H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
the only world it knew was a rough world, and the virtues that environment engendered were not those of niceness, but those of enterprise and resourcefulness.
Upon men of this sort fell the task of bringing the wilderness to the ax and the plow, and with it went the task of inventing a vocabulary for the special needs of the great adventure. Out of their loutish ingenuity came a great number of picturesque names for natural objects, chiefly boldly descriptive compounds: bull-frog, canvas-back, mud-hen, cat-bird, razor-back, garter-snake, ground-hog and so on. And out of an inventiveness somewhat more urbane came such coinages as live-oak, potato-bug, turkey-gobbler, sweet-potato, poke-weed, copper-head, eel-grass, reed-bird, egg-plant, blue-grass, pea-nut, pitch-pine, cling-stone (peach), moccasin-snake, June-bug, lightning-bug, and butter-nut. Live-oak appears in a document of 1610; bull-frog was familiar to Beverley in 1705; so was James-town weed (later reduced to Jimson weed, as the English hurtleberry or whortleberry was reduced to huckleberry). These early Americans were not botanists. They were often ignorant of the names of the plants that they encountered, even when those plants already had English names, and so they exercised their fancy upon new ones. So arose Johnny-jump-up for the Viola tricolor, and basswood for the common European linden or lime-tree (Tilia), and locust for the Robinia pseudacacia and its allies. The Jimson weed itself was anything but a novelty, but the pioneers apparently did not recognize it as the Datura stramonium, and so we find Beverley reporting that some Soldiers, eating it in a Salad, turnd natural Fools upon it for several Days. The grosser features of the landscape got a lavish renaming, partly to distinguish new forms and partly out of an obvious desire to attain a more literal descriptiveness. I have mentioned key and hook, the one borrowed from the Spanish and the other from the Dutch. With them came run, branch, fork, bluff (noun), neck, barrens, bottoms, watershed, foot-hill, water-gap, under-brush, bottom-land, clearing, notch, divide, knob, riffle, rolling-country and rapids,19 and the extension of pond from artificial pools
Note 19. The American origin of this last word has been disputed, but the weight of evidence seems to show that it was borrowed from the rapides of the French Canadians. It is familiar in the United States and Canada, but seldom met with in England. [back]