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Authors: H.L. Mencken

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Look at the process of deterioration which our Queen’s English has undergone at the hands of the Americans. Look at those phrases which so amuse us in their speech and books; at their reckless exaggeration and contempt for congruity; and then compare the character and history of the nation — its blunted sense of moral obligation and duty to man; its open disregard of conventional right when aggrandisement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.

It will be noted that Alford here abandoned one of the chief counts in Sydney Smith’s famous indictment, and substituted its exact opposite. Smith had denounced slavery, whereas Alford, by a tremendous feat of moral virtuosity, was now denouncing the war to put it down! But Samuel Taylor Coleridge had done almost as well in 1822. The usual English accusation at that time, as we have seen, was that the Americans had abandoned English altogether and set up a barbarous jargon in its place. Coleridge, speaking to his friend Thomas Allsop, took the directly contrary tack. “An American,” he said, “by his boasting of the superiority of the Americans generally, but especially in their language, once provoked me to tell him that ‘on that head the least said the better, as the Americans presented the extraordinary anomaly of a
people without a language
. [Allsop’s italics] That they had mistaken the English language for baggage (which is called
in America), and had stolen it.’ ” And then the inevitable moral reflection: “Speaking of America, it is believed a fact verified beyond doubt that some years ago it was impossible to obtain a copy of the Newgate Calendar, as they had all been bought up by the Americans, whether to suppress the blazon of their forefathers, or to assist in their genealogical researches, I could never learn satisfactorily.”


Smith, Alford and Coleridge have plenty of heirs and assigns in the England of today. There is in the United States, as everyone knows, a formidable sect of Anglomaniacs, and its influence is often felt, not only in what passes here for society, but also in the domains of politics, finance, pedagogy and journalism, but the corresponding sect of British Americophils is small and feeble, though it shows a few respectable names. It is seldom that anything specifically American is praised in the English press, save, of course, some new manifestation of American Anglomania. The realm of Uncle Shylock remains, at bottom, the “brigand confederation” of the
Foreign Quarterly
, and on occasion it becomes again the “loathsome creature,… maimed and lame, full of sores and ulcers,” of Dickens.
In the field of language an Americanism is generally regarded as obnoxious
ipso facto
, and when a new one of any pungency begins to force its way into English usage the guardians of the national linguistic chastity belabor it with great vehemence, and predict calamitous consequences if it is not put down. If, despite these alarms, it makes progress, they often switch to the doctrine that it is really old English, and search the Oxford Dictionary for examples of its use in Chaucer’s time, or even in the Venerable Bede’s;
but while it is coming in they give it no quarter. Here the unparalleled English talent for discovering moral obliquity comes into play, and what begins as an uproar over a word sometimes ends as a holy war to keep the knavish Yankee from undermining and ruining the English
and overthrowing the British Empire. The crusade has abundant humors. Not infrequently a phrase denounced as an abominable Americanism really originated in the London music-halls, and is unknown in the United States. And almost as often the denunciation of it is sprinkled with genuine Americanisms, unconsciously picked up.

The English seldom differentiate between American slang and Americanisms of legitimate origin and in respectable use: both belong to what they often call the American slanguage.
It is most unusual for an American book to be reviewed in England without some reference to its strange and (so one gathers) generally unpleasant diction. The Literary Supplement of the London
is especially alert in this matter. It discovers Americanisms in the writings of even the most decorous American authors, and when none can be found it notes the fact, half in patronizing approbation and half in incredulous surprise. Of the 240 lines it gave to the first two volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography, 31 were devoted to animadversions upon the language of the learned authors.
The Manchester
and the weeklies of opinion follow dutifully. The
, in a review of Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “As I See Religion,” began by praising his “telling speech,” but ended by deploring sadly his use of the “full-blooded Americanisms which sometimes make even those who do not for a moment question America’s right and power to contribute to the speech which we use in common wince as they read.”
One learns from J. L. Hammond that the late C. P. Scott, for long the editor of the
, had a keen nose for Americanisms, and was very alert to keep them out of his paper. Says Hammond:

He would go bustling into a room, waving a cutting or a proof, in which was an obscure phrase, a preciosity, or an Americanism. “What does he mean by this? He talks about a
final showdown?
An Americanism, I suppose. What does it mean? Generally known? I don’t know it. Taken from cards? I never heard of it.”

This war upon Americanisms is in progress all the time, but it naturally has its pitched battles and its rest-periods between. For
months there may be relative quiet on the linguistic Western front, and then some alarmed picket fires a gun and there is what the German war
used to call a sharpening of activity. As a general thing the English content themselves with artillery practise from their own lines, but now and then one of them boldly invades the enemy’s country. This happened, for example, in 1908, when Charles Whibley contributed an extremely acidulous article on “The American Language” to the
(New York) for January. “To the English traveler in America,” he said, “the language which he hears spoken about him is at once a puzzle and a surprise. It is his own, yet not his own. It seems to him a caricature of English, a phantom speech, ghostly yet familiar, such as he might hear in a land of dreams.” Mr. Whibley objected violently to many characteristic American terms, among them,
to locate, to operate, to antagonize, transportation, commutation
. “These words,” he said, “if words they may be called, are hideous to the eye, offensive to the ear, meaningless to the brain.” The onslaught provoked even so mild a man as Dr. Henry W. Boynton to action, and in the
for March of the same year he published a spirited rejoinder. “It offends them [the English],” he said, “that we are not thoroughly ashamed of ourselves for not being like them.” Mr. Whibley’s article was reprinted with this counterblast, so that readers of the magazine might judge the issues fairly. The controversy quickly got into the newspapers, and was carried on for months, with American patriots on one side and Englishmen and Anglomaniacs on the other.

I myself once helped to loose such an uproar, though quite unintentionally. Happening to be in London in the Winter of 1929–30, I was asked by Mr. Ralph D. Blumenfeld, the American-born editor of the
Daily Express
, to do an article for his paper on the progress of Americanisms in England since my last visit in 1922. In that article I ventured to say:

The Englishman, whether he knows it or not, is talking and writing more and more American. He becomes so accustomed to it that he grows unconscious of it. Things that would have set his teeth on edge ten years ago, or even five years ago, are now integral parts of his daily speech.… In a few years it will probably be impossible for an Englishman to speak, or even to write, without using Americanisms, whether consciously or unconsciously. The influence of 125,000,000 people, practically all headed in one direction, is simply too great to be resisted by any minority, however resolute.

The question whether or not this was sound will be examined in
Chapters VI
. For the present it is sufficient to note that my article was violently arraigned by various volunteer correspondents of the
and by contributors to many other journals. One weekly opened its protest with “That silly little fellow, H. L. Mencken, is at it again” and headed it “The American Moron,” and in various other quarters I was accused of a sinister conspiracy against the mother-tongue, probably political or commercial in origin, or maybe both. At this time the American talkie was making its first appearance in England, and so there was extraordinary interest in the subject, for it was obvious that the talkie would bring in far more Americanisms than the silent movie; moreover, it would also introduce the hated American accent. On February 4, 1930 Sir Alfred Knox, a Conservative M.P., demanded in the House of Commons that the Right Hon. William Graham, P.C., then president of the Board of Trade, take steps to “protect the English language by limiting the import of American talkie films.” In a press interview he said:

I don’t go to the cinema often, but I had to be present at one a few days ago, when an American talkie film was shown. The words and accent were perfectly disgusting, and there can be no doubt that such films are an evil influence on our language. It is said that 30,000,000 [British] people visit the cinemas every week. What is the use of spending millions on education if our young people listen to falsified English spoken every night?

There had been another such uproar in 1927, when an International Conference on English was held in London, under the presidency of the Earl of Balfour. This conference hardly got beyond polite futilities, but the fact that the call for it came from the American side
made it suspect from the start, and its deliberations
met with unconcealed hostility. On June 25, 1927, the
New Statesman
let go with a heavy blast, rehearsing all the familiar English objections to Americanisms. It said:

It is extremely desirable, to say the least, that every necessary effort should be made to preserve some standard of pure idiomatic English. But from what quarter is the preservation of such a standard in any way threatened? The answer is “Solely from America.” Yet we are asked to collaborate with the Americans on the problem; we are to make bargains about our own tongue; there is to be a system of give and take.… Why should we offer to discuss the subject at all with America? We do not want to interfere with their language; why should they seek to interfere with ours? That their huge hybrid population of which only a small minority are even racially Anglo-Saxons should use English as their chief medium of intercommunication is our misfortune, not our fault. They certainly threaten our language, but the only way in which we can effectively meet that threat is by assuming — in the words of the authors of “The King’s English”
that “Americanisms are foreign words and should be so treated.”

The proposal that a permanent Council of English be formed, with 50 American members and 50 from the British Empire, brought the
New Statesman
to the verge of hysterics. It admitted that such a council “might be very useful indeed,” but argued that it “ought not to include more than one Scotsman and one Irishman, and should certainly not include even a single American.” Thus it reasoned:

The American language is the American language, and the English language is the English language. In some respects the Americans may fairly claim superiority.
, for example, is a better word than
, and
an infinitely better word than
. If we do not adopt these better words it is simply because of their “American flavor”; and the instinct which makes us reject them, though unfortunate in certain cases, is profoundly right. The only way to preserve the purity of the English language is to present a steadily hostile resistance to every American innovation. From time to time we may adopt this word or that, or sometimes a whole vivid phrase. But for all serious lovers of the English tongue it is America that is the only dangerous enemy. She must develop her own language and allow us to develop ours.

The other English journals were rather less fierce in their denunciation of the council and its programme, but very few of them greeted either with anything approaching cordiality.
obviously trying to be polite, observed that “without offense it may be said that no greater assaults are made on the common language than in America,” and the
ventured the view that in the United States English was departing definitely from the home standard, and was greatly “imposed upon and influenced by a host of immigrants from all the nations of Europe.” This insistence that Americans are not, in any cultural sense, nor even in any plausible statistical sense, Anglo-Saxons is to be found in many English fulminations upon the subject. During the World War, especially after 1917, they were hailed as blood-brothers, but that lasted only until the first mention of war-debts. Ever since 1920 they have been mongrels again, as they were before 1917, and most discussions of Americanisms include the objection that yielding to them means yielding to a miscellaneous rabble of inferior tribes, some of them, by English standards, almost savage. There was a time when the American in the English menagerie of comic foreigners was Hiram Q. Simpkins or Ulysses X. Snodgrass, a Yankee of Puritan, and hence of vaguely English stock, but on some near tomorrow he will probably be Patrick Kraus, Rastus O’Brien, Ole Ginzberg, or some other such fantastic compound of races.

BOOK: American Language
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