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Authors: H.L. Mencken

American Language

BOOK: American Language
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A MENCKEN CHRESTOMATHY (with selections from the
A Book of Burlesques, In Defense of Women, Notes on Democracy, Making a President, A Book of Calumny, Treatise on Right and Wrong
, with pieces from the
American Mercury, Smart Set
, and the Baltimore
Evening Sun
, and some previously unpublished notes)


THE BATHTUB HOAX and Other Blasts and Bravos from the
Chicago Tribune

LETTERS OF H. L. MENCKEN, selected and annotated by Guy J. Forgue

H. L. MENCKEN ON MUSIC, edited by Louis Cheslock

THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE: The Fourth Edition and the Two Supplements, abridged, with annotations and new material, by Raven I. McDavid, Jr., with the assistance of David W. Maurer

, selected and edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Huntington Cairns

These are
published by
in New York

Copyright 1919, 1921, 1923, 1936 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright renewed 1947, 1949, 1950 by H. L. Mencken. Copyright renewed 1963 by August Mencken and Mercantile-Safe Deposit and Trust Company. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

, 1919

published December
, 1921

again revised published February
, 1923

corrected, enlarged, and rewritten

Published April, 1936
Reprinted Twenty-six Times
Twenty-eighth Printing, May 2006

eISBN: 978-0-307-80879-0



The first edition of this book, running to 374 pages, was published in March, 1919. It sold out very quickly, and so much new matter came in from readers that a revision was undertaken almost at once. This revision, however, collided with other enterprises, and was not finished and published until December, 1921. It ran to 492 pages. In its turn it attracted corrections and additions from many correspondents, and in February, 1923, I brought out a third edition, revised and enlarged. This third edition has been reprinted five times, and has had a large circulation, but for some years past its mounting deficiencies have been haunting me, and on my retirement from the editorship of the
American Mercury
at the end of 1933 I began to make plans for rewriting it. The task turned out to be so formidable as to be almost appalling. I found myself confronted by a really enormous accumulation of notes, including hundreds of letters from correspondents in all parts of the world and thousands of clippings from the periodical press of the British Empire, the United States and most of the countries of Continental Europe. Among the letters were many that reviewed my third edition page by page, and suggested multitudinous additions to the text, or changes in it. One of them was no less than 10,000 words long. The clippings embraced every discussion of the American language printed in the British Empire since the end of 1922 — at all events, every one that the singularly alert Durrant Press-Cutting Agency could discover. Furthermore, there were the growing files of
American Speech
, set up in October, 1925, and of
Dialect Notes
, and a large number of books and pamphlets, mostly in English but some also in German, French and other foreign languages, including even Japanese. It soon became plain that this immense mass of new material made a mere revision of the third edition out of the question. What was
needed was a complete reworking, following to some extent the outlines of the earlier editions, but with many additions and a number of emendations and shortenings. That reworking has occupied me, with two or three intervals, since the beginning of 1934. The present book picks up bodily a few short passages from the third edition, but they are not many. In the main, it is a new work.

The reader familiar with my earlier editions will find that it not only presents a large amount of matter that was not available when they were written, but also modifies the thesis which they set forth. When I became interested in the subject and began writing about it (in the Baltimore
Evening Sun
in 1910), the American form of the English language was plainly departing from the parent stem, and it seemed at least likely that the differences between American and English would go on increasing. This was what I argued in my first three editions. But since 1923 the pull of American has become so powerful that it has begun to drag English with it, and in consequence some of the differences once visible have tended to disappear. The two forms of the language, of course, are still distinct in more ways than one, and when an Englishman and an American meet they continue to be conscious that each speaks a tongue that is far from identical with the tongue spoken by the other. But the Englishman, of late, has yielded so much to American example, in vocabulary, in idiom, in spelling and even in pronunciation, that what he speaks promises to become, on some not too remote tomorrow, a kind of dialect of American, just as the language spoken by the American was once a dialect of English. The English writers who note this change lay it to the influence of the American movies and talkies, but it seems to me that there is also something more, and something deeper. The American people now constitute by far the largest fraction of the English-speaking race, and since the World War they have shown an increasing inclination to throw off their old subservience to English precept and example. If only by the force of numbers, they are bound to exert a dominant influence upon the course of the common language hereafter. But all this I discuss at length, supported by the evidence now available, in the pages following.

At the risk of making my book of forbidding bulk I have sought to present a comprehensive conspectus of the whole matter, with references to all the pertinent literature. My experience with the
three preceding editions convinces me that the persons who are really interested in American English are not daunted by bibliographical apparatus, but rather demand it. The letters that so many of them have been kind enough to send to me show that they delight in running down the by-ways of the subject, and I have tried to assist them by setting up as many guide-posts as possible, pointing into every alley as we pass along. Thus my references keep in step with the text, where they are most convenient and useful, and I have been able to dispense with the Bibliography which filled 32 pages of small type in my third edition. I have also omitted a few illustrative oddities appearing in that edition — for example, specimens of vulgar American by Ring W. Lardner and John V. A. Weaver, and my own translations of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettsyburg Address. The latter two, I am sorry to say, were mistaken by a number of outraged English critics for examples of Standard American, or of what I proposed that Standard American should be. Omitting them will get rid of that misapprehension and save some space, and those who want to consult them will know where to find them in my third edition.

I can’t pretend that I have covered the whole field in the present volume, for that field has become very large in area. But I have at least tried to cover those parts of it of which I have any knowledge, and to indicate the main paths through the remainder. The Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, now under way at the University of Chicago under the able editorship of Sir William Craigie, will deal with the vocabulary of Americanisms on a scale impossible here, and the Linguistic Atlas in preparation by Dr. Hans Kurath and his associates at Brown University will similarly cover the large and vexatious subject of regional differences in usage. In the same way, I hope, the work of Dr. W. Cabell Greet and his associates at Columbia will one day give us a really comprehensive account of American pronunciation. There are other inquiries in progress by other scholars, all of them unheard of at the time my third edition was published. But there are still some regions into which scholarship has hardly penetrated — for example, that of the vulgar grammar —, and therein I have had to disport as gracefully as possible, always sharply conscious of the odium which attaches justly to those amateurs who, “because they speak, fancy they can speak about speech.” I am surely no philologian, and my
inquiries and surmises will probably be of small value to the first successor who is, but until he appears I can only go on accumulating materials, and arranging them as plausibly as possible.

In the course of the chapters following I have noted my frequent debt to large numbers of volunteer aides, some of them learned in linguistic science but the majority lay brothers as I am. My contacts with them have brought me many pleasant acquaintanceships, and some friendships that I value greatly. In particular, I am indebted to Dr. Louise Pound, professor of English at the University of Nebraska and the first editor of
American Speech
, whose interest in this book has been lively and generous since its first appearance; to Mr. H. W. Seaman, of Norwich, England, whose herculean struggles with the chapter on “American and English Today” deserve a much greater reward than he will ever receive on this earth; to Dr. Kemp Malone, professor of English at the Johns Hopkins, who was kind enough to read the chapter on “The Common Speech”; to the late Dr. Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of England and founder of the Society for Pure English, who was always lavish of his wise and stimulating counsel; to Professor Dr. Heinrich Spies of Berlin, who published a critical summary of my third edition in German, under the title of “Die amerikanische Sprache,” in 1927; and to the late Dr. George Philip Krapp, professor of English at Columbia, who allowed me the use of the manuscript of his excellent “History of the English Language in America” in 1922, and was very obliging in other ways down to the time of his lamented death in 1934. Above all, I am indebted to my secretary, Mrs. Rosalind C. Lohrfinck, without whose indefatigable aid the present edition would have been quite impossible. The aforesaid friends of the philological faculty are not responsible, of course, for anything that appears herein. They have saved me from a great many errors, some of them of a large and astounding character, but others, I fear, remain. I shall be grateful, as in the past, for corrections and additions sent to me at 1524 Hollins street, Baltimore.

BOOK: American Language
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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