H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
underlying psychology,5 and various superficial magazine articles, but that is all. The practising authors of the country, like its philologians, have always shown a gingery and suspicious attitude. The use of slang, said Oliver Wendell Holmes, is at once a sign and a cause of mental atrophy. Slang, said Ambrose Bierce fifty years later, is the speech of him who robs the literary garbage cans on their way to the dumps. Literature in America, as we have seen, remains aloof from the vulgate. Despite the contrary examples of Mark Twain and Howells, all of the more pretentious American authors try to write chastely and elegantly; the typical literary product of the country is still a refined essay in the Atlantic Monthly manner, perhaps gently jocose but never roughby Emerson, so to speak, out of Charles Lambthe sort of thing one might look to be done by a somewhat advanced English curate. George Ade, undoubtedly one of the most adept anatomists of the American character and painters of the American scene that the national literature has yet developed, is neglected because his work is grounded firmly upon the national speechnot that he reports it literally, like Lardner and the hacks trailing after Lardner, but that he gets at and exhibits its very essence. It would stagger a candidate for a doctorate in philology, I daresay, to be told off by his professor to investigate the slang of Ade in the way that Bosson,6 the Swede, has investigated that of Jerome K. Jerome, and yet, until something of the sort is undertaken, American philology will remain out of contact with the American language.
Most of the existing discussions of slang spend themselves upon efforts to define it, and, in particular, upon efforts to differentiate it from idiomatic neologisms of a more legitimate type. This effort is largely in vain; the border-line is too vague and wavering to be accurately mapped; words and phrases are constantly crossing it, and in both directions. There was a time, perhaps, when the familiar American counter-word, proposition, was slang; its use seems to have originated in the world of business, and it was soon afterward adopted
Note 5. For example, The Psychology of Unconventional Language, by Frank K. Sechrist, Pedagogical Seminary, vol. xx, p. 413, Dec., 1913, and The Philosophy of Slang, by E. B. Taylor, reprinted in Clapins Dictionary of Americanisms, pp. 541563. [back]
Note 6. Olaf E. Bosson: Slang and Cant in Jerome K. Jeromes Works; Cambridge, 1911. [back]