Purple Cow

Credit Harlow Pearl 2022

Jan 11, 2023–Gelett Burgess was a humorist you don’t know you know. But you do know his most famous work:

I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one
But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one

But that was not his most fascinating work. In 1906, Burgess published “Are You A Bromide,” in which he coined the word “bromide” as “the personification of a sedate, dull person who says boring things.”

The book’s full title was “Are You a Bromide? Or, 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.”

What is astounding–besides the portmanteau “Bromidiom”–is that more than 100 years ago he not only coined the term “bromide,” he identified bromides we are still using. Examples:

  • I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like.
  • She doesn’t look a day over fifty.
  • You’ll feel differently about these things when you’re married.
  • It isn’t so much the heat… as the humidity….
  • You’re a sight for sore eyes.

In other words, we were boring our friends even when we partied like it was 1899,* way before we could do it on social media.

Burgess articulately describes the attributes of the Bore:

“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.”

Sound like anyone you know? Continuing…

“They follow custom and costume, they obey the Law of Averages. They are, intellectually, 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.”

Talk about painting with a broad brush.*

“Therefore, our First Theorem: that all Bromides are bromidic in every manifestation of their being. 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.”

That last sentence is the key. Like people with bad breath and bad manners, Bromides don’t realize their ideas stink, and they wouldn’t change them if they did.

“With the Bromide, the remark is inevitable. One expects it from him, and one is never disappointed. And, more over, 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, as he indicates by his evident expectation of applause.”

What a scathing satirist!

More bromides:

  • That dog understands every word I say
  • It isn’t the money, it’s the PRINCIPLE of the thing
  • If you happen to want a policeman, there’s never one within miles
  • After I’ve shampooed my hair, I can’t do a thing with it

The obverse of Bromide is the Sulphite.

“Sulphites strive to eliminate the obvious from their conversation. 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.”

After dragging you readers through this dissertation, we finally come to the point.*

It is one as true today as it was in 1906:

“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. They come inevitably as the alarm clock; when the hands of circumstance touch the hour, the bromidic remark will surely go off.”

If you don’t believe that last line, take a moment to curate your social media feed. The tropes roll from our fingers like Model-Ts off an assembly line.* Bromidic wisdom is now ossified into memes, permanent NFTs that will forever clog the lines of communication.

To be fair, Sulphites are not always “agreeable company.”

“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. He sees everything as if for the first time, and not through the blue glasses of convention.”

So pick your poison.* Are you a Bromide who retreats in the security of what everyone has said before? Or are you a Sulphite, a Martian come to earth who upsets the applecart* then stands by to observe the reaction of the Bromides?

We’ll be watching you.*

* Denotes use of a bromide

Postscript: For the record, Burgess also wrote this poem:
Ah, yes, I wrote the Purple Cow
I’m Sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll Kill you if you Quote it!