My brother is on his way back to California after a week spent letting us show him the delights of autumn in New England, and one of our field trips was to Historic Deerfield, which was an enlightening experience (although it would have been more enjoyable if we hadn’t been getting increasingly hungry for lunch and the last docent hadn’t been quite so long-winded and repetitive). Eager to read Francis Parkman‘s classic account (Chapter 4 of his 1892 A Half Century of Conflict) of the Deerfield Raid of 1704, I pulled my Parkman Reader off the shelf and plunged in. After raising my eyebrows at the description of the native allies of the French as “these savages” in the first paragraph, I was soon immersed in a lively description of the winter attack and its aftermath. About halfway into it, however, I ran into a word usage of such euphemistic dissonance that it not only jolted me out of the narrative but made me laugh and run to my wife’s study to read it to her.
Here’s a selection of snippets from the chapter, for context (warning—snippets contain much violence): “Nevertheless, in the first fury of their attack they dragged to the door and murdered two of the children and a negro woman called Parthena, who was probably their nurse…. Meanwhile the Indians and their allies burst into most of the houses, killed such of the men as resisted, butchered some of the women and children, and seized and bound the rest…. After a time, however, they hacked a hole in it, through which they fired and killed Mrs. Sheldon as she sat on the edge of a bed in a lower room…. She had fallen from weakness in fording the stream, but gained her feet again, and, drenched in the icy current, struggled to the farther bank, when the savage who owned her, finding that she could not climb the hill, killed her with one stroke of his hatchet…. on the day following, Friday, they tomahawked a woman, and on Saturday four others…. More women fainted by the way and died under the hatchet….” Now comes the dissonance:
“During the entire march, no woman seems to have been subjected to violence; and this holds true, with rare exceptions, in all the Indian wars of New England.”
For those not familiar with Victorian squeamishness as reflected in language, Parkman is here referring to rape, a subject so beyond the pale, so unspeakable, that he cloaks it with a word so general as to be incomprehensible if you don’t know the code. What’s amazing to me is that neither he nor, I presume, his readers of the day were bothered by, or even (I suppose) noticed, the blatant inappropriateness of the literal meaning of the word to the terrible events he has been describing.
Addendum. I forgot to mention that at the visitors’ center I picked up a brochure in Russian, titled Исторический Диирфилд [Istoricheski Diirfild], with an absurd transliteration of the town’s name (which should be Дирфилд [Dirfild]). Why don’t people get their foreign-language material checked by people who know the language?
Those wanting a less biased account of the raid should visit Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704, a very well done site that tries “to tell the story of the Raid on Deerfield from the perspectives of the five groups who were actually present at the event: Wendat (Huron), Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Wobanakiak (Abenaki), French, English.” I particularly recommend the maps.