H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
6. The Materials of the Inquiry
One familiar with the habits of pedagogues need not be told that, in their grudging discussions of American, they have spent most of their energies upon vain attempts to classify its materials. White and Lounsbury, as I have shown, carried the business to the limits of the preposterous; when they had finished identifying and cataloguing Americanisms there were no more Americanisms left to study. But among investigators of less learning there is a more spacious view of the problem, and the labored categories of White and Lounsbury are much extended. Pickering, the first to attempt a list of Americanisms, rehearsed their origin under the following headings:
Archaisms, i.e., old English words, obsolete, or nearly so, in England, but retained in use in this country.
English words used in a different sense from what they are in England. These include many names of natural objects differently applied.
Words which have retained their original meaning in the United States, though not in England.
English provincialisms adopted into general use in America.
Newly coined words, which owe their origin to the productions or to the circumstances of the country.
Words borrowed from European languages, especially the French, Spanish, Dutch and German.
Peculiarities of pronunciation.
Some time before this, but after the publication of Bartletts first edition in 1848, William C. Fowler, professor of rhetoric at Amherst, devoted a brief chapter to American Dialects in his well-known work on English74 and in it one finds the following formidable classification of Americanisms:
Words borrowed from other language.
Indian, as Kennebec, Ohio, Tombigbee; sagamore, quahaug, succotash.
Dutch, as boss, kruller, stoop.
German, as spuke(?), sauerkraut.
French, as bayou, cache, chute, crevasse, levee.
Spanish, as calaboose, chapparal, hacienda, rancho, ranchero.
Negro, as buckra.
Words introduced from the necessity of our situation, in order to express new ideas.
Words connected with and flowing from our political institutions, as selectman, presidential, congressional, caucus, mass-meeting, lynch-law, help (for servants).
Words connected with our ecclesiastical institutions, as associational, consociational, to fellowship, to missionate.
Words connected with a new country, as lot, diggings, betterments, squatter.
Words and phrases become obsolete in England, as talented, offset (for set-off), back and forth (for backward and forward).
Old words and phrases which are now merely provincial in England, as hub, whap (?), to wilt.
Nouns formed from verbs by adding the French suffix -ment, as publishment, releasement, requirement.
Forms of words which fill the gap or vacancy between two words which are approved, as obligate (between oblige and obligation) and variate (between vary and variation).
Certain compound terms for which the English have different compounds, as bank-bill (bank-note), book-store (booksellers shop), bottom-land (interval-land), clapboard (pale), sea-board (sea-shore), side-hill (hill-side).
Certain colloquial phrases, apparently idiomatic, and very expressive, as to cave in, to flare up, to flunk out, to fork over, to hold on, to let on, to stave off, to take on.
Intensives, often a matter of mere temporary fashion, as dreadful, might, plaguy, powerful.
Certain verbs expressing ones state of mind, but partially or timidly, as to allot upon (for to count upon), to calculate, to expect (to think or believe), to guess, to reckon.
Certain adjectives, expressing not only quality, but ones subjective feelings in regard to it, as clever, grand, green, likely, smart, ugly.
Abridgments, as stage (for stage-coach), turnpike (for turnpike-road), spry (for sprightly), to conduct (for to conduct ones self).
Quaint or burlesque terms, as to tote, to yank; humbug, loafer, muss, plunder (for baggage), rock (for stone).
Low expressions, mostly political, as slangwhanger, loco foco, hunker; to get the hang of.
Ungrammatical expressions, disapproved by all, as do dont, used to could, cant come it, Universal preacher (for Universalist), theres no two ways about it.
Elwyn, in 1859, attempted no classification.75 He confined his glossary to archaic English words surviving in America, and sought only to prove that they had come down from our remotest ancestry and were thus undeserving of the reviling lavished upon them by English critics. Schele de Vere, in 1872, followed Bartlett, and devoted himself largely to words borrowed from the Indian dialects, and from the French, Spanish and Dutch. But Farmer, in 1889,76 ventured upon a new classification, prefacing it with the following definition:
An Americanism may be defined as a word or phrase, old or new, employed by general or respectable usage in America in a way not sanctioned by the best standards of the English language. As a matter of fact, however, the term has come to possess a wider meaning, and it is now applied not only to words and phrases which can be so described, but also to the new and legitimately born words adapted to the general needs and usages, to the survivals of an older form of English than that now current in the mother country, and to the racy, pungent vernacular of Western life.
Forms of speech now obsolete or provincial in England, which survive in the United States, such as allow, bureau, fall, gotten, guess, likely, professor, shoat.
Words and phrases of distinctly American origin, such as belittle, lengthy, lightning-rod, to darken ones doors, to bark up the wrong tree, to come out at the little end of the horn, blind tiger, cold snap, gay Quaker, gone coon, long sauce, pay dirt, small potatoes, some pumpkins.
Nouns which indicate quadrupeds, birds, trees, articles of food, etc., that are distinctively American, such as ground-hog, hang-bird, hominy, live-oak, locust, opossum, persimmon, pone, succotash, wampum, wigwam.
Names of persons and classes of persons, and of places, such as Buckeye, Cracker, Greaser, Hoosier, Old Bullion, Old Hickory, the Little Giant, Dixie, Gotham, the Bay State, the Monumental City.
Words which have assumed a new meaning, such as card, clever, fork, help, penny, plunder, raise, rock, sack, ticket, windfall.
In addition, Thornton added a provisional class of words and phrases of which I have found earlier examples in American than in English writers; with the caveat that further research may reverse the claima class offering specimens in alarmist, capitalize, eruptiveness, horse of another colour (sic!), the jigs up, nameable, omnibus bill, propaganda and whitewash.
Words and phrases stated by the previous compiler himself to be of foreign [i.e., chiefly of English] origin, like Farmers hand-me-downs.
Names of things exclusively American, but known abroad under the same name, such as moccasin.
Names of things invented in the United States, like drawing-room car.
Words used in this country in a sense hardly distinguishable from that they bear in England, like force for a gang of laborers.
Nonce words, like Mark Twains cavalieress.
Perfectly regular and self-explanatory compounds, like office-holder, planing-machine, ink-slinger and fly-time.
Purely technical terms, such as those employed in baseball.
No more than a glance at these discordant classifications is needed to show that they hamper the inquiry by limiting its scopenot so much, to be sure, as the extravagant limitations of White and Lounsbury, but still very seriously. They leave out of account some of the most salient characters of a living language. Only Bartlett and Farmer establish a separate category of Americanisms produced by umlaut, by shading of consonants and by other phonological changes, though even Thornton, of course, is obliged to take notice of such forms as bust and bile, and even Tucker lists buster. None of them, however, goes into the matter at any length, nor even into the matter of etymology. Bartletts etymologies are scanty and often inaccurate; Schele de Veres are sometimes quite fanciful; Thornton, Tucker and the rest scarcely offer any at all. It must be obvious that many of the words and phrases excluded by Tuckers index expurgatorius are quite genuine Americanisms. Why should he bar out such a word as moccasin on the ground that it is also used in England? So is caucus, and yet he includes it. He is also far too hostile to such characteristic American compounds as office-holder,fly-time and parlor-car.79 True enough, their materials are good English, and they involve no change in the meaning of their component parts, but it must be plain that they were put together in the United States and that an Englishman always sees a certain strangeness in them. Pay-dirt, panel-house, passage-way, patrolman, night-rider, low-down, know-nothing, hoe-cake and hog-wallow are equally compounded of pure English metal, and yet he lists all of them. Again, he is too ready, it seems to me, to bar out archaisms, which constitute one of the most interesting and authentic of all the classes of Americanisms. It is idle to prove that Chaucer used to guess. The important thing is that the English abandoned it centuries ago, and that when they happen to use it today they are always conscious that it is an Americanism. Baggage is in Shakespeare, but it is not in the London Times. The Times, save when it wants to be American, uses luggage, as do the fashionable shop-keepers along Fifth avenue. Here Mr. Tucker allows his historical principles to run away with his judgment. His book represents the labor of nearly forty years and is full of shrewd observations and persuasive contentions, but it is sometimes excessively dogmatic.80
The most scientific and laborious of all these collections of Americanisms is Thorntons. It presents an enormous mass of quotations, and they are all very carefully dated, and it corrects most of the more obvious errors in the work of earlier inquirers. But its very dependence upon quotations limits it chiefly to the written language, and so the enormously richer materials of the spoken language are passed over, and particularly the materials evolved during the past twenty years. One searches the two fat volumes in vain for such highly characteristic forms as near-accident and buttinski, the use of sure as an adverb, and the employment of well as a sort of general equivalent of the German also.
These grammatical and syntactical tendencies are beyond the scope of Thorntons investigation,81 but it is plain that they must be prime concerns of any future student who essays to get at the inner spirit of the language. Its difference from standard English is not merely a difference in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical list; it is, above all, a difference in pronunciation, in intonation, in conjugation and declension, in metaphor and idiom, in the whole fashion of using words. A page from one of Ring W. Lardners baseball stories contains few words that are not in the English vocabulary, and yet the thoroughly American color of it cannot escape anyone who actually listens to the tongue spoken around him. Some of the elements which enter into that color will be considered in the following pages. The American vocabulary, of course, must be given first attention, for in it the earliest American divergences are embalmed and it tends to grow richer and freer year after year, but attention will also be paid to materials and ways of speech that are less obvious, and in particular to certain tendencies of the grammar of spoken American, hitherto not investigated.
Note 75. Alfred L. Elwyn, M.D.: Glossary of Supposed Americanisms Phila., 1859. [back]
Note 76. John S. Farmer: Americanisms Old and New London, 1889. [back]
Note 77. Sylva Clapin: A New Dictionary of Americanisms, Being a Glossary of Words Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States and the Dominion of Canada; New York, 1902. [back]
Note 78. Gilbert M. Tucker: American English; New York, 1921. [back]
Note 79. He gives the term as drawing-room car, but obviously means parlor-car. The former is a Briticism borrowed in America. [back]
Note 80. I detect a few rather astonishing errors. P.D.Q. is defined as an abbreviation of pretty deuced quick, which it certainly is not. Patent-outside is substituted for patent-inside. Passage (of a bill in Congress) is listed as an Americanism; it is actually very good English and is used in England every day. Standee is defined as standing place; it really means one who stands. Sundae (the soda-fountain mess) is misspelled sunday; it was precisely the strange spelling that gave the term vogue. Mucker, a brilliant Briticism, almost unknown in America, is listed between movie and muckraker. [back]
Note 81. His two volumes, however, do not exhaust the materials gathered by him. He informed me in 1920 that he had enough matter collected to make three volumes. But his agehe was then beyond 75dissuaded him from attempting to prepare it for the press, and so he planned to deposit it at Harvard University, for the use of some future philologist. In 1917 he appealed to various rich men for funds to complete and publish his work, but to their lasting infamy, they were uniformly too unappreciative to guarantee the success of this record of American self-expression. See his letter in Dialect Notes, vol. v, p. 43 (1919). [back]