H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
It was first heard of in American politics in June, 1908, when it was applied by Oswald F. Schuette, of the Chicago Inter-Ocean, to the methods employed by the Roosevelt-Taft majority in the Republican National Committee in over-riding the protests against seating Taft delegates from Alabama and Arkansas. At once it struck the popular fancy and was soon in general use. All the usual derivatives appeared, to steam-roller, steam-rollered, and so on. Since then the term has gradually forced its way back into good usage, and even gone over to England. In the early days of the World War it actually appeared in the most solemn English reviews, and once or twice, I believe, in state papers.
Much of the discussion of slang by popular etymologists is devoted to proofs that this or that locution is not really slang at allthat it is to be found in Shakespeare, in Milton, or in the Authorized Version. These scientists, of course, overlook the plain fact that slang, like the folk-song, is not the creation of people in the mass, but of definite individuals,7 and that its character as slang depends entirely upon its adoption by the ignorant, who use its novelties too assiduously and with too little imagination, and so debase them to the estate of worn-out coins, smooth and valueless. It is this error, often shared by philologists of sounder information, that lies under the doctrine that the plays of Shakespeare are full of slang, and that the Bard showed but a feeble taste in language. Nothing could be more absurd. The business of writing English, in his day, was unharassed by the proscriptions of purists, and so the vocabulary could be enriched more facilely than today, but though Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists quickly adopted such neologisms as to bustle, to huddle, bump, hubbub and pat, it goes without saying that they exercised a sound discretion and that the slang of the Bankside was full of words and phrases which they were never tempted to use. In our own day the same discrimination is exercised by all writers of sound taste. On the one hand they disregard the senseless prohibitions of schoolmasters, and on the other hand they draw the line with more or less watchfulness, according as they are of conservative or liberal habit. I find the best of the bunch and
Note 7.Cf. Poetic Origins and the Ballad, by Louise Pound; New York, 1921. [back]