H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Subject Index > Page 190
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.

Page 190
 
of English journalism, with its reporting empty of drama, its thirdperson smothering of speeches and its complex and unintelligible jargon, just so, in his daily speech and writing he chooses terseness and vividness whenever there is any choice, and seeks to make one when it doesn’t exist. There is more than mere humorous contrast between the famous placard in the wash-room of the British Museum: “These Basins Are For Casual Ablutions Only,” and the familiar sign at American railroad-crossings: “Stop! Look! Listen!” Between the two lies an abyss separating two cultures, two habits of mind, two diverging tongues. It is almost unimaginable that Englishmen, journeying up and down in elevators, would ever have stricken the teens out of their speech, turning sixteenth into simple six and twenty-fourth into four; the clipping is almost as far from their way of doing things as the climbing so high in the air. Nor have they the brilliant facility of Americans for making new words of grotesque but penetrating tropes, as in corn-fed, tight-wad, bone-head, bleachers and juice (for electricity); when they attempt such things the result is often lugubrious; two hundred years of school-mastering has dried up their inspiration. Nor have they the fine American hand for devising new verbs; to maffick, to limehouse, to strafe and to wangle are their best specimens in twenty years, and all have an almost pathetic flatness. Their business with the language, indeed, is not in this department. They are not charged with its raids and scoutings, but with the organization of its conquests and the guarding of its accumulated stores.
  For the student interested in the biology of language, as opposed to its paleontology, there is endless material in the racy neologisms of American, and particularly in its new compounds and novel verbs. Nothing could exceed the brilliancy of such inventions as joy-ride, high-brow, road-louse, sob-sister, frame-up, loan-shark, nature-faker, stand-patter, lounge-lizard, hash-foundry, buzz-wagon, has-been, end-seat-hog, shoot-the-chutes and grape-juice diplomacy. They are bold; they are vivid; they have humor; they meet genuine needs. Joy-ride is already going over into English, and no wonder. There is absolutely no synonym for it; to convey its idea in orthodox English would take a whole sentence. And so, too, with certain single words of metaphorical origin: barrel for large and illicit wealth,

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