The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter I - By Way of Introduction

§ 1

The Diverging Streams—Thomas Jefferson, with his usual prevision, saw clearly more than a century ago that the American people, as they increased in numbers and in the diversity of their national interests and racial strains, would make changes in their mother tongue, as they had already made changes in the political institutions of their inheritance. "The new circumstances under which we are placed," he wrote to John Waldo from Monticello on August 16, 1813, "call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed."

Nearly a quarter of a century before this, another great American, and one with an expertness in the matter that the too versatile Jefferson could not muster, had ventured upon a prophecy even more bold and specific. He was Noah Webster, then at the beginning of his stormy career as a lexicographer. In his little volume of "Dissertations on the English Language," printed in 1789 and dedicated to "His Excellency, Benjamin Franklin, Esq., LL.D., F.R.S., late President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Webster argued that the time for regarding English usage and submitting to English authority had already passed, and that "a future separation of the American tongue from the English" was "necessary and unavoidable." "Numerous local causes," he continued, "such as a new country, new associations of people, new combinations of ideas in arts and sciences, and some intercourse with tribes wholly unknown in Europe, will introduce new words into the American tongue. These causes will produce, in a course of time, a language in [Pg002] North America as different from the future language of England as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German, or from one another."[1]

Neither Jefferson nor Webster put a term upon his prophecy. They may have been thinking, one or both, of a remote era, not yet come to dawn, or they may have been thinking, with the facile imagination of those days, of a period even earlier than our own. In the latter case, they allowed far too little (and particularly Webster) for factors that have worked powerfully against the influences they saw so clearly in operation about them. One of these factors, obviously, has been the vast improvement in communications across the ocean, a change scarcely in vision a century ago. It has brought New York relatively nearer to London today than it was to Boston, or even to Philadelphia, during Jefferson's presidency, and that greater proximity has produced a steady interchange of ideas, opinions, news and mere gossip. We latter-day Americans know a great deal more about the everyday affairs of England than the early Americans, for we read more English books, and have more about the English in our newspapers, and meet more Englishmen, and go to England much oftener. The effects of this ceaseless traffic in ideas and impressions, so plainly visible in politics, in ethics and aesthetics, and even in the minutae of social intercourse, are also to be seen in the language. On the one hand there is a swift exchange of new inventions on both sides, so that much of our American slang quickly passes to London and the latest English fashions in pronunciation are almost instantaneously imitated, at least by a minority, in New York; and on the other hand the English, by so constantly having the floor, force upon us, out of their firmer resolution and certitude, a somewhat sneaking respect for their own greater conservatism of speech, so that our professors of the language, in the overwhelming main, combat all signs of differentiation with the utmost diligence, and safeguard the doctrine that the standards of English are the only reputable standards of American.

This doctrine, of course, is not supported by the known laws of [Pg003] language, nor has it prevented the large divergences that we shall presently examine, but all the same it has worked steadily toward a highly artificial formalism, and as steadily against the investigation of the actual national speech. Such grammar, so-called, as is taught in our schools and colleges, is a grammar standing four-legged upon the theorizings and false inferences of English Latinists, eager only to break the wild tongue of Shakespeare to a rule; and its frank aim is to create in us a high respect for a book language which few of us ever actually speak and not many of us even learn to write. That language, heavily artificial though it may be, undoubtedly has notable merits. It shows a sonority and a stateliness that you must go to the Latin of the Golden Age to match; its "highly charged and heavy-shotted" periods, in Matthew Arnold's phrase, serve admirably the obscurantist purposes of American pedagogy and of English parliamentary oratory and leader-writing; it is something for the literary artists of both countries to prove their skill upon by flouting it. But to the average American, bent upon expressing his ideas, not stupendously but merely clearly, it must always remain something vague and remote, like Greek history or the properties of the parabola, for he never speaks it or hears it spoken, and seldom encounters it in his everyday reading. If he learns to write it, which is not often, it is with a rather depressing sense of its artificiality. He may master it as a Korean, bred in the colloquial Onmun, may master the literary Korean-Chinese, but he never thinks in it or quite feels it.

This fact, I daresay, is largely responsible for the notorious failure of our schools to turn out students who can put their ideas into words with simplicity and intelligibility. What their professors try to teach is not their mother-tongue at all, but a dialect that stands quite outside their common experience, and into which they have to translate their thoughts, consciously and painfully. Bad writing consists in making the attempt, and failing through lack of practise. Good writing consists, as in the case of Howells, in deliberately throwing overboard the principles so elaborately inculcated, or, as in the case of Lincoln, in standing unaware of them. Thus the study of the language he is [Pg004] supposed to use, to the average American, takes on a sort of bilingual character. On the one hand, he is grounded abominably in a grammar and syntax that have always been largely artificial, even in the country where they are supposed to prevail, and on the other hand he has to pick up the essentials of his actual speech as best he may. "Literary English," says Van Wyck Brooks,[2] "with us is a tradition, just as Anglo-Saxon law with us is a tradition. They persist, not as the normal expressions of a race, ... but through prestige and precedent and the will and habit of a dominating class largely out of touch with a national fabric unconsciously taking form out of school." What thus goes on out of school does not interest the guardians of our linguistic morals. No attempt to deduce the principles of American grammar, or even of American syntax, from the everyday speech of decently spoken Americans has ever been made. There is no scientific study, general and comprehensive in scope, of the American vocabulary, or of the influences lying at the root of American word-formation. No American philologist, so far as I know, has ever deigned to give the same sober attention to the sermo plebeius of his country that he habitually gives to the mythical objective case in theoretical English, or to the pronunciation of Latin, or to the irregular verbs in French.

§ 2

The Academic Attitude—This neglect of the vulgate by those professionally trained to investigate it, and its disdainful dismissal when it is considered at all, are among the strangest phenomena of American scholarship. In all other countries the everyday speech of the people, and even the speech of the illiterate, have the constant attention of philologists, and the laws of their growth and variation are elaborately studied. In France, to name but one agency, there is the Société des Parlers de France, with its diligent inquiries into changing forms; moreover, the Académie itself is endlessly concerned with the [Pg005] subject, and is at great pains to observe and note every fluctuation in usage.[3] In Germany, amid many other such works, there are the admirable grammars of the spoken speech by Dr. Otto Bremer. In Sweden there are several journals devoted to the study of the vulgate, and the government has recently granted a subvention of 7500 kronen a year to an organization of scholars called the Undersökningen av Svenska Folkmaal, formed to investigate it systematically.[4] In Norway there is a widespread movement to overthrow the official Dano-Norwegian, and substitute a national language based upon the speech of the peasants.[5] In Spain the Academia is constantly at work upon its great Diccionario, Ortografía and Gramática, and revises them at frequent intervals (the last time in 1914), taking in all new words as they appear and all new forms of old ones. And in Latin-America, to come nearer to our own case, the native philologists have produced a copious literature on the matter closest at hand, [Pg006] and one finds in it very excellent works upon the Portuguese dialect of Brazil, and the variations of Spanish in Mexico, the Argentine, Chili, Peru, Ecuador, Uraguay and even Honduras and Costa Rica.[6] But in the United States the business has attracted little attention, and less talent. The only existing formal treatise upon the subject[7] was written by a Swede trained in Germany and is heavy with errors and omissions. And the only usable dictionary of Americanisms[8] was written in England, and is the work of an expatriated lawyer. Not a single volume by a native philologist, familiar with the language by daily contact and professionally equipped for the business, is to be found in the meagre bibliography.

I am not forgetting, of course, the early explorations of Noah Webster, of which much more anon, nor the labors of our later dictionary makers, nor the inquiries of the American Dialect Society,[9] nor even the occasional illuminations of such writers as Richard Grant White, Thomas S. Lounsbury and Brander Matthews. But all this preliminary work has left the main field almost uncharted. Webster, as we shall see, was far more a reformer of the American dialect than a student of it. He introduced radical changes into its spelling and pronunciation, but he showed little understanding of its direction and genius. One always sees in him, indeed, the teacher rather than the scientific inquirer; the ardor of his desire to expound and instruct was only matched by his infinite capacity for observing inaccurately, and his profound ignorance of elementary philological principles. In the preface to the first edition of his American Dictionary, published in 1828—the first in which he added the qualifying adjective to the title—he argued eloquently for the right of Americans to shape their own speech without regard to English [Pg007] precedents, but only a year before this he had told Captain Basil Hall[10] that he knew of but fifty genuine Americanisms—a truly staggering proof of his defective observation. Webster was the first American professional scholar, and despite his frequent engrossment in public concerns and his endless public controversies, there was always something sequestered and almost medieval about him. The American language that he described and argued for was seldom the actual tongue of the folks about him, but often a sort of Volapük made up of one part faulty reporting and nine parts academic theorizing. In only one department did he exert any lasting influence, and that was in the department of orthography. The fact that our spelling is simpler and usually more logical than the English we chiefly owe to him. But it is not to be forgotten that the majority of his innovations, even here, were not adopted, but rejected, nor is it to be forgotten that spelling is the least of all the factors that shape and condition a language.

The same caveat lies against the work of the later makers of dictionaries; they have gone ahead of common usage in the matter of orthography, but they have hung back in the far more important matter of vocabulary, and have neglected the most important matter of idiom altogether. The defect in the work of the Dialect Society lies in a somewhat similar circumscription of activity. Its constitution, adopted in 1889, says that "its object is the investigation of the spoken English of the United States and Canada," but that investigation, so far, has got little beyond the accumulation of vocabularies of local dialects, such as they are. Even in this department its work is very far from finished, and the Dialect Dictionary announced years ago has not yet appeared. Until its collections are completed and synchronized, it will be impossible for its members to make any profitable inquiry into the general laws underlying the development of American, or even to attempt a classification of the materials common to the whole speech. The meagreness of the materials accumulated in the five slow-moving volumes of Dialect Notes shows clearly, indeed, how little the American philologist is [Pg008] interested in the language that falls upon his ears every hour of the day. And in Modern Language Notes that impression is reinforced, for its bulky volumes contain exhaustive studies of all the other living languages and dialects, but only an occasional essay upon American.

Now add to this general indifference a persistent and often violent effort to oppose any formal differentiation of English and American, initiated by English purists but heartily supported by various Americans, and you come, perhaps, to some understanding of the unsatisfactory state of the literature of the subject. The pioneer dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1816 by John Pickering, a Massachusetts lawyer,[11] was not only criticized unkindly; it was roundly denounced as something subtly impertinent and corrupting, and even Noah Webster took a formidable fling at it.[12] Most of the American philologists of the early days—Witherspoon, Worcester, Fowler, Cobb and their like—were uncompromising advocates of conformity, and combatted every indication of a national independence in speech with the utmost vigilance. One of their company, true enough, stood out against the rest. He was George Perkins Marsh, and in his "Lectures on the English Language"[13] he argued that "in point of naked syntactical accuracy, the English of America is not at all inferior to that of England." But even Marsh expressed the hope that Americans would not, "with malice prepense, go about to republicanize our orthography and our syntax, our grammars and our dictionaries, our nursery hymns (sic) and our Bibles" to the point of actual separation.[14] Moreover, he was a philologist only by courtesy; the regularly ordained school-masters were all against him. The fear voiced by William C. Fowler, professor of rhetoric at Amherst, that Americans might "break loose from the laws of the English language"[15] altogether, was [Pg009] echoed by the whole fraternity, and so the corrective bastinado was laid on.

It remained, however, for two professors of a later day to launch the doctrine that the independent growth of American was not only immoral, but a sheer illusion. They were Richard Grant White, for long the leading American writer upon language questions, at least in popular esteem, and Thomas S. Lounsbury, for thirty-five years professor of the English language and literature in the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, and an indefatigable controversialist. Both men were of the utmost industry in research, and both had wide audiences. White's "Words and Their Uses," published in 1872, was a mine of erudition, and his "Everyday English," following eight years later, was another. True enough, Fitzedward Hall, the Anglo-Indian-American philologist, disposed of many of his etymologies and otherwise did execution upon him,[16] but in the main his contentions held water. Lounsbury was also an adept and favorite expositor. His attacks upon certain familiar pedantries of the grammarians were penetrating and effective, and his two books, "The Standard of Usage in English" and "The Standard of Pronunciation in English," not to mention his excellent "History of the English Language" and his numerous magazine articles, showed a profound knowledge of the early development of the language, and an admirable spirit of free inquiry. But both of these laborious scholars, when they turned from English proper to American English, displayed an unaccountable desire to deny its existence altogether, and to the support of that denial they brought a critical method that was anything but unprejudiced. White devoted not less than eight long articles in the Atlantic Monthly[17] to a review of the fourth edition of John [Pg010] Russell Bartlett's American Glossary,[18] and when he came to the end he had disposed of nine-tenths of Bartlett's specimens and called into question the authenticity of at least half of what remained. And no wonder, for his method was simply that of erecting tests so difficult and so arbitrary that only the exceptional word or phrase could pass them, and then only by a sort of chance. "To stamp a word or a phrase as an Americanism," he said, "it is necessary to show that (1) it is of so-called 'American' origin—that is, that it first came into use in the United States of North America, or that (2) it has been adopted in those States from some language other than English, or has been kept in use there while it has wholly passed out of use in England." Going further, he argued that unless "the simple words in compound names" were used in America "in a sense different from that in which they are used in England" the compound itself could not be regarded as an Americanism. The absurdity of all this is apparent when it is remembered that one of his rules would bar out such obvious Americanisms as the use of sick in place of ill, of molasses for treacle, and of fall for autumn, for all of these words, while archaic in England, are by no means wholly extinct; and that another would dispose of that vast category of compounds which includes such unmistakably characteristic Americanisms as joy-ride, rake-off, show-down, up-lift, out-house, rubber-neck, chair-warmer, fire-eater and back-talk.

Lounsbury went even further. In the course of a series of articles in Harper's Magazine, in 1913,[19] he laid down the dogma that "cultivated speech ... affords the only legitimate basis of comparison between the language as used in England and in America," and then went on:

In the only really proper sense of the term, an Americanism is a word or phrase naturally used by an educated American which under similar conditions would not be used by an educated Englishman. The emphasis, it will be seen, lies in the word "educated."

This curious criterion, fantastic as it must have seemed to [Pg011] European philologists, was presently reinforced, for in his fourth article Lounsbury announced that his discussion was "restricted to the written speech of educated men." The result, of course, was a wholesale slaughter of Americanisms. If it was not impossible to reject a word, like White, on the ground that some stray English poet or other had once used it, it was almost always possible to reject it on the ground that it was not admitted into the vocabulary of a college professor when he sat down to compose formal book-English. What remained was a small company, indeed—and almost the whole field of American idiom and American grammar, so full of interest for the less austere explorer, was closed without even a peek into it.

White and Lounsbury dominated the arena and fixed the fashion. The later national experts upon the national language, with a few somewhat timorous exceptions, pass over its peculiarities without noticing them. So far as I can discover, there is not a single treatise in type upon one of its most salient characters—the wide departure of some of its vowel sounds from those of orthodox English. Marsh, C. H. Grandgent and Robert J. Menner have printed a number of valuable essays upon the subject, but there is no work that co-ordinates their inquiries or that attempts otherwise to cover the field. When, in preparing materials for the following chapters, I sought to determine the history of the a-sound in America, I found it necessary to plow through scores of ancient spelling-books, and to make deductions, perhaps sometimes rather rash, from the works of Franklin, Webster and Cobb. Of late the National Council of Teachers of English has appointed a Committee on American Speech and sought to let some light into the matter, but as yet its labors are barely begun and the publications of its members get little beyond preliminaries. Such an inquiry involves a laboriousness which should have intrigued Lounsbury: he once counted the number of times the word female appears in "Vanity Fair." But you will find only a feeble dealing with the question in his book on pronunciation. Nor is there any adequate work (for Schele de Vere's is full of errors and omissions) upon the influences felt by American through contact with the languages of our millions [Pg012] of immigrants, nor upon our peculiarly rich and characteristic slang. There are several excellent dictionaries of English slang, and many more of French slang, but I have been able to find but one devoted exclusively to American slang, and that one is a very bad one.

§ 3

The View of Writing Men—But though the native Gelehrten thus neglect the vernacular, or even oppose its study, it has been the object of earnest lay attention since an early day, and that attention has borne fruit in a considerable accumulation of materials, if not in any very accurate working out of its origins and principles. The English, too, have given attention to it—often, alas, satirically, or even indignantly. For a long while, as we shall see, they sought to stem its differentiation by heavy denunciations of its vagaries, and so late as the period of the Civil War they attached to it that quality of abhorrent barbarism which they saw as the chief mark of the American people. But in later years they have viewed it with a greater showing of scientific calm, and its definite separation from correct English, at least as a spoken tongue, is now quite frankly admitted. The Cambridge History of English Literature, for example, says that English and American are now "notably dissimilar" in vocabulary, and that the latter is splitting off into a distinct dialect.[20] The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, going further, says that the two languages are already so far apart that "it is not uncommon to meet with [American] newspaper articles of which an untravelled Englishman would hardly be able to understand a sentence."[21] A great many other academic authorities, including A. H. Sayce and H. W. and F. G. Fowler, bear testimony to the same effect.

On turning to the men actually engaged in writing English, and particularly to those aspiring to an American audience, one finds nearly all of them adverting, at some time or other, to the growing difficulties of intercommunication. William Archer, [Pg013] Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Sidney Low, the Chestertons and Kipling are some of those who have dealt with the matter at length. Low, in an article in the Westminster Gazette[22] ironically headed "Ought American to be Taught in our Schools?" has described how the latter-day British business man is "puzzled by his ignorance of colloquial American" and "painfully hampered" thereby in his handling of American trade. He continues:

In the United States of North America the study of the English tongue forms part of the educational scheme. I gather this because I find that they have professors of the English language and literature in the Universities there, and I note that in the schools there are certain hours alloted for "English" under instructors who specialize in that subject. This is quite right. English is still far from being a dead language, and our American kinsfolk are good enough to appreciate the fact.

But I think we should return the compliment. We ought to learn the American language in our schools and colleges. At present it is strangely neglected by the educational authorities. They pay attention to linguistic attainments of many other kinds, but not to this. How many thousands of youths are at this moment engaged in puzzling their brains over Latin and Greek grammar only Whitehall knows. Every well-conducted seminary has some instructor who is under the delusion that he is teaching English boys and girls to speak French with a good Parisian accent. We teach German, Italian, even Spanish, Russian, modern Greek, Arabic, Hindustani. For a moderate fee you can acquire a passing acquaintance with any of these tongues at the Berlitz Institute and the Gouin Schools. But even in these polyglot establishments there is nobody to teach you American. I have never seen a grammar of it or a dictionary. I have searched in vain at the book-sellers for "How to Learn American in Three Weeks" or some similar compendium. Nothing of the sort exists. The native speech of one hundred millions of civilized people is as grossly neglected by the publishers as it is by the schoolmasters. You can find means to learn Hausa or Swahili or Cape Dutch in London more easily than the expressive, if difficult, tongue which is spoken in the office, the bar-room, the tram-car, from the snows of Alaska to the mouths of the Mississippi, and is enshrined in a literature that is growing in volume and favor every day.

Low then quotes an extract from an American novel appearing [Pg014] serially in an English magazine—an extract including such Americanisms as side-stepper, saltwater-taffy, Prince-Albert (coat), boob, bartender and kidding, and many characteristically American extravagances of metaphor. It might be well argued, he goes on, that this strange dialect is as near to "the tongue that Shakespeare spoke" as "the dialect of Bayswater or Brixton," but that philological fact does not help to its understanding. "You might almost as well expect him [the British business man] to converse freely with a Portuguese railway porter because he tried to stumble through Caesar when he was in the Upper Fourth at school."

In the London Daily Mail, W. G. Faulkner lately launched this proposed campaign of education by undertaking to explain various terms appearing in American moving-pictures to English spectators. Mr. Faulkner assumed that most of his readers would understand sombrero, sidewalk, candy-store, freight-car, boost, elevator, boss, crook and fall (for autumn) without help, but he found it necessary to define such commonplace Americanisms as hoodlum, hobo, bunco-steerer, rubber-neck, drummer, sucker, dive (in the sense of a thieves' resort), clean-up, graft and to feature. Curiously enough, he proved the reality of the difficulties he essayed to level by falling into error as to the meanings of some of the terms he listed, among them dead-beat, flume, dub and stag. Another English expositor, apparently following him, thought it necessary to add definitions of hold-up, quitter, rube, shack, road-agent, cinch, live-wire and scab,[23] but he, too, mistook the meaning of dead-beat, and in addition he misdefined band-wagon and substituted get-out, seemingly an invention of his own, for get-away. Faulkner, somewhat belated in his animosity, seized the opportunity to read a homily upon the vulgarity and extravagance of the American language, and argued that the introduction of its coinages through the moving-picture theatre (Anglais, cinema) "cannot be regarded without serious [Pg015] misgivings, if only because it generates and encourages mental indiscipline so far as the choice of expressions is concerned." In other words, the greater pliability and resourcefulness of American is a fault to be corrected by the English tendency to hold to that which is established.

Cecil Chesterton, in the New Witness, recently called attention to the increasing difficulty of intercommunication, not only verbally, but in writing. The American newspapers, he said, even the best of them, admit more and more locutions that puzzle and dismay an English reader. After quoting a characteristic headline he went on:

I defy any ordinary Englishman to say that that is the English language or that he can find any intelligible meaning in it. Even a dictionary will be of no use to him. He must know the language colloquially or not at all.... No doubt it is easier for an Englishman to understand American than it would be for a Frenchman to do the same, just as it is easier for a German to understand Dutch than it would be for a Spaniard. But it does not make the American language identical with the English.[24]

Chesterton, however, refrained from denouncing this lack of identity; on the contrary, he allowed certain merits to American. "I do not want anybody to suppose," he said, "that the American language is in any way inferior to ours. In some ways it has improved upon it in vigor and raciness. In other ways it adheres more closely to the English of the best period." Testimony to the same end was furnished before this by William Archer. "New words," he said, "are begotten by new conditions of life; and as American life is far more fertile of new conditions than ours, the tendency toward neologism cannot but be stronger in America than in England. America has enormously enriched the language, not only with new words, but (since the American mind is, on the whole, quicker and wittier than the English) with apt and luminous colloquial metaphors."[25]

The list of such quotations might be indefinitely prolonged. [Pg016] There is scarcely an English book upon the United States which does not offer some discussion, more or less profound, of American peculiarities of speech, both as they are revealed in spoken discourse (particularly pronunciation and intonation) and as they show themselves in popular literature and in the newspapers, and to this discussion protest is often added, as it very often is by the reviews and newspapers. "The Americans," says a typical critic, "have so far progressed with their self-appointed task of creating an American language that much of their conversation is now incomprehensible to English people."[26] On our own side there is almost equal evidence of a sense of difference, despite the fact that the educated American is presumably trained in orthodox English, and can at least read it without much feeling of strangeness. "The American," says George Ade, in his book of travel, "In Pastures New," "must go to England in order to learn for a dead certainty that he does not speak the English language.... This pitiful fact comes home to every American when he arrives in London—that there are two languages, the English and the American. One is correct; the other is incorrect. One is a pure and limpid stream; the other is a stagnant pool, swarming with bacilli."[27] This was written in 1906. Twenty-five years earlier Mark Twain had made the same observation. "When I speak my native tongue in its utmost purity in England," he said, "an Englishman can't understand me at all."[28] The languages, continued Mark, "were identical several generations ago, but our changed conditions and the spread of our people far to the south and far to the west have made many alterations in our pronunciation, and have introduced new words among us and changed the meanings of old ones." Even before this the great humorist had marked and hailed these differences. Already in "Roughing It" he was celebrating "the vigorous new vernacular of the [Pg017] occidental plains and mountains,"[29] and in all his writings, even the most serious, he deliberately engrafted its greater liberty and more fluent idiom upon the stem of English, and so lent the dignity of his high achievement to a dialect that was as unmistakably American as the point of view underlying it.

The same tendency is plainly visible in William Dean Howells. His novels are mines of American idiom, and his style shows an undeniable revolt against the trammels of English grammarians. In 1886 he made a plea in Harper's for a concerted effort to put American on its own legs. "If we bother ourselves," he said, "to write what the critics imagine to be 'English,' we shall be priggish and artificial, and still more so if we make our Americans talk 'English.' ... On our lips our continental English will differ more and more from the insular English, and we believe that this is not deplorable but desirable."[30] Howells then proceeded to discuss the nature of the difference, and described it accurately as determined by the greater rigidity and formality of the English of modern England. In American, he said, there was to be seen that easy looseness of phrase and gait which characterized the English of the Elizabethan era, and particularly the Elizabethan hospitality to changed meanings and bold metaphors. American, he argued, made new words much faster than English, and they were, in the main, words of much greater daring and savor.

The difference between the two tongues, thus noted by the writers of both, was made disconcertingly apparent to the American troops when they first got to France and came into contact with the English. Fraternizing was made difficult by the wide divergence in vocabulary and pronunciation—a divergence interpreted by each side as a sign of uncouthness. The Y. M. C. A. made a characteristic effort to turn the resultant feeling of strangeness and homesickness among the Americans to account. In the Chicago Tribune's Paris edition of July 7, 1917, I find a large advertisement inviting them to make use of the Y. M. C. A. [Pg018] clubhouse in the Avenue Montaigue, "where American is spoken." Earlier in the war the Illinoiser Staats Zeitung, no doubt seeking to keep the sense of difference alive, advertised that it would "publish articles daily in the American language."

§ 4

Foreign Observers—What English and American laymen have thus observed has not escaped the notice of continental philologists. The first edition of Bartlett, published in 1848, brought forth a long and critical review in the Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen by Prof. Felix Flügel,[31] and in the successive volumes of the Archiv, down to our own day, there have been many valuable essays upon Americanisms, by such men as Herrig, Koehler and Koeppel. Various Dutch philologists, among them Barentz, Keijzer and Van der Voort, have also discussed the subject, and a work in French has been published by G. A. Barringer.[32] That, even to the lay Continental, American and English now differ considerably, is demonstrated by the fact that many of the popular German Sprachführer appear in separate editions, Amerikanisch and Englisch. This is true of the "Metoula Sprachführer" published by Prof. F. Lanenscheidt[33] and of the "Polyglott Kuntz" books.[34] The American edition of the latter starts off with the doctrine that "Jeder, der nach Nord-Amerika oder Australien will, muss Englisch können," but a great many of the words and phrases that appear in its examples would be unintelligible to many Englishmen—e. g., free-lunch, real-estate agent, buckwheat, corn (for maize), conductor, pop-corn and drug-store—and a number of others would suggest false meanings or otherwise puzzle—e. g., napkin, saloon, wash-stand, water-pitcher and apple-pie.[35] To [Pg019] these pedagogical examples must be added that of Baedeker, of guide-book celebrity. In his guide-book to the United States, prepared for Englishmen, he is at pains to explain the meaning of various American words and phrases.

A philologist of Scandinavian extraction, Elias Molee, has gone so far as to argue that the acquisition of correct English, to a people grown so mongrel in blood as the Americans, has become a useless burden. In place of it he proposes a mixed tongue, based on English, but admitting various elements from the other Germanic languages. His grammar, however, is so much more complex than that of English that most Americans would probably find his artificial "American" very difficult of acquirement. At all events it has made no progress.[36]

§ 5

The Characters of American—The characters chiefly noted in American speech by all who have discussed it are, first, its general uniformity throughout the country, so that, dialects, properly speaking, are confined to recent immigrants, to the native whites of a few isolated areas and to the negroes of the South; and, secondly, its impatient disdain of rule and precedent, and hence its large capacity (distinctly greater than that of the English of England) for taking in new words and phrases and for manufacturing new locutions out of its own materials. The first of these characters has struck every observer, native and foreign. In place of the local dialects of other countries we have a general Volkssprache for the whole nation, and if it is conditioned [Pg020] at all it is only by minor differences in pronunciation and by the linguistic struggles of various groups of newcomers. "The speech of the United States," said Gilbert M. Tucker, "is quite unlike that of Great Britain in the important particular that here we have no dialects."[37] "We all," said Mr. Taft during his presidency, "speak the same language and have the same ideas." "Manners, morals and political views," said the New York World, commenting upon this dictum, "have all undergone a standardization which is one of the remarkable aspects of American evolution. Perhaps it is in the uniformity of language that this development has been most noteworthy. Outside of the Tennessee mountains and the back country of New England there is no true dialect."[38] "While we have or have had single counties as large as Great Britain," says another American observer, "and in some of our states England could be lost, there is practically no difference between the American spoken in our 4,039,000 square miles of territory, except as spoken by foreigners. We, assembled here, would be perfectly understood by delegates from Texas, Maine, Minnesota, Louisiana, or Alaska, or from whatever walk of life they might come. We can go to any of the 75,000 postoffices in this country and be entirely sure we will be understood, whether we want to buy a stamp or borrow a match."[39] "From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon," agrees an English critic, "no trace of a distinct dialect is to be found. The man from Maine, even though he may be of inferior education and limited capacity, can completely understand the man from Oregon."[40]

No other country can show such linguistic solidarity, nor any approach to it—not even Canada, for there a large part of the population resists learning English altogether. The Little Russian of the Ukraine is unintelligible to the citizen of Petrograd; [Pg021] the Northern Italian can scarcely follow a conversation in Sicilian; the Low German from Hamburg is a foreigner in Munich; the Breton flounders in Gascony. Even in the United Kingdom there are wide divergences.[41] "When we remember," says the New International Encyclopaedia[42] "that the dialects of the countries (sic) in England have marked differences—so marked, indeed that it may be doubted whether a Lancashire miner and a Lincolnshire farmer could understand each other—we may well be proud that our vast country has, strictly speaking, only one language." This uniformity was noted by the earliest observers; Pickering called attention to it in the preface to his Vocabulary and ascribed it, no doubt accurately, to the restlessness of the Americans, their inheritance of the immigrant spirit, "the frequent removals of people from one part of our country to another." It is especially marked in vocabulary and grammatical forms—the foundation stones of a living speech. There may be slight differences in pronunciation and intonation—a Southern softness, a Yankee drawl, a Western burr—but in the words they use and the way they use them all Americans, even the least tutored, follow the same line. One observes, of course, a polite speech and a common speech, but the common speech is everywhere the same, and its uniform vagaries take the place of the dialectic variations of other lands. A Boston street-car conductor could go to work in Chicago, San Francisco or New Orleans without running the slightest risk of misunderstanding his new fares. Once he had picked up half a dozen localisms, he would be, to all linguistic intents and purposes, fully naturalized.

Of the intrinsic differences that separate American from English the chief have their roots in the obvious disparity between the environment and traditions of the American people since the seventeenth century and those of the English. The latter have lived under a stable social order, and it has impressed upon their souls their characteristic respect for what is customary and of [Pg022] good report. Until the war brought chaos to their institutions, their whole lives were regulated, perhaps more than those of any other people save the Spaniards, by a regard for precedent. The Americans, though largely of the same blood, have felt no such restraint, and acquired no such habit of conformity. On the contrary, they have plunged to the other extreme, for the conditions of life in their new country have put a high value upon the precisely opposite qualities of curiosity and daring, and so they have acquired that character of restlessness, that impatience of forms, that disdain of the dead hand, which now broadly marks them. From the first, says a recent literary historian, they have been "less phlegmatic, less conservative than the English. There were climatic influences, it may be; there was surely a spirit of intensity everywhere that made for short effort."[43] Thus, in the arts, and thus in business, in politics, in daily intercourse, in habits of mind and speech. The American is not, in truth, lacking in a capacity for discipline; he has it highly developed; he submits to leadership readily, and even to tyranny. But, by a curious twist, it is not the leadership that is old and decorous that fetches him, but the leadership that is new and extravagant. He will resist dictation out of the past, but he will follow a new messiah with almost Russian willingness, and into the wildest vagaries of economics, religion, morals and speech. A new fallacy in politics spreads faster in the United States than anywhere else on earth, and so does a new fashion in hats, or a new revelation of God, or a new means of killing time, or a new metaphor or piece of slang.

Thus the American, on his linguistic side, likes to make his language as he goes along, and not all the hard work of his grammar teachers can hold the business back. A novelty loses nothing by the fact that it is a novelty; it rather gains something, and particularly if it meet the national fancy for the terse, the vivid, and, above all, the bold and imaginative. The characteristic American habit of reducing complex concepts to the starkest abbreviations was already noticeable in colonial times, [Pg023] and such highly typical Americanisms as O. K., N. G., and P. D. Q., have been traced back to the first days of the republic. Nor are the influences that shaped these early tendencies invisible today, for the country is still in process of growth, and no settled social order has yet descended upon it. Institution-making is still going on, and so is language-making. In so modest an operation as that which has evolved bunco from buncombe and bunk from bunco there is evidence of a phenomenon which the philologist recognizes as belonging to the most primitive and lusty stages of speech. The American vulgate is not only constantly making new words, it is also deducing roots from them, and so giving proof, as Prof. Sayce says, that "the creative powers of language are even now not extinct."[44]

But of more importance than its sheer inventions, if only because much more numerous, are its extensions of the vocabulary, both absolutely and in ready workableness, by the devices of rhetoric. The American, from the beginning, has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians. His politics bristles with pungent epithets; his whole history has been bedizened with tall talk; his fundamental institutions rest as much upon brilliant phrases as upon logical ideas. And in small things as in large he exercises continually an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into arresting parts of speech. Such a term as rubber-neck is almost a complete treatise on American psychology; it reveals the national habit of mind more clearly than any labored inquiry could ever reveal it. It has in it precisely the boldness and disdain of ordered forms that are so characteristically American, and it has too the grotesque humor of the country, and the delight in devastating opprobriums, and the acute feeling for the succinct and savory. The same qualities are in rough-house, water-wagon, near-silk, has-been, lame-duck and a thousand other such racy substantives, and in all the great stock of native verbs and adjectives. There is, indeed, but a shadowy boundary in these new coinages between the various parts of speech. Corral, borrowed [Pg024] from the Spanish, immediately becomes a verb and the father of an adjective. Bust, carved out of burst, erects itself into a noun. Bum, coming by way of an earlier bummer from the German bummler, becomes noun, adjective, verb and adverb. Verbs are fashioned out of substantives by the simple process of prefixing the preposition: to engineer, to chink, to stump, to hog. Others grow out of an intermediate adjective, as to boom. Others are made by torturing nouns with harsh affixes, as to burglarize and to itemize, or by groping for the root, as to resurrect. Yet others are changed from intransitive to transitive: a sleeping-car sleeps thirty passengers. So with the adjectives. They are made of substantives unchanged: codfish, jitney. Or by bold combinations: down-and-out, up-state, flat-footed. Or by shading down suffixes to a barbaric simplicity: scary, classy, tasty. Or by working over adverbs until they tremble on the brink between adverb and adjective: right and near are examples.

All of these processes, of course, are also to be observed in the English of England; in the days of its great Elizabethan growth they were in the lustiest possible being. They are, indeed, common to all languages; they keep language alive. But if you will put the English of today beside the American of today you will see at once how much more forcibly they are in operation in the latter than in the former. English has been arrested in its growth by its purists and grammarians. It shows no living change in structure and syntax since the days of Anne, and very little modification in either pronunciation or vocabulary. Its tendency is to conserve that which is established; to say the new thing, as nearly as possible, in the old way; to combat all that expansive gusto which made for its pliancy and resilience in the days of Shakespeare. In place of the old loose-footedness there is set up a preciosity which, in one direction, takes the form of unyielding affectations in the spoken language, and in another form shows itself in the heavy Johnsonese of current English writing—the Jargon denounced by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his Cambridge lectures. This "infirmity of speech" Quiller-Couch finds "in parliamentary debates and in the newspapers"; [Pg025] ... "it has become the medium through which Boards of Government, County Councils, Syndicates, Committees, Commercial Firms, express the processes as well as the conclusions of their thought, and so voice the reason of their being." Distinct from journalese, the two yet overlap, "and have a knack of assimilating each other's vices."[45]

American, despite the gallant efforts of the professors, has so far escaped any such suffocating formalization. We, too, of course, have our occasional practitioners of the authentic English Jargon; in the late Grover Cleveland we produced an acknowledged master of it. But in the main our faults in writing lie in precisely the opposite direction. That is to say, we incline toward a directness of statement which, at its greatest, lacks restraint and urbanity altogether, and toward a hospitality which often admits novelties for the mere sake of their novelty, and is quite uncritical of the difference between a genuine improvement in succinctness and clarity, and mere extravagant raciness. "The tendency," says one English observer, "is ... to consider the speech of any man, as any man himself, as good as any other."[46] "All beauty and distinction," says another,[47] "are ruthlessly sacrificed to force." Moreover, this strong revolt against conventional bonds is by no means confined to the folk-speech, nor even to the loose conversational English of the upper classes; it also gets into more studied discourse, both spoken and written. I glance through the speeches of Dr. Woodrow Wilson, surely a purist if we have one at all, and find, in a few moments, half a dozen locutions that an Englishman in like position would never dream of using, among them we must get a move on,[48] hog as a verb,[49] gum-shoe as an adjective with [Pg026] verbal overtones,[50] onery in place of ordinary,[51] and that is going some.[52] From the earliest days, indeed, English critics have found this gipsy tendency in our most careful writing. They denounced it in Marshall, Cooper, Mark Twain, Poe, Lossing, Lowell and Holmes, and even in Hawthorne and Thoreau; and it was no less academic a work than W. C. Brownell's "French Traits" which brought forth, in a London literary journal, the dictum that "the language most depressing to the cultured Englishman is the language of the cultured American." Even "educated American English," agrees the chief of modern English grammarians, "is now almost entirely independent of British influence, and differs from it considerably, though as yet not enough to make the two dialects—American English and British English—mutually unintelligible."[53]

American thus shows its character in a constant experimentation, a wide hospitality to novelty, a steady reaching out for new and vivid forms. No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy. It is producing new words every day, by trope, by agglutination, by the shedding of inflections, by the merging of parts of speech, and by sheer brilliance of imagination. It is full of what Bret Harte called the "sabre-cuts of Saxon"; it meets Montaigne's ideal of "a succulent and nervous speech, short and compact, not as much delicated and combed out as vehement and brusque, rather arbitrary than monotonous, not pedantic but soldierly, as Suetonius called Caesar's Latin." One pictures the common materials of English dumped into a pot, exotic flavorings added, and the bubblings assiduously and expectantly skimmed. What is old and respected is already in decay the moment it comes into contact with what is new and vivid. Let American confront a novel problem alongside [Pg027] English, and immediately its superior imaginativeness and resourcefulness become obvious. Movie is better than cinema; it is not only better American, it is better English. Bill-board is better than hoarding. Office-holder is more honest, more picturesque, more thoroughly Anglo-Saxon that public-servant. Stem-winder somehow has more life in it, more fancy and vividness, than the literal keyless-watch. Turn to the terminology of railroading (itself, by the way, an Americanism): its creation fell upon the two peoples equally, but they tackled the job independently. The English, seeking a figure to denominate the wedge-shaped fender in front of a locomotive, called it a plough; the Americans, characteristically, gave it the far more pungent name of cow-catcher. So with the casting where two rails join. The English called it a crossing-plate. The Americans, more responsive to the suggestion in its shape, called it a frog.

This boldness of conceit, of course, makes for vulgarity. Unrestrained by any critical sense—and the critical sense of the professors counts for little, for they cry wolf too often—it flowers in such barbaric inventions as tasty, alright, no-account, pants, go-aheadativeness, tony, semi-occasional, to fellowship and to doxologize. Let it be admitted: American is not infrequently vulgar; the Americans, too, are vulgar (Bayard Taylor called them "Anglo-Saxons relapsed into semi-barbarism"); America itself is unutterably vulgar. But vulgarity, after all, means no more than a yielding to natural impulses in the face of conventional inhibitions, and that yielding to natural impulses is at the heart of all healthy language-making. The history of English, like the history of American and every other living tongue, is a history of vulgarisms that, by their accurate meeting of real needs, have forced their way into sound usage, and even into the lifeless catalogues of the grammarians. The colonial pedants denounced to advocate as bitterly as they ever denounced to compromit or to happify, and all the English authorities gave them aid, but it forced itself into the American language despite them, and today it is even accepted as English and has got into the Oxford Dictionary. To donate, so late as 1870, was dismissed by Richard Grant White as ignorant and [Pg028] abominable and to this day the English will have none of it, but there is not an American dictionary that doesn't accept it, and surely no American writer would hesitate to use it.[54] Reliable, gubernatorial, standpoint and scientist have survived opposition of equal ferocity. The last-named was coined by William Whewell, an Englishman, in 1840, but was first adopted in America. Despite the fact that Fitzedward Hall and other eminent philologists used it and defended it, it aroused almost incredible opposition in England. So recently as 1890 it was denounced by the London Daily News as "an ignoble Americanism," and according to William Archer it was finally accepted by the English only "at the point of the bayonet."[55]

The purist performs a useful office in enforcing a certain logical regularity upon the process, and in our own case the omnipresent example of the greater conservatism of the English corrects our native tendency to go too fast, but the process itself is as inexorable in its workings as the precession of the equinoxes, and if we yield to it more eagerly than the English it is only a proof, perhaps, that the future of what was once the Anglo-Saxon tongue lies on this side of the water. "The story of English grammar," says Murison, "is a story of simplification, of dispensing with grammatical forms."[56] And of the most copious and persistent enlargement of vocabulary and mutation of idiom ever recorded, perhaps, by descriptive philology. English now has the brakes on, but American continues to leap in the dark, and the prodigality of its movement is all the [Pg029] indication that is needed of its intrinsic health, its capacity to meet the ever-changing needs of a restless and iconoclastic people, constantly fluent in racial composition, and disdainful of hampering traditions. "Language," says Sayce, "is no artificial product, contained in books and dictionaries and governed by the strict rules of impersonal grammarians. It is the living expression of the mind and spirit of a people, ever changing and shifting, whose sole standard of correctness is custom and the common usage of the community.... The first lesson to be learned is that there is no intrinsic right or wrong in the use of language, no fixed rules such as are the delight of the teacher of Latin prose. What is right now will be wrong hereafter, what language rejected yesterday she accepts today."[57]

§ 6

The Materials of American—One familiar with the habits of pedagogues need not be told that, in their grudging discussions of American, they have spent most of their energies upon vain attempts to classify its materials. White and Lounsbury, as I have shown, carried the business to the limits of the preposterous; when they had finished identifying and cataloguing Americanisms there were no more Americanisms left to study. The ladies and gentlemen of the American Dialect Society, though praiseworthy for their somewhat deliberate industry, fall into a similar fault, for they are so eager to establish minute dialectic variations that they forget the general language almost altogether.

Among investigators of less learning there is a more spacious view of the problem, and the labored categories of White and Lounsbury are much extended. Pickering, the first to attempt a list of Americanisms, rehearsed their origin under the following headings:

1. "We have formed some new words."

2. "To some old ones, that are still in use in England, we have affixed new significations."

3. "Others, which have long been obsolete in England, are still retained in common use among us."

Bartlett, in the second edition of his dictionary, dated 1859, increased these classes to nine;

1. Archaisms, i. e., old English words, obsolete, or nearly so, in England, but retained in use in this country.

2. English words used in a different sense from what they are in England. These include many names of natural objects differently applied.

3. Words which have retained their original meaning in the United States, though not in England.

4. English provincialisms adopted into general use in America.

5. Newly coined words, which owe their origin to the productions or to the circumstances of the country.

6. Words borrowed from European languages, especially the French, Spanish, Dutch and German.

7. Indian words.

8. Negroisms.

9. Peculiarities of pronunciation.

Some time before this, but after the publication of Bartlett's first edition in 1848, William C. Fowler, professor of rhetoric at Amherst, devoted a brief chapter to "American Dialects" in his well-known work on English[58] and in it one finds the following formidable classification of Americanisms:

1. Words borrowed from other languages.

a. Indian, as Kennebec, Ohio, Tombigbee; sagamore, quahaug, succotash.

b. Dutch, as boss, kruller, stoop.

c. German, as spuke (?), sauerkraut.

d. French, as bayou, cache, chute, crevasse, levee.

e. Spanish, as calaboose, chapparal, hacienda, rancho, ranchero.

f. Negro, as buckra.

2. Words "introduced from the necessity of our situation, in order to express new ideas."

a. Words "connected with and flowing from our political institutions," as selectman, presidential, congressional, caucus, mass-meeting, lynch-law, help (for servants).

b. Words "connected with our ecclesiastical institutions," as associational, consociational, to fellowship, to missionate.

c. Words "connected with a new country," as lot, diggings, betterments, squatter.

3. Miscellaneous Americanisms.

a. Words and phrases become obsolete in England, as talented, offset (for set-off), back and forth (for backward and forward).

b. Old words and phrases "which are now merely provincial in England," as hub, whap (?), to wilt.

c. Nouns formed from verbs by adding the French suffix -ment, as publishment, releasement, requirement.

d. Forms of words "which fill the gap or vacancy between two words which are approved," as obligate (between oblige and obligation) and variate (between vary and variation).

e. "Certain compound terms for which the English have different compounds," as bank-bill, (bank-note), book-store (book-seller's shop), bottom-land (interval land), clapboard (pale), sea-board (sea-shore), side-hill (hill-side).

f. "Certain colloquial phrases, apparently idiomatic, and very expressive," as to cave in, to flare up, to flunk out, to fork over, to hold on, to let on, to stave off, to take on.

g. Intensives, "often a matter of mere temporary fashion," as dreadful, mighty, plaguy, powerful.

h. "Certain verbs expressing one's state of mind, but partially or timidly," as to allot upon (for to count upon), to calculate, to expect (to think or believe), to guess, to reckon.

i. "Certain adjectives, expressing not only quality, but one's subjective feelings in regard to it," as clever, grand, green, likely, smart, ugly.

j. Abridgments, as stage (for stage-coach), turnpike (for turnpike-road), spry (for sprightly), to conduct (for to conduct one's self).

k. "Quaint or burlesque terms," as to tote, to yank; humbug, loafer, muss, plunder (for baggage), rock (for stone).

l. "Low expressions, mostly political," as slangwhanger, loco foco, hunker; to get the hang of.

m. "Ungrammatical expressions, disapproved by all," as do don't, used to could, can't come it, Universal preacher (for Universalist), there's no two ways about it.

Elwyn, in 1859, attempted no classification.[59] He confined his glossary to archaic English words surviving in America, and sought only to prove that they had come down "from our remotest ancestry" and were thus undeserving of the reviling [Pg032] lavished upon them by English critics. Schele de Vere, in 1872, followed Bartlett, and devoted himself largely to words borrowed from the Indian dialects, and from the French, Spanish and Dutch. But Farmer, in 1889,[60] ventured upon a new classification, prefacing it with the following definition:

An Americanism may be defined as a word or phrase, old or new, employed by general or respectable usage in America in a way not sanctioned by the best standards of the English language. As a matter of fact, however, the term has come to possess a wider meaning, and it is now applied not only to words and phrases which can be so described, but also to the new and legitimately born words adapted to the general needs and usages, to the survivals of an older form of English than that now current in the mother country, and to the racy, pungent vernacular of Western life.

He then proceeded to classify his materials thus:

1. Words and phrases of purely American derivation, embracing words originating in:

a. Indian and aboriginal life.

b. Pioneer and frontier life.

c. The church.

d. Politics.

e. Trades of all kinds.

f. Travel, afloat and ashore.

2. Words brought by colonists, including:

a. The German element.

b. The French.

c. The Spanish.

d. The Dutch.

e. The negro.

f. The Chinese.

3. Names of American things, embracing:

a. Natural products.

b. Manufactured articles.

4. Perverted English words.

5. Obsolete English words still in good use in America.

6. English words, American by inflection and modification.

7. Odd and ignorant popular phrases, proverbs, vulgarisms, and colloquialisms, cant and slang.

8. Individualisms.

9. Doubtful and miscellaneous.

Clapin, in 1902,[61] reduced these categories to four:

1. Genuine English words, obsolete or provincial in England, and universally used in the United States.

2. English words conveying, in the United States, a different meaning from that attached to them in England.

3. Words introduced from other languages than the English:—French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Indian, etc.

4. Americanisms proper, i. e., words coined in the country, either representing some new idea or peculiar product.

Thornton, in 1912, substituted the following:

1. Forms of speech now obsolete or provincial in England, which survive in the United States, such as allow, bureau, fall, gotten, guess, likely, professor, shoat.

2. Words and phrases of distinctly American origin, such as belittle, lengthy, lightning-rod, to darken one's doors, to bark up the wrong tree, to come out at the little end of the horn, blind tiger, cold snap, gay Quaker, gone coon, long sauce, pay dirt, small potatoes, some pumpkins.

3. Nouns which indicate quadrupeds, birds, trees, articles of food, etc., that are distinctively American, such as ground-hog, hang-bird, hominy, live-oak, locust, opossum, persimmon, pone, succotash, wampum, wigwam.

4. Names of persons and classes of persons, and of places, such as Buckeye, Cracker, Greaser, Hoosier, Old Bullion, Old Hickory, the Little Giant, Dixie, Gotham, the Bay State, the Monumental City.

5. Words which have assumed a new meaning, such as card, clever, fork, help, penny, plunder, raise, rock, sack, ticket, windfall.

In addition, Thornton added a provisional class of "words and phrases of which I have found earlier examples in American than in English writers; ... with the caveat that further research may reverse the claim"—a class offering specimens in alarmist, capitalize, eruptiveness, horse of another colour (sic!), the jig's up, nameable, omnibus bill, propaganda and whitewash.

No more than a brief glance at these classifications is needed to show that they hamper the inquiry by limiting its scope—not so much, to be sure, as the ridiculous limitations of White and Lounsbury, but still very seriously. They meet the ends of [Pg034] purely descriptive lexicography, but largely leave out of account some of the most salient characters of a living language, for example, pronunciation and idiom. Only Bartlett and Farmer establish a separate category of Americanisms produced by changes in pronunciation, though even Thornton, of course, is obliged to take notice of such forms as bust and bile. None of them, however, goes into the matter at any length, nor even into the matter of etymology. Bartlett's etymologies are scanty and often inaccurate; Schele de Vere's are sometimes quite fanciful; Thornton offers scarcely any at all. The best of these collections of Americanisms, and by long odds, is Thornton's. It presents an enormous mass of quotations, and they are all very carefully dated, and it corrects most of the more obvious errors in the work of earlier inquirers. But its very dependence upon quotations limits it chiefly to the written language, and so the enormously richer materials of the spoken language are passed over, and particularly the materials evolved during the past twenty years. One searches the two fat volumes in vain for such highly characteristic forms as would of, near-accident, and buttinski, the use of sure as an adverb, and the employment of well as a sort of general equivalent of the German also.

These grammatical and syntactical tendencies are beyond the scope of Thornton's investigation, but it is plain that they must be prime concerns of any future student who essays to get at the inner spirit of the language. Its difference from standard English is not merely a difference in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical list; it is, above all, a difference in pronunciation, in intonation, in conjugation and declension, in metaphor and idiom, in the whole fashion of using words. A page from one of Ring W. Lardner's baseball stories contains few words that are not in the English vocabulary, and yet the thoroughly American color of it cannot fail to escape anyone who actually listens to the tongue spoken around him. Some of the elements which enter into that color will be considered in the following pages. The American vocabulary, of course, must be given first attention, for in it the earliest American divergences are embalmed and it tends to grow richer and freer year after year, [Pg035] but attention will also be paid to materials and ways of speech that are less obvious, and in particular to certain definite tendencies of the grammar of spoken American, hitherto wholly neglected.


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