The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter II - The Beginnings of American

§ 1

In Colonial Days—William Gifford, the first editor of the Quarterly Review, is authority for the tale that some of the Puritan clergy of New England, during the Revolution, proposed that English be formally abandoned as the national language of America, and Hebrew adopted in its place. An American chronicler, Charles Astor Bristed, makes the proposed tongue Greek, and reports that the change was rejected on the ground that "it would be more convenient for us to keep the language as it is, and make the English speak Greek."[1] The story, though it has the support of the editors of the Cambridge History of American Literature,[2] has an apocryphal smack; one suspects that the savagely anti-American Gifford invented it. But, true or false, it well indicates the temper of those times. The passion for complete political independence of England bred a general hostility to all English authority, whatever its character, and that hostility, in the direction of present concern to us, culminated in the revolutionary attitude of Noah Webster's "Dissertations on the English Language," printed in 1789. Webster harbored no fantastic notion of abandoning English altogether, but he was eager to set up American as a distinct and independent dialect. "Let us," he said, "seize the present moment, and establish a national language as well as a national government.... As an independent nation our honor requires [Pg037] us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government."

Long before this the challenge had been flung. Scarcely two years after the Declaration of Independence Franklin was instructed by Congress, on his appointment as minister to France, to employ "the language of the United States," not simply English, in all his "replies or answers" to the communications of the ministry of Louis XVI. And eight years before the Declaration Franklin himself had drawn up a characteristically American scheme of spelling reform, and had offered plenty of proof in it, perhaps unconsciously, that the standards of spelling and pronunciation in the New World had already diverged noticeably from those accepted on the other side of the ocean.[3] In acknowledging the dedication of Webster's "Dissertations" Franklin endorsed both his revolt against English domination and his forecast of widening differences in future, though protesting at the same time against certain Americanisms that have since come into good usage, and even migrated to England.[4]

This protest was marked by Franklin's habitual mildness, but in other quarters dissent was voiced with far less urbanity. The growing independence of the colonial dialect, not only in its spoken form, but also in its most dignified written form, had begun, indeed, to attract the attention of purists in both England and America, and they sought to dispose of it in its infancy by force majeure. One of the first and most vigorous of the attacks upon it was delivered by John Witherspoon, a Scotch clergyman who came out in 1769 to be president of Princeton in partibus infidelium. This Witherspoon brought a Scotch hatred of the English with him, and at once became a leader of the party of independence; he signed the Declaration to the tune of much rhetoric, and was the only clergyman to sit in the Continental Congress. But in matters of learning he was orthodox to the point of hunkerousness, and the strange locutions that [Pg038] he encountered on all sides aroused his pedagogic ire. "I have heard in this country," he wrote in 1781, "in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain."[5] It was Witherspoon who coined the word Americanism—and at once the English guardians of the sacred vessels began employing it as a general synonym for vulgarism and barbarism. Another learned immigrant, the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, soon joined him. This Boucher was a friend of Washington, but was driven back to England by his Loyalist sentiments. He took revenge by printing various charges against the Americans, among them that of "making all the haste they can to rid themselves of the [English] language."

After the opening of the new century all the British reviews maintained an eager watchfulness for these abhorrent inventions, and denounced them, when found, with the utmost vehemence. The Edinburgh, which led the charge, opened its attack in October, 1804, and the appearance of the five volumes of Chief Justice Marshall's "Life of George Washington," during the three years following, gave the signal for corrective articles in the British Critic, the Critical Review, the Annual, the Monthly and the Eclectic. The British Critic, in April, 1808, admitted somewhat despairingly that the damage was already done—that "the common speech of the United States has departed very considerably from the standard adopted in England." The others, however, sought to stay the flood by invective against Marshall and, later, against his rival biographer, the Rev. Aaron Bancroft. The Annual, in 1808, pronounced its high curse and anathema upon "that torrent of barbarous phraseology" which was pouring across the Atlantic, and which threatened "to destroy the purity of the English language."[6] In Bancroft's "Life of George Washington" [Pg039] (1808), according to the British Critic, there were gross Americanisms, inordinately offensive to Englishmen, "at almost every page."

The Rev. Jeremy Belknap, long anticipating Elwyn, White and Lounsbury, tried to obtain a respite from this abuse by pointing out the obvious fact that many of the Americanisms under fire were merely survivors of an English that had become archaic in England, but this effort counted for little, for on the one hand the British purists enjoyed the chase too much to give it up, and on the other hand there began to dawn in America a new spirit of nationality, at first very faint, which viewed the differences objected to, not with shame, but with a fierce sort of pride. In the first volume of the North American Review William Ellery Channing spoke out boldly for "the American language and literature,"[7] and a year later Pickering published his defiant dictionary of "words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States." This thin collection of 500 specimens set off a dispute which yet rages on both sides of the Atlantic. Pickering, however, was undismayed. He had begun to notice the growing difference between the English and American vocabulary and pronunciation, he said, while living in London from 1799 to 1801, and he had made his collections with the utmost care, and after taking counsel with various prudent authorities, both English and American. Already in the first year of the century, he continued, the English had accused the people of the new republic of a deliberate "design to effect an entire change in the language" and while no such design was actually harbored, the facts were the facts, and he cited the current newspapers, the speeches from pulpit and rostrum, and Webster himself in support of them. This debate over Pickering's list, as I say, still continues. Lounsbury, entrenched behind his grotesque categories, once charged that four-fifths of the words in it had "no business to be there," and [Pg040] Gilbert M. Tucker[8] has argued that only 70 of them were genuine Americanisms. But a careful study of the list, in comparison with the early quotations recently collected by Thornton, seems to indicate that both of these judgments, and many others no less, have done injustice to Pickering. He made the usual errors of the pioneer, but his sound contributions to the subject were anything but inconsiderable, and it is impossible to forget his diligence and his constant shrewdness. He established firmly the native origin of a number of words now in universal use in America—e. g., backwoodsman, breadstuffs, caucus, clapboard, sleigh and squatter—and of such familiar derivatives as gubernatorial and dutiable, and he worked out the genesis of not a few loan-words, including prairie, scow, rapids, hominy and barbecue. It was not until 1848, when the first edition of Bartlett appeared, that his work was supplanted.

§ 2

Sources of Early Americanisms—The first genuine Americanisms were undoubtedly words borrowed bodily from the Indian dialects—words, in the main, indicating natural objects that had no counterparts in England. We find opossum, for example, in the form of opasum, in Captain John Smith's "Map of Virginia" (1612), and, in the form of apossoun, in a Virginia document two years older. Moose is almost as old. The word is borrowed from the Algonquin musa, and must have become familiar to the Pilgrim Fathers soon after their landing in 1620, for the woods of Massachusetts then swarmed with the huge quadrupeds and there was no English name to designate them. Again, there are skunk (from the Abenaki Indian seganku), hickory, squash, paw-paw, raccoon, chinkapin, porgy, chipmunk, pemmican, terrapin, menhaden, catalpa, persimmon and cougar. Of these, hickory and terrapin are to be found in Robert Beverley's "History and Present State of Virginia" (1705), and squash, chinkapin and persimmon are in documents of the preceding century. Many of these words, of course, were shortened [Pg041] or otherwise modified on being taken into colonial English. Thus chinkapin was originally checkinqumin, and squash appears in early documents as isquontersquash, askutasquash, isquonkersquash and squantersquash. But William Penn, in a letter dated August 16, 1683, used the latter in its present form. Its variations show a familiar effort to bring a new and strange word into harmony with the language—an effort arising from what philologists call the law of Hobson-Jobson. This name was given to it by Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, compilers of a standard dictionary of Anglo-Indian terms. They found that the British soldiers in India, hearing strange words from the lips of the natives, often converted them into English words of similar sound, though of widely different meaning. Thus the words Hassan and Hosein, frequently used by the Mohammedans of the country in their devotions, were turned into Hobson-Jobson. The same process is constantly in operation elsewhere. By it the French route de roi has become Rotten Row in English, écrevisse has become crayfish, and the English bowsprit has become beau pré (=beautiful meadow) in French. The word pigeon, in Pigeon English, offers another example; it has no connection with the bird, but merely represents a Chinaman's attempt to pronounce the word business. No doubt squash originated in the same way. That woodchuck did so is practically certain. Its origin is to be sought, not in wood and chuck, but in the Cree word otchock, used by the Indians to designate the animal.

In addition to the names of natural objects, the early colonists, of course, took over a great many Indian place-names, and a number of words to designate Indian relations and artificial objects in Indian use. To the last division belong hominy, pone, toboggan, canoe, tapioca, moccasin, pow-wow, papoose, tomahawk, wigwam, succotash and squaw, all of which were in common circulation by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Finally, new words were made during the period by translating Indian terms, for example, war-path, war-paint, pale-face, medicine-man, pipe-of-peace and fire-water. The total number of such borrowings, direct and indirect, was a good deal larger [Pg042] than now appears, for with the disappearance of the red man the use of loan-words from his dialects has decreased. In our own time such words as papoose, sachem, tepee, wigwam and wampum have begun to drop out of everyday use;[9] at an earlier period the language sloughed off ocelot, manitee, calumet, supawn, samp and quahaug, or began to degrade them to the estate of provincialisms.[10] A curious phenomenon is presented by the case of maize, which came into the colonial speech from some West Indian dialect, went over into orthodox English, and from English into French, German and other continental languages, and was then abandoned by the colonists. We shall see other examples of that process later on.

Whether or not Yankee comes from an Indian dialect is still disputed. An early authority, John G. E. Heckwelder, argued that it was derived from an Indian mispronunciation of the word English.[11] Certain later etymologists hold that it originated more probably in an Indian mishandling of the French word Anglais. Yet others derive it from the Scotch yankie, meaning a gigantic falsehood. A fourth party derive it from the Dutch, and cite an alleged Dutch model for "Yankee Doodle," beginning "Yanker didee doodle down."[12] Of these theories that of Heckwelder is the most plausible. But here, as in other directions, the investigation of American etymology remains sadly incomplete. An elaborate dictionary of words derived from the Indian languages, compiled by the late W. R. Gerard, is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution, but on account of a shortage of funds it remains in manuscript. [Pg043]

From the very earliest days of English colonization the language of the colonists also received accretions from the languages of the other colonizing nations. The French word portage, for example, was already in common use before the end of the seventeenth century, and soon after came chowder, cache, caribou, voyageur, and various words that, like the last-named, have since become localisms or disappeared altogether. Before 1750 bureau,[13] gopher, batteau, bogus, and prairie were added, and caboose, a word of Dutch origin, seems to have come in through the French. Carry-all is also French in origin, despite its English quality. It comes, by the law of Hobson-Jobson, from the French carriole. The contributions of the Dutch during the half century of their conflicts with the English included cruller, cold-slaw, dominie (for parson), cookey, stoop, span (of horses), pit (as in peach-pit), waffle, hook (a point of land), scow, boss, smearcase and Santa Claus.[14] Schele de Vere credits them with hay-barrack, a corruption of hooiberg. That they established the use of bush as a designation for back-country is very probable; the word has also got into South African English. In American it has produced a number of familiar derivatives, e. g., bush-whacker and bush-league. Barrère and Leland also credit the Dutch with dander, which is commonly assumed to be an American corruption of dandruff. They say that it is from the Dutch word donder (=thunder). Op donderen, in Dutch, means to burst into a sudden rage. The chief Spanish contributions to American were to come after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West, but creole, calaboose, palmetto, peewee, key (a small island), quadroon, octoroon, barbecue, pickaninny and stampede had already entered the language in colonial days. Jerked beef came from the Spanish charqui by the law of Hobson-Jobson. The Germans who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682 also undoubtedly gave a few words to the language, though [Pg044] it is often difficult to distinguish their contributions from those of the Dutch. It seems very likely, however, that sauerkraut[15] and noodle are to be credited to them. Finally, the negro slaves brought in gumbo, goober, juba and voodoo (usually corrupted to hoodoo), and probably helped to corrupt a number of other loan-words, for example banjo and breakdown. Banjo seems to be derived from bandore or bandurria, modern French and Spanish forms of tambour, respectively. It may, however, be an actual negro word; there is a term of like meaning, bania, in Senegambian. Ware says that breakdown, designating a riotous negro dance, is a corruption of the French rigadon. The word is not in the Oxford Dictionary. Bartlett listed it as an Americanism, but Thornton rejected it, apparently because, in the sense of a collapse, it has come into colloquial use in England. Its etymology is not given in the American dictionaries.

§ 3

New Words of English Material—But of far more importance than these borrowings was the great stock of new words that the colonists coined in English metal—words primarily demanded by the "new circumstances under which they were placed," but also indicative, in more than one case, of a delight in the business for its own sake. The American, even in the early eighteenth century, already showed many of the characteristics that were to set him off from the Englishman later on—his bold and somewhat grotesque imagination, his contempt for authority, his lack of aesthetic sensitiveness, his extravagant humor. Among the first colonists there were many men of education, culture and gentle birth, but they were soon swamped by hordes of the ignorant and illiterate, and the latter, cut off from the corrective influence of books, soon laid their hands upon the language. It is impossible to imagine the austere Puritan divines of Massachusetts inventing such verbs as to cowhide and to logroll, or such adjectives as no-account and stumped, or such adverbs as no-how and [Pg045] lickety-split, or such substantives as bull-frog, hog-wallow and hoe-cake; but under their eyes there arose a contumacious proletariat which was quite capable of the business, and very eager for it. In Boston, so early as 1628, there was a definite class of blackguard roisterers, chiefly made up of sailors and artisans; in Virginia, nearly a decade earlier, John Pory, secretary to Governor Yeardley, lamented that "in these five moneths of my continuance here there have come at one time or another eleven sails of ships into this river, but fraighted more with ignorance than with any other marchansize." In particular, the generation born in the New World was uncouth and iconoclastic;[16] 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, lightning-bug, 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, poke-weed, copper-head, eel-grass, reed-bird, egg-plant, blue-grass, pea-nut, pitch-pine, cling-stone (peach), moccasin-snake, June-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 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 [Pg046] novelty, but the pioneers apparently did not recognize it, and so we find them ascribing all sorts of absurd medicinal powers to it, and even Beverley solemnly reporting that "some Soldiers, eating it in a Salad, turn'd 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, underbrush, bottom-land, clearing, notch, divide, knob, riffle, gap, rolling-country and rapids,[17] and the extension of pond from artificial pools to small natural lakes, and of creek from small arms of the sea to shallow feeders of rivers. Such common English geographical terms as downs, weald, wold, fen, bog, fell, chase, combe, dell, heath and moor disappeared from the colonial tongue, save as fossilized in a few proper names. So did bracken.

With the new landscape came an entirely new mode of life—new foods, new forms of habitation, new methods of agriculture, new kinds of hunting. A great swarm of neologisms thus arose, and, as in the previous case, they were chiefly compounds. Back-country, back-woods, back-woodsman, back-settlers, back-settlements: all these were in common use early in the eighteenth century. Back-log was used by Increase Mather in 1684. Log-house appears in the Maryland Archives for 1669.[18] Hoe-cake, Johnny-cake, pan-fish, corn-dodger, roasting-ear, corn-crib, corn-cob and pop-corn were all familiar before the Revolution. So were pine-knot, snow-plow, cold-snap, land-slide, salt-lick, prickly-heat, shell-road and cane-brake. Shingle was a novelty in 1705, but one S. Symonds wrote to John Winthrop, of Ipswich, about a clapboarded house in 1637. Frame-house seems to have come in with shingle. Trail, half-breed, Indian-summer and [Pg047] Indian-file were obviously suggested by the Red Men. State-house was borrowed, perhaps, from the Dutch. Selectman is first heard of in 1685, displacing the English alderman. Mush had displaced porridge by 1671. Soon afterward hay-stack took the place of the English hay-cock, and such common English terms as byre, mews, weir, and wain began to disappear. Hired-man is to be found in the Plymouth town records of 1737, and hired-girl followed soon after. So early as 1758, as we find by the diary of Nathaniel Ames, the second-year students at Harvard were already called sophomores, though for a while the spelling was often made sophimores. Camp-meeting was later; it did not appear until 1799. But land-office was familiar before 1700, and side-walk, spelling-bee, bee-line, moss-back, crazy-quilt, mud-scow, stamping-ground and a hundred and one other such compounds were in daily use before the Revolution. After that great upheaval the new money of the confederation brought in a number of new words. In 1782 Gouverneur Morris proposed to the Continental Congress that the coins of the republic be called, in ascending order, unit, penny-bill, dollar and crown. Later Morris invented the word cent, substituting it for the English penny.[19] In 1785 Jefferson proposed mill, cent, dime, dollar and eagle, and this nomenclature was adopted.

Various nautical terms peculiar to America, or taken into English from American sources, came in during the eighteenth century, among them, schooner, cat-boat and pungy, not to recall batteau and canoe. According to a recent historian of the American merchant marine,[20] the first schooner ever seen was launched at Gloucester, Mass., in 1713. The word, it appears, was originally spelled scooner. To scoon was a verb borrowed by the New Englanders from some Scotch dialect, and meant to skim or skip across the water like a flat stone. As the first schooner left the ways and glided out into Gloucester harbor, an enraptured spectator shouted: "Oh, see how she scoons!" "A scooner let her be!" replied Captain Andrew Robinson, her [Pg048] builder—and all boats of her peculiar and novel fore-and-aft rig took the name thereafter. The Dutch mariners borrowed the term and changed the spelling, and this change was soon accepted in America. The Scotch root came from the Norse skunna, to hasten, and there are analogues in Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Old High German. The origin of cat-boat and pungy I have been unable to determine. Perhaps the latter is related in some way to pung, a one-horse sled or wagon. Pung was once widely used in the United States, but of late it has sunk to the estate of a New England provincialism. Longfellow used it, and in 1857 a writer in the Knickerbocker Magazine reported that pungs filled Broadway, in New York, after a snow-storm.

Most of these new words, of course, produced derivatives, for example, to stack hay, to shingle, to shuck (i. e., corn), to trail and to caucus. Backwoods immediately begat backwoodsman and was itself turned into a common adjective. The colonists, indeed, showed a beautiful disregard of linguistic nicety. At an early date they shortened the English law-phrase, to convey by deed, to the simple verb, to deed. Pickering protested against this as a barbarism, and argued that no self-respecting law-writer would employ it, but all the same it was firmly entrenched in the common speech and it has remained there to this day. To table, for to lay on the table, came in at the same time, and so did various forms represented by bindery, for bookbinder's shop. To tomahawk appeared before 1650, and to scalp must have followed soon after. Within the next century and a half they were reinforced by many other such new verbs, and by such adjectives made of nouns as no-account and one-horse, and such nouns made of verbs as carry-all and goner, and such adverbs as no-how. In particular, the manufacture of new verbs went on at a rapid pace. In his letter to Webster in 1789, Franklin denounced to advocate, to progress, and to oppose—a vain enterprise, for all of them are now in perfectly good usage. To advocate, indeed, was used by Thomas Nashe in 1589, and by John Milton half a century later, but it seems to have been reinvented in America. In 1822 and again in 1838 Robert Southey, then poet laureate, led two belated attacks upon it, as a barbarous Americanism, but [Pg049] its obvious usefulness preserved it, and it remains in good usage on both sides of the Atlantic today—one of the earliest of the English borrowings from America. In the end, indeed, even so ardent a purist as Richard Grant White adopted it, as he did to placate.[21]

Webster, though he agreed with Franklin in opposing to advocate, gave his imprimatur to to appreciate (i. e., to rise in value), and is credited by Sir Charles Lyell[22] with having himself invented to demoralize. He also approved to obligate. To antagonize seems to have been given currency by John Quincy Adams, to immigrate by John Marshall, to eventuate by Gouverneur Morris, and to derange by George Washington. Jefferson, always hospitable to new words, used to belittle in his "Notes on Virginia," and Thornton thinks that he coined it. Many new verbs were made by the simple process of prefixing the preposition to common nouns, e. g., to clerk, to dicker, to dump, to blow, (i. e., to bluster or boast), to cord (i. e., wood) to stump, to room and to shin. Others were made by transforming verbs in the orthodox vocabulary, e. g., to cavort from to curvet, and to snoop from to snook. Others arose as metaphors, e. g., to whitewash (figuratively) and to squat (on unoccupied land). Others were made by hitching suffixes to nouns, e. g., to negative, to deputize, to locate, to legislate, to infract, to compromit and to happify. Yet others seem to have been produced by onomatopoeia, e. g., to fizzle, or to have arisen by some other such spontaneous process, so far unintelligible, e. g., to tote. With them came an endless series of verb-phrases, e. g., to draw a bead, to face the music, to darken one's doors, to take to the woods, to fly off the handle, to go on the war-path and to saw wood—all obvious products of frontier life. Many coinages of the pre-Revolutionary era later disappeared. Jefferson used to ambition but it dropped out nevertheless, and so did to compromit, (i. e., to compromise), to homologize, and to happify. Fierce battles raged 'round some of these words, and they were all violently derided in England. Even so useful a verb as to locate, now in perfectly good usage, [Pg050] was denounced in the third volume of the North American Review, and other purists of the times tried to put down to legislate.

The young and tender adjectives had quite as hard a row to hoe, particularly lengthy. The British Critic attacked it in November, 1793, and it also had enemies at home, but John Adams had used it in his diary in 1759 and the authority of Jefferson and Hamilton was behind it, and so it survived. Years later James Russell Lowell spoke of it as "the excellent adjective,"[23] and boasted that American had given it to English. Dutiable also met with opposition, and moreover, it had a rival, customable; but Marshall wrote it into his historic decisions, and thus it took root. The same anonymous watchman of the North American Review who protested against to locate pronounced his anathema upon "such barbarous terms as presidential and congressional," but the plain need for them kept them in the language. Gubernatorial had come in long before this, and is to be found in the New Jersey Archives of 1734. Influential was denounced by the Rev. Jonathan Boucher and by George Canning, who argued that influent was better, but it was ardently defended by William Pinkney, of Maryland, and gradually made its way. Handy, kinky, law-abiding, chunky, solid (in the sense of well-to-do), evincive, complected, judgmatical, underpinned, blooded and cute were also already secure in revolutionary days. So with many nouns. Jefferson used breadstuffs in his Report of the Secretary of State on Commercial Restrictions, December 16, 1793. Balance, in the sense of remainder, got into the debates of the First Congress. Mileage was used by Franklin in 1754, and is now sound English. Elevator, in the sense of a storage house for grain, was used by Jefferson and by others before him. Draw, for drawbridge, comes down from Revolutionary days. So does slip, in the sense of a berth for vessels. So does addition, in the sense of a suburb. So, finally, does darkey.

The history of many of these Americanisms shows how vain is the effort of grammarians to combat the normal processes of [Pg051] language development. I have mentioned the early opposition to dutiable, influential, presidential, lengthy, to locate, to oppose, to advocate, to legislate and to progress. Bogus, reliable and standpoint were attacked with the same academic ferocity. All of them are to be found in Bryant's Index Expurgatorius[24] (circa 1870), and reliable was denounced by Bishop Coxe as "that abominable barbarism" so late as 1886.[25] Edward S. Gould, another uncompromising purist, said of standpoint that it was "the bright particular star ... of solemn philological blundering" and "the very counterpart of Dogberry's non-com."[26] Gould also protested against to jeopardize, leniency and to demean, and Richard Grant White joined him in an onslaught upon to donate. But all of these words are in good use in the United States today, and some of them have gone over into English.[27]

§ 4

Changed Meanings—A number of the foregoing contributions to the American vocabulary, of course, were simply common English words with changed meanings. To squat, in the sense of to crouch, had been sound English for centuries; what the colonists did was to attach a figurative meaning to it, and then bring that figurative meaning into wider usage than the literal meaning. In a somewhat similar manner they changed the significance of pond, as I have pointed out. So, too, with creek. In English it designated (and still designates) a small inlet or arm of a large river or of the sea; in American, so early as 1674, it designated any small stream. Many other such changed meanings crept into American in the early days. A typical one was the use of lot to designate a parcel of land. Thornton says, perhaps inaccurately, that it originated in the fact that the land in New England was distributed by lot. Whatever the truth, lot, [Pg052] to this day, is in almost universal use in the United States, though rare in England. Our conveyancers, in describing real property, always speak of "all that lot or parcel of land."[28] Other examples of the application of old words to new purposes are afforded by freshet, barn and team. A freshet, in eighteenth century English, meant any stream of fresh water; the colonists made it signify an inundation. A barn was a house or shed for storing crops; in the colonies the word came to mean a place for keeping cattle also. A team, in English, was a pair of draft horses; in the colonies it came to mean both horses and vehicle.

The process is even more clearly shown in the history of such words as corn and shoe. Corn, in orthodox English, means grain for human consumption, and especially wheat, e. g., the Corn Laws. The earliest settlers, following this usage, gave the name of Indian corn to what the Spaniards, following the Indians themselves, had called maíz. But gradually the adjective fell off, and by the middle of the eighteenth century maize was called simply corn, and grains in general were called breadstuffs. Thomas Hutchinson, discoursing to George III in 1774, used corn in this restricted sense, speaking of "rye and corn mixed." "What corn?" asked George. "Indian corn," explained Hutchinson, "or, as it is called in authors, maize."[29] So with shoe. In English it meant (and still means) a topless article of foot-wear, but the colonists extended its meaning to varieties covering the ankle, thus displacing the English boot, which they reserved for foot coverings reaching at least to the knee. To designate the English shoe they began to use the word slipper. This distinction between English and American usage still prevails, despite the affectation which has lately sought to revive boot, and with it its derivatives, boot-shop and bootmaker.

Store, shop, lumber, pie, dry-goods, cracker, rock and partridge among nouns and to haul, to jew, to notify and to heft among verbs offer further examples of changed meanings. Down to the [Pg053] middle of the eighteenth century shop continued to designate a retail establishment in America, as it does in England to this day. Store was applied only to a large establishment—one showing, in some measure, the character of a warehouse. But in 1774 a Boston young man was advertising in the Massachusetts Spy for "a place as a clerk in a store" (three Americanisms in a row!). Soon afterward shop began to acquire its special American meaning as a factory, e. g., machine-shop. Meanwhile store completely displaced shop in the English sense, and it remained for a late flowering of Anglomania, as in the case of boot and shoe, to restore, in a measure, the status quo ante. Lumber, in eighteenth century English, meant disused furniture, and this is its common meaning in England today. But the colonists early employed it to designate timber, and that use of it is now universal in America. Its familiar derivatives, e. g., lumber-yard, lumberman, lumberjack, greatly reinforce this usage. Pie, in English, means a meat-pie; in American it means a fruit-pie. The English call a fruit-pie a tart; the Americans call a meat-pie a pot-pie. Dry-goods, in England, means "non-liquid goods, as corn" (i. e., wheat); in the United States the term means "textile fabrics or wares."[30] The difference had appeared before 1725. Rock, in English, always means a large mass; in America it may mean a small stone, as in rock-pile and to throw a rock. The Puritans were putting rocks into the foundations of their meeting-houses so early as 1712.[31] Cracker began to be used for biscuit before the Revolution. Tavern displaced inn at the same time. As for partridge, it is cited by a late authority[32] as a salient example of changed meaning, along with corn and store. In England the term is applied only to the true partridge (Perdix perdix) and its nearly related varieties, but in the United States it is also used to designate the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), the common quail (Colinus virginianus) and various [Pg054] other tetraonoid birds. This confusion goes back to colonial times. So with rabbit. Properly speaking, there are no native rabbits in the United States; they are all hares. But the early colonists, for some unknown reason, dropped the word hare out of their vocabulary, and it is rarely heard in American speech to this day. When it appears it is almost always applied to the so-called Belgian hare, which, curiously enough, is not a hare at all, but a true rabbit.

To haul, in English, means to move by force or violence; in the colonies it came to mean to transport in a vehicle, and this meaning survives in sound American. To jew, in English, means to cheat; the colonists made it mean to haggle, and devised to jew down to indicate an effort to work a reduction in price. To heft, in English, means to lift; the early Americans made it mean to weigh by lifting, and kept the idea of weighing in its derivatives, e. g., hefty. Finally, there is the familiar American misuse of Miss or Mis' for Mrs.. It was so widespread by 1790 that on November 17 of that year Webster solemnly denounced it in the American Mercury.

§ 5

Archaic English Words—Most of the colonists who lived along the American seaboard in 1750 were the descendants of immigrants who had come in fully a century before; after the first settlements there had been much less fresh immigration than many latter-day writers have assumed. According to Prescott F. Hall, "the population of New England ... at the date of the Revolutionary War ... was produced out of an immigration of about 20,000 persons who arrived before 1640,"[33] and we have Franklin's authority for the statement that the total population of the colonies in 1751, then about 1,000,000, had been [Pg055] produced from an original immigration of less than 80,000.[34] Even at that early day, indeed, the colonists had begun to feel that they were distinctly separated, in culture and customs, from the mother-country,[35] and there were signs of the rise of a new native aristocracy, entirely distinct from the older aristocracy of the royal governors' courts.[36] The enormous difficulties of communication with England helped to foster this sense of separation. The round trip across the ocean occupied the better part of a year, and was hazardous and expensive; a colonist who had made it was a marked man,—as Hawthorne said, "the petit-maître of the colonies." Nor was there any very extensive exchange of ideas, for though most of the books read in the colonies came from England, the great majority of the colonists, down to the middle of the century, seem to have read little save the Bible and biblical commentaries, and in the native literature of the time one seldom comes upon any reference to the English authors who were glorifying the period of the Restoration and the reign of Anne. Moreover, after 1760 the colonial eyes were upon France rather than upon England, and Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Encyclopedists began to be familiar names to thousands who were scarcely aware of Addison and Steele, or even of the great Elizabethans.[37]

The result of this isolation, on the one hand, was that proliferation of the colonial speech which I have briefly reviewed, and on the other hand, the preservation of many words and phrases that gradually became obsolete in England. The Pilgrims of 1620 brought over with them the English of James I and the Revised [Pg056] Version, and their descendants of a century later, inheriting it, allowed its fundamentals to be little changed by the academic overhauling that the mother tongue was put to during the early part of the eighteenth century. In part they were ignorant of this overhauling, and in part they were indifferent to it. Whenever the new usage differed from that of the Bible they were inclined to remain faithful to the Bible, not only because of its pious authority but also because of the superior pull of its imminent and constant presence. Thus when an artificial prudery in English ordered the abandonment of the Anglo-Saxon sick for the Gothic ill, the colonies refused to follow, for sick was in both the Old Testament and the New;[38] and that refusal remains in force to this day.

A very large number of words and phrases, many of them now exclusively American, are similar survivals from the English of the seventeenth century, long since obsolete or merely provincial in England. Among nouns Thornton notes fox-fire, flap-jack, jeans, molasses, beef (to designate the live animal), chinch, cord-wood, homespun, ice-cream, julep and swingle-tree; Halliwell[39] adds andiron, bay-window, cesspool, clodhopper, cross-purposes, greenhorn, loophole, ragamuffin, riff-raff, rigmarole and trash; and other authorities cite stock (for cattle), fall (for autumn), offal, din, underpinning and adze. Bub, used in addressing a boy, is very old English, but survives only in American. Flap-jack goes back to Piers Plowman, but has been obsolete in England for two centuries. Muss, in the sense of a row, is also obsolete over there, but it is to be found in "Anthony and Cleopatra." Char, as a noun, disappeared from English a long time ago, but it survives in American as chore. Among the adjectives similarly preserved are to whittle, to wilt and to approbate. To guess, in the American sense of to suppose, is to be found in "Henry VI": [Pg057]

Not all together; better far, I guess,

That we do make our entrance several ways.

In "Measure for Measure" Escalus says "I guess not" to Angelo. The New English Dictionary offers examples much older—from Chaucer, Wyclif and Gower. To interview is in Dekker. To loan, in the American sense of to lend, is in 34 and 35 Henry VIII, but it dropped out of use in England early in the eighteenth century, and all the leading dictionaries, both English and American, now call it an Americanism.[40] To fellowship, once in good American use but now reduced to a provincialism, is in Chaucer. Even to hustle, it appears, is ancient. Among adjectives, homely, which means only homelike or unadorned in England, was used in its American sense of plain-featured by both Shakespeare and Milton. Other such survivors are burly, catty-cornered, likely, deft, copious, scant and ornate. Perhaps clever also belongs to this category, that is, in the American sense of amiable.

"Our ancestors," said James Russell Lowell, "unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare's." Shakespeare died in 1616; the Pilgrims landed four years later; Jamestown was founded in 1607. As we have seen, the colonists, saving a few superior leaders, were men of small sensitiveness to the refinements of life and speech: soldiers of fortune, amateur theologians, younger sons, neighborhood "advanced thinkers," bankrupts, jobless workmen, decayed gentry, and other such fugitives from culture—in brief, Philistines of the sort who join tin-pot fraternal orders today, and march in parades, and whoop for the latest mountebanks in politics. There was thus a touch of rhetoric in Lowell's saying that they spoke the English of Shakespeare; as well argue that the London grocers of 1885 spoke the English of Pater. But in a larger sense he said truly, for these men at least brought with them the vocabulary of Shakespeare—or a part of it,—even if the uses he made of it were beyond their comprehension, and they also brought with [Pg058] them that sense of ease in the language, that fine disdain for formality, that bold experimentalizing in words, which was so peculiarly Elizabethan. There were no grammarians in that day; there were no purists that anyone listened to; it was a case of saying your say in the easiest and most satisfying way. In remote parts of the United States there are still direct and almost pure-blooded descendants of those seventeenth century colonists. Go among them, and you will hear more words from the Shakespearean vocabulary, still alive and in common service, than anywhere else in the world, and more of the loose and brilliant syntax of that time, and more of its gipsy phrases.[41]

§ 6

Colonial Pronunciation—The debate that long raged over the pronunciation of classical Latin exhibits the difficulty of determining with exactness the shades of sound in the speech of a people long departed from earth. The American colonists, of course, are much nearer to us than the Romans, and so we should have relatively little difficulty in determining just how they pronounced this or that word, but against the fact of their nearness stands the neglect of our philologists, or, perhaps more accurately, our lack of philologists. What Sweet did to clear up the history of English pronunciation,[42] and what Wilhelm Corssen did for Latin, no American professor has yet thought to attempt for American. The literature is almost, if not quite a blank. But here and there we may get a hint of the facts, and though the sum of them is not large, they at least serve to set at rest a number of popular errors.

One of these errors, chiefly prevalent in New England, is that the so-called Boston pronunciation, with its broad a's (making last, path and aunt almost assonant with bar) comes down unbrokenly from the day of the first settlements, and that it is in consequence superior in authority to the pronunciation of the [Pg059] rest of the country, with its flat a's (making the same words assonant with ban). A glance through Webster's "Dissertations" is sufficient to show that the flat a was in use in New England in 1789, for the pronunciation of such words as wrath, bath and path, as given by him, makes them rhyme with hath.[43] Moreover, he gives aunt the same a-sound. From other sources come indications that the a was likewise flattened in such words as plant, basket, branch, dance, blast, command and castle, and even in balm and calm. Changes in the sound of the letter have been going on in English ever since the Middle English period,[44] and according to Lounsbury[45] they have moved toward the disappearance of the Continental a, "the fundamental vowel-tone of the human voice." Grandgent, another authority,[46] says that it became flattened "by the sixteenth century" and that "until 1780 or thereabouts the standard language had no broad a." Even in such words as father, car and ask the flat a was universally used. Sheridan, in the dictionary he published in 1780,[47] actually gave no ah-sound in his list of vowels. This habit of flatting the a had been brought over, of course, by the early colonists, and was as general in America, in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, as in England. Benjamin Franklin, when he wrote his "Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling," in 1768, apparently had no suspicion that any other a was possible. But between 1780 and 1790, according to Grandgent, a sudden fashion for the broad a (not the aw-sound, as in fall, but the Continental sound as in far) arose in England,[48] and this fashion soon found servile imitation in Boston. But it was as much an affectation in those [Pg060] days as it is today, and Webster indicated the fact pretty plainly in his "Dissertations." How, despite his opposition, the broad a prevailed East of the Connecticut river, and how, in the end, he himself yielded to it, and even tried to force it upon the whole nation—this will be rehearsed in the next chapter.

The colonists remained faithful much longer than the English to various other vowel-sounds that were facing change in the eighteenth century, for example, the long e-sound in heard. Webster says that the custom of rhyming heard with bird instead of with feared came in at the beginning of the Revolution. "To most people in this country," he adds, "the English pronunciation appears like affectation." He also argues for rhyming deaf with leaf, and protests against inserting a y-sound before the u in such words as nature. Franklin's authority stands behind git for get. This pronunciation, according to Menner,[49] was correct in seventeenth century England, and perhaps down to the middle of the next century. So was the use of the Continental i-sound in oblige, making it obleege. It is probable that the colonists clung to these disappearing usages much longer than the English. The latter, according to Webster, were unduly responsive to illogical fashions set by the exquisites of the court and by popular actors. He blames Garrick, in particular, for many extravagant innovations, most of them not followed in the colonies. But Garrick was surely not responsible for the use of a long i-sound in such words as motive, nor for the corruption of mercy to marcy. Webster denounced both of these barbarisms. The second he ascribed somewhat lamely to the fact that the letter r is called ar, and proposed to dispose of it by changing the ar to er.

As for the consonants, the colonists seem to have resisted valiantly that tendency to slide over them which arose in England after the Restoration. Franklin, in 1768, still retained the sound of l in such words as would and should, a usage not met with in England after the year 1700. In the same way, according to Menner, the w in sword was sounded in America "for some time after Englishmen had abandoned it." The sensitive ear of Henry James detected an unpleasant r-sound in the speech of Americans, long ago got rid of by the English, so late as 1905; he even charged that it was inserted gratuitously in innocent words.[50] The obvious slurring of the consonants by Southerners is explained by a recent investigator[51] on the ground that it began in England during the reign of Charles II, and that most of the Southern colonists came to the New World at that time. The court of Charles, it is argued, was under French influence, due to the king's long residence in France and his marriage to Henrietta Marie. Charles "objected to the inharmonious contractions will'nt (or wolln't) and wasn't and weren't ... and set the fashion of using the softly euphonious won't and wan't, which are used in speaking to this day by the best class of Southerners." A more direct French influence upon Southern pronunciation is also pointed out. "With full knowledge of his g's and his r's, ... [the Southerner] sees fit to glide over them, ... and he carries over the consonant ending one word to the vowel beginning the next, just as the Frenchman does." The political importance of the South, in the years between the Mecklenburg Declaration and the adoption of the Constitution, tended to force its provincialisms upon the common language. Many of the acknowledged leaders of the nascent nation were Southerners, and their pronunciation, as well as their phrases, must have become familiar everywhere. Pickering gives us a hint, indeed, at the process whereby their usage influenced that of the rest of the people.[52]

The Americans early dropped the h-sound in such words as when and where, but so far as I can determine they never elided it at the beginning of words, save in the case of herb, and a few others. This elision is commonly spoken of as a cockney vulgarism, but it has extended to the orthodox English speech. In ostler the initial h is openly left off; in hotel and hospital it is [Pg062] seldom sounded, even by the most careful Englishmen. Certain English words in h, in which the h is now sounded, betray its former silence by the fact that not a but an is still put before them. It is still good English usage to write an hotel and an historical; it is the American usage to write a hotel and a historical.

The great authority of Webster was sufficient to establish the American pronunciation of schedule. In England the sch is always given the soft sound, but Webster decided for the hard sound, as in scheme. The variance persists to this day. The name of the last letter of the alphabet, which is always zed in English, is usually made zee in the United States. Thornton shows that this Americanism arose in the eighteenth century.


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