The American Language/Chapter 23

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The American Language by H. L. Mencken
Americanisms in England

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 frequently and often very quickly, and though the guardians of English, as we saw in Chapter I, Section 3, still attack every new Americanism vigorously, even when, as in the case of scientist, it is obviously sound, or, as in the case of joy-ride, it is irresistibly picturesque, 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, and in Cassell’s New English Dictionary, published five years later, 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, 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 strike the English fancy and are repeated in conversation. 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, are struck by the new and racy phrases that they hear, and afterward take them home and try them on their friends. The English authors who burden every west-bound ship, coming here to lecture, have especially sharp ears for such neologisms, and always use them when they get home—often, as we shall see, inaccurately. Dickens was the first of these visitors to carry back that sort of cargo; according to Bishop Coxe [4] he gave currency in England, in his “American Notes,” 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.” Cassell lists them without any remark at all; they have been thoroughly assimilated. Finally, there is the influence of American plays and 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 in 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,…” 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.” Other watchmen have often sounded the same alarm, sometimes in very acrimonious terms. “Thou callest trousers pants,” roared Samuel Butler in his “Psalm to Montreal,” “whereas I call them trousers; therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!” [6]

But though there are many such protests, the majority of Englishmen make borrowings from the tempting and ever-widening American vocabulary, and many of these loan-words take root, and are presently accepted as sound English, even by the most squeamish. The two Fowlers, in “The King’s English,” separate Americanisms from other current vulgarisms, but many of the latter on their list, in the sense indicated, 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. [7] It even adds musquash, a popular name for the Fiber zibethicus, borrowed from the Algonquin muskwessu but long since degenerated to muskrat 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. [8]

A few weeks in London or a month’s study of the London 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 English 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. [9] To stump, in the form of stump-oratory, is in Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” published in 1850, and caucus appears in his “Frederick the Great,” [10] 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. Gerrymander is in H. G. Wells’ “Outline of History.” [11] 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, 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 the common nicknames of the Whitechapel workhouse. Both the Concise Oxford and Cassell list to loaf without mentioning its American origin. The former says that its etymology is “dubious” and the latter that it is “doubtful.”

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 Concise Oxford and Cassell distinguish 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 before 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 by purists, but Cassell accepts it. English authors of the first rank have used it, and it will probably lose its dubious character very soon. To engineer, to collide, to corner, to aggravate, to obligate, and to obligate, and to lynch are in Cassell with no hint of their American origin, and so are home-spun, out-house, cross-purposes, green-horn, blizzard, excursionist, wash-stand and wash-basin, though wash-hand-stand and wash-hand-basin are also given. To boom, to boost and to boss are listed as Americanisms; so are highfalutin, skeedaddle and flat-footed. But to donate and to feature are not there at all, and neither are non-committal, bay-window, semi-occasional, square-meal, back-number, spondulix, back-yard, stag-party, derby (hat) and trained-nurse. Drug-store is slowly making its way in England; the firm known as Botts Cash Chemists uses the term to designate its branches. But it is not yet listed by either Cassell or the Concise Oxford, though both give druggist. L. Pearsall Smith adds platform (political), interview, faith-healing, co-education and cake-walk. [12] Cassell says that letter-carrier is obsolete in England and that pay-day is used only on the Stock Exchange there. Tenderfoot is creeping in, though the English commonly mistake it for an Australianism; it is used by the English Boy Scouts just as our own Boy Scouts use it. Scalawag, characteristically, has got into English with an extra l, making it scallawag. Rambunctious is not in any of the new English dictionaries, but in Cassell I find rumbustious, probably its father.

It is easy to overestimate the importance of these exportations, and of the transient slang-phrases that go with them. It takes a long while for one of them to become thoroughly naturalized in England, and even then the business is commonly achieved only at the cost of a change in meaning or spelling. To the Englishman Americanisms continue to show an abhorrent quality, even after he has begun to use them; he never feels quite at ease in their use, and so he seldom uses them correctly. When, a few years ago, the English borrowed the highly characteristic American phrase, I should worry (probably borrowed by American, in turn, from the Yiddish), they changed it absurdly into I should not worry. In the same way they confused the two Americanisms, gink and jinx, and so produced the bastard ginx. [13] Perhaps their inability to understand the generality of Americanisms or to enter naturally into the spirit of the language helps to explain the common American notion that they are dull-pated and unable to appreciate a joke. Certain it is that very few of their authors, even after the most careful preparation, show any capacity for writing American in a realistic manner. A proof of it is offered by the English novelist, W. L. George, in a chapter entitled “Litany of the Novelist” in his book of criticism, “Literary Chapters.” [14] George has been in the United States, knows many Americans, and is here addressing Americans and trying to help out their comprehension by a studied use of purely American phrases. 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. In other chapters of the same book his blunders are even worse: petrol and cruet most certainly puzzle many of his American readers.

Nor is he alone. Every English author who attempts to render the speech of American characters makes a mess of it. H. G. Wells’ American in “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” is only matched by G. K. Chesterton’s in “Man Alive.” Even Kipling, who submitted the manuscript of “Captain Courageous” to American friends for criticism, yet managed to make an American in it say “He’s by way of being a fisherman now.” The late Frank M. Bicknell once amassed some amusing examples of this unanimous failing. [15] Max Pemberton, in a short story dealing with an American girl’s visit to England, makes her say: “I’m right glad…. You’re as pale as spectres, I guess…. Fancy that, now! … You are my guest, I reckon, … and here you are, my word!” C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, in depicting a former American naval officer, makes him speak of saloon-corner men (corner-loafers?). E. W. Hornung, in one of his “Raffles” stories, introduces an American prize-fighter who goes to London and regales the populace with such things as these: “Blamed if our Bowery boys ain’t cock-angels to scum like this …. By the holy tinker! … Blight and blister him! … I guess I’ll punch his face into a jam pudding …. Say, sonny, I like you a lot, but I sha’n’t like you if you’re not a good boy.” The American use of way and away seems to have daunted many of the authors quoted by Mr. Bicknell; several of them agree on forms that are certainly never heard in the United States. Thus H. B. Marriott Watson makes an American character say: “You ought to have done business with me away in Chicago,” and Walter Frith makes another say: “He has gone way off to Holborn,” “I stroll a block or two way down the Strand,” “I’ll drive him way down home by easy stages,” and “He can pack his grip and be way off home.”

Various other American critics have noted similar and even worse solecisms in the current English novels, and one of them, Miss Anna Branson Hillyard, once offered publicly in the Athenæum [16] to undertake the revision of English manuscripts for “fees carefully and inversely scaled by the consultant’s importance.” Miss Hillyard, in this article, cited a curious misunderstanding of American by the late Rupert Brooke. When Brooke was in the United States he sent a letter to the Westminster Gazette containing the phrase “You bet your—.” The editor, unable to make anything of it, inserted the word boots in place of the dash. Brooke thereupon wrote a letter to a friend, Edward Marsh, complaining of this mauling of his Americanism, and Marsh afterward printed it in his memoir of the poet. Miss Hillyard says that she was long puzzled by this alleged Americanism, and wondered where Brooke had picked it up. Finally, “light dawned by way of a comic cartoon. It was the classic phrase, you betcha (accent heavily on the bet) which Brooke was spelling conventionally!” And, as Miss Hillyard shows, incorrectly, as usual, for you betcha is not a collision form of “you bet your” but a collision form of “you bet you”—an imitative second person of “I bet you,” which in comic-cartoon circles is pronounced and spelled “I betcha.” [17]

I doubt that the war gave much new currency to Americanisms among the English. The fact is that the American and British troops were seldom on the best of terms, and so fraternized very little. Cassell’s New English Dictionary, published in 1919, lists a number of words borrowed by the British from the Americans, among them cold-feet, delicatessen, guy (noun), high-brow, hobo, jitney, hot-stuff, jazz, joy-ride, milk-shake, movies, pronto, tangle-foot, to make good, to hike, and to frazzle, but not many of them were in general use. Cassell lists chautauquan but not chautauqua, and converts the American dub into dud. A correspondent who was an officer in the American army writes:

I was with an American division brigaded with the British. The chief result seemed to be the adoption of a common unit of swearing, but probably even this had been arrived at independently. The passage of all the American troops that went through Liverpool, which was near-American before the war, didn’t make much difference. I had to get some shoes while I was on furlough there after the armistice, and although I was in my American uniform, a fact that should have made the nature of the shoes demanded doubly sure, they brought out a pair of low shoes.


Notes[edit]

  1. Passing English of the Victorian Era; London, n. d., p. 68.
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary and Cassell, following the late J. H. Trumbull, the well-known authority on Indian languages, derive the word from the Algonquin cau-cau-as-u or kaw-kaw-asu, one who advises. But most other authorities, following Pickering, derive it from caulkers. The first caucuses, it would appear, were held in a caulkers’ shop in Boston, and were called caulkers’ meetings. The Rev. William Gordon, in his History of the Rise and Independence of the United States, Including the Late War, published in London in 1788, said that “more than fifty years ago Mr. Samuel Adams’ father and twenty others, one or two from the north end of the town [Boston], where the ship business is carried on, used to meet, make a caucus and lay their plans for introducing certain persons into places of trust and power.”
  3. Americanisms Old and New; p. vii.
  4. A. Cleveland Coxe: Americanisms in England, Forum, Oct., 1886.
  5. Reprinted, in part, in the New York Sun, May 12, 1918.
  6. The Note-Books of Samuel Butler; New York, 1917, p. 389.
  7. Vol. xiv, pp. 507, 512.
  8. In this connection it is curious to note that, though the raccoon is an animal quite unknown in England, there was, during the Great War, a destroyer called the Raccoon in the British Navy. This ship was lost with all hands off the Irish coast, Jan. 9, 1918.
  9. The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage; London, 1913, p. 9. To bluff has also gone into other languages. During the Cuban revolution of March, 1917, the newspapers of Havana, objecting to the dispatches sent out by American correspondents, denounced the latter as los blofistas. It has also got into German, and has been used in a formal speech by Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg. Meanwhile, to bluff was once shouldered out in the country of its origin, at least temporarily, by a verb borrowed from the French, to camouflage. This first appeared in the Spring of 1917. It was, however, quickly done to death, and so to bluff was revived.
  10. Book iv, ch. iii. The first of the six volumes was published in 1858 and the last in 1865.
  11. Vol. i, p. 496; New York, 1920.
  12. English, Oct., 1919, p. 177. He also adds table-turning and yellow-press. The first is a characteristic modification of the American table-tapping and the latter of yellow-journalism. See also Words on Trial, by T. Michael Pope, English, Sept., 1919, pp. 150–1.
  13. English, Sept., 1919, p. 151.
  14. Boston, 1918, pp. 1–43.
  15. The Yankee in British Fiction, Outlook, Nov. 19, 1910.
  16. American Written Here, Dec. 19, 1919, p. 1362.
  17. See also Novelists Far Afield, New York Evening Post (editorial), May 6, 1919.