H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
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
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]