The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter III - Footnotes

[1] In Studies in History; Boston, 1884.

[2] Benson J. Lossing: Our Country....; New York, 1879.

[3] The thing went, indeed, far beyond mere hope. In 1812 a conspiracy was unearthed to separate New England from the republic and make it an English colony. The chief conspirator was one John Henry, who acted under the instructions of Sir John Craig, Governor-General of Canada.

[4] Maine was not separated from Massachusetts until 1820.

[5] Vide Andrew Jackson...., by William Graham Sumner; Boston, 1883, pp. 2-10.

[6] Indiana and Illinois were erected into territories during Jefferson's first term, and Michigan during his second term. Kentucky was admitted to the union in 1792, Tennessee in 1796, Ohio in 1803. Lewis and Clark set out for the Pacific in 1804. The Louisiana Purchase was ratified in 1803, and Louisiana became a state in 1812.

[7] Barrett Wendell: A Literary History of America; New York, 1900.

[8] "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?" Edinburgh Review, Jan., 1820.

[9] Cf. As Others See Us, by John Graham Brooks; New York, 1908, ch. vii. Also, The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. i, pp. 205-8.

[10] Our Dictionaries and Other English Language Topics; New York, 1890, pp. 30-31.

[11] It is curious to note that the center of population of the United States, according to the last census, is now "in southern Indiana, in the western part of Bloomington city, Monroe county." Can it be that this early declaration of literary independence laid the foundation for Indiana's recent pre-eminence in letters? Cf. The Language We Use, by Alfred Z. Reed, New York Sun, March 13, 1918.

[12] Support also came from abroad. Czar Nicholas I, of Russia, smarting under his defeat in the Crimea, issued an order that his own state papers should be prepared in Russian and American—not English.

[13] A Plea for the Queen's English; London, 1863; 2nd ed., 1864; American ed., New York, 1866.

[14] J. R. Ware, in Passing English of the Victorian Era, says that to burgle was introduced to London by W. S. Gilbert in The Pirates of Penzance (April 3, 1880). It was used in America 30 years before.

[15] This process, of course, is philologically respectable, however uncouth its occasional products may be. By it we have acquired many everyday words, among them, to accept (from acceptum), to exact (from exactum), to darkle (from darkling), and pea (from pease=pois).

[16] All authorities save one seem to agree that this verb is a pure Americanism, and that it is derived from the name of Charles Lynch, a Virginia justice of the peace, who jailed many Loyalists in 1780 without warrant in law. The dissentient, Bristed, says that to linch is in various northern English dialects, and means to beat or maltreat.

[17] The correct form of this appears to be halloo or holloa, but in America it is pronounced holler and usually represented in print by hollo or hollow. I have often encountered holloed in the past tense. But the Public Printer frankly accepts holler. Vide the Congressional Record, May 12, 1917, p. 2309. The word, in the form of hollering, is here credited to "Hon." John L. Burnett, of Alabama. There can be no doubt that the hon. gentleman said hollering, and not holloaing, or holloeing, or hollowing, or hallooing. Hello is apparently a variation of the same word.

[18] Rough-neck is often cited, in discussions of slang, as a latter-day invention, but Thornton shows that it was used in Texas in 1836.

[19] This use goes back to 1839.

[20] Thornton gives an example dated 1812. Of late the word has lost its final e and shortened its vowel, becoming scrap.

[21] Cf. Terms of Approbation and Eulogy.... by Elise L. Warnock, Dialect Notes, vol. iv, part 1, 1913. Among the curious recent coinages cited by Miss Warnock are scallywampus, supergobosnoptious, hyperfirmatious, scrumdifferous and swellellegous.

[22] E. g., single-track mind, to jump the rails, to collide head-on, broad-gauge man, to walk the ties, blind-baggage, underground-railroad, tank-town.

[23] Political Americanisms....; New York and London, 1890.

[24] Gustavus Myers: The History of Tammany Hall; 2nd ed.; New York, 1917, ch. viii.

[25] Knickerbocker's History of New York; New York, 1809, p. 241.

[26] Extensive lists of such drinks, with their ingredients, are to be found in the Hoffman House Bartender's Guide, by Charles Mahoney, 4th ed.; New York, 1916; in The Up-to-date Bartenders' Guide, by Harry Montague; Baltimore, 1913; and in Wehman Brothers' Bartenders' Guide; New York, 1912. An early list, from the Lancaster (Pa.) Journal of Jan. 26, 1821, is quoted by Thornton, vol. ii, p. 985.

[27] Many such words are listed in Félix Ramos y Duarte's Diccionaro de Mejicanismos, 2nd ed. Mexico City, 1898; and in Miguel de Toro y Gisbert's Americanismos; Paris, n. d.

[28] Prescott F. Hall: Immigration.... New York, 1913, p. 5.

[29] Most of the provisions of this act, however, were later declared unconstitutional. Several subsequent acts met the same fate.

[30] The majority of these words, it will be noted, relate to eating and drinking. They mirror the profound effect of German immigration upon American drinking habits and the American cuisine. It is a curious fact that loan-words seldom represent the higher aspirations of the creditor nation. French and German have borrowed from English, not words of lofty significance, but such terms as beefsteak, roast-beef, pudding, grog, jockey, tourist, sport, five-o'clock-tea, cocktail and sweepstakes. "The contributions of England to European civilization, as tested by the English words in Continental languages," says L. P. Smith, "are not, generally, of a kind to cause much national self-congratulation." Nor would a German, I daresay, be very proud of the German contributions to American.

[31] Vide a paragraph in Notes and Queries, quoted by Thornton, vol. i, p. 248.

[32] Thornton offers examples of this form ranging from 1856 to 1885. During the Civil War the word acquired the special meaning of looter. The Southerners thus applied it to Sherman's men. Vide Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. xii, p. 428; Richmond, 1884. Here is a popular rhyme that survived until the early 90's:

Isidor, psht, psht!

Vatch de shtore, psht, psht!

Vhile I ketch de bummer

Vhat shtole de suit of clothes!

Bummel-zug is common German slang for slow train.

[33] Jan. 24, 1918, p. 4.

[34] Nevertheless, when I once put it into a night-letter a Western Union office refused to accept it, the rules requiring all night-letters to be in "plain English." Meanwhile, the English have borrowed it from American, and it is actually in the Oxford Dictionary.

[35] The word is not in the Oxford Dictionary, but Cassell gives it and says that it is German and an Americanism. The Standard Dictionary does not give its etymology. Thornton's first example, dated 1856, shows a variant spelling, shuyster, thus indicating that it was then recent. All subsequent examples show the present spelling. It is to be noted that the suffix -ster is not uncommon in English, and that it usually carries a deprecatory significance, as in trickster, punster, gamester, etc.

[36] The use of dumb for stupid is widespread in the United States. Dumb-head, obviously from the German dummkopf, appears in a list of Kansas words collected by Judge J. C. Ruppenthal, of Russell, Kansas. (Dialect Notes, vol. iv, pt. v, 1916, p. 322.) It is also noted in Nebraska and the Western Reserve, and is very common in Pennsylvania. Uhrgucker (=uhr-gucken) is also on the Kansas list of Judge Ruppenthal.

[37] English As We Speak It in Ireland, 2nd ed.; London and Dublin, 1910, pp. 179-180.

[38] "Our people," says Dr. Joyce, "are very conservative in retaining old customs and forms of speech. Many words accordingly that are discarded as old-fashioned—or dead and gone—in England, are still flourishing—alive and well, in Ireland. [They represent] ... the classical English of Shakespeare's time," pp. 6-7.

[39] Pope rhymed join with mine, divine and line; Dryden rhymed toil with smile. William Kenrick, in 1773, seems to have been the first English lexicographer to denounce this pronunciation. Tay survived in England until the second half of the eighteenth century. Then it fell into disrepute, and certain purists, among them Lord Chesterfield, attempted to change the ea-sound to ee in all words, including even great. Cf. the remarks under boil in A Desk-Book of Twenty-Five Thousand Words Frequently Mispronounced, by Frank H. Vizetelly; New York, 1917. Also, The Standard of Pronunciation in English, by T. S. Lounsbury; New York, 1904, pp. 98-103.

[40] Amusing examples are to be found in Donlevy's Irish Catechism. To the question, "Is the Son God?" the answer is not simply "Yes," but "Yes, certainly He is." And to the question, "Will God reward the good and punish the wicked?", the answer is "Certainly; there is no doubt He will."

[41] Richard Meade Bache denounced it, in Lafayette, during the 60's. Vide his Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech, 2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1869, p. 65.

[42] R. J. Menner: The Pronunciation of English in America, Atlantic Monthly, March, 1915, p. 361.

[43] The Standard of Pronunciation in English, pp. 109-112.


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