Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

By Jerome K. Jerome

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On Babies

Oh, yes, I do—I know a lot about ’em. I was one myself once, though not long—not so long as my clothes. They were very long, I recollect, and always in my way when I wanted to kick. Why do babies have such yards of unnecessary clothing? It is not a riddle. I really want to know. I never could understand it. Is it that the parents are ashamed of the size of the child, and wish to make believe that it is longer than it actually is? I asked a nurse once why it was. She said:
‘Lor’, sir, they always have long clothes, bless their little hearts.’
And when I explained that her answer, although doing credit to her feelings, hardly disposed of my difficulty, she replied:
‘Lor’, sir, you wouldn’t have ’em in short clothes, poor little dears?’ And she said it in a tone that seemed to imply I had suggested some unmanly outrage.

Since then, I have felt shy at making inquiries on the subject, and the reason—if reason there be—is still a mystery to me. But indeed, putting them in any clothes at all seems absurd to my mind. Goodness knows there is enough of dressing and undressing to be gone through in life without beginning it before we need; and one would think that people who live in bed might, at all events, be spared the torture. Why wake the poor little wretches up in the morning to take one lot of clothes off, fix another lot on, and put them to bed again, and then at night haul them out once more, merely to change everything back? And when all is done, what difference is there, I should like to know, between a baby’s night-shirt and the thing it wears in the day-time?

Very likely, however, I am only making myself ridiculous—I often do, so I am informed—and I will, therefore, say no more upon this matter of clothes, except only that it would be of great convenience if some fashion were adopted enabling you to tell a boy from a girl.

At present it is most awkward. Neither hair, dress, nor conversation affords the slightest clue, and you are left to guess. By some mysterious law of nature, you invariably guess wrong, and are thereupon regarded by all the relatives and friends as a mixture of fool and knave, the enormity of alluding to a male babe as ‘she’ being only equalled by the atrocity of referring to a female infant as ‘he’. Whichever sex the particular child in question happens not to belong to is considered as beneath contempt, and any mention of it is taken as a personal insult to the family. And as you value your fair name, do not attempt to get out of the difficulty by talking of ‘it’.

There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame. By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies’ reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar. But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby ‘it.’

Your best plan is to address the article as ‘little angel’. The noun ‘angel’ being of common gender suits the case admirably, and the epithet is sure of being favourably received. ‘Pet’ or ‘beauty’ are useful for variety’s sake, but ‘angel’ is the term that brings you the greatest credit for sense and good feeling. The word should be preceded by a short giggle, and accompanied by as much smile as possible. And whatever you do, don’t forget to say that the child has got its father’s nose. This ‘fetches’ the parents (if I may be allowed a vulgarism) more than anything. They will pretend to laugh at the idea at first, and will say, ‘Oh, nonsense!’ You must then get excited and insist that it is a fact. You need have no conscientious scruples on the subject, because the thing’s nose really does resemble its father’s—at all events quite as much as it does anything else in nature—being, as it is, a mere smudge.

Do not despise these hints, my friends. There may come a time when, with mamma on one side and grandmamma on the other, a group of admiring young ladies (not admiring you, though) behind, and a bald-headed dab of humanity in front, you will be extremely thankful for some idea of what to say. A man—an unmarried man, that is—is never seen to such disadvantage as when undergoing the ordeal of ‘seeing baby’.

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