The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VIII - Footnotes

[1] The great Irish famine, which launched the chief emigration to America, extended from 1845 to 1847. The Know Nothing movement, which was chiefly aimed at the Irish, extended from 1852 to 1860.

[2] A. B. Faust: The German Element in the United States, 2 vols.; Boston, 1909, vol. ii, pp. 34 et seq.

[3] Richard T. Ely: Outlines of Economics, 3rd rev. ed.; New York, 1916, p. 68.

[4] Cf. Seth K. Humphrey: Mankind; New York, 1917, p. 45.

[5] Cf. William G. Searle: Onomasticon Anglo-Saxonicum; Cambridge, 1897.

[6] New York World Almanac, 1914, p. 668.

[7] It was announced by the Bureau of War Risk Insurance on March 30, 1918, that there were then 15,000 Millers in the United States Army. On the same day there were 262 John J. O'Briens, of whom 50 had wives named Mary.

[8] Cf. Carlyle's Frederick the Great, bk. xxi, ch. vi.

[9] S. Grant Oliphant, in the Baltimore Sun, Dec. 2, 1906.

[10] Harriet Lane Johnston was of this family.

[11] Cf. Faust, op. cit., vol. ii, pp. 183-4.

[12] A Tragedy of Surnames, by Fayette Dunlap, Dialect Notes, vol. iv, pt. 1, 1913, p. 7-8.

[13] Americanisms, p. 112.

[14] Henry Harrison, in his Dictionary of the Surnames of the United Kingdom; London, 1912, shows that such names as Bloom, Cline, etc., always represent transliterations of German names. They are unknown to genuinely British nomenclature.

[15] A great many more such transliterations and modifications are listed by Faust, op. cit., particularly in his first volume. Others are in Pennsylvania Dutch, by S. S. Haldemann; London, 1872, p. 60 et seq., and in The Origin of Pennsylvania Surnames, by L. Oscar Kuhns, Lippincott's Magazine, March, 1897, p. 395.

[16] I lately encountered the following sign in front of an automobile repair shop:

For puncture or blow

Bring it to Lowe.

[17] Baltimore Sun, March 17, 1907.

[18] Cf. The Origin of Pennsylvania Surnames, op. cit.

[19] Koch, a common German name, has very hard sledding in America. Its correct pronunciation is almost impossible to Americans; at best it becomes Coke. Hence it is often changed, not only to Cook, but to Cox, Koke or even Cockey.

[20] This is army slang, but promises to survive. The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes. The French were always die Franzosen, the English were die Engländer, and so on, even when most violently abused. Even der Yankee was rare.

[21] Cf. Some Current Substitutes for Irish, by W. A. McLaughlin, Dialect Notes, vol. iv, pt. ii.

[22] Spiggoty, originating at Panama, now means a native of any Latin-American region under American protection, and in general any Latin-American. It is navy slang, but has come into extensive civilian use. It is a derisive daughter of "No spik Inglese."

[23] Cf. Reaction to Personal Names, by Dr. C. P. Oberndorf, Psychoanalytic Review, vol. v, no. 1, January, 1918, p. 47 et seq. This, so far as I know, is the only article in English which deals with the psychological effects of surnames upon their bearers. Abraham, Silberer and other German psychoanalysts have made contributions to the subject. Dr. Oberndorf alludes, incidentally, to the positive social prestige which goes with an English air, and, to a smaller extent, with a French air in America. He tells of an Italian who changed his patronymic of Dipucci into de Pucci to make it more "aristocratic." And of a German bearing the genuinely aristocratic name of von Landsschaffshausen who changed it to "a typically English name" because the latter seemed more distinguished to his neighbors.

[24] The effects of race antagonism upon language are still to be investigated. The etymology of slave indicates that the inquiry might yield interesting results. The word French, in English, is largely used to suggest sexual perversion. In German anything Russian is barbarous, and English education hints at flagellation. The French, for many years, called a certain contraband appliance a capote Anglaise, but after the entente cordiale they changed the name to capote Allemande. The common English name to this day is French letter. Cf. The Criminal, by Havelock Ellis; London, 1910, p. 208.

[25] Cf. The Jews, by Maurice Fishberg; New York, 1911, ch. xxii, and especially p. 485 et seq.

[26] The English Jews usually change Levy to Lewis, a substitution almost unknown in America. They also change Abraham to Braham and Moses to Moss. Vide Surnames, Their Origin and Nationality, by L. B. McKenna; Quincy (Ill.), 1913, pp. 13-14.

[27] For these observations of name changes among the Jews I am indebted to Abraham Cahan.

[28] They arose in England through the custom of requiring an heir by the female line to adopt the family name on inheriting the family property. Formerly the heir dropped his own surname. Thus the ancestor of the present Duke of Northumberland, born Smithson, took the ancient name of Percy on succeeding to the underlying earldom in the eighteenth century. But about a hundred years ago, heirs in like case began to join the two names by hyphenation, and such names are now very common in the British peerage. Thus the surname of Lord Barrymore is Smith-Barry, that of Lord Vernon is Venables-Vernon, and that of the Earl of Wharncliffe is Montagu-Stuart-Wortley-Mackenzie.

[29] B. W. Green: Word-Book of Virginia Folk-Speech; Richmond, 1899, pp. 13-16.

[30] The one given name that they have clung to is Karl. This, in fact, has been adopted by Americans of other stocks, always, however, spelled Carl. Such combinations as Carl Gray, Carl Williams and even Carl Murphy are common. Here intermarriage has doubtless had its effect.

[31] Cf. Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature, by Charles W. Bardsley; London, 1880.

[32] Cf. Bardsley, op. cit., p. 205 et seq.

[33] The Geographic Board has lately decided that Kenesaw should be Kennesaw, but the learned jurist sticks to one n.

[34] Thornton reprints a paragraph from the Congressional Globe of June 15, 1854, alleging that in 1846, during the row over the Oregon boundary, when "Fifty-four forty or fight" was a political slogan, many "canal-boats, and even some of the babies, ... were christened 54° 40′."

[35] The Irish present several curious variations. Thus, they divide Charles into two syllables. They also take liberties with various English surnames. Bermingham, for example, is pronounced Brimmingham in Ireland.

[36] Issued annually in July, with monthly supplements.

[37] The latest report is the fourth, covering the period 1890-1916; Washington, 1916.

[38] The authority here is River and Lake Names in the United States, by Edmund T. Ker; New York, 1911. Stephen G. Boyd, in Indian Local Names; York (Pa.), 1885, says that the original Indian name was Pootuppag.

[39] P. 17.

[40] Cf. Dutch Contributions to the Vocabulary of English in America, by W. H. Carpenter, Modern Philology, July, 1908.

[41] Our Naturalized Names, Lippincott's Magazine, April, 1899. It will be recalled how Pinaud, the French perfumer, was compelled to place advertisements in the street-cars, instructing the public in the proper pronunciation of his name.

[42] The same compromise is apparent in the pronunciation of Iroquois, which is Iro-quoy quite as often as it is Iro-quoys.

[43] Vide its Fourth Report (1890-1916), p. 15.

[44] The Geographic Board is composed of representatives of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Geological Survey, the General Land Office, the Post Office, the Forest Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Biological Survey, the Government Printing Office, the Census and Lighthouse Bureaus, the General Staff of the Army, the Hydrographic Office, Library and War Records Office of the Navy, the Treasury and the Department of State. It was created by executive order Sept. 4, 1890, and its decisions are binding upon all federal officials. It has made, to date, about 15,000 decisions. They are recorded in reports issued at irregular intervals and in more frequent bulletins.

[45] Every-Day English, p. 100.

[46] I have often noted that Americans, in speaking of the familiar Worcestershire sauce, commonly pronounce every syllable and enunciated shire distinctly. In England it is always Woostersh'r.

[47] The English have a great number of such decayed pronunciations, e. g., Maudlin for Magdalen College, Sister for Cirencester, Merrybone for Marylebone. Their geographical nomenclature shows many corruptions due to faulty pronunciation and the law of Hobson-Jobson, e. g., Leighton Buzzard for the Norman French Leiton Beau Desart.

[48] Curiously enough, Americans always use the broad a in the first syllable of Albany, whereas Englishmen rhyme the syllable with pal. The English also pronounce Pall Mall as if it were spelled pal mal. Americans commonly give it two broad a's.

[49] Our Street Names, Lippincott's Magazine, Aug., 1897, p. 264.

[50] Ch. i.

[51] There are, of course, local exceptions. In Baltimore, for example, avenue used to be reserved for wide streets in the suburbs. Thus Charles street, on passing the old city boundary, became Charles street-avenue. Further out it became the Charles street-avenue-road—probably a unique triplication. But that was years ago. Of late many fifth-rate streets in Baltimore have been changed into avenues.

Return to the The American Language Summary Return to the H.L. Mencken Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson