The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter V - Tendencies in American

§ 1

International Exchanges —More than once, during the preceding chapters, we encountered Americanisms that had gone over into English, and English locutions that had begun to get a foothold in the United States. Such exchanges are made very frequently and often very quickly, and though the guardians of English still attack every new Americanism vigorously, even when, as in the case of scientist, it is obviously sound and useful, they are often routed by public pressure, and have to submit in the end with the best grace possible. For example, consider caucus. It originated in Boston at some indeterminate time before 1750, and remained so peculiarly American for more than a century following that most of the English visitors before the Civil War remarked its use. But, according to J. Redding Ware,[1] it began to creep into English political slang about 1870, and in the 80's it was lifted to good usage by the late Joseph Chamberlain. Ware, writing in the first years of the present century, said that the word had become "very important" in England, but was "not admitted into dictionaries." But in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, dated 1914, it is given as a sound English word, though its American origin is noted. The English, however, use it in a sense that has become archaic in America, thus preserving an abandoned American meaning in the same way that many abandoned British meanings have been preserved on this side. In the United States the word means, and has meant for years, a meeting of some division, [Pg132] large or small, of a political or legislative body for the purpose of agreeing upon a united course of action in the main assembly. In England it means the managing committee of a party or fraction—something corresponding to our national committee, or state central committee, or steering committee, or to the half-forgotten congressional caucuses of the 20's. It has a disparaging significance over there, almost equal to that of our words organization and machine. Moreover, it has given birth to two derivatives of like quality, both unknown in America—caucusdom, meaning machine control, and caucuser, meaning a machine politician.[2]

A good many other such Americanisms have got into good usage in England, and new ones are being exported constantly. Farmer describes the process of their introduction, and assimilation. American books, newspapers and magazines, especially the last, circulate in England in large number, and some of their characteristic locutions pass into colloquial speech. Then they get into print, and begin to take on respectability. "The phrase, 'as the Americans say,'" he continues, "might in some cases be ordered from the type foundry as a logotype, so frequently does it do introduction duty."[3] Ware shows another means of ingress: the argot of sailors. Many of the Americanisms he notes as having become naturalized in England, e. g., boodle, boost and walk-out, are credited to Liverpool as a sort of half-way station. Travel brings in still more: England swarms with Americans, and Englishmen themselves, visiting America, bring home new and racy phrases. Bishop Coxe says[4] that [Pg133] Dickens, in his "American Notes," gave English currency to reliable, influential, talented and lengthy. Bristed, writing in 1855, said that talented was already firmly fixed in the English vocabulary by that time. All four words are in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, and only lengthy is noted as "originally an Americanism." Finally, there is the influence of the moving pictures. Hundreds of American films are shown in England every week, and the American words and phrases appearing in their titles, sub-titles and other explanatory legends thus become familiar to the English. "The patron of the picture palace," says W. G. Faulkner, in an article in the London Daily Mail, "learns to think of his railway station as a depot; he has alternatives to one of our newest words, hooligan, in hoodlum and tough; he watches a dive, which is a thieves' kitchen or a room in which bad characters meet, and whether the villain talks of dough or sugar he knows it is money to which he is referring. The musical ring of the word tramp gives way to the stodgy hobo or dead-beat. It may be that the plot reveals an attempt to deceive some simple-minded person. If it does, the innocent one is spoken of as a sucker, a come-on, a boob, or a lobster if he is stupid into the bargain."

Mr. Faulkner goes on to say that a great many other Americanisms are constantly employed by Englishmen "who have not been affected by the avalanche ... which has come upon us through the picture palace." "Thus today," he says, "we hear people speak of the fall of the year, a stunt they have in hand, their desire to boost a particular business, a peach when they mean a pretty girl, a scab—a common term among strikers,—the glad-eye, junk when they mean worthless material, their efforts to make good, the elevator in the hotel or office, the boss or manager, the crook or swindler; and they will tell you that they have the goods—that is, they possess the requisite qualities for a given position." The venerable Frederic Harrison, writing in the Fortnightly Review in the Spring of 1918, denounced this tendency with a vigor recalling the classical anathemas of Dean Alford and Sydney Smith.[5] "Stale American phrases, ..." [Pg134] he said, "are infecting even our higher journalism and our parliamentary and platform oratory.... A statesman is now out for victory; he is up against pacificism.... He has a card up his sleeve, by which the enemy are at last to be euchred. Then a fierce fight in which hundreds of noble fellows are mangled or drowned is a scrap.... To criticise a politician is to call for his scalp.... The other fellow is beaten to a frazzle." And so on. "Bolshevism," concluded Harrison sadly, "is ruining language as well as society."

But though there are still many such alarms by constables of the national speech, the majority of Englishmen continue to make borrowings from the tempting and ever-widening American vocabulary. What is more, some of these loan-words take root, and are presently accepted as sound English, even by the most watchful. The two Fowlers, in "The King's English," separate Americanisms from other current vulgarisms, but many of the latter on their list are actually American in origin, though they do not seem to know it—for example, to demean and to transpire. More remarkable still, the Cambridge History of English Literature lists backwoodsman, know-nothing and yellow-back as English compounds, apparently in forgetfulness of their American origin, and adds skunk, squaw and toboggan as direct importations from the Indian tongues, without noting that they came through American, and remained definite Americanisms for a long while.[6] It even adds musquash, a popular name for the Fiber zibethicus, borrowed from the Algonquin muskwessu but long since degenerated to musk-rat in America. Musquash has been in disuse in this country, indeed, since the middle of the last century, save as a stray localism, but the English have preserved it, and it appears in the Oxford Dictionary.[7]

A few weeks in London or a month's study of the London [Pg135] newspapers will show a great many other American pollutions of the well of English. The argot of politics is full of them. Many beside caucus were introduced by Joseph Chamberlain, a politician skilled in American campaign methods and with an American wife to prompt him. He gave the English their first taste of to belittle, one of the inventions of Thomas Jefferson. Graft and to graft crossed the ocean in their nonage. To bluff has been well understood in England for 30 years. It is in Cassell's and the Oxford Dictionaries, and has been used by no less a magnifico than Sir Almroth Wright.[8] To stump, in the form of stump-oratory, is in Carlyle's "Latter-Day Pamphlets," circa 1850, and caucus appears in his "Frederick the Great;"[9] though, as we have seen on the authority of Ware, it did not come into general use in England until ten years later. Buncombe (usually spelled bunkum) is in all the later English dictionaries. In the London stock market and among English railroad men various characteristic Americanisms have got a foothold. The meaning of bucket-shop and to water, for example, is familiar to every London broker's clerk. English trains are now telescoped and carry dead-heads, and in 1913 a rival to the Amalgamated Order of Railway Servants was organized under the name of the National Union of Railway Men. The beginnings of a movement against the use of servant are visible in other directions, and the American help threatens to be substituted; at all events, Help Wanted advertisements are now occasionally encountered in English newspapers. But it is American verbs that seem to find the way into English least difficult, particularly those compounded with prepositions and adverbs, such as to pan out and to swear off. Most of them, true enough, [Pg136] are still used as conscious Americanisms, but used they are, and with increasing frequency. The highly typical American verb to loaf is now naturalized, and Ware says that The Loaferies is one of the common nicknames of the Whitechapel workhouse.

It is curious, reading the fulminations of American purists of the last generation, to note how many of the Americanisms they denounced have not only got into perfectly good usage at home but even broken down all guards across the ocean. To placate and to antagonize are examples. The Oxford Dictionary distinguishes between the English and American meanings of the latter: in England a man may antagonize only another man, in America he may antagonize a mere idea or thing. But, as the brothers Fowler show, even the English meaning is of American origin, and no doubt a few more years will see the verb completely naturalized in Britain. To placate, attacked vigorously by all native grammarians down to (but excepting) White, now has the authority of the Spectator, and is accepted by Cassell. To donate is still under the ban, but to transpire has been used by the London Times. Other old bugaboos that have been embraced are gubernatorial, presidential and standpoint. White labored long and valiantly to convince Americans that the adjective derived from president should be without the i in its last syllable, following the example of incidental, regimental, monumental, governmental, oriental, experimental and so on; but in vain, for presidential is now perfectly good English. To demean is still questioned, but English authors of the first rank have used it, and it will probably lose its dubious character very soon.

The flow of loan-words in the opposite direction meets with little impediment, for social distinction in America is still largely dependent upon English recognition, and so there is an eager imitation of the latest English fashions in speech. This emulation is most noticeable in the large cities of the East, and particularly in what Schele de Vere called "Boston and the Boston dependencies." New York is but little behind. The small stores there, if they are of any pretentions, are now almost invariably called shops. Shoes for the well-to-do are no longer [Pg137] shoes, but boots, and they are sold in bootshops. One encounters, too, in the side-streets off Fifth avenue, a multitude of gift-shops, tea-shops and haberdashery-shops. In Fifth avenue itself there are several luggage-shops. In August, 1917, signs appeared in the New York surface cars in which the conductors were referred to as guards. This effort to be English and correct was exhibited over the sign manual of Theodore P. Shonts, president of the Interborough, a gentleman of Teutonic name, but evidently a faithful protector of the king's English. On the same cars, however, painted notices, surviving from some earlier régime, mentioned the guards as conductors. To Let signs are now as common in all our cities as For Rent signs. We all know the charwoman, and have begun to forget our native modification of char, to wit, chore. Every apartment-house has a tradesmen's-entrance. In Charles street, in Baltimore, some time ago, the proprietor of a fashionable stationery store directed me, not to the elevator, but to the lift.

Occasionally, some uncompromising patriot raises his voice against these importations, but he seldom shows the vigorous indignation of the English purists, and he seldom prevails. White, in 1870, warned Americans against the figurative use of nasty as a synonym for disagreeable.[10] This use of the word was then relatively new in England, though, according to White, the Saturday Review and the Spectator had already succumbed. His objections to it were unavailing; nasty quickly got into American and has been there ever since. In 1883 Gilbert M. Tucker protested against good-form, traffic (in the sense of travel), to bargain and to tub as Briticisms that we might well do without, but all of them took root and are perfectly sound American today. There is, indeed, no intelligible reason why such English inventions and improvements should not be taken in, even though the motive behind the welcome to them may occasionally cause a smile. English, after all, is the mother of American, and the child, until lately, was still at nurse. The English, confronted by some of our fantastic innovations, may well regard them as impudences to be put down, but what they [Pg138] offer in return often fits into our vocabulary without offering it any outrage. American, indeed, is full of lingering Briticisms, all maintaining a successful competition with native forms. If we take back shop it is merely taking back something that store has never been able to rid us of: we use shop-worn, shoplifter, shopping, shopper, shop-girl and to shop every day. In the same way the word penny has survived among us, despite the fact that there has been no American coin of that name for more than 125 years. We have nickel-in-the-slot machines, but when they take a cent we call them penny-in-the-slot machines. We have penny-arcades and penny-whistles. We do not play cent-ante, but penny-ante. We still "turn an honest penny" and say "a penny for your thoughts." The pound and the shilling became extinct a century ago, but the penny still binds us to the mother tongue.

§ 2

Points of Difference—These exchanges and coalescences, however, though they invigorate each language with the blood of the other and are often very striking in detail, are neither numerous enough nor general enough to counteract the centrifugal force which pulls them apart. The simple fact is that the spirit of English and the spirit of American have been at odds for nearly a century, and that the way of one is not the way of the other. The loan-words that fly to and fro, when examined closely, are found to be few in number both relatively and absolutely: they do not greatly affect the larger movements of the two languages. Many of them, indeed, are little more than temporary borrowings; they are not genuinely adopted, but merely momentarily fashionable. The class of Englishmen which affects American phrases is perhaps but little larger, taking one year with another, than the class of Americans which affects English phrases. This last class, it must be plain, is very small. Leave the large cities and you will have difficulty finding any members of it. It is circumscribed, not because there is any very formidable prejudice against English locutions as such, [Pg139] but simply because recognizably English locutions, in a good many cases, do not fit into the American language. The American thinks in American and the Englishman in English, and it requires a definite effort, usually but defectively successful, for either to put his thoughts into the actual idiom of the other.

The difficulties of this enterprise are well exhibited, though quite unconsciously, by W. L. George in a chapter entitled "Litany of the Novelist" in his book of criticism, "Literary Chapters."[11] This chapter, it is plain by internal evidence, was written, not for Englishmen, but for Americans. A good part of it, in fact, is in the second person—we are addressed and argued with directly. And throughout there is an obvious endeavor to help out comprehension by a studied use of purely American phrases and examples. One hears, not of the East End, but of the East Side; not of the City, but of Wall Street; not of Belgravia or the West End, but of Fifth avenue; not of bowler hats, but of Derbys; not of idlers in pubs, but of saloon loafers; not of pounds, shillings and pence, but of dollars and cents. In brief, a gallant attempt upon a strange tongue, and by a writer of the utmost skill—but a hopeless failure none the less. In the midst of his best American, George drops into Briticism after Briticism, some of them quite as unintelligible to the average American reader as so many Gallicisms. On page after page they display the practical impossibility of the enterprise: back-garden for back-yard, perambulator for baby-carriage, corn-market for grain-market, coal-owner for coal-operator, post for mail, and so on. And to top them there are English terms that have no American equivalents at all, for example, kitchen-fender.

The same failure, perhaps usually worse, is displayed every time an English novelist or dramatist essays to put an American into a novel or a play, and to make him speak American. However painstakingly it is done, the Englishman invariably falls into capital blunders, and the result is derided by Americans as Mark Twain derided the miners' lingo of Bret Harte, and for the same reason. The thing lies deeper than vocabulary and [Pg140] even than pronunciation and intonation; the divergences show themselves in habits of speech that are fundamental and almost indefinable. And when the transoceanic gesture is from the other direction they become even plainer. An Englishman, in an American play, seldom shows the actual speech habit of the Sassenach; what he shows is the speech habit of an American actor trying to imitate George Alexander. "There are not five playwrights in America," said Channing Pollock one day, "who can write English"—that is, the English of familiar discourse. "Why should there be?" replied Louis Sherwin. "There are not five thousand people in America who can speak English."[12]

The elements that enter into the special character of American have been rehearsed in the first chapter: a general impatience of rule and restraint, a democratic enmity to all authority, an extravagant and often grotesque humor, an extraordinary capacity for metaphor[13]—in brief, all the natural marks of what Van Wyck Brooks calls "a popular life which bubbles with energy and spreads and grows and slips away ever more and more from the control of tested ideas, a popular life with the lid off."[14] This is the spirit of America, and from it the American language is nourished. Brooks, perhaps, generalizes a bit too lavishly. Below the surface there is also a curious conservatism, even a sort of timorousness; in a land of manumitted peasants the primary trait of the peasant is bound to show itself now and then; as Wendell Phillips once said, "more than any other people, we Americans are afraid of one another"—that is, afraid of opposition, of derision, of all the consequences of singularity. But in the field of language, as in that of politics, this suspicion of the new is often transformed into a suspicion of the merely unfamiliar, and so its natural tendency toward conservatism is overcome. It is of the essence of democracy that it remain a government by amateurs, and under a government by amateurs it is precisely the expert who is most questioned—and it is the expert [Pg141] who commonly stresses the experience of the past. And in a democratic society it is not the iconoclast who seems most revolutionary, but the purist. The derisive designation of high-brow is thoroughly American in more ways than one. It is a word put together in an unmistakably American fashion, it reflects an habitual American attitude of mind, and its potency in debate is peculiarly national too.

I daresay it is largely a fear of the weapon in it—and there are many others of like effect in the arsenal—which accounts for the far greater prevalence of idioms from below in the formal speech of America than in the formal speech of England. There is surely no English novelist of equal rank whose prose shows so much of colloquial looseness and ease as one finds in the prose of Howells: to find a match for it one must go to the prose of the neo-Celts, professedly modelled upon the speech of peasants, and almost proudly defiant of English grammar and syntax, and to the prose of the English themselves before the Restoration. Nor is it imaginable that an Englishman of comparable education and position would ever employ such locutions as those I have hitherto quoted from the public addresses of Dr. Wilson—that is, innocently, seriously, as a matter of course. The Englishman, when he makes use of coinages of that sort, does so in conscious relaxation, and usually with a somewhat heavy sense of doggishness. They are proper to the paddock or even to the dinner table, but scarcely to serious scenes and occasions. But in the United States their use is the rule rather than the exception; it is not the man who uses them, but the man who doesn't use them, who is marked off. Their employment, if high example counts for anything, is a standard habit of the language, as their diligent avoidance is a standard habit of English.

A glance through the Congressional Record is sufficient to show how small is the minority of purists among the chosen leaders of the nation. Within half an hour, turning the pages at random, I find scores of locutions that would paralyze the stenographers in the House of Commons, and they are in the speeches, not of wild mavericks from the West, but of some of the chief men of the two Houses. Surely no Senator occupied a more conspicuous [Pg142] position, during the first year of the war, than Lee S. Overman, of North Carolina, chairman of the Committee on Rules, and commander of the administration forces on the floor. Well, I find Senator Overman using to enthuse in a speech of the utmost seriousness and importance, and not once, but over and over again.[15] I turn back a few pages and encounter it again—this time in the mouth of General Sherwood, of Ohio. A few more, and I find a fit match for it, to wit, to biograph.[16] The speaker here is Senator L. Y. Sherman, of Illinois. In the same speech he uses to resolute. A few more, and various other characteristic verbs are unearthed: to demagogue,[17] to dope out[18] to fall down[19] (in the sense of to fail), to jack up,[20] to phone,[21] to peeve,[22] to come across,[23] to hike, to butt in,[24] to back pedal, to get solid with, to hooverize, to trustify, to feature, to insurge, to haze, to reminisce, to camouflage, to play for a sucker, and so on, almost ad infinitum. And with them, a large number of highly American nouns, chiefly compounds, all pressing upward for recognition: tin-Lizzie, brain-storm, come-down, pin-head, trustification, pork-barrel, buck-private, dough-boy, cow-country. And adjectives: jitney, bush (for rural), balled-up,[25] dolled-up, phoney, tax-paid.[26] And phrases: dollars to doughnuts, on the job, that gets me, one best bet. And back-formations: ad, movie, photo. And [Pg143] various substitutions and Americanized inflections: over for more than, gotten for got in the present perfect,[27] rile for roil, bust for burst. This last, in truth, has come into a dignity that even grammarians will soon hesitate to question. Who, in America, would dare to speak of bursting a broncho, or of a trust-burster?[28]

§ 3

Lost Distinctions—This general iconoclasm reveals itself especially in a disdain for most of the niceties of modern English. The American, like the Elizabethan Englishman, is usually quite unconscious of them and even when they have been instilled into him by the hard labor of pedagogues he commonly pays little heed to them in his ordinary discourse. The English distinction between will and shall offers a salient case in point. This distinction, it may be said at once, is far more a confection of the grammarians than a product of the natural forces shaping the language. It has, indeed, little etymological basis, and is but imperfectly justified logically. One finds it disregarded in the Authorized Version of the Bible, in all the plays of Shakespeare, in the essays of the reign of Anne, and in some of the best examples of modern English literature. The theory behind it is so inordinately abstruse that the Fowlers, in "The King's English,"[29] require 20 pages to explain it, and even then they come to the resigned conclusion that the task is hopeless. "The idiomatic use [of the two auxiliaries]," they say, "is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it."[30] Well, even those who are to the manner born seem to find [Pg144] it difficult, for at once the learned authors cite blunder in the writings of Richardson, Stevenson, Gladstone, Jowett, Oscar Wilde, and even Henry Sweet, author of the best existing grammar of the English language. In American the distinction is almost lost. No ordinary American, save after the most laborious reflection, would detect anything wrong in this sentence from the London Times, denounced as corrupt by the Fowlers: "We must reconcile what we would like to do with what we can do." Nor in this by W. B. Yeats: "The character who delights us may commit murder like Macbeth ... and yet we will rejoice in every happiness that comes to him." Half a century ago, impatient of the effort to fasten the English distinction upon American, George P. Marsh attacked it as of "no logical value or significance whatever," and predicted that "at no very distant day this verbal quibble will disappear, and one of the auxiliaries will be employed, with all persons of the nominative, exclusively as the sign of the future, and the other only as an expression of purpose or authority."[31] This prophecy has been substantially verified. Will is sound American "with all persons of the nominative," and shall is almost invariably an "expression of purpose or authority."[32]

And so, though perhaps not to the same extent, with who and whom. Now and then there arises a sort of panicky feeling that whom is being neglected, and so it is trotted out,[33] but in the [Pg145] main the American language tends to dispense with it, at least in its least graceful situations. Noah Webster, always the pragmatic reformer, denounced it so long ago as 1783. Common sense, he argued, was on the side of "who did he marry?" Today such a form as "whom are you talking to?" would seem somewhat affected in ordinary discourse in America; "who are you talking to?" is heard a thousand times oftener—and is doubly American, for it substitutes who for whom and puts a preposition at the end of a sentence: two crimes that most English purists would seek to avoid. It is among the pronouns that the only remaining case inflections in English are to be found, if we forget the possessive, and even here these survivors of an earlier day begin to grow insecure. Lounsbury's defense of "it is me,"[34] as we shall see in the next chapter, has support in the history and natural movement of the language, and that movement is also against the preservation of the distinction between who and whom. The common speech plays hob with both of the orthodox inflections, despite the protests of grammarians, and in the long run, no doubt, they will be forced to yield to its pressure, as they have always yielded in the past. Between the dative and accusative on the one side and the nominative on the other there has been war in the English language for centuries, and it has always tended to become a war of extermination. Our now universal use of you for ye in the nominative shows the dative and accusative swallowing the nominative, and the practical disappearance of hither, thither and whither, whose place is now taken by here, there and where, shows a contrary process. In such wars a posse comitatus marches ahead of the disciplined army. American stands to English in the relation of that posse to that army. It is incomparably more enterprising, more contemptuous of precedent and authority, more impatient of rule.

A shadowy line often separates what is currently coming into sound usage from what is still regarded as barbarous. No self-respecting American, I daresay, would defend ain't as a substitute [Pg146] for isn't, say in "he ain't the man," and yet ain't is already tolerably respectable in the first person, where English countenances the even more clumsy aren't. Aren't has never got a foothold in the American first person; when it is used at all, which is very rarely, it is always as a conscious Briticism. Facing the alternative of employing the unwieldy "am I not in this?" the American turns boldly to "ain't I in this?" It still grates a bit, perhaps, but aren't grates even more. Here, as always, the popular speech is pulling the exacter speech along, and no one familiar with its successes in the past can have much doubt that it will succeed again, soon or late. In the same way it is breaking down the inflectional distinction between adverb and adjective, so that "I feel bad" begins to take on the dignity of a national idiom, and sure, to go big and run slow[35] become almost respectable. When, on the entrance of the United States into the war, the Marine Corps chose "treat 'em rough" as its motto, no one thought to raise a grammatical objection, and the clipped adverb was printed upon hundreds of thousands of posters and displayed in every town in the country, always with the imprimatur of the national government. So, again, American, in its spoken form, tends to obliterate the distinction between nearly related adjectives, e. g., healthful and healthy, tasteful and tasty. And to challenge the somewhat absurd text-book prohibition of terminal prepositions, so that "where are we at?" loses its old raciness. And to dally with the double negative, as in "I have no doubt but that."[36]

But these tendencies, or at least the more extravagant of them, belong to the next chapter. How much influence they exert, even [Pg147] indirectly, is shown by the American disdain of the English precision in the use of the indefinite pronoun. I turn to the Saturday Evening Post, and in two minutes find: "one feels like an atom when he begins to review his own life and deeds."[37] The error is very rare in English; the Fowlers, seeking examples of it, could get them only from the writings of a third-rate woman novelist, Scotch to boot. But it is so common in American that it scarcely attracts notice. Neither does the appearance of a redundant s in such words as towards, downwards, afterwards and heavenwards. In England this s is used relatively seldom, and then it usually marks a distinction in meaning, as it does on both sides of the ocean between beside and besides. "In modern standard English," says Smith,[38] "though not in the English of the United States, a distinction which we feel, but many of us could not define, is made between forward and forwards; forwards being used in definite contrast to any other direction, as 'if you move at all, you can only move forwards,' while forward is used where no such contrast is implied, as in the common phrase 'to bring a matter forward.'"[39] This specific distinction, despite Smith, probably retains some force in the United States too, but in general our usage allows the s in cases where English usage would certainly be against it. Gould, in the 50's, noted its appearance at the end of such words as somewhere and anyway, and denounced it as vulgar and illogical. Thornton has traced anyways back to 1842 and shown that it is an archaism, and to be found in the Book of Common Prayer (circa 1560); perhaps it has been preserved by analogy with sideways. Henry James, in "The Question of Our Speech," attacked "such forms of impunity as somewheres else and nowheres else, a good ways on and a good ways off" as "vulgarisms with what a great deal of general credit for what we good-naturedly call 'refinement' appears so able to coexist."[40] Towards and afterwards, though frowned upon in England, are now quite sound in American. I [Pg148] find the former in the title of an article in Dialect Notes, which plainly gives it scholastic authority.[41] More (and with no little humor), I find it in the deed of a fund given to the American Academy of Arts and Letters to enable the gifted philologs of that sanhedrin "to consider its duty towards the conservation of the English language in its beauty and purity."[42] Both towards and afterwards, finally, are included in the New York Evening Post's list of "words no longer disapproved when in their proper places," along with over for more than, and during for in the course of.

In the last chapter we glanced at several salient differences between the common coin of English and the common coin of American—that is, the verbs and adjectives in constant colloquial use—the rubber-stamps, so to speak, of the two languages. America has two adverbs that belong to the same category. They are right and good. Neither holds the same place in English. Thornton shows that the use of right, as in right away, right good and right now, was already widespread in the United States early in the last century; his first example is dated 1818. He believes that the locution was "possibly imported from the southwest of Ireland." Whatever its origin, it quickly attracted the attention of English visitors. Dickens noted right away as an almost universal Americanism during his first American tour, in 1842, and poked fun at it in the second chapter of "American Notes." Right is used as a synonym for directly, as in right away, right off, right now and right on time; for moderately, as in right well, right smart, right good and right often, and in place of precisely, as in right there. Some time ago, in an article on Americanisms, an English critic called it "that most distinctively American word," and concocted the following dialogue to instruct the English in its use:

How do I get to——?

Go right along, and take the first turning (sic) on the right, and you are right there.



Right! [43]

Like W. L. George, this Englishman failed in his attempt to write correct American despite his fine pedagogical passion. No American would ever say "take the first turning"; he would say "turn at the first corner." As for right away, R. O. Williams argues that "so far as analogy can make good English, it is as good as one could choose."[44] Nevertheless, the Oxford Dictionary admits it only as an Americanism, and avoids all mention of the other American uses of right as an adverb. Good is almost as protean. It is not only used as a general synonym for all adjectives and adverbs connoting satisfaction, as in to feel good, to be treated good, to sleep good, but also as a reinforcement to other adjectives and adverbs, as in "I hit him good and hard" and "I am good and tired." Of late some has come into wide use as an adjective-adverb of all work, indicating special excellence or high degree, as in some girl, some sick, going some, etc. It is still below the salt, but threatens to reach a more respectable position. One encounters it in the newspapers constantly and in the Congressional Record, and not long ago a writer in the Atlantic Monthly[45] hymned it ecstatically as "some word—a true super-word, in fact" and argued that it could be used "in a sense for which there is absolutely no synonym in the dictionary." Basically, it appears to be an adjective, but in many of its common situations the grammarians would probably call it an adverb. It gives no little support to the growing tendency, already noticed, to break down the barrier between the two parts of speech.

§ 4

Foreign Influences Today—No other great nation of today supports so large a foreign population as the United States, [Pg150] either relatively or absolutely; none other contains so many foreigners forced to an effort, often ignorant and ineffective, to master the national language. Since 1820 nearly 35,000,000 immigrants have come into the country, and of them probably not 10,000,000 brought any preliminary acquaintance with English with them. The census of 1910 showed that nearly 1,500,000 persons then living permanently on American soil could not speak it at all; that more than 13,000,000 had been born in other countries, chiefly of different language; and that nearly 20,000,000 were the children of such immigrants, and hence under the influence of their speech habits. Altogether, there were probably at least 25,000,000 whose house language was not the vulgate, and who thus spoke it in competition with some other language. No other country houses so many aliens. In Great Britain the alien population, for a century past, has never been more than 2 per cent of the total population, and since the passage of the Alien Act of 1905 it has tended to decline steadily. In Germany, in 1910, there were but 1,259,873 aliens in a population of more than 60,000,000, and of these nearly a half were German-speaking Austrians and Swiss. In France, in 1906, there were 1,000,000 foreigners in a population of 39,000,000 and a third of them were French-speaking Belgians, Luxembourgeois and Swiss. In Italy, in 1911, there were but 350,000 in a population of 35,000,000.

This large and constantly reinforced admixture of foreigners has naturally exerted a constant pressure upon the national language, for the majority of them, at least in the first generation, have found it quite impossible to acquire it in any purity, and even their children have grown up with speech habits differing radically from those of correct English. The effects of this pressure are obviously two-fold; on the one hand the foreigner, struggling with a strange and difficult tongue, makes efforts to simplify it as much as possible, and so strengthens the native tendency to disregard all niceties and complexities, and on the other hand he corrupts it with words and locutions from the language he has brought with him, and sometimes with whole idioms and grammatical forms. We have seen, in earlier chapters, how the [Pg151] Dutch and French of colonial days enriched the vocabulary of the colonists, how the German immigrants of the first half of the nineteenth century enriched it still further, and how the Irish of the same period influenced its everyday usages. The same process is still going on. The Italians, the Slavs, and, above all, the Russian Jews, make steady contributions to the American vocabulary and idiom, and though these contributions are often concealed by quick and complete naturalization their foreignness to English remains none the less obvious. I should worry,[46] in its way, is correct English, but in essence it is as completely Yiddish as kosher, ganof, schadchen, oi-yoi, matzoh or mazuma.[47] Black-hand, too, is English in form, but it is nevertheless as plainly an Italian loan-word as spaghetti, mafia or padrone.

The extent of such influences upon American, and particularly upon spoken American, remains to be studied; in the whole literature I can find but one formal article upon the subject. That article[48] deals specifically with the suffix -fest, which came into American from the German and was probably suggested by familiarity with sängerfest. There is no mention of it in any of the dictionaries of Americanisms, and yet, in such forms as talk-fest and gabfest it is met with almost daily. So with -heimer, -inski and -bund. Several years ago -heimer had a great vogue in slang, and was rapidly done to death. But wiseheimer remains [Pg152] in colloquial use as a facetious synonym for smart-aleck, and after awhile it may gradually acquire dignity. Far lowlier words, in fact, have worked their way in. Buttinski, perhaps, is going the same route. As for the words in -bund, many of them are already almost accepted. Plunder-bund is now at least as good as pork-barrel and slush-fund, and money-bund is frequently heard in Congress.[49] Such locutions creep in stealthily, and are secure before they are suspected. Current slang, out of which the more decorous language dredges a large part of its raw materials, is full of them. Nix and nixy, for no, are debased forms of the German nichts; aber nit, once as popular as camouflage, is obviously aber nicht. And a steady flow of nouns, all needed to designate objects introduced by immigrants, enriches the vocabulary. The Hungarians not only brought their national condiment with them; they also brought its name, paprika, and that name is now thoroughly American.[50] In the same way the Italians brought in camorra, padrone, spaghetti and a score of other substantives, and the Jews made contributions from Yiddish and Hebrew and greatly reinforced certain old borrowings from German. Once such a loan-word gets in it takes firm root. During the first year of American participation in the World War an effort was made, on patriotic grounds, to substitute liberty-cabbage for sour-kraut, but it quickly failed, for the name had become as completely Americanized as the thing itself, and so liberty-cabbage seemed affected and absurd. In the same way a great many other German words survived the passions of the time. Nor could all the influence of the professional patriots obliterate that German influence which has fastened upon the American yes something of the quality of ja.

Constant familiarity with such contributions from foreign languages and with the general speech habits of foreign peoples has made American a good deal more hospitable to loan-words than English, even in the absence of special pressure. Let the same [Pg153] word knock at the gates of the two languages, and American will admit it more readily, and give it at once a wider and more intimate currency. Examples are afforded by café, vaudeville, employé, boulevard, cabaret, toilette, exposé, kindergarten, dépôt, fête and menu. Café, in American, is a word of much larger and more varied meaning than in English and is used much more frequently, and by many more persons. So is employé, in the naturalized form of employee. So is toilet: we have even seen it as a euphemism for native terms that otherwise would be in daily use. So is kindergarten: I read lately of a kindergarten for the elementary instruction of conscripts. Such words are not unknown to the Englishman, but when he uses them it is with a plain sense of their foreignness. In American they are completely naturalized, as is shown by the spelling and pronunciation of most of them. An American would no more think of attempting the French pronunciation of depot or of putting the French accents upon it than he would think of spelling toilet with the final te or of essaying to pronounce Anheuser in the German manner. Often curious battles go on between such loan-words and their English equivalents, and with varying fortunes. In 1895 Weber and Fields tried to establish music-hall in New York, but it quickly succumbed to vaudeville-theatre, as variety had succumbed to vaudeville before it. In the same way lawn-fete (without the circumflex accent, and commonly pronounced feet) has elbowed out the English garden-party. But now and then, when the competing loan-word happens to violate American speech habits, a native term ousts it. The French crèche offers an example; it has been entirely displaced by day-nursery.

The English, in this matter, display their greater conservatism very plainly. Even when a loan-word enters both English and American simultaneously a sense of foreignness lingers about it on the other side of the Atlantic much longer than on this side, and it is used with far more self-consciousness. The word matinée offers a convenient example. To this day the English commonly print it in italics, give it its French accent, and pronounce it with some attempt at the French manner. But in America it is entirely naturalized, and the most ignorant man [Pg154] uses it without any feeling that it is strange. The same lack of any sense of linguistic integrity is to be noticed in many other directions—for example, in the freedom with which the Latin per is used with native nouns. One constantly sees per day, per dozen, per hundred, per mile, etc., in American newspapers, even the most careful, but in England the more seemly a is almost always used, or the noun itself is made Latin, as in per diem. Per, in fact, is fast becoming an everyday American word. Such phrases as "as per your letter (or order) of the 15th inst." are incessantly met with in business correspondence. The same greater hospitality is shown by the readiness with which various un-English prefixes and affixes come into fashion, for example, super- and -itis. The English accept them gingerly; the Americans take them in with enthusiasm, and naturalize them instanter.[51]

The same deficiency in reserve is to be noted in nearly all other colonialized dialects. The Latin-American variants of Spanish, for example, have adopted a great many words which appear in true Castilian only as occasional guests. Thus in Argentina matinée, menu, début, toilette and femme de chambre are perfectly good Argentine, and in Mexico sandwich and club have been thoroughly naturalized. The same thing is to be noted in the French of Haiti, in the Portuguese of Brazil, and even in the Danish of Norway. Once a language spreads beyond the country of its origin and begins to be used by people born, in the German phrase, to a different Sprachgefühl, the sense of loyalty to its vocabulary is lost, along with the instinctive feeling for its idiomatic habits. How far this destruction of its forms may go in the absence of strong contrary influences is exhibited by the rise of the Romance languages from the vulgar Latin of the Roman provinces, and, here at home, by the decay of foreign languages in competition with English. The Yiddish that the Jews from Russia bring in is German debased with Russian, Polish and [Pg155] Hebrew; in America, it quickly absorbs hundreds of words and idioms from the speech of the streets. Various conflicting German dialects, among the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch and in the German areas of the Northwest, combine in a patois that, in its end forms, shows almost as much English as German. Classical examples of it are "es giebt gar kein use," "Ich kann es nicht ständen" and "mein stallion hat über die fenz gescheumpt und dem nachbar sein whiet abscheulich gedämätscht."[52] The use of gleiche for to like, by false analogy from gleich (=like, similar) is characteristic. In the same way the Scandinavians in the Northwest corrupt their native Swedish and Dano-Norwegian. Thus, American-Norwegian is heavy with such forms as strit-kar, reit-evé, nekk-töi and staits-pruessen, for street-car, right away, necktie and states-prison, and admits such phrases as "det meka ingen difrens."[53]

The changes that Yiddish has undergone in America, though rather foreign to the present inquiry, are interesting enough to be noticed. First of all, it has admitted into its vocabulary a large number of everyday substantives, among them boy, chair, window, carpet, floor, dress, hat, watch, ceiling, consumption, property, trouble, bother, match, change, party, birthday, picture, paper (only in the sense of newspaper), gambler, show, hall, kitchen, store, bedroom, key, mantelpiece, closet, lounge, broom, tablecloth, paint, landlord, fellow, tenant, shop, wages, foreman, sleeve, collar, cuff, button, cotton, thimble, needle, pocket, bargain, sale, remnant, sample, haircut, razor, waist, basket, school, scholar, teacher, baby, mustache, butcher, grocery, dinner, street and walk. And with them many characteristic Americanisms, [Pg156] for example, bluffer, faker, boodler, grafter, gangster, crook, guy, kike, piker, squealer, bum, cadet, boom, bunch, pants, vest, loafer, jumper, stoop, saleslady, ice-box and raise, with their attendant verbs and adjectives. These words are used constantly; many of them have quite crowded out the corresponding Yiddish words. For example, ingel, meaning boy (it is a Slavic loan-word in Yiddish), has been obliterated by the English word. A Jewish immigrant almost invariably refers to his son as his boy, though strangely enough he calls his daughter his meidel. "Die boys mit die meidlach haben a good time" is excellent American Yiddish. In the same way fenster has been completely displaced by window, though tür (=door) has been left intact. Tisch (=table) also remains, but chair is always used, probably because few of the Jews had chairs in the old country. There the beinkel, a bench without a back, was in use; chairs were only for the well-to-do. Floor has apparently prevailed because no invariable corresponding word was employed at home: in various parts of Russia and Poland a floor is a dill, a podlogé, or a bricke. So with ceiling. There were six different words for it.

Yiddish inflections have been fastened upon most of these loan-words. Thus, "er hat ihm abgefaked" is "he cheated him," zubumt is the American gone to the bad, fix'n is to fix, usen is to use, and so on. The feminine and diminutive suffix -ké is often added to nouns. Thus bluffer gives rise to blufferké (=hypocrite), and one also notes dresské, hatké, watchké and bummerké. "Oi! is sie a blufferké!" is good American Yiddish for "isn't she a hypocrite!" The suffix -nick, signifying agency, is also freely applied. Allrightnick means an upstart, an offensive boaster, one of whom his fellows would say "He is all right" with a sneer. Similarly, consumptionick means a victim of tuberculosis. Other suffixes are -chick and -ige, the first exemplified in boychick, a diminutive of boy, and the second in next-doorige, meaning the woman next-door, an important person in ghetto social life. Some of the loan-words, of course, undergo changes on Yiddish-speaking lips. Thus, landlord becomes lendler, lounge becomes lunch, tenant becomes tenner, and whiskers loses its final s. "Wie gefällt dir sein whisker?" (=how do you like his beard?) [Pg157] is good Yiddish, ironically intended. Fellow, of course, changes to the American feller, as in "Rosie hat schon a feller" (=Rosie has got a feller, i. e., a sweetheart). Show, in the sense of chance, is used constantly, as in "git ihm a show" (=give him a chance). Bad boy is adopted bodily, as in "er is a bad boy." To shut up is inflected as one word, as in "er hat nit gewolt shutup'n" (=he wouldn't shut up). To catch is used in the sense of to obtain, as in "catch'n a gmilath chesed" (=to raise a loan). Here, by the way, gmilath chesed is excellent Biblical Hebrew. To bluff, unchanged in form, takes on the new meaning of to lie: a bluffer is a liar. Scores of American phrases are in constant use, among them, all right, never mind, I bet you, no sir and I'll fix you. It is curious to note that sure Mike, borrowed by the American vulgate from Irish English, has gone over into American Yiddish. Finally, to make an end, here are two complete and characteristic American Yiddish sentences: "Sie wet clean'n die rooms, scrub'n dem floor, wash'n die windows, dress'n dem boy und gehn in butcher-store und in grocery. Dernoch vet sie machen dinner und gehn in street für a walk."[54]

American itself, in the Philippines, and to a lesser extent in Porto Rico and on the Isthmus, has undergone similar changes under the influence of Spanish and the native dialects. Maurice P. Dunlap[55] offers the following specimen of a conversation between two Americans long resident in Manila:

Hola, amigo.

Komusta kayo.

Porque were you hablaing with ese señorita?

She wanted a job as lavandera.


Ten cents, conant, a piece, so I told her no kerry.

Have you had chow? Well, spera till I sign this chit and I'll take a paseo with you.


Here we have an example of Philippine American that shows all the tendencies of American Yiddish. It retains the general forms of American, but in the short conversation, embracing but 41 different words, there are eight loan-words from the Spanish (hola, amigo, porque, ese, señorita, lavandera, cuanto and paseo), two Spanish locutions in a debased form (spera for espera and no kerry for no quiro), two loan-words from the Taglog (komusta and kayo), two from Pigeon English (chow and chit), one Philippine-American localism (conant), and a Spanish verb with an English inflection (hablaing).

The immigrant in the midst of a large native population, of course, exerts no such pressure upon the national language as that exerted upon an immigrant language by the native, but nevertheless his linguistic habits and limitations have to be reckoned with in dealing with him, and the concessions thus made necessary have a very ponderable influence upon the general speech. In the usual sense, as we have seen, there are no dialects in American; two natives, however widely their birthplaces may be separated, never have any practical difficulty understanding each other. But there are at least quasi-dialects among the immigrants—the Irish, the German, the Scandinavian, the Italian, the Jewish, and so on—and these quasi-dialects undoubtedly leave occasional marks, not only upon the national vocabulary, but also upon the general speech habits of the country, as in the case, for example, of the pronunciation of yes, already mentioned, and in that of the substitution of the diphthong oi for the ur-sound in such words as world, journal and burn—a Yiddishism now almost universal among the lower classes of New York, and threatening to spread.[56] More important, however, is the support given to a native tendency by the foreigner's incapacity for employing (or even comprehending) syntax of any complexity, or words not of the simplest. This is the tendency toward succinctness [Pg159] and clarity, at whatever sacrifice of grace. One English observer, Sidney Low, puts the chief blame for the general explosiveness of American upon the immigrant, who must be communicated with in the plainest words available, and is not socially worthy of the suavity of circumlocution anyhow.[57] In his turn the immigrant seizes upon these plainest words as upon a sort of convenient Lingua Franca—his quick adoption of damn as a universal adjective is traditional—and throws his influence upon the side of the underlying speech habit when he gets on in the vulgate. Many characteristic Americanisms of the sort to stagger lexicographers—for example, near-silk—have come from the Jews, whose progress in business is a good deal faster than their progress in English. Others, as we have seen, have come from the German immigrants of half a century ago, from the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch (who are notoriously ignorant and uncouth), and from the Irish, who brought with them a form of English already very corrupt. The same and similar elements greatly reinforce the congenital tendencies of the dialect—toward the facile manufacture of compounds, toward a disregard of the distinctions between parts of speech, and, above all, toward the throwing off of all etymological restraints.

§ 5

Processes of Word Formation—Some of these tendencies, it has been pointed out, go back to the period of the first growth of American, and were inherited from the English of the time. They are the products of a movement which, reaching its height in the English of Elizabeth, was dammed up at home, so to speak, by the rise of linguistic self-consciousness toward the end of the reign of Anne, but continued almost unobstructed in the colonies. For example, there is what philologists call the habit of back-formation—a sort of instinctive search, etymologically unsound, for short roots in long words. This habit, in Restoration days, precipitated a quasi-English word, mobile, from the Latin [Pg160] mobile vulgus, and in the days of William and Mary it went a step further by precipitating mob from mobile. Mob is now sound English, but in the eighteenth century it was violently attacked by the new sect of purists,[58] and though it survived their onslaught they undoubtedly greatly impeded the formation and adoption of other words of the same category. But in the colonies the process went on unimpeded, save for the feeble protests of such stray pedants as Witherspoon and Boucher. Rattler for rattlesnake, pike for turnpike, draw for drawbridge, coon for raccoon, possum for opossum, cuss for customer, cute for acute, squash for askutasquash—these American back-formations are already antique; Sabbaday for Sabbath-day has actually reached the dignity of an archaism. To this day they are formed in great numbers; scarcely a new substantive of more than two syllables comes in without bringing one in its wake. We have thus witnessed, within the past two years, the genesis of scores now in wide use and fast taking on respectability; phone for telephone, gas for gasoline, co-ed for co-educational, pop for populist, frat for fraternity, gym for gymnasium, movie for moving-picture, prep-school for preparatory-school, auto for automobile, aero for aeroplane. Some linger on the edge of vulgarity: pep for pepper, flu for influenza, plute for plutocrat, pen for penitentiary, con for confidence (as in con-man, con-game and to con), convict and consumption, defi for defiance, beaut for beauty, rep for reputation, stenog for stenographer, ambish for ambition, vag for vagrant, champ for champion, pard for partner, coke for cocaine, simp for simpleton, diff for difference. Others are already in perfectly good usage: smoker for smoking-car, diner for dining-car, sleeper for sleeping-car, oleo for oleomargarine, hypo for hyposulphite of soda, Yank for Yankee, confab for confabulation, memo for memorandum, pop-concert for popular-concert. Ad for advertisement is struggling hard for recognition; some of its compounds, e. g., ad-writer, want-ad, display-ad, ad-card, ad-rate, column-ad and ad-man, are already accepted in technical terminology. Boob for booby promises to become sound American in a few years; its synonyms are no more respectable than it is. At [Pg161] its heels is bo for hobo, an altogether fit successor to bum for bummer.[59]

A parallel movement shows itself in the great multiplication of common abbreviations. "Americans, as a rule," says Farmer, "employ abbreviations to an extent unknown in Europe.... This trait of the American character is discernible in every department of the national life and thought."[60] O. K., C. O. D., N. G., G. O. P. (get out and push) and P. D. Q., are almost national hall-marks; the immigrant learns them immediately after damn and go to hell. Thornton traces N. G. to 1840; C. O. D. and P. D. Q. are probably as old. As for O. K., it was in use so early as 1790, but it apparently did not acquire its present significance until the 20's; originally it seems to have meant "ordered recorded."[11] During the presidential campaign of 1828 Jackson's enemies, seeking to prove his illiteracy, alleged that he used it for "oll korrect." Of late the theory has been put forward that it is derived from an Indian word, okeh, signifying "so be it," and Dr. Woodrow Wilson is said to support this theory and to use okeh in endorsing government papers, but I am unaware of the authority upon which the etymology is based. Bartlett says that the figurative use of A No. 1, as in an A No. 1 man, also originated in America, but this may not be true. There can be little doubt, however, about T. B. (for tuberculosis), G. B. (for grand bounce), 23, on the Q. T., and D. & D. (drunk and disorderly). The language breeds such short forms of speech prodigiously; every trade and profession has a host of them; they are innumerable in the slang of sport.[61]

What one sees under all this, account for it as one will, is a double habit, the which is, at bottom, sufficient explanation of the gap which begins to yawn between English and American, particularly on the spoken plane. On the one hand it is a habit of verbal economy—a jealous disinclination to waste two words on what can be put into one, a natural taste for the brilliant and [Pg162] succinct, a disdain of all grammatical and lexicographical daintiness, born partly, perhaps, of ignorance, but also in part of a sound sense of their imbecility. And on the other hand there is a high relish and talent for metaphor—in Brander Matthews' phrase, "a figurative vigor that the Elizabethans would have realized and understood." Just as the American rebels instinctively against such parliamentary circumlocutions as "I am not prepared to say" and "so much by way of being,"[62] just as he would fret under the forms of English journalism, with its reporting empty of drama, its third-person smothering of speeches and its complex and unintelligible jargon,[63] just so, in his daily speech and writing he chooses terseness and vividness whenever there is any choice, and seeks to make one when it doesn't exist. There is more than mere humorous contrast between the famous placard in the wash-room of the British Museum: "These Basins Are For Casual Ablutions Only," and the familiar sign at American railroad-crossings: "Stop! Look! Listen!" Between the two lies an abyss separating two cultures, two habits of mind, two diverging tongues. It is almost unimaginable that Englishmen, journeying up and down in elevators, would ever have stricken the teens out of their speech, turning sixteenth into simple six and twenty-fourth into four; the clipping is almost as far from their way of doing things as the climbing so high in the air. Nor have they the brilliant facility of Americans for making new words of grotesque but penetrating tropes, as in corn-fed, tight-wad, bone-head, bleachers and juice (for electricity); when they attempt such things the result is often lugubrious; two hundred years of schoolmastering has dried up their inspiration. Nor have they the fine American hand for devising new verbs; to maffick and to limehouse are their best specimens in twenty years, and both have an almost pathetic flatness. Their business with the language, indeed, is not in this department. They are [Pg163] not charged with its raids and scoutings, but with the organization of its conquests and the guarding of its accumulated stores.

For the student interested in the biology of language, as opposed to its paleontology, there is endless material in the racy neologisms of American, and particularly in its new compounds and novel verbs. Nothing could exceed the brilliancy of such inventions as joy-ride, high-brow, road-louse, sob-sister, nature-faker, stand-patter, lounge-lizard, hash-foundry, buzz-wagon, has-been, end-seat-hog, shoot-the-chutes and grape-juice-diplomacy. They are bold; they are vivid; they have humor; they meet genuine needs. Joy-ride, I note, is already going over into English, and no wonder. There is absolutely no synonym for it; to convey its idea in orthodox English would take a whole sentence. And so, too, with certain single words of metaphorical origin: barrel for large and illicit wealth, pork for unnecessary and dishonest appropriations of public money, joint for illegal liquor-house, tenderloin for gay and dubious neighborhood.[64] Most of these, and of the new compounds with them, belong to the vocabulary of disparagement. Here an essential character of the American shows itself: his tendency to combat the disagreeable with irony, to heap ridicule upon what he is suspicious of or doesn't understand.

The rapidity with which new verbs are made in the United States is really quite amazing. Two days after the first regulations of the Food Administration were announced, to hooverize appeared spontaneously in scores of newspapers, and a week later it was employed without any visible sense of its novelty in the debates of Congress and had taken on a respectability equal to that of to bryanize, to fletcherize and to oslerize. To electrocute appeared inevitably in the first public discussion of capital [Pg164] punishment by electricity; to taxi came in with the first taxi-cabs; to commute no doubt accompanied the first commutation ticket; to insurge attended the birth of the Progressive balderdash. Of late the old affix -ize, once fecund of such monsters as to funeralize, has come into favor again, and I note, among its other products, to belgiumize, to vacationize, to picturize and to scenarioize. In a newspaper headline I even find to s o s, in the form of its gerund.[65] Many characteristic American verbs are compounds of common verbs and prepositions or adverbs, with new meanings imposed. Compare, for example, to give and to give out, to go back and to go back on, to beat and to beat it, to light and to light out, to butt and to butt in, to turn and to turn down, to show and to show up, to put and to put over, to wind and to wind up. Sometimes, however, the addition seems to be merely rhetorical, as in to start off, to finish up, to open up and to hurry up. To hurry up is so commonplace in America that everyone uses it and no one notices it, but it remains rare in England. Up seems to be essential to many of these latter-day verbs, e. g., to pony up, to doll up, to ball up; without it they are without significance. Nearly all of them are attended by derivative adjectives or nouns; cut-up, show-down, kick-in, come-down, hang-out, start-off, run-in, balled-up, dolled-up, wind-up, bang-up, turn-down, jump-off.

In many directions the same prodigal fancy shows itself—for example, in the free interchange of parts of speech, in the bold inflection of words not inflected in sound English, and in the invention of wholly artificial words. The first phenomenon has already concerned us. Would an English literary critic of any pretensions employ such a locution as "all by her lonesome"? I have a doubt of it—and yet I find that phrase in a serious book by the critic of the New Republic.[66] Would an English M. P. use "he has another think coming" in debate? Again I doubt it—but even more anarchistic dedications of verbs and adjectives to substantival use are to be found in the Congressional Record every day. Jitney is an old American substantive lately [Pg165] revived; a month after its revival it was also an adjective, and before long it may also be a verb and even an adverb. To lift up was turned tail first and made a substantive, and is now also an adjective and a verb. Joy-ride became a verb the day after it was born as a noun. And what of livest? An astounding inflection, indeed—but with quite sound American usage behind it. The Metropolitan Magazine, of which Col. Roosevelt is an editor, announces on its letter paper that it is "the livest magazine in America," and Poetry, the organ of the new poetry movement, prints at the head of its contents page the following encomium from the New York Tribune: "the livest art in America today is poetry, and the livest expression of that art is in this little Chicago monthly."

Now and then the spirit of American shows a transient faltering, and its inventiveness is displaced by a banal extension of meaning, so that a single noun comes to signify discrete things. Thus laundry, meaning originally a place where linen is washed, has come to mean also the linen itself. So, again, gun has come to mean fire-arms of all sorts, and has entered into such compounds as gun-man and gun-play. And in the same way party has been borrowed from the terminology of the law and made to do colloquial duty as a synonym for person. But such evidences of poverty are rare and abnormal; the whole movement of the language is toward the multiplication of substantives. A new object gets a new name, and that new name enters into the common vocabulary at once. Sundae and hokum are late examples; their origin is dubious and disputed, but they met genuine needs and so they seem to be secure. A great many more such substantives are deliberate inventions, for example, kodak, protectograph, conductorette, bevo, klaxon, vaseline, jap-a-lac, resinol, autocar, postum, crisco, electrolier, addressograph, alabastine, orangeade, pianola, victrola, dictagraph, kitchenette, crispette, cellarette, uneeda, triscuit and peptomint. Some of these indicate attempts at description: oleomargarine, phonograph and gasoline are older examples of that class. Others represent efforts to devise designations that will meet the conditions of advertising psychology and the trade-marks law, to wit, that they [Pg166] be (a) new, (b) easily remembered, and (c) not directly descriptive. Probably the most successful invention of this sort is kodak, which was devised by George Eastman, inventor of the portable camera so called. Kodak has so far won acceptance as a common noun that Eastman is often forced to assert his proprietary right to it.[67] Vaseline is in the same position. The annual crop of such inventions in the United States is enormous.[68] The majority die, but a hearty few always survive.

Of analogous character are artificial words of the scalawag and rambunctious class, the formation of which constantly goes on. Some of them are shortened compounds: grandificent (from grand and magnificent), sodalicious (from soda and delicious) and warphan(age) (from war and orphan(age)).[69] Others are made up of common roots and grotesque affixes: swelldoodle, splendiferous and peacharino. Yet others are mere extravagant inventions: scallywampus, supergobsloptious and floozy. Most of these are devised by advertisement writers or college students, and belong properly to slang, but there is a steady movement of selected specimens into the common vocabulary. The words in -doodle hint at German influences, and those in -ino owe something to Italian, or at least to popular burlesques of what is conceived to be Italian.

§ 6

Pronunciation—"Language," said Sayce, in 1879, "does not consist of letters, but of sounds, and until this fact has been brought home to us our study of it will be little better than an [Pg167] exercise of memory."[70] The theory, at that time, was somewhat strange to English grammarians and etymologists, despite the investigations of A. J. Ellis and the massive lesson of Grimm's law; their labors were largely wasted upon deductions from the written word. But since then, chiefly under the influence of Continental philologists, and particularly of the Dane, J. O. H. Jespersen, they have turned from orthographical futilities to the actual sounds of the tongue, and the latest and best grammar of it, that of Sweet, is frankly based upon the spoken English of educated Englishmen—not, remember, of conscious purists, but of the general body of cultivated folk. Unluckily, this new method also has its disadvantages. The men of a given race and time usually write a good deal alike, or, at all events, attempt to write alike, but in their oral speech there are wide variations. "No two persons," says a leading contemporary authority upon English phonetics,[71] "pronounce exactly alike." Moreover, "even the best speaker commonly uses more than one style." The result is that it is extremely difficult to determine the prevailing pronunciation of a given combination of letters at any time and place. The persons whose speech is studied pronounce it with minute shades of difference, and admit other differences according as they are conversing naturally or endeavoring to exhibit their pronunciation. Worse, it is impossible to represent a great many of these shades in print. Sweet, trying to do it,[72] found himself, in the end, with a preposterous alphabet of 125 letters. Prince L.-L. Bonaparte more than doubled this number, and Ellis brought it to 390.[73] Other phonologists, English and Continental, have gone floundering into the same bog. The dictionary-makers, forced to a far greater economy of means, are brought into obscurity. The difficulties of the enterprise, in fact, are probably unsurmountable. It is, as White says, "almost impossible for one person to express to another by signs the [Pg168] sound of any word." "Only the voice," he goes on, "is capable of that; for the moment a sign is used the question arises, What is the value of that sign? The sounds of words are the most delicate, fleeting and inapprehensible things in nature.... Moreover, the question arises as to the capability to apprehend and distinguish sounds on the part of the person whose evidence is given."[74] Certain German orthoepists, despairing of the printed page, have turned to the phonograph, and there is a Deutsche Grammophon-Gesellschaft in Berlin which offers records of specimen speeches in a great many languages and dialects, including English. The phonograph has also been put to successful use in language teaching by various American correspondence schools.

In view of all this it would be hopeless to attempt to exhibit in print the numerous small differences between English and American pronunciation, for many of them are extremely delicate and subtle, and only their aggregation makes them plain. According to a recent and very careful observer,[75] the most important of them do not lie in pronunciation at all, properly so called, but in intonation. In this direction, he says, one must look for the true characters "of the English accent." I incline to agree with White,[76] that the pitch of the English voice is somewhat higher than that of the American, and that it is thus more penetrating. The nasal twang which Englishmen observe in the vox Americana, though it has high overtones, is itself not high pitched, but rather low pitched, as all constrained and muffled tones are apt to be. The causes of that twang have long engaged phonologists, and in the main they agree that there is a physical basis for it—that our generally dry climate and rapid changes of temperature produce an actual thickening of the membranes concerned in the production of sound.[77] We are, in brief, a somewhat snuffling [Pg169] people, and much more given to catarrhs and coryzas than the inhabitants of damp Britain. Perhaps this general impediment to free and easy utterance, subconsciously apprehended, is responsible for the American tendency to pronounce the separate syllables of a word with much more care than an Englishman bestows upon them; the American, in giving extraordinary six distinct syllables instead of the Englishman's grudging four, may be seeking to make up for his natural disability. Marsh, in his "Lectures on the English Language,"[78] sought two other explanations of the fact. On the one hand, he argued that the Americans of his day read a great deal more than the English, and were thus much more influenced by the spelling of words, and on the other hand he pointed out that "our flora shows that the climate of even our Northern States belongs ... to a more Southern type than that of England," and that "in Southern latitudes ... articulation is generally much more distinct than in Northern regions." In support of the latter proposition he cited the pronunciation of Spanish, Italian and Turkish, as compared with that of English, Danish and German—rather unfortunate examples, for the pronunciation of German is at least as clear as that of Italian. Swedish would have supported his case far better: the Swedes debase their vowels and slide over their consonants even more markedly than the English. Marsh believed that there was a tendency among Southern peoples to throw the accent back, and that this helped to "bring out all the syllables." One finds a certain support for this notion in various American peculiarities of stress. Advertisement offers an example. The prevailing American pronunciation, despite incessant pedagogical counterblasts, puts the accent on the penult, whereas the English pronunciation stresses the second syllable. Paresis illustrates the same tendency. The English accent the first syllable, but, as Krapp says, American usage clings to the [Pg170] accent on the second syllable.[79] There are, again, pianist, primarily and telegrapher. The English accent the first syllable of each; we commonly accent the second. In temporarily they also accent the first; we accent the third. Various other examples might be cited. But when one had marshalled them their significance would be at once set at naught by four very familiar words, mamma, papa, inquiry and ally. Americans almost invariably accent each on the first syllable; Englishmen stress the second. For months, during 1918, the publishers of the Standard Dictionary, advertising that work in the street-cars, explained that ally should be accented on the second syllable, and pointed out that owners of their dictionary were safeguarded against the vulgarism of accenting it on the first. Nevertheless, this free and highly public instruction did not suffice to exterminate al´ly. I made note of the pronunciations overheard, with the word constantly on all lips. But one man of my acquaintance regularly accented the second syllable, and he was an eminent scholar, professionally devoted to the study of language.

Thus it is unsafe, here as elsewhere, to generalize too facilely, and particularly unsafe to exhibit causes with too much assurance. "Man frage nicht warum," says Philipp Karl Buttmann. "Der Sprachgebrauch lässt sich nur beobachten."[80] But the greater distinctness of American utterance, whatever its genesis and machinery, is palpable enough in many familiar situations. "The typical American accent," says Vizetelly, "is often harsh and unmusical, but it sounds all of the letters to be sounded, and slurs, but does not distort, the rest."[81] An American, for example, almost always sounds the first l in fulfill; an Englishman makes the first syllable foo. An American sounds every syllable in extraordinary, literary, military, secretary and the other words of the -ary-group; an Englishman never pronounces the a of the penultimate syllable. Kindness, with the d silent, would attract notice in the United States; in England, according to [Pg171] Jones,[82] the d is "very commonly, if not usually" omitted. Often, in America, commonly retains a full t; in England it is actually and officially offen. Let an American and an Englishman pronounce program (me). Though the Englishman retains the long form of the last syllable in writing, he reduces it in speaking to a thick triple consonant, grm; the American enunciates it clearly, rhyming it with damn. Or try the two with any word ending in -g, say sporting or ripping. Or with any word having r before a consonant, say card, harbor, lord or preferred. "The majority of Englishmen," says Menner, "certainly do not pronounce the r ...; just as certainly the majority of educated Americans pronounce it distinctly."[83] Henry James, visiting the United States after many years of residence in England, was much harassed by this persistent r-sound, which seemed to him to resemble "a sort of morose grinding of the back teeth."[84] So sensitive to it did he become that he began to hear where it was actually non-existent, save as an occasional barbarism, for example, in Cuba-r, vanilla-r and California-r. He put the blame for it, and for various other departures from the strict canon of contemporary English, upon "the American common school, the American newspaper, and the American Dutchman and Dago." Unluckily for his case, the full voicing of the r came into American long before the appearance of any of these influences. The early colonists, in fact, brought it with them from England, and it still prevailed there in Dr. Johnson's day, for he protested publicly against the "rough snarling sound" and led the movement which finally resulted in its extinction.[85] Today, extinct, it is mourned by English purists, and the Poet Laureate denounces the clergy of the Established Church for saying "the sawed of the Laud" instead of "the sword of the Lord."[86]

But even in the matter of elided consonants American is not always the conservator. We cling to the r, we preserve the final [Pg172] g, we give nephew a clear f-sound instead of the clouded English v-sound, and we boldly nationalize trait and pronounce its final t, but we drop the second p from pumpkin and change the m to n, we change the ph(=f)-sound to plain p in diphtheria, diphthong and naphtha,[87] we relieve rind of its final d, and, in the complete sentence, we slaughter consonants by assimilation. I have heard Englishmen say brand-new, but on American lips it is almost invariably bran-new. So nearly universal is this nasalization in the United States that certain American lexicographers have sought to found the term upon bran and not upon brand. Here the national speech is powerfully influenced by Southern dialectical variations, which in turn probably derive partly from French example and partly from the linguistic limitations of the negro. The latter, even after two hundred years, has great difficulties with our consonants, and often drops them. A familiar anecdote well illustrates his speech habit. On a train stopping at a small station in Georgia a darkey threw up a window and yelled "Wah ee?" The reply from a black on the platform was "Wah oo?" A Northerner aboard the train, puzzled by this inarticulate dialogue, sought light from a Southern passenger, who promptly translated the first question as "Where is he?" and the second as "Where is who?" A recent viewer with alarm[88] argues that this conspiracy against the consonants is spreading, and that English printed words no longer represent the actual sounds of the American language. "Like the French," he says, "we have a marked liaison—the borrowing of a letter from the preceding word. We invite one another to 'c'meer' (=come here) ... 'Hoo-zat?' (=who is that?) has as good a liaison as the French vois avez." This critic believes that American tends to abandon t for d, as in Sadd'y (=Saturday) and siddup (=sit up), and to get rid of h, as in "ware-zee?" (=where is he?). But here we invade the vulgar speech, which belongs to the next chapter. [Pg173]

Among the vowels the most salient difference between English and American pronunciation, of course, is marked off by the flat American a. This flat a, as we have seen, has been under attack at home for nearly a century. The New Englanders, very sensitive to English example, substitute a broad a that is even broader than the English, and an a of the same sort survives in the South in a few words, e. g., master, tomato and tassel, but everywhere else in the country the flat a prevails. Fashion and the example of the stage oppose it,[89] and it is under the ban of an active wing of schoolmasters, but it will not down. To the average American, indeed, the broad a is a banner of affectation, and he associates it unpleasantly with spats, Harvard, male tea-drinking, wrist watches and all the other objects of his social suspicion. He gets the flat sound, not only into such words as last, calf, dance and pastor, but even into piano and drama. Drama is sometimes drayma west of Connecticut, but almost never drahma or drawma. Tomato with the a of bat, may sometimes borrow the a of plate, but tomahto is confined to New England and the South. Hurrah, in American, has also borrowed the a of plate; one hears hurray much oftener than hurraw. Even amen frequently shows that a, though not when sung. Curiously enough, it is displaced in patent by the true flat a. The English rhyme the first syllable of the word with rate; in America it always rhymes with rat.

The broad a is not only almost extinct outside of New England; it begins to show signs of decay even there. At all events, it has gradually disappeared from many words, and is measurably less sonorous in those in which it survives than it used to be. A century ago it appeared, not only in dance, aunt, glass, past, etc., but also in Daniel, imagine, rational and travel.[90] And in 1857 Oliver Wendell Holmes reported it in matter, handsome, caterpillar, apple and satisfaction. It has been displaced in virtually all of these, even in the most remote reaches of the back country, [Pg174] by the national flat a. Grandgent[91] says that the broad a is now restricted in New England to the following situations:

1. when followed by s or ns, as in last and dance.

2. when followed by r preceding another consonant, as in cart.

3. when followed by lm, as in calm.

4. when followed by f, s or th, as in laugh, pass and path.

The u-sound also shows certain differences between English and American usage. The English reduce the last syllable of figure to ger; the educated American preserves the u-sound as in nature. The English make the first syllable of courteous rhyme with fort; the American standard rhymes it with hurt. The English give an oo-sound to the u of brusque; in America the word commonly rhymes with tusk. A u-sound, as everyone knows, gets into the American pronunciation of clerk, by analogy with insert; the English cling to a broad a-sound, by analogy with hearth. Even the latter, in the United States, is often pronounced to rhyme with dearth. The American, in general, is much less careful than the Englishman to preserve the shadowy y-sound before u in words of the duke-class. He retains it in few, but surely not in new. Nor in duke, blue, stew, due, duty and true. Nor even in Tuesday. Purists often attack the simple oo-sound. In 1912, for example, the Department of Education of New York City warned all the municipal high-school teachers to combat it.[92] But it is doubtful that one pupil in a hundred was thereby induced to insert the y in induced. Finally there is lieutenant. The Englishman pronounces the first syllable left; the American invariably makes it loot. White says that the prevailing American pronunciation is relatively recent. "I never heard it," he reports, "in my boyhood."[93] He was born in New York in 1821.

The i-sound presents several curious differences. The English make it long in all words of the hostile-class; in America it is commonly short, even in puerile. The English also lengthen it in sliver; in America the word usually rhymes with liver. The [Pg175] short i, in England, is almost universally substituted for the e in pretty, and this pronunciation is also inculcated in most American schools, but I often hear an unmistakable e-sound in the United States, making the first syllable rhyme with bet. Contrariwise, most Americans put the short i into been, making it rhyme with sin. In England it shows a long e-sound, as in seen. A recent poem by an English poet makes the word rhyme with submarine, queen and unseen.[94] The o-sound, in American, tends to convert itself into an aw-sound. Cog still retains a pure o, but one seldom hears it in log or dog. Henry James denounces this "flatly-drawling group" in "The Question of Our Speech,"[95] and cites gawd, dawg, sawft, lawft, gawne, lawst and frawst as horrible examples. But the English themselves are not guiltless of the same fault. Many of the accusations that James levels at American, in truth, are echoed by Robert Bridges in "A Tract on the Present State of English Pronunciation." Both spend themselves upon opposing what, at bottom, are probably natural and inevitable movements—for example, the gradual decay of all the vowels to one of neutral color, represented by the e of danger, the u of suggest, the second o of common and the a of prevalent. This decay shows itself in many languages. In both English and High German, during their middle periods, all the terminal vowels degenerated to e—now sunk to the aforesaid neutral vowel in many German words, and expunged from English altogether. The same sound is encountered in languages so widely differing otherwise as Arabic, French and Swedish. "Its existence," says Sayce, "is a sign of age and decay; meaning has become more important than outward form, and the educated intelligence no longer demands a clear pronunciation in order to understand what is said."[96]

All these differences between English and American pronunciation, separately considered, seem slight, but in the aggregate they are sufficient to place serious impediments between mutual [Pg176] comprehension. Let an Englishman and an American (not of New England) speak a quite ordinary sentence, "My aunt can't answer for my dancing the lancers even passably," and at once the gap separating the two pronunciations will be manifest. Here only the a is involved. Add a dozen everyday words—military, schedule, trait, hostile, been, lieutenant, patent, nephew, secretary, advertisement, and so on—and the strangeness of one to the other is augmented. "Every Englishman visiting the States for the first time," said an English dramatist some time ago, "has a difficulty in making himself understood. He often has to repeat a remark or a request two or three times to make his meaning clear, especially on railroads, in hotels and at bars. The American visiting England for the first time has the same trouble."[97] Despite the fact that American actors imitate English pronunciation to the best of their skill, this visiting Englishman asserted that the average American audience is incapable of understanding a genuinely English company, at least "when the speeches are rattled off in conversational style." When he presented one of his own plays with an English company, he said, many American acquaintances, after witnessing the performance, asked him to lend them the manuscript, "that they might visit it again with some understanding of the dialogue."[98]


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