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Authors: H.L. Mencken

American Language (2 page)

BOOK: American Language
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Baltimore, 1936

H. L. M.


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The first American colonists had perforce to invent Americanisms, if only to describe the unfamiliar landscape and weather, flora and fauna confronting them. Half a dozen that are still in use are to be found in Captain John Smith’s “Map of Virginia,” published in 1612, and there are many more in the works of the New England annalists. As early as 1621 Alexander Gill was noting in his “Logonomia Anglica” that
were making their way into English.
But it was reserved for one Francis Moore, who came out to Georgia with Oglethorpe in 1735, to raise the earliest alarm against this enrichment of English from the New World, and so set the tone that English criticism has maintained ever since. Thus he described Savannah, then a village only two years old:

It stands upon the flat of a Hill; the Bank of the River (which they in barbarous English call a
) is steep, and about forty-five foot perpendicular.

John Wesley arrived in Georgia the same year, and from his diary for December 2, 1737, comes the Oxford Dictionary’s earliest example of the use of the word. But Moore was the first to notice it, and what is better to the point, the first to denounce it, and for that pioneering he must hold his honorable place in this history. In colonial times, of course, there was comparatively little incitement to hostility to Americanisms, for the stream of Englishmen coming to America to write books about their sufferings had barely begun to flow, and
the number of American books reaching London was very small. But by 1754 literary London was already sufficiently conscious of the new words arriving from the New World for Richard Owen Cambridge, author of “The Scribleriad,” to be suggesting
that a glossary of them would soon be in order, and two years later the finicky and always anti-American Samuel Johnson was saying, in a notice of Lewis Evans’s “Geographical, Historical, Political, Philosophical, and Mechanical Essays,”
substantially what many English reviewers still say with dogged piety:

This treatise is written with such elegance as the subject admits, tho’ not without some mixture of the American dialect, a tract [
, trace] of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.

As the Revolution drew on, the English discovered varieties of offensiveness on this side of the ocean that greatly transcended the philological, and I can find no record of any denunciation of Americanisms during the heat of the struggle itself. When, on July 20, 1778, a committee appointed by the Continental Congress to arrange for the “publick reception of the sieur Gerard, minister plenipotentiary of his most christian majesty,” brought in a report recommending that “all replies or answers” to him should be “in the language of the United States,”
no notice of the contumacy seems to have been taken in the Motherland. But a few months before Cornwallis was finally brought to heel at Yorktown the subject was resumed, and this time the attack came from a Briton living in America, and otherwise ardently pro-American. He was John Witherspoon (1723–94), a Scottish clergyman who had come out in 1769 to be president of Princeton
in partibus infidelium

Witherspoon took to politics when the war closed his college, and was elected a member of the New Jersey constitutional convention. In a little while he was promoted to the Continental Congress, and in it he sat for six years as its only member in holy orders. He
signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, and was a member of the Board of War throughout the Revolution. But though his devotion to the American cause was thus beyond question, he was pained by the American language, and when, in 1781, he was invited to contribute a series of papers to the
Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser
of Philadelphia, he seized the opportunity to denounce it, albeit in the politic terms proper to the time. Beginning with the disarming admission that “the vulgar in America speak much better than the vulgar in England, for a very obvious reason,
, that being much more unsettled, and moving frequently from place, they are not so liable to local peculiarities either in accent or phraseology,” he proceeded to argue that Americans of education showed a lamentable looseness in their “public and solemn discourses.”

I have heard in this country, in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.

Witherspoon’s mention of “the senate” was significant, for he must have referred to the Continental Congress, and it is fair to assume that at least some of the examples he cited to support his charge came from the sacred lips of the Fathers. He divided these “errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms” into eight classes, as follows:

1. Americanisms, or ways of speaking peculiar to this country.

2. Vulgarisms in England and America.

3. Vulgarisms in America only.

4. Local phrases or terms.

5. Common blunders arising from ignorance.

6. Cant phrases.

7. Personal blunders.

8. Technical terms introduced into the language.

By Americanisms, said Witherspoon,

I understand an use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences, even among people of rank and education, different from the use of the same terms
or phrases, or the construction of similar sentences in Great Britain. It does not follow, from a man’s using these, that he is ignorant, or his discourse upon the whole inelegant; nay, it does not follow in every case that the terms or phrases used are worse in themselves, but merely that they are of American and not of English growth. The word
, which I have coined for the purpose, is exactly similar in its formation and significance to the word

Witherspoon listed twelve examples of Americanisms falling within his definition, and despite the polite assurance I have just quoted, he managed to deplore all of them. His first was the use of
to indicate more than two, as in “The United States, or
of them.” This usage seems to have had some countenance in the England of the early Seventeenth Century, but it had gone out there by Witherspoon’s day, and it has since been outlawed by the schoolmarm in the United States. His second caveat was laid against the American use of
to notify
, as in “The police
the coroner.” “In English,” he said somewhat prissily, “we do not
the person of the thing, but
the thing to the person.” But
to notify
, in the American sense, was simply an example of archaic English, preserved like so many other archaisms in America, and there was, and is, no plausible logical or grammatical objection to it.
Witherspoon’s third Americanism was
fellow countrymen
, which he denounced as “an evident tautology,” and his fourth was the omission of
to be
before the second verb in such constructions as “These things were ordered delivered to the army.” His next three were similar omissions, and his remaining five were the use of
instead of
, the use of
in “A
Thomas Benson” (he argued that “A
certain person called
Thomas Benson” was correct), the use of
in “Such bodies are
to these evils,” and the use of
in the sense of worthy, and of
in the sense of angry.

It is rather surprising that Witherspoon found so few Americanisms for his list. Certainly there were many others, current in his day, that deserved a purist’s reprobation quite as much as those he singled out, and he must have been familiar with them. Among the verbs a large number of novelties had come into American usage since the middle of the century, some of them revivals of archaic
English verbs and others native inventions —
to belittle, to advocate, to progress, to notice, to table, to raise
(for to grow),
to deed, to locate, to ambition, to deputize, to compromit, to appreciate
(in the sense of increase in value),
to eventuate
, and so on. Benjamin Franklin, on his return to the United States in 1785, after nine years in France, was impressed so unpleasantly by
to advocate, to notice, to progress
to oppose
that on December 26, 1789 he wrote to Noah Webster to ask for help in putting them down, but they seem to have escaped Witherspoon. He also failed to note the changes of meaning in the American use of
creek, shoe, lumber, corn, barn, team, store, rock, cracker
. Nor did he have anything to say about American pronunciation, which had already begun to differ materially from that of Standard English.

Witherspoon’s strictures, such as they were, fell upon deaf ears, at least in the new Republic. He was to get heavy support, in a little while, from the English reviews, which began to belabor everything American in the closing years of the century, but on this side of the ocean the tide was running the other way, and as the Revolution drew to its victorious close there was a widespread tendency to reject English precedent and authority altogether, in language no less than in government. In the case of the language, several logical considerations supported that disposition, though the chief force at the bottom of it, of course, was probably only national conceit. For one thing, it was apparent to the more astute politicians of the time that getting rid of English authority in speech, far from making for chaos, would encourage the emergence of home authority, and so help to establish national solidarity, then the great desideratum of desiderata. And for another thing, some of them were far-sighted enough to see that the United States, in the course of the years, would inevitably surpass the British Isles in population and wealth, and to realize that its cultural independence would grow at the same pace.

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