342)
  • Hating on Monday: "That children are always poorest in class on Mondays, as the antecedent Saturday and Sunday holiday have taken all thought of their studies out of their heads." (New #46)
  • Haunted House: "That every small village has a haunted house." (#802; New #1089)
  • Honor Before Reason: "That Englishmen are such good sportsmen that they never try to win games." (New #176)
  • Horrible Camping Trip: "That whenever a crowd of boys goes camping in summer two or three of them are drowned, and the rest come home suffering from poison ivy." (#301; New #452)
  • I Never Got Any Letters: "That there are hundreds of letters in the Dead Letter Office whose failure to arrive at their intended destinations was instrumental in separating as many lovers." (#2; New #63)
  • Idle Rich: "That women who are able to afford servants wear kimonos during the greater part of the day and read best sellers." (#547; New #825)
  • The Illegible: "That all doctors write prescriptions illegibly." (#465; New #696)
  • Impoverished Patrician: "That many of the old Knickerbocker families of New York are today in such impoverished circumstances that they may be found living over hardware and delicatessen stores off lower Second and Third Avenues, but that they retain the old pride of aristocracy none the less and refuse to have anything to do with millionaires from the Middle West, Newport and Palm Beach social lights and other such recently ordained riff-raff." (New #196)
  • Lamarck Was Right: "That if a woman about to become a mother plays the piano every day, her baby will be born a Victor Herbert." (#10; New #73)
  • Late to the Punchline: "That it takes an Englishman two days to see a joke, and that he always gets it backward even then." (#424; New #651)
  • Licked by the Dog: "That if a dog is fond of a man it is an infallible sign that the man is a good sort, and one to be trusted." (#134; New #233)
  • Loan Shark: "That Henry Ford is against the Jews because he tried to borrow $50,000,000 from them and they demanded 10 per cent. a month." (#862; New #1010)
  • Mad Artist: "That the futurist painters are all insane." (#568; New #782)
  • Mad Doctor: "That surgeons often kill patients for the sheer pleasure of it." (#57; New #138)
  • Mammy:
    • "That old negro mammies, now fast becoming extinct, always refer to their 'white folks' as 'honey chile.'" (#720)
    • "That the old negro mammy of ante-bellum days was the best cook in the world." (New #499)
  • Men Can't Keep House: "That a bachelor is a very untidy fellow, and that the floors of his living quarters are always a mess of soiled linen and cigarette butts." (New #796)
  • Mildly Military: "That soldiers in the regular army have a very easy time of it in times of peace, and have nothing to do all day long but sit around and play pinochle." (New #419)
  • Mischief-Making Monkey: "That when one takes one's best girl to see the monkeys in the zoo, the monkeys invariably do something that is very embarrassing." (#13; New #75)
  • Moustache de Plume: invoked "That the woman writer on an evening newspaper who gives advice to the lovelorn is invariably a man with a flowing beard." (#556)
  • The Muse: "That being in love with a beautiful woman is a great inspiration to an artist." (#585; New #715)
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: "That in the infinitesimal space of time between the springing of the trap-door and his dropping through it, a hanged man sees his entire life pass in panorama before him." (#322; New #535)
  • Mystery Meat: "That the frankfurters sold at circuses and pleasure parks are made of dog meat." (#432)
  • Naturalized Name: "That every man who calls himself Redmond is a Jew whose real name is Rosenberg." (#158)
  • No Hero to His Valet: "That no man can ever conceivably be a hero to his valet." (New #402)
  • Nouveau Riche: "That people who are born rich are never vain, and that people who are born poor and later become rich are always vain." (#709; New #884)
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: "That a man always dislikes his mother-in-law, and goes half-crazy every time she visits him." (#479; New #590)
  • Of Corset Hurts: "That tight corsets used to be the cause of many female ailments and that since women abandoned the wearing of them their general well-being has increased 100 per cent." (New #7)
  • Officer and a Gentleman: "That General Robert E. Lee was exceptionally meticulous in the matter of dress and never went into battle without putting a clean collar on." (New #41)
  • Officer O'Hara: "That the chief industry of Ireland is the breeding and exporting of policemen." (New #1162)
  • Office Romance: "That the stenographer in a business house is always coveted by her employer, who invites her to luncheon frequently, gradually worms his way into her confidence, keeps her after office hours one day, accomplishes her ruin, and then sets her up in a magnificently furnished apartment in Riverside Drive and appeases her old mother by paying the latter's expenses for a summer holiday with her daughter at the seashore." (#154; New #254)
  • Oktoberfest: "That the Germans eat six regular meals a day, and between times stave off their appetite with numerous Schweitzer cheese sandwiches, blutwurst and beer." (#457; New #688)
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: "That when a man embarks in a canoe with a girl, the chances are two to one that the girl will move around when the boat is in mid-stream and upset it." (#100; New #195)
  • Old, New, Borrowed and Blue: "That if a bride wears an old garter with her new finery, she will have a happy married life." (#121; New #229)
  • Ominous Owl: "That the quivering cry of a screech owl heard just outside a house is a sign that some one in the house will shortly die." (#731; New #1139)
  • Onion Tears: "That in a photoplay a motion picture actress brings tears to her eyes by concealing an onion in her handkerchief." (#677; New #914)
  • Ostrich Head Hiding: "That an ostrich always buries its head in the sand when pursued." (New #1180)
  • Out Giving Birth, Back in Two Minutes: "That Polish women are so little human that one of them can have a baby at 8 A. M. and cook her husband's dinner at noon." (#46)
  • Piggy Bank: "That when a child has had a toy dime-bank for two days it always takes a can-opener, pries it open and spends the accumulated ten cents at the nearest candy store." (New #112)
  • Pocket Protector: "That many soldiers' lives have been saved in battle by bullets lodging in Bibles which they have carried in their breast pockets." (#230; New #362)
  • Preacher's Kid: "That a minister's son usually grows up to be a drunkard or a thief." (#777; New #1072)
  • Pretext for War: "That Hearst instigated the murder of Americans by Mexican thugs in order that the American government might intervene and protect his interests down there from the lawless bands of Mexican soldiers." (New #121)
  • Product Placement: "That whenever a vaudeville comedian quotes a familiar commercial slogan, such as 'His Master's Voice,' or 'Eventually, why not now?' he is paid $50 a performance for doing so." (#193; New #319)
  • Purely Aesthetic Glasses: "That a negro who wears gold-rimmed spectacles never actually needs them, but affects them because they make him look intelligent." (#605; New #734)
  • Rain, Rain, Go Away: "That one always feels depressed on a rainy day, but that the moment the sun comes out again one feels gay and cheerful." (New #615)
  • Romance on the Set: invoked "That every female moving-picture star carries on an intrigue with her leading man, and will marry him as soon as he can get rid of his poor first wife, who took in washing in order to pay for his education in the art of acting." (#303; New #456)
  • Sad Clown: "That every circus clown's heart is breaking for one reason or another." (#31; New #98)
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: "That a jury never convicts a pretty woman." (#419; New #646)
  • Serenade Your Lover: "That when a Spaniard is in love he hangs around all night beneath the window of his inamorata and serenades her with a guitar." (#830; New #1046)
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: "That Professor Garner was able to carry on long and intimate conversations with monkeys in their own language." (#359; New #463)
  • Southern Gentleman: "That Southerners are chivalrous." (#843; New #994)
  • Stealing from the Till: "That all bank cashiers, soon or late, tap the till." (#265)
  • Stock Animal Diet: "That rats and mice subsist entirely on cheese, and that, while such exotic brands as Camembert, Gruyere and Port du Salut are not especially to their taste, American cheese invariably fetches them." (New #2)
  • Stubborn Mule: "That all mules are very obstinate." (New #369)
  • Stunt Double: invoked "That all the difficult feats ascribed to movie stars in the films are really done by doubles." (New #23)
  • Sweet Home Alabama: "That nowhere is such hospitality found as south of the Mason and Dixon line." (#730; New #1136)
  • Switched at Birth: "That the nurses in maternity hospitals are often careless and that the babies frequently get mixed up." (#667; New #942)
  • Taking the Veil: "That all nuns have entered convents because of unfortunate love affairs." (#214; New #343)
  • Throw It In!: invoked "That motion-picture directors always throw away the working 'script after the first scene, and make up the action as the play progresses." (#538; New #811)
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: "That a man married to a woman larger than himself is always henpecked." (New #156)
  • Tongue on the Flagpole: "That there was once a man who placed his tongue against the rails of the Monon railroad near Kokomo, Indiana, and, being unable to get loose, had his head cut off by a passenger train four hours later." (New #1130)
  • Tonto Talk: "That whenever two Indians meet they greet each other with the word 'How!'" (#388; New #493)
  • True Art Is Angsty: invoked "That a play, a novel, or a short story with a happy ending is necessarily a commercialized and inferior piece of work." (#75; New #169)
  • The Unpronounceable: "That all Russians have unpronounceable names." (#96; New #189)
  • Upper-Class Twit: "That in English families of title, the younger sons always cut up high jinks, and have to be sent out of the country because of gambling debts or escapades with women." (#753; New #973)
  • Vodka Drunkenski: "That a Russian peasant, in the days of the czar, drank two quarts of vodka a day." (#342; New #555)
  • Where Da White Women At?:
    • "That every negro who went to France with the army had a liaison with a white woman and won't look at a nigger wench any more." (#95; New #190)
    • "That all negro prize-fighters marry white women, and that they afterward beat them." (#390; New #489)
  • Wicked Stepmother: "That step-mothers are very harsh to their stepchildren and frequently beat them when their fathers are not around to protest." (New #11)
  • Widow's Weeds: "That all young widows prolong the period of mourning if they think black becoming." (#589)
  • Women Drivers: "That when a woman driving an automobile gets into a tight place she promptly loses her head and causes an accident." (#827; New #1066)
  • Yodel Land:
    • "That the chief form of headgear among the Swiss is the Alpine hat." (#185; New #305)
    • "That the Swiss, when they sing, always yodel." (#370; New #473)


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