The American Language/Chapter 25

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The American Language by H. L. Mencken
General Characters

The elements that enter into the special character of American have been rehearsed in the first chapter: a general impatience of rule and restraint, a democratic enmity to all authority, an extravagant and often grotesque humor, an extraordinary capacity for metaphor [1]—in brief, all the natural marks of what Van Wyck Brooks calls “a popular life which bubbles with energy and spreads and grows and slips away ever more and more from the control of tested ideas, a popular life with the lid off.” [2] This is the spirit of America, and from it the American language is nourished. “The wish to see things afresh and for himself,” says Dr. Harry Morgan Ayres, [3] “is so characteristic of the American that neither in his speech nor his most considered writing does he need any urging to seek out ways of his own. He refuses to carry on his verbal traffic with the well-worn counters; he will always be new-writing them. He is on the lookout for words that say something; he has a sort of remorseless and scientific efficiency in the choice of epithets! … The American … has an Elizabethan love of exuberant language.” Brooks, perhaps, generalizes a bit too lavishly; Ayres calls attention to the fact that below the surface there is also a curious conservatism, even a sort of timorousness. In a land of manumitted peasants the primary trait of the peasant is bound to show itself now and then; as Wendell Phillips once said, “more than any other people, we Americans are afraid of one another”— that is, afraid of isolation, of derision, of all the consequences of singularity. But in the field of language, as in that of politics, this suspicion of the new is often transformed into a suspicion of the merely unfamiliar, and so its natural tendency toward conservatism is overcome. It is of the essence of democracy that it remain a government by amateurs, and under a government by amateurs it is precisely the expert who is most questioned—and it is the expert who commonly stresses the experience of the past. And in a democratic society it is not the iconoclast who seems most revolutionary, but the purist. The derisive designation of high-brow is thoroughly American in more ways than one. It is a word put together in an unmistakably American fashion, it reflects an habitual American attitude of mind, and its potency in debate is peculiarly national too.

I daresay it is largely a fear of the weapon in it—and there are many others of like effect in the arsenal—which accounts for the far greater prevalence of idioms from below in the formal speech of America than in the formal speech of England. There is surely no English novelist of equal rank whose prose shows so much of colloquial looseness and ease as one finds in the prose of Howells: to find a match for it one must go to the prose of the neo-Celts, professedly modelled upon the speech of peasants, and almost proudly defiant of English grammar and syntax, and to the prose of the English themselves before the Restoration. Nor is it imaginable that an Englishman of comparable education and position would ever employ such locutions as those I have hitherto quoted from the public addresses of Dr. Wilson—that is, innocently, seriously, as a matter of course. The Englishman, when he makes use of coinages of that sort, does so in conscious relaxation, and usually with a somewhat heavy sense of doggishness. They are proper to the paddock or even to the dinner table, but scarcely to serious scenes and occasions. But in the Unitel States their use is the rule rather than the exception; it is not the man who uses them, but the man who doesn’t use them, who is marked off. Their employment, if high example counts for anything, is a standard habit of the language, as their diligent avoidance is a standard habit of English.

A glance through the Congressional Record is sufficient to show how small is the minority of purists among the chosen leaders of the nation. Within half an hour, turning at random the pages of the war issues, when all Washington was on its best behavior, I find scores of locutions that would paralyze the stenographers in the House of Commons, and they are in the speeches, not of wild mavericks from the West, but of some of the chief men of the two Houses. Surely no Senator occupied a more conspicuous position during the first year of the war than “Hon.” Lee S. Overman, of North Carolina, chairman of the Committee on Rules, and commander of the administration forces on the floor. Well, I find Senator Overman using to enthuse in a speech of the utmost seriousness and importance, and not once, but over and over again. [4] I turn back a few pages and encounter it again—this time in the mouth of General Sherwood, of Ohio. A few more, and I find a fit match for it, to wit, to biograph. [5] The speaker here is Senator L. Y. Sherman, of Illinois. In the same speech he uses to resolute. [6] A few more, and various other characteristic verbs are unearthed; to demagogue, [7]to dope out, [8] to fall down [9] (in the sense of to fail), to jack up, [10] to phone, [11] to peeve, [12] to come across, [13] to hike, to butt in, [14] to back pedal, to get solid with, to hospitalize, [15] to hooverize, to propaganda, [16] to trustify, to feature, to insurge, to haze, to reminisce, to camouflage, to play for a sucker, and so on almost ad infinitum. And with them, a large number of highly American nouns, chiefly compounds, all pressing upward for recognition: tin-Lizzie, brain-storm, come-down, pin-head, trustification, pork-barrel, buck-private, dough-boy, cow-country. And adjectives: jitney, bush (for rural), balled-up, [17] dolled-up, phoney, pussy-footed, tax-paid. [18] And picturesque phrases: dollars to doughnuts, on the job, that gets me, one best bet. And back-formations: ad, movie, photo. And various substitutions and Americanized inflections: over for more than, gotten for got in the present perfect, [19] rile for roil, bust for burst. This last, in truth, has come into a dignity that even grammarians will soon hesitate to question. Who, in America, would dare to speak of bursting a broncho, or of a trustburster? [20]

Turn to any issue of the Congressional Record and you will find examples of American quite as startling as those I have exhumed—and some a good deal more startling. I open the file for 1919 at random, and at once discover “they had put it on the market in a condition in which it could be drank as a beverage.” [21] A moment later I find, from the same lips, “The evidence disclosed that Jacobs had drank 28 bottles of lemon extract.” A few pages further on, and I come to “It will not take but a few minutes to dispose of it.” [22] I take up another volume and find the following curious letter written by a Senator and inserted in the Record at his request:

Hon. Edgar E. Clark,

Chairman Interstate Commerce Commission,
Washington, D. C.

My dear Mr. Chairman: It has been brought to my attention by many people in Georgia and those whom I see here that the present high passenger and freight rates are doing more to decrease the amount of income received by the railroads than if a lower rate was in effect, which would cause more freight to move and more people to travel. In other words, the railroads are not carrying an average maximum of freight and passengers since the increase in rates. Of course, the commission doubtless has figures on this question which throw more light than I can by general observations.

It is needless for me to point out to you and the commission that the railroad situation is a problem which has not been solved to any great degree by the transportation act of 1920. The thing which I am greatly interested in is the matter of freight and passenger rates to be placed within reach of the average person, and at the same time give the railroads a reasonable income for their investment. Both the public and the roads deserve an honest living, but I fear that both are now suffering. Because of high freight rates there are products in my State which are now being shipped in such small quantities in comparison with production and demand.

I hope that an adjustment can soon be made which will bring down the rates, and I would thank you to let me have any information on the matter at your convenience which may have been gathered or published by the commission.

With high esteem, I am,

Very sincerely yours,
WM. J. HARRIS[23]

I leave the analysis of the American political style here displayed to grammarians. They will find plenty of further clinical material in the speeches of Mr. Harding—the one-he combination in the first sentence of his inaugural address, illy in the fourth sentence of his first message to Congress, and many other choice specimens in his subsequent state papers. Nor are politicians the only Americans who practise the flouting of the purists. In a serious book on literature by a former editor of the Atlantic Monthly, [24] edited by a committee of Yale professors and published by the university press, I find the one-he combination in full flower, and in a book of criticism by Francis Hackett, of the New Republic, I find pin-head used quite innocently and to do him proud topping it. [25] Hackett is relatively conservative. The late Horace Traubel, disciple of Whitman, went much further. All his life he battled valiantly for the use of dont (without the apostrophe) with plural subjects!

Notes[edit]

  1. An interesting note on this characteristic is in College Words and Phrases, by Eugene H. Babbitt, Dialect Notes, vol. ii, pt. i, p. 11.
  2. America’s Coming of Age; p. 15.
  3. Art. The English Language in America, Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. iv, p. 570.
  4. March 26, 1918, pp. 4376--7.
  5. Jan. 14, 1918, p. 903.
  6. It is used again by Mr. Walsh, Congressional Record, May 16, 1921, p. 1468, col. 2.
  7. Mr. Campbell, of Kansas, in the House, Jan. 19, 1918, p. 1134.
  8. Mr. Hamlin, of Missouri, in the House, Jan. 19, 1918, p. 1154.
  9. Mr. Kirby, of Arkansas, in the Senate, Jan. 24, 1918, p. 1291; Mr. Lewis, of Illinois, in the Senate, June 6, 1918, p. 8024.
  10. Mr. Weeks, of Massachusetts, in the Senate, Jan. 17, 1918, p. 988.
  11. Mr. Smith, of South Carolina, in the Senate, Jan. 17, 1918, p. 991.
  12. Mr. Borland, of Missouri, in the House, Jan. 29, 1918, p. 1501.
  13. May 4, 1917, p. 1853.
  14. Mr. Snyder, of New York, Dec. 11, 1917.
  15. Senator Walsh, of Massachusetts, May 27, 1921, p. 1835.
  16. Used in the form of propagandaed by Mr. Bland, of Indiana, in the House, May 16, 1921, p. 1481, col. 1.
  17. Balled-up and its verb, to ball up, were once improper, no doubt on account of the slang significance of ball, but of late they have made steady progress toward polite acceptance.
  18. After the passage of the first War Revenue Act cigar-boxes began to bear this inscription: “The contents of this box have been taxed paid as cigars of Class B as indicated by the Internal Revenue stamp affixed.” Even tax-paid, which was later substituted, is obviously better than this clumsy double inflection.
  19. Mr. Bankhead, of Alabama, in the Senate, May 14, 1918, p. 6995.
  20. Bust seems to be driving out burst completely when used figuratively. Even in a literal sense it creeps into more or less respectable usage. Thus I find “a busted tire” in a speech by Gen. Sherwood, of Ohio, in the House, Jan. 24, 1918. The familiar American derivative, buster, as in Buster Brown, is unknown to the English.
  21. Mr. Tincher, of Kansas, in the House, July 19, 1919, p. 3009.
  22. Mr. Blanton, of Texas, in the House, Aug. 12, 1919, p. 4057.
  23. Of Georgia. Congressional Record, Feb. 21, 1921, p. 3755.
  24. The American Spirit in Literature, by Bliss Perry; New Haven, 1918, p. 117. “If one habitually prints the words, … one may do it because he is a Carlyle or an Emerson, but the chances are that he is neither.”
  25. The Invisible Censor; New York, 1921, pp. 6 and 60 respectively. All by her lonesome is in Horizons; New York, 1918, by the same author, p. 53.