The American Language/Chapter 33

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The American Language by H. L. Mencken
The Advance of American Spelling

The logical superiority of American spelling is well exhibited by its persistent advance in the face of all this hostility at home and abroad. The English objection to our simplifications, as Brander Matthews once pointed out, is not wholly or even chiefly etymological; its roots lie, to borrow James Russell Lowell’s phrase, in an esthetic hatred burning “with as fierce a flame as ever did theological hatred.” There is something inordinately offensive to English purists in the very thought of taking lessons from this side of the water, particularly in the mother-tongue. The opposition, transcending the academic, takes on the character of the patriotic. “Any American,” said Matthews in 1892, “who chances to note the force and the fervor and the frequency of the objurgations against American spelling in the columns of the Saturday Review, for example, and of the Athenœum, may find himself wondering as to the date of the papal bull which declared the infallibility of contemporary British orthography, and as to the place where the council of the Church was held at which it was made an article of faith.” [1] But that, as I say, was in 1892. Since then there has been an enormous change, and though the editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so recently as 1914, pointedly refrained from listing forms that would “strike every reader as Americanisms,” they surrendered in a wholesale manner to forms quite as thoroughly American in origin, among them, ax, alarm, tire, asphalt, program, toilet, balk, wagon, vial, inquire, advertisement, pygmy and czar. The monumental New English Dictionary upon which the Concise Oxford is chiefly based shows many silent concessions, and quite as many open yieldings—for example, in the case of ax, which is admitted to be “better than axe on every ground.” Moreover, practical English lexicographers tend to march ahead of it, outstripping the liberalism of its editor, Sir James A. H. Murray. In 1914, for example, Sir James was still protesting against dropping the first e from judgement, a characteristic Americanism, but during the same year the Concise Oxford put judgment ahead of judgement, and two years earlier the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary, edited by Horace Hart, [2] had dropped judgement altogether. Hart is Controller of the Oxford University Press, and the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary is an authority accepted by nearly all of the great English book publishers and newspapers. Its last edition shows a great many American spellings. For example, it recommends the use of jail and jailer in place of the English gaol and gaoler, says that ax is better than axe, drops the final e from asphalte and forme, changes the y to i in cyder, cypher and syren and advocates the same change in tyre, drops the redundant t from nett, changes burthen to burden, spells wagon with one g, prefers fuse to fuze, and takes the e out of storey. “Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford,” also edited by Hart (with the advice of Sir James Murray and Dr. Henry Bradley), is another very influential English authority. [3] It gives its imprimatur to bark (a ship), cipher, siren, jail, story, tire and wagon, and even advocates kilogram and omelet. Cassell’s New English Dictionary [4] goes quite as far. Like Hart and the Oxford it clings to the -our and -re endings and to the diphthongs in such words as œsthete and anœsthesia, but it prefers jail to gaol, net to nett, story to storey, asphalt to asphalte, tire to tyre, wagon to waggon, inquiry to enquiry, vial to phial, advertise to advertize, baritone to barytone, and pygmy to pigmy.

There is, however, much confusion among these authorities; the English are still unable to agree as to which American spellings they will adopt and which they will keep under the ban for a while longer. The Concise Oxford prefers bark to barque and the Poet Laureate [5] adopts it boldly, but Cassell still clings to barque. Cassell favors baritone; the Oxford declares for barytone. The Oxford is for czar; Cassell is for tsar. The Oxford admits program; Cassell sticks to programme. Both have abandoned enquire for inquire, but they remain faithful to encumbrance, endorse and enclose, though they list indorsation and the Oxford also gives indorsee. Hart agrees with them. [6] Both have abandoned œther for ether, but they cling to œsthetic and œtiology. Neither gives up plough, cheque, connexion, mould, pease, mollusc or kerb, and Cassell even adorns the last-named with an astounding compound credited to “American slang,” to wit, kerb-stone broker. Both favor such forms as surprise and advertisement, and yet I find surprized, advertizement and to advertize in the prospectus of English, a magazine founded to further “the romantic and patriotic study of English,” and advertize and advertizing are in the first number. [7] All the English authorities that I have consulted prefer the -re [8] and -our endings; nevertheless the London Nation adopted the -or ending in 1919, [9] and George Bernard Shaw had adopted it years before. The British Board of Trade, in attempting to fix the spelling of various scientific terms, has often come to grief. Thus it detaches the final -me from gramme in such compounds as kilogram and milligram, but insists upon gramme when the word stands alone. In American usage gram is now common, and scarcely challenged. A number of spellings, nearly all American, are trembling on the brink of acceptance in both countries. Among them is rime (for rhyme). This spelling was correct in England until about 1530, but its recent revival was of American origin. It is accepted by the Concise Oxford and by the editors of the Cambridge History of English Literature, but not by Cassell. It seldom appears in an English journal. The same may be said of grewsome. It has got a footing in both countries, but the weight of English opinion is still against it. Develop (instead of develope) has gone further in both countries. So has engulf, for engulph.


Notes[edit]

  1. Americanisms and Briticisms; New York, 1892, p. 37.
  2. Authors’ & Printers’ Dictionary … an attempt to codify the best typographical practices of the present day, by F. Howard Collins; 4th ed., revised by Horace Hart; London, 1912.
  3. Horace Hart: Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford: 23rd ed.; London, 1914. I am informed by Mr. Humphrey Davy, of the London Times, that, with one or two minor exceptions, the Times observes the rules laid down in this book.
  4. Edited by Dr. Ernest A. Baker; London, 1919.
  5. English Homophones; Oxford, 1919, p. 7.
  6. Even worse inconsistencies are often encountered. Thus enquiry appears on p. 3 of the Dardanelles Commission’s First Report; London, 1917; but inquiring is on p. 1.
  7. London, March, 1919.
  8. Caliber is now the official spelling of the United States Army. Cf. Description and Rules for the Management of the U. S. Rifle, Caliber 30, Model of 1903; Washington, 1915. But calibre is still official in England.
  9. Cf. English, May-June, 1919, p. 88.