The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter III - The Period of Growth

§ 1

The New Nation—The American language thus began to be recognizably differentiated from English in both vocabulary and pronunciation by the opening of the nineteenth century, but as yet its growth was hampered by two factors, the first being the lack of a national literature of any pretentions and the second being an internal political disharmony which greatly conditioned and enfeebled the national consciousness. During the actual Revolution common aims and common dangers forced the Americans to show a united front, but once they had achieved political independence they developed conflicting interests, and out of those conflicting interests came suspicions and hatreds which came near wrecking the new confederation more than once. Politically, their worst weakness, perhaps, was an inability to detach themselves wholly from the struggle for domination still going on in Europe. The surviving Loyalists of the revolutionary era—estimated by some authorities to have constituted fully a third of the total population in 1776—were ardently in favor of England, and such patriots as Jefferson were as ardently in favor of France. This engrossment in the quarrels of foreign nations was what Washington warned against in his Farewell Address. It was at the bottom of such bitter animosities as that between Jefferson and Hamilton. It inspired and perhaps excused the pessimism of such men as Burr. Its net effect was to make it difficult for the people of the new nation to think of themselves, politically, as Americans. Their state of mind, vacillating, uncertain, alternately timorous and [Pg064] pugnacious, has been well described by Henry Cabot Lodge in his essay on "Colonialism in America."[1] Soon after the Treaty of Paris was signed, someone referred to the late struggle, in Franklin's hearing, as the War for Independence. "Say, rather, the War of the Revolution," said Franklin. "The War for Independence is yet to be fought."

"That struggle," adds Lossing, "occurred, and that independence was won, by the Americans in the War of 1812."[2] In the interval the new republic had passed through a period of Sturm und Drang whose gigantic perils and passions we have begun to forget—a period in which disaster ever menaced, and the foes within were no less bold and pertinacious than the foes without. Jefferson, perhaps, carried his fear of "monocrats" to the point of monomania, but under it there was undoubtedly a body of sound fact. The poor debtor class (including probably a majority of the veterans of the Revolution) had been fired by the facile doctrines of the French Revolution to demands which threatened the country with bankruptcy and anarchy, and the class of property-owners, in reaction, went far to the other extreme. On all sides, indeed, there flourished a strong British party, and particularly in New England, where the so-called codfish aristocracy (by no means extinct, even today) exhibited an undisguised Anglomania, and looked forward confidently to a rapprochement with the mother country.[3] This Anglomania showed itself, not only in ceaseless political agitation, but also in an elaborate imitation of English manners. We have already seen, on Noah Webster's authority, how it even extended to the pronunciation of the language.

The first sign of the dawn of a new national order came with the election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1800. The issue in the campaign was a highly complex one, but under it lay a plain conflict between democratic independence and the [Pg065] old doctrine of dependence and authority; and with the Alien and Sedition Laws about his neck, so vividly reminiscent of the issues of the Revolution itself, Adams went down to defeat. Jefferson was violently anti-British and pro-French; he saw all the schemes of his political opponents, indeed, as English plots; he was the man who introduced the bugaboo into American politics. His first acts after his inauguration were to abolish all ceremonial at the court of the republic, and to abandon spoken discourses to Congress for written messages. That ceremonial, which grew up under Washington, was an imitation, he believed, of the formality of the abhorrent Court of St. James; as for the speeches to Congress, they were palpably modelled upon the speeches from the throne of the English kings. Both reforms met with wide approval; the exactions of the English, particularly on the high seas, were beginning to break up the British party. But confidence in the solidarity and security of the new nation was still anything but universal. The surviving doubts, indeed, were strong enough to delay the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, providing for more direct elections of President and Vice-President, until the end of 1804, and even then three of the five New England states rejected it,[4] and have never ratified it, in fact, to this day. Democracy was still experimental, doubtful, full of gunpowder. In so far as it had actually come into being, it had come as a boon conferred from above. Jefferson, its protagonist, was the hero of the populace, but he was not of the populace himself, nor did he ever quite trust it.

It was reserved for Andrew Jackson, a man genuinely of the people, to lead and visualize the rise of the lower orders. Jackson, in his way, was the archetype of the new American—ignorant, pushful, impatient of restraint and precedent, an iconoclast, a Philistine, an Anglophobe in every fibre. He came from the extreme backwoods and his youth was passed amid surroundings but little removed from downright savagery.[5] [Pg066] Thousands of other young Americans like him were growing up at the same time—youngsters filled with a vast impatience of all precedent and authority, revilers of all that had come down from an elder day, incorrigible libertarians. They swarmed across the mountains and down the great rivers, wrestling with the naked wilderness and setting up a casual, impromptu sort of civilization where the Indian still menaced. Schools were few and rudimentary; there was not the remotest approach to a cultivated society; any effort to mimic the amenities of the East, or of the mother country, in manner or even in speech, met with instant derision. It was in these surroundings and at this time that the thorough-going American of tradition was born: blatant, illogical, elate, "greeting the embarrassed gods" uproariously and matching "with Destiny for beers." Jackson was unmistakably of that company in his every instinct and idea, and it was his fate to give a new and unshakable confidence to its aspiration at the Battle of New Orleans. Thereafter all doubts began to die out; the new republic was turning out a success. And with success came a vast increase in the national egoism. The hordes of pioneers rolled down the western valleys and on to the great plains.[6] America began to stand for something quite new in the world—in government, in law, in public and private morals, in customs and habits of mind, in the minutia of social intercourse. And simultaneously the voice of America began to take on its characteristic twang, and the speech of America began to differentiate itself boldly and unmistakably from the speech of England. The average Philadelphian or Bostonian of 1790 had not the slightest difficulty in making himself understood by a visiting Englishman. But the average Ohio boatman of 1810 or plainsman of 1815 was already speaking a dialect that the Englishman would have shrunk from as barbarous and unintelligible, and before long it began to leave [Pg067] its mark upon and to get direction and support from a distinctively national literature.

That literature, however, was very slow in coming to a dignified, confident and autonomous estate. Down to Jefferson's day it was almost wholly polemical, and hence lacking in the finer values; he himself, an insatiable propagandist and controversialist, was one of its chief ornaments. "The novelists and the historians, the essayists and the poets, whose names come to mind when American literature is mentioned," says a recent literary historian, "have all flourished since 1800."[7] Pickering, so late as 1816, said that "in this country we can hardly be said to have any authors by profession." It was a true saying, though the new day was about to dawn; Bryant had already written "Thanatopsis" and was destined to publish it the year following. Difficulties of communication hampered the circulation of the few native books that were written; it was easier for a man in the South to get books from London than to get them from Boston or New York, and the lack of a copyright treaty with England flooded the country with cheap English editions. "It is much to be regretted," wrote Dr. David Ramsay, of Charleston, S. C., to Noah Webster in 1806, "that there is so little intercourse in a literary way between the states. As soon as a book of general utility comes out in any state it should be for sale in all of them." Ramsay asked for little; the most he could imagine was a sale of 2,000 copies for an American work in America. But even that was far beyond the possibilities of the time.

An external influence of great potency helped to keep the national literature scant and timorous during those early and perilous days. It was the extraordinary animosity of the English critics, then at the zenith of their pontifical authority, to all books of American origin or flavor. This animosity, culminating in Sydney Smith's famous sneer,[8] was but part of a [Pg068] larger hostility to all things American, from political theories to table manners. The American, after the war of 1812, became the pet abomination of the English, and the chief butt of the incomparable English talent for moral indignation. There was scarcely an issue of the Quarterly Review, the Edinburgh, the Foreign Quarterly, the British Review or Blackwood's, for a generation following 1814, in which he was not stupendously assaulted. Gifford, Sydney Smith and the poet Southey became specialists in this business; it took on the character of a holy war; even such mild men as Wordsworth were recruited for it. It was argued that the Americans were rogues and swindlers, that they lived in filth and squalor, that they were boors in social intercourse, that they were poltroons and savages in war, that they were depraved and criminal, that they were wholly devoid of the remotest notion of decency or honor. The Foreign Quarterly, summing up in January, 1844, pronounced them "horn-handed and pig-headed, hard, persevering, unscrupulous, carnivorous, with a genius for lying." Various Americans went to the defense of their countrymen, among them, Irving, Cooper, Timothy Dwight, J. K. Paulding, John Neal, Edward Everett and Robert Walsh. Paulding, in "John Bull in America, or, the New Munchausen," published in 1825, attempted satire. Even an Englishman, James Sterling, warned his fellow-Britons that, if they continued their intolerant abuse, they would "turn into bitterness the last drops of good-will toward England that exist in the United States." But the avalanche of denunciation kept up, and even down to a few years ago it was very uncommon for an Englishman to write of American politics, or manners, or literature without betraying his dislike. Not, indeed, until the Prussian began monopolizing the whole British talent for horror and invective did the Yankee escape the lash.[9]

This gigantic pummelling, in the long run, was destined to encourage an independent spirit in the national literature, if [Pg069] only by a process of mingled resentment and despair, but for some time its chief effect was to make American writers of a more delicate aspiration extremely self-conscious and diffident. The educated classes, even against their will, were influenced by the torrent of abuse; they could not help finding in it an occasional reasonableness, an accidental true hit. The result, despite the efforts of Channing, Knapp and other such valiant defenders of the native author, was uncertainty and skepticism in native criticism. "The first step of an American entering upon a literary career," says Lodge, writing of the first quarter of the century, "was to pretend to be an Englishman in order that he might win the approval, not of Englishmen, but of his own countrymen." Cooper, in his first novel, "Precaution," chose an English scene, imitated English models, and obviously hoped to placate the critics thereby. Irving, too, in his earliest work, showed a considerable discretion, and his "History of New York," as everyone knows, was first published anonymously. But this puerile spirit did not last long. The English onslaughts were altogether too vicious to be received lying down; their very fury demanded that they be met with a united and courageous front. Cooper, in his second novel, "The Spy," boldly chose an American setting and American characters, and though the influence of his wife, who came of a Loyalist family, caused him to avoid any direct attack upon the English, he attacked them indirectly, and with great effect, by opposing an immediate and honorable success to their derisions. "The Spy" ran through three editions in four months; it was followed by his long line of thoroughly American novels; in 1834 he formally apologized to his countrymen for his early truancy in "Precaution." Irving, too, soon adopted a bolder tone, and despite his English predilections, he refused an offer of a hundred guineas for an article for the Quarterly Review, made by Gifford in 1828, on the ground that "the Review has been so persistently hostile to our country that I cannot draw a pen in its service."

The same year saw the publication of the first edition of [Pg070] Webster's American Dictionary of the English language, and a year later followed Samuel L. Knapp's "Lectures on American Literature," the first history of the national letters ever attempted. Knapp, in his preface, thought it necessary to prove, first of all, that an American literature actually existed, and Webster, in his introduction, was properly apologetic, but there was no real need for timorousness in either case, for the American attitude toward the attack of the English was now definitely changing from uneasiness to defiance. The English critics, in fact, had overdone the thing, and though their clatter was to keep up for many years more, they no longer spread terror or had much influence. Of a sudden, as if in answer to them, doubts turned to confidence, and then into the wildest sort of optimism, not only in politics and business, but also in what passed for the arts. Knapp boldly defied the English to produce a "tuneful sister" surpassing Mrs. Sigourney; more, he argued that the New World, if only by reason of its superior scenic grandeur, would eventually hatch a poetry surpassing even that of Greece and Rome. "What are the Tibers and Scamanders," he demanded, "measured by the Missouri and the Amazon? Or what the loveliness of Illysus or Avon by the Connecticut or the Potomack?"

In brief, the national feeling, long delayed at birth, finally leaped into being in amazing vigor. "One can get an idea of the strength of that feeling," says R. O. Williams, "by glancing at almost any book taken at random from the American publications of the period. Belief in the grand future of the United States is the key-note of everything said and done. All things American are to be grand—our territory, population, products, wealth, science, art—but especially our political institutions and literature. The unbounded confidence in the material development of the country which now characterizes the extreme northwest of the United States prevailed as strongly throughout the eastern part of the Union during the first thirty years of the century; and over and above a belief in, and concern for, materialistic progress, there were enthusiastic anticipations of achievements in all the moral and intellectual fields of national [Pg071] greatness."[10] Nor was that vast optimism wholly without warrant. An American literature was actually coming into being, and with a wall of hatred and contempt shutting in England, the new American writers were beginning to turn to the Continent for inspiration and encouragement. Irving had already drunk at Spanish springs; Emerson and Bayard Taylor were to receive powerful impulses from Germany, following Ticknor, Bancroft and Everett before them; Bryant was destined to go back to the classics. Moreover, Cooper and John P. Kennedy had shown the way to native sources of literary material, and Longfellow was making ready to follow them; novels in imitation of English models were no longer heard of; the ground was preparing for "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Finally, Webster himself, as Williams demonstrated, worked better than he knew. His American Dictionary was not only thoroughly American: it was superior to any of the current dictionaries of the English, so much so that for a good many years it remained "a sort of mine for British lexicography to exploit."

Thus all hesitations disappeared, and there arose a national consciousness so soaring and so blatant that it began to dismiss all British usage and opinion as puerile and idiotic. William L. Marcy, when Secretary of State under Pierce (1853-57), issued a circular to all American diplomatic and consular officers, loftily bidding them employ only "the American language" in communicating with him. The Legislature of Indiana, in an act approved February 15, 1838, establishing the state university at Bloomington,[11] provided that it should instruct the youth of the new commonwealth (it had been admitted to the Union in 1816) "in the American, learned and foreign languages ... and literature." Such grandiose pronunciamentos [Pg072] well indicate and explain the temper of the era.[12] It was a time of expansion and braggadocia. The new republic would not only produce a civilization and a literature of its own; it would show the way for all other civilizations and literatures. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the enemy of Poe, rose from his decorous Baptist pew to protest that so much patriotism amounted to insularity and absurdity, but there seems to have been no one to second the motion. It took, indeed, the vast shock of the Civil War to unhorse the optimists. While the Jackson influence survived, it was the almost unanimous national conviction that "he who dallies is a dastard, and he who doubts is damned."

§ 2

The Language in the Making—All this jingoistic bombast, however, was directed toward defending, not so much the national vernacular as the national beautiful letters. True enough, an English attack upon a definite American locution always brought out certain critical minute-men, but in the main they were anything but hospitable to the racy neologisms that kept crowding up from below, and most of them were eager to be accepted as masters of orthodox English and very sensitive to the charge that their writing was bestrewn with Americanisms. A glance through the native criticism of the time will show how ardently even the most uncompromising patriots imitated the Johnsonian jargon then fashionable in England. Fowler and Griswold followed pantingly in the footsteps of Macaulay; their prose is extraordinarily ornate and self-conscious, and one searches it in vain for any concession to colloquialism. Poe, the master of them all, achieved a style so elephantine that many an English leader-writer must have studied it with envy. A few bolder spirits, as we have seen, spoke out for national freedom in language as well as in letters—among them, Channing—but in the main the Brahmins of the time were conservatives in [Pg073] that department, and it is difficult to imagine Emerson or Irving or Bryant sanctioning the innovations later adopted so easily by Howells. Lowell and Walt Whitman, in fact, were the first men of letters, properly so called, to give specific assent to the great changes that were firmly fixed in the national speech during the half century between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Lowell did so in his preface to the second series of "The Biglow Papers." Whitman made his declaration in "An American Primer." In discussing his own poetry, he said: "It is an attempt to give the spirit, the body and the man, new words, new potentialities of speech—an American, a cosmopolitan (for the best of America is the best cosmopolitanism) range of self-expression." And then: "The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words. The new times, the new people, the new vistas need a new tongue according—yes, and what is more, they will have such a new tongue." To which, as everyone knows, Whitman himself forthwith contributed many daring (and still undigested) novelties, e. g., camerado, romanza, Adamic and These States.

Meanwhile, in strong contrast to the lingering conservatism above there was a wild and lawless development of the language below, and in the end it forced itself into recognition, and profited by the literary declaration of independence of its very opponents. "The jus et norma loquendi," says W. R. Morfill, the English philologist, "do not depend upon scholars." Particularly in a country where scholarship is still new and wholly cloistered, and the overwhelming majority of the people are engaged upon novel and highly exhilarating tasks, far away from schools and with a gigantic cockiness in their hearts. The remnants of the Puritan civilization had been wiped out by the rise of the proletariat under Jackson, and whatever was fine and sensitive in it had died with it. What remained of an urbane habit of mind and utterance began to be confined to the narrowing feudal areas of the south, and to the still narrower refuge of the Boston Brahmins, now, for the first time, a definitely recognized caste of intelligentsia, self-charged with carrying the [Pg074] torch of culture through a new Dark Age. The typical American, in Paulding's satirical phrase, became "a bundling, gouging, impious" fellow, without either "morals, literature, religion or refinement." Next to the savage struggle for land and dollars, party politics was the chief concern of the people, and with the disappearance of the old leaders and the entrance of pushing upstarts from the backwoods, political controversy sank to an incredibly low level. Bartlett, in the introduction to the second edition of his Glossary, describes the effect upon the language. First the enfranchised mob, whether in the city wards or along the western rivers, invented fantastic slang-words and turns of phrase; then they were "seized upon by stump-speakers at political meetings"; then they were heard in Congress; then they got into the newspapers; and finally they came into more or less good usage. Much contemporary evidence is to the same effect. Fowler, in listing "low expressions" in 1850, described them as "chiefly political." "The vernacular tongue of the country," said Daniel Webster, "has become greatly vitiated, depraved and corrupted by the style of the congressional debates." Thornton, in the appendix to his Glossary, gives some astounding specimens of congressional oratory between the 20's and 60's, and many more will reward the explorer who braves the files of the Congressional Globe. This flood of racy and unprecedented words and phrases beat upon and finally penetrated the retreat of the literati, but the purity of speech cultivated there had little compensatory influence upon the vulgate. The newspaper was now enthroned, and belles lettres were cultivated almost in private, and as a mystery. It is probable, indeed, that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Ten Nights in a Bar-room," both published in the early 50's, were the first contemporary native books, after Cooper's day, that the American people, as a people, ever read. Nor did the pulpit, now fast falling from its old high estate, lift a corrective voice. On the contrary, it joined the crowd, and Bartlett denounces it specifically for its bad example, and cites, among its crimes against the language, such inventions as to doxologize and to funeralize. [Pg075] To these novelties, apparently without any thought of their uncouthness, Fowler adds to missionate and consociational.

As I say, the pressure from below broke down the defenses of the purists, and literally forced a new national idiom upon them. Pen in hand, they might still achieve laborious imitations of Johnson and Macaulay, but their mouths began to betray them. "When it comes to talking," wrote Charles Astor Bristed for Englishmen in 1855, "the most refined and best educated American, who has habitually resided in his own country, the very man who would write, on some serious topic, volumes in which no peculiarity could be detected, will, in half a dozen sentences, use at least as many words that cannot fail to strike the inexperienced Englishman who hears them for the first time." Bristed gave a specimen of the American of that time, calculated to flabbergast his inexperienced Englishman; you will find it in the volume of Cambridge Essays, already cited. His aim was to explain and defend Americanisms, and so shut off the storm of English reviling, and he succeeded in producing one of the most thoughtful and persuasive essays on the subject ever written. But his purpose failed and the attack kept up, and eight years afterward the Very Rev. Henry Alford, D.D., dean of Canterbury, led a famous assault. "Look at those phrases," he said, "which so amuse us in their speech and books; at their reckless exaggeration and contempt for congruity; and then compare the character and history of the nation—its blunted sense of moral obligation and duty to man; its open disregard of conventional right where aggrandizement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world."[13] In his American edition of 1866 Dr. Alford withdrew this reference to the Civil War and somewhat ameliorated his indignation otherwise, but he clung to the main counts in his indictment, and most Englishmen, I daresay, still give them a certain support. The American is no longer a [Pg076] "vain, egotistical, insolent, rodomontade sort of fellow"; America is no longer the "brigand confederation" of the Foreign Quarterly or "the loathsome creature, ... maimed and lame, full of sores and ulcers" of Dickens; but the Americanism is yet regarded with a bilious eye, and pounced upon viciously when found. Even the friendliest English critics seem to be daunted by the gargantuan copiousness of American inventions in speech. Their position, perhaps, was well stated by Capt. Basil Hall, author of the celebrated "Travels in North America," in 1827. When he argued that "surely such innovations are to be deprecated," an American asked him this question: "If a word becomes universally current in America, why should it not take its station in the language?" "Because," replied Hall in all seriousness, "there are words enough in our language already."

§ 3

The Expanding Vocabulary—A glance at some of the characteristic coinages of the time, as they are revealed in the Congressional Globe, in contemporary newspapers and political tracts, and in that grotesque small literature of humor which began with Judge Thomas C. Haliburton's "Sam Slick" in 1835, is almost enough to make one sympathize with Dean Alford. Bartlett quotes to doxologize from the Christian Disciple, a quite reputable religious paper of the 40's. To citizenize was used and explained by Senator Young, of Illinois, in the Senate on February 1, 1841, and he gave Noah Webster as authority for it. To funeralize and to missionate, along with consociational, were contributions of the backwoods pulpit; perhaps it also produced hell-roaring and hellion, the latter of which was a favorite of the Mormons and even got into a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher. To deacon, a verb of decent mien in colonial days, signifying to read a hymn line by line, responded to the rough humor of the time, and began to mean to swindle or adulterate, e. g., to put the largest berries at the top of the box, to extend one's fences sub rosa, or to mix sand with sugar. A great rage for extending the vocabulary by the use of suffixes seized upon [Pg077] the corn-fed etymologists, and they produced a formidable new vocabulary in -ize, -ate, -ify, -acy, -ous and -ment. Such inventions as to obligate, to concertize, to questionize, retiracy, savagerous, coatee (a sort of diminutive for coat) and citified appeared in the popular vocabulary, and even got into more or less good usage. Fowler, in 1850, cited publishment and releasement with no apparent thought that they were uncouth. And at the same time many verbs were made by the simple process of back formation, as, to resurrect, to excurt, to resolute, to burgle[14] and to enthuse.[15]

Some of these inventions, after flourishing for a generation or more, were retired with blushes during the period of aesthetic consciousness following the Civil War, but a large number have survived to our own day, and are in good usage. Not even the most bilious purist would think of objecting to to affiliate, to itemize, to resurrect or to Americanize today, and yet all of them gave grief to the judicious when they first appeared in the debates of Congress, brought there by statesmen from the backwoods. Nor to such simpler verbs of the period as to corner (i. e., the market), to boss and to lynch.[16] Nor perhaps to to boom, to boost, to kick (in the sense of to protest), to coast (on a sled), to engineer, to collide, to chink (i. e., logs), to feaze, to splurge, to aggravate (in the sense of to anger), to yank and to crawfish. These verbs have entered into the very fibre of the American vulgate, and so have many nouns derived from them, e. g., boomer, boom-town, bouncer, kicker, kick, splurge, roller-coaster. A few of them, e. g., to collide and to feaze, were [Pg078] archaic English terms brought to new birth; a few others, e. g., to holler[17] and to muss, were obviously mere corruptions. But a good many others, e. g., to bulldoze, to hornswoggle and to scoot, were genuine inventions, and redolent of the soil.

With the new verbs came a great swarm of verb-phrases, some of them short and pithy and others extraordinarily elaborate, but all showing the true national talent for condensing a complex thought, and often a whole series of thoughts, into a vivid and arresting image. Of the first class are to fill the bill, to fizzle out, to make tracks, to peter out, to plank down, to go back on, to keep tab, to light out and to back water. Side by side with them we have inherited such common coins of speech as to make the fur fly, to cut a swath, to know him like a book, to keep a stiff upper lip, to cap the climax, to handle without gloves, to freeze on to, to go it blind, to pull wool over his eyes, to know the ropes, to get solid with, to spread one's self, to run into the ground, to dodge the issue, to paint the town red, to take a back seat and to get ahead of. These are so familiar that we use them and hear them without thought; they seem as authentically parts of the English idiom as to be left at the post. And yet, as the labors of Thornton have demonstrated, all of them are of American nativity, and the circumstances surrounding the origin of some of them have been accurately determined. Many others are palpably the products of the great movement toward the West, for example, to pan out, to strike it rich, to jump or enter a claim, to pull up stakes, to rope in, to die with one's boots on, to get the deadwood on, to get the drop, to back and fill (a steamboat phrase used figuratively) and to get the bulge on. And in many others the authentic American is no less plain, for example, in to kick the bucket, to put a bug in his [Pg079] ear, to see the elephant, to crack up, to do up brown, to bark up the wrong tree, to jump on with both feet, to go the whole hog, to make a kick, to buck the tiger, to let it slide and to come out at the little end of the horn. To play possum belongs to this list. To it Thornton adds to knock into a cocked hat, despite its English sound, and to have an ax to grind. To go for, both in the sense of belligerency and in that of partisanship, is also American, and so is to go through (i. e., to plunder).

Of adjectives the list is scarcely less long. Among the coinages of the first half of the century that are in good use today are non-committal, highfalutin, well-posted, down-town, played-out, flat-footed, whole-souled and true-blue. The first appears in a Senate debate of 1841; highfalutin in a political speech of the same decade. Both are useful words; it is impossible, not employing them, to convey the ideas behind them without circumlocution. The use of slim in the sense of meagre, as in slim chance, slim attendance and slim support, goes back still further. The English use small in place of it. Other, and less respectable contributions of the time are brash, brainy, peart, locoed, pesky, picayune, scary, well-heeled, hardshell (e. g., Baptist), low-flung, codfish (to indicate opprobrium) and go-to-meeting. The use of plumb as an adjective, as in plumb crazy, is an English archaism that was revived in the United States in the early years of the century. In the more orthodox adverbial form of plump it still survives, for example, in "she fell plump into his arms." But this last is also good English.

The characteristic American substitution of mad for angry goes back to the eighteenth century, and perhaps denotes the survival of an English provincialism. Witherspoon noticed it and denounced it in 1781, and in 1816 Pickering called it "low" and said that it was not used "except in very familiar conversation." But it got into much better odor soon afterward, and by 1840 it passed unchallenged. Its use is one of the peculiarities that Englishmen most quickly notice in American colloquial speech today. In formal written discourse it is less often encountered, probably because the English marking of it has so conspicuously singled it out. But it is constantly met with [Pg080] in the newspapers and in the Congressional Record, and it is not infrequently used by such writers as Howells and Dreiser. In the familiar simile, as mad as a hornet, it is used in the American sense. But as mad as a March hare is English, and connotes insanity, not mere anger. The English meaning of the word is preserved in mad-house and mad-dog, but I have often noticed that American rustics, employing the latter term, derive from it a vague notion, not that the dog is demented, but that it is in a simple fury. From this notion, perhaps, comes the popular belief that dogs may be thrown into hydrophobia by teasing and badgering them.

It was not, however, among the verbs and adjectives that the American word-coiners of the first half of the century achieved their gaudiest innovations, but among the substantives. Here they had temptation and excuse in plenty, for innumerable new objects and relations demanded names, and here they exercised their fancy without restraint. Setting aside loan words, which will be considered later, three main varieties of new nouns were thus produced. The first consisted of English words rescued from obsolescence or changed in meaning, the second of compounds manufactured of the common materials of the mother tongue, and the third of entirely new inventions. Of the first class, good specimens are deck (of cards), gulch, gully and billion, the first three old English words restored to usage in America and the last a sound English word changed in meaning. Of the second class, examples are offered by gum-shoe, mortgage-shark, dug-out, shot-gun, stag-party, wheat-pit, horse-sense, chipped-beef, oyster-supper, buzz-saw, chain-gang and hell-box. And of the third there are instances in buncombe, greaser, conniption, bloomer, campus, galoot, maverick, roustabout, bugaboo and blizzard.

Of these coinages, perhaps those of the second class are most numerous and characteristic. In them American exhibits one of its most marked tendencies: a habit of achieving short cuts in speech by a process of agglutination. Why explain laboriously, as an Englishman might, that the notes of a new bank (in a day of innumerable new banks) are insufficiently secure? Call [Pg081] them wild-cat notes and have done! Why describe a gigantic rain storm with the lame adjectives of everyday? Call it a cloud-burst and immediately a vivid picture of it is conjured up. Rough-neck is a capital word; it is more apposite and savory than the English navvy, and it is overwhelmingly more American.[18] Square-meal is another. Fire-eater is yet another. And the same instinct for the terse, the eloquent and the picturesque is in boiled-shirt, blow-out, big-bug, claim-jumper, spread-eagle, come-down, back-number, claw-hammer (coat), bottom-dollar, poppy-cock, cold-snap, back-talk, back-taxes, calamity-howler, cut-off, fire-bug, grab-bag, grip-sack, grub-stake, pay-dirt, tender-foot, stocking-feet, ticket-scalper, store-clothes, small-potatoes, cake-walk, prairie-schooner, round-up, snake-fence, flat-boat, under-the-weather, on-the-hoof, and jumping-off-place. These compounds (there must be thousands of them) have been largely responsible for giving the language its characteristic tang and color. Such specimens as bell-hop, semi-occasional, chair-warmer and down-and-out are as distinctively American as baseball or the quick-lunch.

The spirit of the language appears scarcely less clearly in some of the coinages of the other classes. There are, for example, the English words that have been extended or restricted in meaning, e. g., docket (for court calendar), betterment (for improvement to property), collateral (for security), crank (for fanatic), jumper (for tunic), tickler (for memorandum or reminder),[19] carnival (in such phrases as carnival of crime), scrape (for fight or difficulty),[20] flurry (of snow, or in the market), suspenders, diggings (for habitation) and range. Again, there are the new assemblings of English materials, e. g., doggery, rowdy, teetotaler, goatee, tony and cussedness. Yet again, there are the purely artificial words, e. g., sockdolager, hunkydory, scalawag, guyascutis, spondulix, slumgullion, rambunctious, scrumptious, [Pg082] to skedaddle, to absquatulate and to exfluncticate.[21] In the use of the last-named coinages fashions change. In the 40's to absquatulate was in good usage, but it has since disappeared. Most of the other inventions of the time, however, have to some extent survived, and it would be difficult to find an American of today who did not know the meaning of scalawag and rambunctious and who did not occasionally use them. A whole series of artificial American words groups itself around the prefix ker, for example, ker-flop, ker-splash, ker-thump, ker-bang, ker-plunk, ker-slam and ker-flummux. This prefix and its onomatopoeic daughters have been borrowed by the English, but Thornton and Ware agree that it is American. Its origin has not been determined. As Sayce says, "the native instinct of language breaks out wherever it has the chance, and coins words which can be traced back to no ancestors."

In the first chapter I mentioned the superior imaginativeness revealed by Americans in meeting linguistic emergencies, whereby, for example, in seeking names for new objects introduced by the building of railroads, they surpassed the English plough and crossing-plate with cow-catcher and frog. That was in the 30's. Already at that early day the two languages were so differentiated that they produced wholly distinct railroad nomenclatures. Such commonplace American terms as box-car, caboose, air-line and ticket-agent are still quite unknown in England. So are freight-car, flagman, towerman, switch, switching-engine, switch-yard, switchman, track-walker, engineer, baggage-room, baggage-check, baggage-smasher, accommodation-train, baggage-master, conductor, express-car, flat-car, hand-car, way-bill, expressman, express-office, fast-freight, wrecking-crew, jerk-water, commutation-ticket, commuter, round-trip, mileage-book, ticket-scalper, depot, limited, hot-box, iron-horse, stop-over, tie, rail, fish-plate, run, train-boy, chair-car, club-car, diner, sleeper, bumpers, mail-clerk, passenger-coach, day-coach, excursionist, [Pg083] excursion-train, railroad-man, ticket-office, truck and right-of-way, not to mention the verbs, to flag, to derail, to express, to dead-head, to side-swipe, to stop-over, to fire (i. e., a locomotive), to switch, to side-track, to railroad, to commute, to telescope and to clear the track. These terms are in constant use in America; their meaning is familiar to all Americans; many of them have given the language everyday figures of speech.[22] But the majority of them would puzzle an Englishman, just as the English luggage-van, permanent-way, goods-waggon, guard, carrier, booking-office, return-ticket, railway-rug, R. S. O. (railway sub-office), tripper, line, points, shunt, metals and bogie would puzzle the average untravelled American.

In two other familiar fields very considerable differences between English and American are visible; in both fields they go back to the era before the Civil War. They are politics and that department of social intercourse which has to do with drinking. Many characteristic American political terms originated in revolutionary days, and have passed over into English. Of such sort are caucus and mileage. But the majority of those in common use today were coined during the extraordinarily exciting campaigns following the defeat of Adams by Jefferson. Charles Ledyard Norton has devoted a whole book to their etymology and meaning;[23] the number is far too large for a list of them to be attempted here. But a few characteristic specimens may be recalled, for example, the simple agglutinates: omnibus-bill, banner-state, favorite-son, anxious-bench, gag-rule, office-seeker and straight-ticket; the humorous metaphors: pork-barrel, pie-counter, wire-puller, land-slide, carpet-bagger, lame-duck and on the fence; the old words put to new uses: plank, platform, machine, precinct, slate, primary, floater, repeater, bolter, stalwart, filibuster, regular and fences; the new coinages: gerrymander, heeler, buncombe, roorback, mugwump and to bulldoze; the new derivatives: abolitionist, candidacy, boss-rule, [Pg084] per-diem, to lobby and boodler; and the almost innumerable verbs and verb-phrases: to knife, to split a ticket, to go up Salt River, to bolt, to eat crow, to boodle, to divvy, to grab and to run. An English candidate never runs; he stands. To run, according to Thornton, was already used in America in 1789; it was universal by 1820. Platform came in at the same time. Machine was first applied to a political organization by Aaron Burr. The use of mugwump is commonly thought to have originated in the Blaine campaign of 1884, but it really goes back to the 30's. Anxious-bench (or anxious-seat) at first designated only the place occupied by the penitent at revivals, but was used in its present political sense in Congress so early as 1842. Banner-state appears in Niles' Register for December 5, 1840. Favorite-son appears in an ode addressed to Washington on his visit to Portsmouth, N. H., in 1789, but it did not acquire its present ironical sense until it was applied to Martin Van Buren. Thornton has traced bolter to 1812, filibuster to 1863, roorback to 1844, and split-ticket to 1842. Regularity was an issue in Tammany Hall in 1822.[24] There were primaries in New York city in 1827, and hundreds of repeaters voted. In 1829 there were lobby-agents at Albany, and they soon became lobbyists; in 1832 lobbying had already extended to Washington. All of these terms are now as firmly imbedded in the American vocabulary as election or congressman.

In the department of conviviality the imaginativeness of Americans has been shown in both the invention and the naming of new and often highly complex beverages. So vast has been the production of novelties, in fact, that England has borrowed many of them, and their names with them. And not only England: one buys cocktails and gin-fizzes in "American bars" that stretch from Paris to Yokohama. Cocktail, stone-fence and sherry-cobbler were mentioned by Irving in 1809;[25] by Thackeray's day they were already well-known in England. Thornton traces the sling to 1788, and the stinkibus and anti-fogmatic, [Pg085] both now extinct, to the same year. The origin of the rickey, fizz, sour, cooler, skin, shrub and smash, and of such curious American drinks as the horse's neck, Mamie Taylor, Tom-and-Jerry, Tom-Collins, John-Collins, bishop, stone-wall, gin-fix, brandy-champarelle, golden-slipper, hari-kari, locomotive, whiskey-daisy, blue-blazer, black-stripe, white-plush and brandy-crusta is quite unknown; the historians of alcoholism, like the philologists, have neglected them.[26] But the essentially American character of most of them is obvious, despite the fact that a number have gone over into English. The English, in naming their drinks, commonly display a far more limited imagination. Seeking a name, for example, for a mixture of whiskey and soda-water, the best they could achieve was whiskey-and-soda. The Americans, introduced to the same drink, at once gave it the far more original name of high-ball. So with ginger-ale and ginger-pop. So with minerals and soft-drinks. Other characteristic Americanisms (a few of them borrowed by the English) are red-eye, corn-juice, eye-opener, forty-rod, squirrel-whiskey, phlegm-cutter, moon-shine, hard-cider, apple-jack and corpse-reviver, and the auxiliary drinking terms, speak-easy, sample-room, blind-pig, barrel-house, bouncer, bung-starter, dive, doggery, schooner, shell, stick, duck, straight, saloon, finger, pony and chaser. Thornton shows that jag, bust, bat and to crook the elbow are also Americanisms. So are bartender and saloon-keeper. To them might be added a long list of common American synonyms for drunk, for example, piffled, pifflicated, awry-eyed, tanked, snooted, stewed, ossified, slopped, fiddled, edged, loaded, het-up, frazzled, jugged, soused, jiggered, corned, jagged and bunned. Farmer and Henley list corned and jagged among English synonyms, but the former is obviously an Americanism derived from corn-whiskey or corn-juice, and Thornton says that the latter originated on this side of the Atlantic also. [Pg086]

§ 4

Loan-Words—The Indians of the new West, it would seem, had little to add to the contributions already made to the American vocabulary by the Algonquins of the Northeast. The American people, by the beginning of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, knew almost all they were destined to know of the aborigine, and they had names for all the new objects that he had brought to their notice and for most of his peculiar implements and ceremonies. A few translated Indian terms, e. g., squaw-man, big-chief, great-white-father and happy-hunting ground, represent the meagre fresh stock that the western pioneers got from him. Of more importance was the suggestive and indirect effect of his polysynthetic dialects, and particularly of his vivid proper names, e. g., Rain-in-the-Face, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Wife and Voice-Like-Thunder. These names, and other word-phrases like them, made an instant appeal to American humor, and were extensively imitated in popular slang. One of the surviving coinages of that era is Old-Stick-in-the-Mud, which Farmer and Henley note as having reached England by 1823.

Contact with the French in Louisiana and along the Canadian border, and with the Spanish in Texas and further West, brought many more new words. From the Canadian French, as we have already seen, prairie, batteau, portage and rapids had been borrowed during colonial days; to these French contributions bayou, picayune, levee, chute, butte, crevasse, and lagniappe were now added, and probably also shanty and canuck. The use of brave to designate an Indian warrior, almost universal until the close of the Indian wars, was also of French origin.

From the Spanish, once the Mississippi was crossed, and particularly after the Mexican war, in 1846, there came a swarm of novelties, many of which have remained firmly imbedded in the language. Among them were numerous names of strange objects: lariat, lasso, ranch, loco (weed), mustang, sombrero, canyon, desperado, poncho, chapparel, corral, broncho, plaza, [Pg087] peon, cayuse, burro, mesa, tornado, sierra and adobe. To them, as soon as gold was discovered, were added bonanza, eldorado, placer and vigilante. Cinch was borrowed from the Spanish cincha in the early Texas days, though its figurative use did not come in until much later. Ante, the poker term, though the etymologists point out its obvious origin in the Latin, probably came into American from the Spanish. Thornton's first example of its use in its current sense is dated 1857, but Bartlett reported it in the form of anti in 1848. Coyote came from the Mexican dialect of Spanish; its first parent was the Aztec coyotl. Tamale had a similar origin, and so did frijole and tomato. None of these is good Spanish.[27] As usual, derivatives quickly followed the new-comers, among them peonage, broncho-buster, ranchman and ranch-house, and the verbs to ranch, to lasso, to corral, to ante up, and to cinch. To vamose (from the Spanish vamos, let us go), came in at the same time. So did sabe. So did gazabo.

This was also the period of the first great immigrations, and the American people now came into contact, on a large scale, with peoples of divergent race, particularly Germans, Irish Catholics from the South of Ireland (the Irish of colonial days "were descendants of Cromwell's army, and came from the North of Ireland"),[28] and, on the Pacific Coast, Chinese. So early as the 20's the immigration to the United States reached 25,000 in a year; in 1824 the Legislature of New York, in alarm, passed a restrictive act.[29] The Know-Nothing movement of the 50's need not concern us here. Suffice it to recall that the immigration of 1845 passed the 100,000 mark, and that that of 1854 came within sight of 500,000. These new Americans, most of them Germans and Irish, did not all remain in the East; a great many spread through the West and Southwest with the other pioneers. Their effect upon the language was not large, [Pg088] perhaps, but it was still very palpable, and not only in the vocabulary. Of words of German origin, saurkraut and noodle, as we have seen, had come in during the colonial period, apparently through the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, i. e., a mixture, much debased, of the German dialects of Switzerland, Suabia and the Palatinate. The new immigrants now contributed pretzel, pumpernickel, hausfrau, lager-beer, pinocle, wienerwurst, dumb (for stupid), frankfurter, bock-beer, schnitzel, leberwurst, blutwurst, rathskeller, schweizer (cheese), delicatessen, hamburger (i. e., steak), kindergarten and katzenjammer.[30] From them, in all probability, there also came two very familiar Americanisms, loafer and bum. The former, according to the Standard Dictionary, is derived from the German laufen; another authority says that it originated in a German mispronounciation of lover, i. e., as lofer.[31] Thornton shows that the word was already in common use in 1835. Bum was originally bummer, and apparently derives from the German bummler.[32] Both words have produced derivatives: loaf (noun), to loaf, corner-loafer, common-loafer, to bum, bum (adj.) and bummery, not to mention on the [Pg089] bum. Loafer has migrated in England, but bum is still unknown there in the American sense. In English, indeed, bum is used to designate an unmentionable part of the body and is thus not employed in polite discourse.

Another example of debased German is offered by the American Kriss Kringle. It is from Christkindlein, or Christkind'l, and properly designates, of course, not the patron saint of Christmas, but the child in the manger. A German friend tells me that the form Kriss Kringle, which is that given in the Standard Dictionary, and the form Krisking'l, which is that most commonly used in the United States, are both quite unknown in Germany. Here, obviously, we have an example of a loan-word in decay. Whole phrases have gone through the same process, for example, nix come erous (from nichts kommt heraus) and 'rous mit 'im (from heraus mit ihm). These phrases, like wie geht's and ganz gut, are familiar to practically all Americans, no matter how complete their ignorance of correct German. Most of them know, too, the meaning of gesundheit, kümmel, seidel, wanderlust, stein, speck, maennerchor, schützenfest, sängerfest, turnverein, hoch, yodel, zwieback, and zwei (as in zwei bier). I have found snitz (=schnitz) in Town Topics.[33] Prosit is in all American dictionaries.[34] Bower, as used in cards, is an Americanism derived from the German bauer, meaning the jack. The exclamation, ouch! is classed as an Americanism by Thornton, and he gives an example dated 1837. The New English Dictionary refers it to the German autsch, and Thornton says that "it may have come across with the Dunkers or the Mennonites." Ouch is not heard in English, save in the sense of a clasp or buckle set with precious stones (=OF nouche), and even in that sense it is archaic. Shyster is very probably German also; Thornton has traced it back to the 50's.[35] Rum-dumb is grounded upon the [Pg090] meaning of dumb borrowed from the German; it is not listed in the English slang dictionaries.[36] Bristed says that the American meaning of wagon, which indicates almost any four-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle in this country but only the very heaviest in England, was probably influenced by the German wagen. He also says that the American use of hold on for stop was suggested by the German halt an, and White says that the substitution of standpoint for point of view, long opposed by all purists, was first made by an American professor who sought "an Anglicized form" of the German standpunkt. The same German influence may be behind the general facility with which American forms compound nouns. In most other languages, for example, Latin and French, the process is rare, and even English lags far behind American. But in German it is almost unrestricted. "It is," says L. P. Smith, "a great step in advance toward that ideal language in which meaning is expressed, not by terminations, but by the simple method of word position."

The immigrants from the South of Ireland, during the period under review, exerted an influence upon the language that was vastly greater than that of the Germans, both directly and indirectly, but their contributions to the actual vocabulary were probably less. They gave American, indeed, relatively few new words; perhaps shillelah, colleen, spalpeen, smithereens and poteen exhaust the unmistakably Gaelic list. Lallapalooza is also probably an Irish loan-word, though it is not Gaelic. It apparently comes from allay-foozee, a Mayo provincialism, signifying a sturdy fellow. Allay-foozee, in its turn, comes from the French Allez-fusil, meaning "Forward the muskets!"—a memory, [Pg091] according to P. W. Joyce,[37] of the French landing at Killala in 1798. Such phrases as Erin go bragh and such expletives as begob and begorry may perhaps be added: they have got into American, though they are surely not distinctive Americanisms. But of far more importance than these few contributions to the vocabulary were certain speech habits that the Irish brought with them—habits of pronunciation, of syntax and even of grammar. These habits were, in part, the fruit of efforts to translate the idioms of Gaelic into English, and in part borrowings from the English of the age of James I. The latter, preserved by Irish conservatism in speech,[38] came into contact in America with habits surviving, with more or less change, from the same time, and so gave those American habits an unmistakable reinforcement. The Yankees, so to speak, had lived down such Jacobean pronunciations as tay for tea and desave for deceive, and these forms, on Irish lips, struck them as uncouth and absurd, but they still clung, in their common speech, to such forms as h'ist for hoist, bile for boil, chaw for chew, jine for join,[39] sass for sauce, heighth for height and rench for rinse and lep for leap, and the employment of precisely the same forms by the thousands of Irish immigrants who spread through the country undoubtedly gave them a certain support, and so protected them, in a measure, from the assault of the purists. And the same support was given to drownded for drowned, oncet for once, ketch for catch, ag'in for against and onery for ordinary. [Pg092]

Certain usages of Gaelic, carried over into the English of Ireland, fell upon fertile soil in America. One was the employment of the definite article before nouns, as in French and German. An Irishman does not say "I am good at Latin," but "I am good at the Latin." In the same way an American does not say "I had measles," but "I had the measles." There is, again, the use of the prefix a before various adjectives and gerunds, as in a-going and a-riding. This usage, of course, is native to English, as aboard and afoot demonstrate, but it is much more common in the Irish dialect, on account of the influence of the parallel Gaelic form, as in a-n-aice=a-near, and it is also much more common in American. There is, yet again, a use of intensifying suffixes, often set down as characteristically American, which was probably borrowed from the Irish. Examples are no-siree and yes-indeedy, and the later kiddo and skiddoo. As Joyce shows, such suffixes, in Irish-English, tend to become whole phrases. The Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration.[40] The American is in like case. His speech bristles with intensives: bet your life, not on your life, well I guess, and no mistake, and so on. The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart. The American borrowed, not only occasional words, but whole phrases, and some of them have become thoroughly naturalized. Joyce, indeed, shows the Irish origin of scores of locutions that are now often mistaken for native Americanisms, for example, great shakes, dead (as an intensive), thank you kindly, to split one's sides (i. e., laughing), and the tune the old cow died of, not to mention many familiar similes and proverbs. Certain Irish pronunciations, Gaelic rather than archaic English, got into American during the nineteenth century. Among them, one recalls bhoy, which entered our political slang in the middle 40's and survived into our own time. Again, there is the very characteristic American word ballyhoo, signifying [Pg093] the harangue of a ballyhoo-man, or spieler (that is, barker) before a cheap show, or, by metaphor, any noisy speech. It is from Ballyhooly, the name of a village in Cork, once notorious for its brawls. Finally, there is shebang. Schele de Vere derives it from the French cabane, but it seems rather more likely that it is from the Irish shebeen.

The propagation of Irishisms in the United States was helped, during many years, by the enormous popularity of various dramas of Irish peasant life, particularly those of Dion Boucicault. So recently as 1910 an investigation made by the Dramatic Mirror showed that some of his pieces, notably "Kathleen Mavourneen," "The Colleen Bawn" and "The Shaugraun," were still among the favorites of popular audiences. Such plays, at one time, were presented by dozens of companies, and a number of Irish actors, among them Andrew Mack, Chauncey Olcott and Boucicault himself, made fortunes appearing in them. An influence also to be taken into account is that of Irish songs, once in great vogue. But such influences, like the larger matter of American borrowings from Anglo-Irish, remain to be investigated. So far as I have been able to discover, there is not a single article in print upon the subject. Here, as elsewhere, our philologists have wholly neglected a very interesting field of inquiry.

From other languages the borrowings during the period of growth were naturally less. Down to the last decades of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of immigrants were either Germans or Irish; the Jews, Italians and Slavs were yet to come. But the first Chinese appeared in 1848, and soon their speech began to contribute its inevitable loan-words. These words, of course, were first adopted by the miners of the Pacific Coast, and a great many of them have remained California localisms, among them such verbs as to yen (to desire strongly, as a Chinaman desires opium) and to flop-flop (to lie down), and such nouns as fun, a measure of weight. But a number of others have got into the common speech of the whole country, e. g., fan-tan, kow-tow, chop-suey, ginseng, joss, yok-a-mi and tong. Contrary to the popular opinion, dope and hop are not from the Chinese. [Pg094] Neither, in fact, is an Americanism, though the former has one meaning that is specially American, i. e., that of information or formula, as in racing-dope and to dope out. Most etymologists derive the word from the Dutch doop, a sauce. In English, as in American, it signifies a thick liquid, and hence the viscous cooked opium. Hop is simply the common name of the Humuluslupulus. The belief that hops have a soporific effect is very ancient, and hop-pillows were brought to America by the first English colonists.

The derivation of poker, which came into American from California in the days of the gold rush, has puzzled etymologists. It is commonly derived from primero, the name of a somewhat similar game, popular in England in the sixteenth century, but the relation seems rather fanciful. It may possibly come, indirectly, from the Danish word pokker, signifying the devil. Pokerish, in the sense of alarming, was a common adjective in the United States before the Civil War; Thornton gives an example dated 1827. Schele de Vere says that poker, in the sense of a hobgoblin, was still in use in 1871, but he derives the name of the game from the French poche (=pouche, pocket). He seems to believe that the bank or pool, in the early days, was called the poke. Barrère and Leland, rejecting all these guesses, derive poker from the Yiddish pochger, which comes in turn from the verb pochgen, signifying to conceal winnings or losses. This pochgen is obviously related to the German pocher (=boaster, braggart). There were a good many German Jews in California in the early days, and they were ardent gamblers. If Barrère and Leland are correct, then poker enjoys the honor of being the first loan-word taken into American from the Yiddish.

§ 5

Pronunciation—Noah Webster, as we saw in the last chapter, sneered at the broad a, in 1789, as an Anglomaniac affectation. In the course of the next 25 years, however, he seems to have suffered a radical change of mind, for in "The American Spelling Book," published in 1817, he ordained it in ask, last, mass, aunt, [Pg095] grant, glass and their analogues, and in his 1829 revision he clung to this pronunciation, beside adding master, pastor, amass, quaff, laugh, craft, etc., and even massive. There is some difficulty, however, in determining just what sound he proposed to give the a, for there are several a-sounds that pass as broad, and the two main ones differ considerably. One appears in all, and may be called the aw-sound. The other is in art, and may be called the ah-sound. A quarter of a century later Richard Grant White distinguished between the two, and denounced the former as "a British peculiarity." Frank H. Vizetelly, writing in 1917, still noted the difference, particularly in such words as daunt, saunter and laundry. It is probable that Webster, in most cases, intended to advocate the ah-sound, as in father, for this pronunciation now prevails in New England. Even there, however, the a often drops to a point midway between ah and aa, though never actually descending to the flat aa, as in an, at and anatomy.

But the imprimatur of the Yankee Johnson was not potent enough to stay the course of nature, and, save in New England, the flat a swept the country. He himself allowed it in stamp and vase. His successor and rival, Lyman Cobb, decided for it in pass, draft, stamp and dance, though he kept to the ah-sound in laugh, path, daunt and saunter. By 1850 the flat a was dominant everywhere West of the Berkshires and South of New Haven, and had even got into such proper names as Lafayette and Nevada.[41]

Webster failed in a number of his other attempts to influence American pronunciation. His advocacy of deef for deaf had popular support while he lived, and he dredged up authority for it out of Chaucer and Sir William Temple, but the present pronunciation gradually prevailed, though deef remains familiar in the common speech. Joseph E. Worcester and other rival lexicographers stood against many of his pronunciations, and he took the field against them in the prefaces to the successive editions of his spelling-books. Thus, in that to "The Elementary Spelling [Pg096] Book," dated 1829, he denounced the "affectation" of inserting a y-sound before the u in such words as gradual and nature, with its compensatory change of d into a French j and of t into ch. The English lexicographer, John Walker, had argued for this "affectation" in 1791, but Webster's prestige, while he lived, remained so high in some quarters that he carried the day, and the older professors at Yale, it is said, continued to use natur down to 1839.[42] He favored the pronunciation of either and neither as ee-ther and nee-ther, and so did most of the English authorities of his time. The original pronunciation of the first syllable, in England, probably made it rhyme with bay, but the ee-sound was firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century. Toward the middle of the following century, however, there arose a fashion of an ai-sound, and this affectation was borrowed by certain Americans. Gould, in the 50's, put the question, "Why do you say i-ther and ni-ther?" to various Americans. The reply he got was: "The words are so pronounced by the best-educated people in England." This imitation still prevails in the cities of the East. "All of us," says Lounsbury, "are privileged in these latter days frequently to witness painful struggles put forth to give to the first syllable of these words the sound of i by those who have been brought up to give it the sound of e. There is apparently an impression on the part of some that such a pronunciation establishes on a firm foundation an otherwise doubtful social standing."[43] But the vast majority of Americans continue to say ee-ther and not eye-ther. White and Vizetelly, like Lounsbury, argue that they are quite correct in so doing. The use of eye-ther, says White, is no more than "a copy of a second-rate British affectation."


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