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‘Thank You for the Light’

The August 6, 2012, issue of The New Yorker carried a charming new short story about a travelling salesperson who wants a cigarette but whose sales visits turn out to be nonsmoking.

The author is a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the “Contributors” column says it was written in 1936. If we didn’t recognize the name of the author or know the date of composition, could we tell by language alone that it was written three-quarters of a century ago?

The salesperson is “a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty,” and the combination of “pretty” with “faded” seems odd in the 21st-century world, where 40 (or 50) is the new 30.

We are told she “sold corsets and girdles, travelling out of Chicago.” Not only are corsets and girdles obsolete, but except in sales circles we’d be unlikely to use “travelling” to mean going on sales trips.

There’s a reference to “the war” that wouldn’t work today, since it refers to World War I. A friend says to her, “A man told me that nobody who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking.”

As her desperation for a smoke increases, the woman thinks, “Perhaps I ought to give up cigarettes. I’m getting to be a drug fiend.” It’s hard to gauge the degree of irony in that thought, but a more likely term in this context nowadays might be “drug addict” or “dope fiend” or—whatever a Generation X person might use.

There are only two words I can find that definitely would be different from what a present-day writer would use. The first comes in this statement: “She was a widow and she had no close relatives to write to in the evenings, and more than one moving picture a week hurt her eyes.” Aside from having no e-mail, no Facebook, no wi-fi and no iPad, what seems old-fashioned about this statement is “moving picture.” We’d write “movie” or “film” or perhaps, if we were being very formal, “motion picture,” but we wouldn’t say “moving picture” nowadays.

And then at the end, at a climactic moment, “she realized that the cigarette she held in her hand was alight—was burning.” Surely we’d write “lit” rather than “alight.”

It’s a story vividly set in what is now a bygone time. But the language isn’t so different, after all.

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