America To-Day, Observations and Reflections/The American Language

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THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE

I

Nothing short of an imperative sense of duty could tempt me to set forth on that most perilous emprise, a discussion of the American language. The path is beset with man-traps and spring-guns. Not all the serious causes of dissension between England and America have begotten half the bad blood that has been engendered by trumpery questions of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. I cannot hope to escape giving offence, probably on both sides; but if I can induce one or two people on either side to think twice before they scoff once, I shall not have written in vain.

In the way of scoffing, we English have doubtless (and inevitably) been the worst offenders. We have habitually used "Americanism" as a term of reproach, implying, if not saying in so many words, that America was the great source of pollution, and of nothing but pollution, to the otherwise limpid current of our speech. Dean Alford wrote offensively to this effect; Archbishop Trench, on the other hand, discussed the relations between the English of America and the English of England with courtesy and good sense. (See English Past and Present, ninth edition, pp. 63, 215.) He protested against certain transatlantic neologisms, including in his list that excellent old word "to berate," and a word so useful and so eminently consonant with the spirit of the language as "to belittle"; but, whether wise or unwise, his protest was at least civil. Other writers, both in books and periodicals, have been apt to take their tone from the Dean rather than from the Archbishop. It may even be said that the instinct of the majority of Englishmen, which finds heedless expression in the newspapers and common talk, is to regard Americanisms as necessarily vulgar, and (conversely) vulgarisms as probably American. If challenged and brought to book, they can generally realise the narrowness and injustice of this way of thinking; yet they relapse into it next moment. It is time we should be on our guard against so insidious a habit. Its reduction to absurdity may be found (alackaday!) in Fors Clavigera for June 1, 1874. With shame and sorrow I transcribe the passage, for the time has not yet come for it to be forgotten. If it were merely the aberration of an individual, however distinguished, it were better kept out of sight, out of mind; but it is, I repeat, the reckless exaggeration of a not altogether uncommon habit of thought:

 

"England taught the Americans all they have of speech or thought, hitherto. What thoughts they have not learned from England are foolish thoughts; what words they have not learned from England, unseemly words; the vile among them not being able even to be humorous parrots, but only obscene mocking-birds."

 

Can we wonder that Americans have retorted with some asperity upon criticisms in which any approach to such insolent insularism is even remotely or inadvertently implied?

The American retort, however, has not always been judicious or dignified. It has too often consisted in the mere pitting of one linguistic prejudice against another. It is very easy to prove that there are bad speakers and bad writers in both countries, and the attempt to determine which country has the more numerous and the greater sinners is exceedingly unprofitable. The "You're another" style of argument has been far too prevalent. Here we have Mr. Gilbert M. Tucker, for instance, in a book entitled Our Common Speech (1895) implying, if he does not absolutely assert (p. 173), that a "boldness of innovation" in matters linguistic, amounting to "absolute licentiousness," is more characteristic of England than of America. The suggestion leaves my British withers entirely unwrung, for I approve of bold innovation in language, trusting to the impermanence of the unfit to counteract the effects of licentiousness. If I could believe that we British were the bolder innovators, I should admit it without blenching; but observation and probability seem to me to point with one accord in the opposite direction. New words are begotten by new conditions of life; and as American life is far more fertile of new conditions than ours, the tendency towards neologism cannot but be stronger in America than in England. America has enormously enriched the language, not only with new words, but (since the American mind is, on the whole, quicker and wittier than the English) with apt and luminous colloquial metaphors; and I know not why Mr. Tucker should disclaim the credit.

He next sets forth to show how recent English writers are corrupting the language; and, in doing so, he falls into some curious errors. Dickens was boldly innovating when he made Silas Wegg say, "Mr. Boffin, I never bargain"—"haggle," it would seem, is the proper word. But if Mr. Tucker will look into the matter, he will find it extremely probable that this was the original sense of the word "bargain," and quite certain that it was a very early sense; for instance—

So worthless peasants bargain for their wives,
As market-men for oxen, sheep, or horse.

1 Henry VI., V. v. 53.

And, in any case, is it possible to set up such a distinction between "bargaining" and "haggling" as to be worth an international wrangle? "Starved" for frozen is to Mr. Tucker an innovation; it was used both by Shakespeare and Milton. "Assist" in the sense of to "be present at" is an "absurd" innovation; it was used by Gibbon and by Prescott, a "tolerably good authority," says Mr. Tucker himself, "in the use of English." Miss Yonge is taken to task for saying, "Theodora flung away and was rushing off"; but Milton says, "And crop-full out of doors he flings." Charles Reade "is guilty of such phrases as 'Wardlaw whipped before him,' 'Ransome whipped before it'"; but the Princess in Love's Labours Lost is guilty of saying, "Whip to our tents, as roes run o'er the land," and the word occurs in the same sense in Ben Jonson and Steele, to search no further. The simple fact is that Mr. Tucker has not happened to note the intransitive sense of "to fling" and "to whip," which has been current in the best authors for centuries. He is very severe on the English habit of "inserting utterly superfluous words," instancing from Lord Beaconsfield, "He was by way of intimating that he was engaged on a great work," and, from a magazine, "She was by way of painting the shrimp girl." Now, this is not an elegant expression, and for my part I should be at some pains to avoid it; but it has a perfectly distinct meaning, and is not a mere redundancy. If Mr. Tucker supposes that "She was by way of painting the shrimp girl" means exactly the same as "She was painting the shrimp girl," he misses one of the fine shades of the English language. Similarly, his remark on the "peculiar misuse of the affix ever, as in saying 'Whatever are you doing?'" stands in need of reconsideration. It is wrong, certainly, to treat ever as an affix, and to mistake the first two words of 'What ever are you doing?'" for the one word "whatever"; but to suppose the "ever" meaningless and inert is to overlook a clearly marked and very useful gradation of emphasis. "What are you doing?" expresses simple curiosity; "What ever are you doing?" expresses surprise; "What the devil are you doing?" expresses anger—we need not run farther up the scale. Nor is this use of "ever" an innovation, licentious or otherwise. "Ever" has for centuries been employed as an intensive particle after the interrogative pronouns and adverbs how, who, what, where, why. For instance, in The World of Wonders (1607), "I shall desire him to consider how ever it was possible to get an answer from these priests."

One of the most remarkable paragraphs in Mr. Tucker's book is that in which he proves "the greater permanence and steadiness of our American speech as compared with that of the mother country" by going through Halliwell's Dictionary of Archaisms and Provincialisms and picking out 76 words which Halliwell regards as obsolete, but which in America are all alive and kicking. (The vulgarism is mine, not Mr. Tucker's.) Now as a matter of fact not one of these words is really obsolete in England, and most of them are in everyday use; for instance, adze, affectation, agape, to age, air (appearance), appellant, apple-pie order, baker's dozen, bamboozle, bay window, between whiles, bicker, blanch, to brain, burly, catcall, clodhopper, clutch, coddle, copious, cosy, counterfeit money, crazy (dilapidated), crone, crook, croon, cross-grained, cross-patch, cross purposes, cuddle, to cuff, cleft, din, earnest money, egg on, greenhorn, jack-of-all-trades, loophole, settled, ornate, to quail, ragamuffin, riff-raff, rigmarole, scant, seedy, out of sorts, stale, tardy, trash. How Halliwell ever came to class these words as archaic I cannot imagine; but I submit that any one who sets forth to write about the English of England ought to have sufficient acquaintance with the language to check and reject Halliwell's amazing classification. Does Mr. Tucker so despise British English as never to read an English book? How else is one to account for his imagining for a moment that clodhopper, clutch, copious, cosy, cross-grained, greenhorn, and rigmarole are obsolete in England?

Far be it from me to assert that Mr. Tucker makes no good points in his catalogue of English solecisms. I merely hint that this game of pot and kettle is neither dignified nor profitable; that purism is almost always over-hasty, and apt to ignore both the history and the psychology of language; and, finally, that nothing is gained by introducing acerbity (though I have admitted the frequent provocation) into a discussion which a little exercise of temper should render no less agreeable than instructive to both parties. "The speech of the lower orders of our people," says Mr. Tucker, ". . . differs from what all admit to be standard correctness in a much smaller degree[1] than we have every reason to believe to be the case in England, our enemies themselves being judges." Now I protest I am not Mr. Tucker's enemy, and I know of no reason why he should be mine. I cannot share the withering contempt with which he regards the extension of the term "traffic" from barter to movement to and fro, as in a street or on a railway; but if he prefers another word (he does not suggest one, by the way) for the traffic on Broadway or on the New York Central, I shall not esteem him one whit the less.[2] Even when he tells me that "bumper" is the English term for the American "buffer" (on a railway carriage) I do not feel my blood boil. A very slight elevation of the eyebrows expresses all the emotion of which I am conscious. So long as he does not insist on my saying a "bumper state" when I mean a "buffer state," I see no reason whatever for any rupture of that sympathy which ought to subsist between two men who take a common interest and pride in the subject of his treatise—Our Common Speech.

 

II

It is not to be expected that an extremely English intonation should ever be agreeable to Americans, or an extremely American intonation to Englishmen. We ourselves laugh at a "haw-haw" intonation in English; why, then, should we forbid Americans to do so? If "an accent like a banjo" is recognised as undesirable in America (and assuredly it is), there is no reason why we in England should pretend to admire it. But a vulgar or affected intonation is clearly distinguishable, and ought to be clearly distinguished, from a national habit in the pronunciation of a given letter, or accentuation of a particular word, or class of words. For instance, take the pronounciation of the indefinite article. The American habitually says "ā man" (a as in "game"); the Englishman, unless he wants to be emphatic, says, "ă man."[3] Neither is right, neither wrong; it is purely a matter of habit; and to consider either habit ridiculous is merely to exhibit that childishness or provincialism of mind which is moved to laughter by whatever is unfamiliar. Again, when I first read the works of the sagacious Mr. Dooley, I thought it a curiously far-fetched idea on the part of that philosopher to talk of Admiral Dewey as his "Cousin George," and assert that "Dewey" and "Dooley" were practically the same name. I had not then noticed that the American pronunciation of "Dewey" is "Dooey," and that the liquid "yoo" is very seldom heard in America. In the course of the five minutes I spent in the Supreme Court at Washington, I heard the Chief Justice of the United States make this one remark: "That, sir, is not constitootional." To our ears this "oo" has an old-fashioned ring, like that of the "ee" in "obleeged"; but to call it wrong is absurd, and to find it ridiculous is provincial. Very possibly it can be proved that had Shakespeare used the word at all, he would have said "constitootional"; but that would make the "oo" neither better nor worse in my eyes. There always have been, and always will be, changing fashions in pronunciation; and the Americans have as good a right to their fashion as we to ours. Fifty years hence, perhaps, our grandsons will be saying "constitootional, "and theirs " constityootional." I confess that, in point of abstract sonority, I prefer the "yoo" to the dry "oo"; but that, again, is a pure matter of taste. If Americans choose to say,

"From morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dooey eve,
A summer's day,"

I am perfectly willing that they should do so, reserving always my own right to say "dyooey." It would not at all surprise me to learn that Milton said "dooey"; but neither would it lead me to alter the pronunciation which, as one of the present generation of Englishmen, I have learnt to prefer.

It is said that when Mr. Daly's company returned to New York, after a long visit to England, they pronounced "lieutenant" according to the English fashion, "leftenant," but were called to order by an outburst of protest. Though, for my own part, I say "leftenant," I heartily sympathise with the protesters. "Leftenant," though a corruption of respectable antiquity, is a corruption none the less, and since it has died out in America, it would be mere snobbery to reintroduce it.

So, too, with questions of accentuation. We say "prim′arily" and "tem′porarily"; most (or at any rate many) Americans say "primar′ily" and "temporar′ily." Here there is no question of right or wrong, refinement or vulgarity. The one accentuation is as good as the other. It may be argued, indeed, that our accentuation throws into relief the root, the idea, the soul of the word, not the mere grammatical suffix, the "limbs and outward flourishes"; but on the other hand, it may be contended with equal truth that the American accentuation has the Latin precedent in its favour. Neither advantage is conclusive; neither, indeed, is, strictly speaking, relevant; for Englishmen do not make a principle of accentuating the root rather than the prefix or suffix, else we should say "inund′ation," "reson′ant," "admir′able "; and the Americans do not make a principle of following the Latin emphasis, else they would say "orat′or" and "gratui′tous," and the recognised pronunciation of "theatre" would be "theayter." It is argued that there is a general tendency among educated Englishmen to throw the accent as far back as possible; that, for instance, the educated speaker says "in′teresting," the uneducated, "interest′ing." True; but until this tendency can be proved to possess some inherent advantage, there is not a shadow of reason why Americans should be reproached or ridiculed for obeying their own tendency rather than ours. The English tendency is a matter of comparatively recent fashion. "Con′template," said Samuel Rogers, "is bad enough, but bal′cony makes me sick." Both forms have maintained themselves up to the present; but will they for long? I think one may already trace a reaction against the universal throwing backward of the accent. I myself say "per′emptory" and "ex′emplary"; but it would take very little encouragement to make me say "peremp′tory" and "exemp′lary," which seem to me much more expressive words. There is surely no doubt that, in accenting a prefix rather than the root of the word, we lose a certain amount of force. "Con′template," for instance, is not nearly so strong a word as "contem′plate." We says an "il′lustrated" book or the "Il′lustrated London News" because we do not require any particular force in the epithet; but when the sense demands a word with colour and emotion in it, we say the "illus′trious" statesman, the "illus′trious" poet, throwing into relief the essential element in the word, the "lustre." What a paltry word would "tri′umphant" be in comparison with "trium′phant"! But the larger our list of examples, the more capricious does our accentuation seem, the more evidently subject to mere accidents of fashion. There is scarcely a trace of consistent or rational principle in the matter. To make a merit of one practice, and find in the other a subject for contemptuous criticism, is simply childish.

Mere slovenliness of pronunciation is a totally different matter. For instance, the use of "most" for "almost" is distinctly, if not a vulgarism, at least a colloquialism. It may be of ancient origin; it may have crossed in the Mayflower for aught I know; but the overwhelming preponderance of ancient and modern usage is certainly in favour of prefixing the "al," and there is a clear advantage in having a special word for this special idea. If American writers tried to make "most" supplant "almost" in the literary language, we should have a right to remonstrate; the two forms would fight it out, and the fittest would survive. But as a matter of fact I am not aware that any one has attempted to introduce "most," in this sense, into literature. It is perfectly recognised as a colloquialism, and as such it keeps its place. Again, such pronunciations as "mebbe" for "maybe" and "I'd ruther" or "I druther" for "I'd rather" are obvious slovenlinesses. No American would defend them as being correct, any more than an Englishman would defend "I dunno" for "I don't know" or "atome" for "at home." If an actor, for instance, were to say,

"I druther be a dog and bay the moon
Than such a Roman,"

American and English critics alike could not but protest against the solecism; for in poetry absolute precision of utterance is clearly indispensable. But in everyday speech a certain amount of colloquialism is inevitable. Let him whose own enunciation is chemically free from localism or slovenliness cast the first stone even at "mebbe" and "ruther."

A curious American colloquialism, of which I certainly cannot see the advantage, is the substitution of "yep" or "yup" for "yes," and of "nope" for "no." No doubt we have in England the coster's "yuss"; but one hears even educated Americans now and then using "yep," or some other corruption of "yes," scarcely to be indicated by the ordinary alphabetical symbols. It seems to me a pity.

Much more respectable in point of antiquity is the habit which obtains to some extent, even among educated Americans, of saying "somewheres" and "a long ways." Here the "s" is an old case-ending, an adverbial genitive. "He goes out nights," too, on which Mr. Andrew Lang is so severe, is a form as old as the language and older. I turn to Dr. Leon Kellner's Historical English Syntax (p. 119) and find that the Gothic for "at night" was "nahts," and that the form (with its correlative "days") runs through old Norse, old Saxon, old English, and middle English: for instance, "dages endi nahtes" (Hêliand), "dæges and nihtes' (Beowulf), "dæies and nihtes" (Layamon), all meaning "by day and by night." In all, or almost all, words ending in "ward," the genitive inflexion, according to modern English practice, can either be retained or dropped at will. It is a mere pedantry to declare "toward" better English than "towards," "upward" than "upwards." Thus we see that here again there is neither logical principle nor consistent practice to be invoked. At the same time, as "somewheres" has become irremediably a vulgarism in England, it would, I think, be a graceful concession on the part of educated Americans to drop the "s." After all, "somewhere" does not jar in America, and "somewheres" very distinctly jars in England.

An insidious laxity of pronunciation (rather than of grammar), which is taking great hold in America, is the total omission of the "had" or "have" in such phrases as "you'd better," "we've got to." Mr. Howells's Willis Campbell, a witty and cultivated Bostonian, says, in The Albany Depôt, "I guess we better get out of here"; Mr. Ade's Artie, a Chicago clerk, says, "I got a boost in my pay," meaning "I have got": the locution is very common indeed. It is no more defensible than "swelp me" for "so help me." It arises from sheer laziness, unwillingness to face the infinitesimal difficulty of pronouncing "d" and "b" together. As a colloquialism it is all very well; but I regard it with a certain alarm, for where all trace of a word disappears, people are apt to forget the logical and grammatical necessity for it. Though contracted to its last letter, a word still asserts its existence; but when even the last letter has vanished its state is parlous indeed.

An Anglicism much ridiculed in America is "different to." As a Scotchman I dislike it, and would neither use nor defend it. At the same time I cannot but hint to American critics that the use of a particular preposition in a particular context is largely a matter of convention; that when we learn a new language we have simply to get up by rote the conventions that obtain in this regard, reason being little or no guide to us; and that within the same language the conventions are always changing. You may easily nonplus even a good grammarian by asking him suddenly, "What preposition should you use in such-and-such a context?" just as you may puzzle a man by asking him to spell a word which, if he wrote it without thinking about it, would present no difficulty to him. Some very good American writers always say, "at the North" and "at the South," where an Englishman would certainly say "in." "At," to my mind, suggests a very narrow point of space. I should say "at" a village, but "in" a city "at Concord," but "in Boston." I recognise, however, that this is a mere matter of convention, and do not dream of condemning "at the North" as an error. In the same way I would claim tolerance, though certainly not approval, for "different to."

As a general rule, I think, educated Americans are more apt to err on the side of purism than of laxity. I have before me, for example, a long list of rules and warnings for American writers, issued by the New York Press, many of which are very much to the point, while others seem to me captious and pedantic. For instance, a woman is not to "marry" a man; she is "married to" him; "the clergyman or magistrate marries both." The grammatical suitor, then, when the awful moment arrives, must not say to the blushing fair, "Will you marry me?" but "Will you be married to me?" Again, you not only must not split infinitives, but you must not separate an auxiliary from its verb; you must say "probably will be," not "will probably be." This is English by the card indeed.

I will not waste space upon discussing the different fashions of spelling in England and America. The rage excited in otherwise rational human beings by the dropping of the "u" in "favor," or the final "me" in "program," is one of the strangest of psychological phenomena. The baselessness of the reasonings used to bolster up the British clinging to superfluous letters is very ably shown in Professor Matthews's Americanisms and Briticisms. Let me only put in a plea for the retention of such abnormal spellings as serve to distinguish two words of the same sound. For instance, it seems to me useful that we should write "story" for a tale and "storey" for a floor, and in the plural "stories" and "storeys."

 

III

Passing now from questions of pronunciation and grammar to questions of vocabulary, I can only express my sense of the deep indebtedness of the English language, both literary and colloquial, to America for the old words she has kept alive and the new words and phrases she has invented. It is a sheer pedantry—nay, a misconception of the laws which govern language as a living organism—to despise pithy and apt colloquialisms, and even slang. In order to remain healthy and vigorous, a literary language must be rooted in the soil of a copious vernacular, from which it can extract and assimilate, by a chemistry peculiar to itself, whatever nourishment it requires. It must keep in touch with life in the broadest acceptation of the word; and life at certain levels, obeying a psychological law which must simply be accepted as one of the conditions of the problem, will always express itself in dialect, provincialism, slang.

America doubles and trebles the number of points at which the English language comes in touch with nature and life, and is therefore a great source of strength and vitality. The literary language, to be sure, rejects a great deal more than it absorbs; and even in the vernacular, words and expressions are always dying out and being replaced by others which are somehow better adapted to the changing conditions. But though an expression has not, in the long run, proved itself fitted to survive, it does not follow that it has not done good service in its time. Certain it is that the common speech of the Anglo-Saxon race throughout the world is exceedingly supple, well nourished, and rich in forcible and graphic idioms; and a great part of this wealth it owes to America. Let the purists who sneer at "Americanisms" think for one moment how much poorer the English language would be to-day if North America had become a French or Spanish instead of an English continent.

I am far from advocating a breaking down of the barrier between literary and vernacular speech. It should be a porous, a permeable bulwark, allowing of free filtration; but it should be none the less distinct and clearly recognised. Nor do I recommend an indiscriminate hospitality to all the linguistic inspirations of the American fancy. All I say is that neologisms should be judged on their merits, and not rejected with contumely for no better reason than that they are new and (presumably) American. Take, for instance, the word "scientist." It was originally suggested by Whewell in 1840; but it first came into common use in America, and was received in England at the point of the bayonet. Huxley and other "scientists" disowned it, and only a few years ago the Daily News denounced it as "an ignoble Americanism," a "cheap and vulgar product of transatlantic slang." But "scientist" is undoubtedly holding its own, and will soon be as generally accepted as "retrograde," "reciprocal," "spurious," and "strenuous," against which Ben Jonson, in his day, so—strenuously protested. It holds its own because it is felt to be a necessity. No one who is in the habit of writing will pretend that it is always possible to fall back upon the cumbrous phrase "man of science."[4] On the other hand, the purist objection to "scientist"—that it is a Latin word with a Greek termination, and that it implies the existence of a non-existent verb—may be urged with equal force against such harmless necessary words as deist, aurist, dentist, florist, jurist, oculist, somnambulist, ventriloquist, and—purist. Much more valid objection might be made to the word "scientific," which is not hybrid indeed, but is, if strictly examined, illogical and even nonsensical. The fact is that three-fourths of the English language would crumble away before a purist analysis, and we should be left without words to express the commonest and most necessary ideas.

Contrast with the case of "scientist" a vulgarism such as the use of "transpire" in the sense of "happen." I do not quote it as an Americanism; it is probably of English origin; it occurs, I regret to note, in Dickens. I select it merely as an example of a demonstrably vicious locution which ought indubitably to be banished from the language. It has its origin in sheer blundering. Some one, at some time, has come upon the phrase "such-and-such a thing has transpired"—that is, leaked out, become known—and, ignorantly mistaking its meaning, has noted and employed the word as a finer-sounding synonym for "occurred" or "happened." The blunder has been passed on from one penny-a-liner to another, until at last it has crept into the pages of writers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who ought to know better. If it served any purpose, expressed any shade of meaning, it might be tolerated; but being at once a useless pedantry and an obvious blunder, it deserves no quarter.

My point, then, is that "scientist" ought to live on its merits, "transpire" to die on its demerits. With regard to every neologism we ought first to inquire, "Does it fill a gap? Does it serve a purpose?" And if that question be answered in the affirmative, we may next consider whether it is formed on a reasonably good analogy and in consonance with the general spirit of the language. "Truthful," for example, is said to be an Americanism, and at one time gave offence on that account. It is not only a vast improvement on the stilted "veracious," but one of the prettiest and most thoroughly English words in the dictionary.

The above-quoted writer in the New York Press is a purist in vocabulary, no less than in grammar. He will not allow us to be "unwell," we must always be "ill"; an inhuman imperative. Why should we sacrifice this clear and useful gradation: unwell, very unwell, ill, very ill? On "sick" he does not deliver judgment. The American use of the word is ancient and respectable, but the English limitation of its meaning seems to me convenient, seeing we have the general terms "unwell" and "ill" ready to hand. Again, the New York Press authority follows Freeman in wishing to eject the word "ovation" from the language; surely a ridiculous literalism. It is true we do not sacrifice a sheep at a modern "ovation," but neither (for example) do we judge by the flight of birds when we declare the circumstances to be "auspicious" for such and such an undertaking. Again, we are never to "retire" for the night, but always to "go to bed." If, as is commonly alleged, Americans say "retire" because they consider it indelicate to go to bed, the feeling and the expression are alike foolish. But I do not believe that either is at all common in America. On the other hand, one may retire for the night without going to bed. In the case of ladies especially, the interval between retiring and going to bed is reputed to be far from inconsiderable. If, then, one really means "retired for the night" and does not definitely mean "went to bed," I see no crime in employing the expression that conveys one's exact meaning. Finally the New York Press will not let us use the word "commence"; we must always "begin." This is an excellent example of unreflecting or half-reflecting purism. "Commence" is a very old word; it is used by the best writers; it is easily pronounceable and not in the least grandiloquent; indeed it has precisely the length and cadence of its competitor. But somebody or other one day observed that it was Latin, whereas "begin" was Saxon; and since then there has been a systematic attempt, in several quarters, to hound the innocent and useful synonym out of the language. Whence comes this rage for impoverishing our tongue! The more synonyms we possess the better. Wherefore (by the way) I for my part should not be too rigorous in excluding a forcible Americanism merely because it happens to duplicate some word or expression already current in England. The rich language is that which possesses not only the necessaries of life but also an abundance of superfluities.

 

IV

Let me note a few of the Americanisms, good, bad, and indifferent, which specially struck me, whether in talk or in books, during my recent visit to the United States. I call them Americanisms without inquiring into their history. Some of them may be of English origin; but for practical purposes an Americanism may be taken to mean an expression commonly used in America and not commonly used in England.

I had not been three hours on American soil before I heard a charming young lady remark, "Oh, it was bully!" I gathered that this expression is considered admissible, in the conversation of grown-up people, only in and about New York. I often heard it there, and never anywhere else. A very distinguished officer, who served as a volunteer in Cuba, was asked to state his impressions of war. "War," he said, "is a terrible thing. You can't exaggerate its horrors. When you sit in your tent the night before the battle, and think of home and your wife and children, you feel pretty sick and downhearted. But," he added, "next day, when you're in it, oh, it is bully!"

The general use of picturesque metaphor is of course a striking feature in American conversation. Many of these expressions have taken firm root in England, such as "to have no use for" a man, or "to take no stock in" a theory. But fresh inventions crop up on every hand in America. For instance, where an English theatrical manager would say, "We must get this play well talked about and paragraphed in advance," an American manager puts the whole thing much more briefly and forcibly in the phrase, "We don't want this piece to come in on rubbers." Metaphor apart, many Americans have a gift of fantastic extravagance of phrase which often produces an irresistible effect. A gentleman in high political office had one day to receive a deputation with whose objects he had no sympathy. He listened for some time to the spokesman of the party, and then, at a pause, broke in with the remark: "Gentlemen, you need proceed no further. I am not an entirely dishevelled jackass!" One would give something for a snapshot photograph of the faces of that deputation.

Small differences of expression (other than those with which every one is familiar—such as "elevator," "baggage," "depôt," &c.)—strike one in daily life. The American for "To let" is "For rent"; a "thing one would wish to have expressed otherwise" is, more briefly, "a bad break"; instead of "He married money" an American will say "He married rich"; but this, I take it, is a vulgarism—as, indeed, is the English expression. I find that in the modern American novel, setting forth the sayings and doings of more or less educated people, there are apt to be, on an average, about half a dozen words and phrases at which the English reader stumbles for a moment. Mr. Howells, a master of English, may be taken as a faithful reporter of the colloquial speech of Boston and New York. In one of his comediettas, he makes Willis Campbell say, "Let me turn out my sister's cup" (pour her a cup of tea). Mrs. Roberts, in another of these delightful little pieces, says, "I'll smash off a note," where an English Mrs. Roberts would say "dash off"; and where an English Mrs. Roberts would ring the bell, her American namesake "touches the annunciator." It is commonly believed in England that there is no such thing as a "servant" in America, but only "hired girls" and "helps." This is certainly not so in New York. I once "rang up" a friend's house by telephone, and, on asking who was speaking to me, received the answer, in a feminine voice, "I'm one of Mr. So-and-so's servants."

The heroine of The Story of a Play says to her husband, "Are you still thinking of our scrap of this morning?" "Scrap," in the sense of "quarrel," is one of the few exceedingly common American expressions which have as yet taken little hold in England.[5] Admiral Dewey, for instance, is admired as a "scrapper," or, as we should phrase it, a fighting Admiral. Mr. Henry Fuller, of Chicago, in his powerful novel, The Cave Dwellers, uses a still less elegant synonym for "scrap"—he talks of a "connubial spat." In the same book I note the phrases: "He teetered back and forth on his toes," "He was a stocky young man," "One of his brief noonings," "That's right, Claudia—score the profession." "Score," as used in America, does not mean "score off," but rather, I take it, "attack and leave your mark upon." It is very common in this sense. For instance, I note among the headlines of a New York paper, "Mr. So-and-so scores Yellow Journalism." Talking of Yellow Journalism, by the way, the expressions "a beat" and "a scoop" for what we in England call an "exclusive" item of news, were unknown to me until I went to America. I was a little bewildered, too, when I was told of a family which "lived on air-tights." Their diet consisted of canned (or, as we should say, tinned) provisions.

The most popular slang expression of the day is "to rubberneck," or, more concisely, "to rubber." Its primary meaning is to crane the neck in curiosity, to pry round the corner, as it were.[6] But it has numerous and surprising extensions of meaning. It appears to be one of the laws of slang that when a phrase strikes the popular fancy, it is pressed into service on every possible or impossible occasion. Another favourite expression is "That cuts no ice with me."[7] I was unable to ascertain either its origin or its precise signification. On the other hand, a piece of slang which supplies a "felt want," and will one day, I believe, pass into the literary language, is "the limit" in the sense of "le comble." A theatrical poster, widely displayed in New York while I was there, bore this alluring inscription:

 

"THE LIMIT AT LAST!
'THE MORMON SENATOR AND THE MERMAID.'
JAGS OF JOY FOR JADED JOHNNIES."

 

A "jag," be it known, means primarily a load, secondarily a "load " or "package " of alcohol.

Collectors of slang will find many priceless gems in two recent books which I commend to their notice: Chimmie Fadden, by Mr. E. W. Townsend, and Artie, by Mr. George Ade. Chimmie Fadden gives us the dialect of the New York Bowery Boy, or "tough," in which the most notable feature is the substitution either of "d" or "t" for "th." Is this, I wonder, a spontaneous corruption, or is it due to German and Yiddish influence? When Chimmie wants to express his admiration for a young lady, he says: "Well, say, she's a torrowbred, an' dat goes." When the young lady's father comes to thank him for championing her, this is how Chimmie describes the visit: "Den he gives me a song an' dance about me being a brave young man for tumping de mug what insulted his daughter." "Mug," the Bowery term for "fellow" or "man," in Chicago finds its equivalent in "guy." Mr. Ade's Artie is a Chicago clerk, and his dialect is of the most delectable. In comparison with him, Mr. Dooley is a well of English undefiled. Here again we find traces of the influence of polyglot immigration. "Kopecks" for "money" evidently comes from the Russian Jew; "girlerino," as a term of endearment, from the "Dago" of the sunny south; and "spiel," meaning practically anything you please, from the Fatherland. When Artie goes to a wedding, he records that "there was a long spiel by the high guy in the pulpit." After describing the embarrassments of a country cousin in the city, Artie proceeds, "Down at the farm, he was the wise guy and I was the soft mark." "Mark" in the sense of "butt" or "gull" is one of the commonest of slang words. When Artie has cut out all rivals in the good graces of his Mamie, he puts it thus, "There ain't nobody else in the one-two-sevens. They ain't even in the 'also rans.'" When they have a lovers' quarrel he remarks, "Well, I s'pose the other boy's fillin' all my dates." When he is asked whether Mamie cycles, he replies, "Does she? She's a scorchalorum!" When he disapproves of another young gentleman, this is how "he puts him next" to the fact, as he himself would say—

 

"You're nothin' but a two-spot. You're the smallest thing in the deck. . . . Chee-e-ese it! You can't do nothin' like that to me and then come around afterwards and jolly me. Not in a million! I tell you you're a two-spot, and if you come into the same part o' the town with me I'll change your face. There's only one way to get back at you people. . . . If he don't keep off o' my route, there'll be people walkin' slow behind him one o' these days. . . . But this same two-spot's got a sister that can have my seat in the car any time she comes in."

 

I plead guilty to an unholy relish for Chimmie's and Artie's racy metaphors from the music-hall, the poker-table, and the "grip-car."[8] But it is to be noted that both these profound students of slang, Mr. Townsend and Mr. Ade, like the creator of the delightful Dooley, express themselves in pure and excellent English the moment they drop the mask of their personage. This is very characteristic. Many educated Americans take great delight, and even pride, in keeping abreast of the daily developments of slang and patter; but this study does not in the least impair their sense for, or their command of, good English. The idea that the English language is degenerating in America is an absolutely groundless illusion. Take them all round, the newspapers of the leading American cities, in their editorial columns at any rate, are at least as well written as the newspapers of London; and in magazines and books the average level of literary accomplishment is certainly very high. There are bad and vulgar writers on both sides of the Atlantic; but until the beams are removed from our own eyes, we may safely trust the Americans to attend to the motes in theirs.

 

Postscript.—When this paper originally appeared, it formed the text for an editorial article in the Daily News, in which Mr. Andrew Lang's sign manual was not to be mistaken. Mr. Lang brought my somewhat desultory discussion very neatly to a point. He admitted that we habitually use "Americanism" as a term of reproach; "but," he asked, "who is reproached? Not the American (who may do as he pleases) but the English writer, who, in serious work, introduces, needlessly, an American phrase into our literature. We say 'needlessly' when our language already possesses a consecrated equivalent for the word or idiom."

In the first place, one has to remark that many English critics are far from accepting Mr. Lang's principle that "the American may do as he pleases, of course." Mr. Lang himself scarcely acts up to it in this very article. And, for my part, I think the principle a false one. I think the English language has been entrusted to the care of all of us, English no less than Americans, Americans no less than English; and if I find an American writer debasing it in an essential point, as opposed to a point of mere local predilection, I assert my right to remonstrate with him, just as I admit his right, under similar circumstances, to remonstrate with me.

It is not here, however, that I join issue with Mr. Lang: it is on his theory that an English writer necessarily does wrong who unnecessarily employs an Americanism. This is a question of great practical moment, and I am glad that Mr. Lang has stated it in this definite form. My view is perhaps sufficiently indicated above, but I take the opportunity of re-asserting it with all deliberation. I believe that, as a matter both of literary and of social policy, we ought to encourage the free infiltration of graphic and racy Americanisms into our vernacular, and of vigorous and useful Americanisms (even if not absolutely necessary) into our literary language. Where is the harm in duplicating terms, if only the duplicates be in themselves good terms? For instance, take the word "fall." Mr. Brander Matthews writes: "An American with a sense of the poetic cannot but prefer to the imported word 'autumn' the native and more logical word 'fall,' which the British have strangely suffered to drop into disuse." Well, "autumn" was a sufficiently early importation. "Our ancestors," wrote Lowell (quoted by Mr. Matthews in the same article), "unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare's"; and in Shakespeare's (and Chaucer's) English they brought over "autumn." The word has inherent beauty as well as splendid poetical associations. I doubt whether even Shakespeare could have made out of "fall" so beautiful a line as

 

"The teeming autumn, big with rich increase."

 

I doubt whether Keats, had he written an Ode to the Fall, would have produced quite such a miraculous poem as that which begins

 

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

 

Still, Mr. Matthews is quite right in saying that "fall" has a poetic value, a suggestion, an atmosphere of its own. I wonder, with him, why we dropped it, and I see no smallest reason why we should not recover it. The British literary patriotism which makes a point of never saying "fall" seems to me just as mistaken as the American literary patriotism (if such there be) that makes a merit of never saying "autumn." By insisting on such localisms (for the exclusive preference for either term is nothing more) we might, in process of time, bring about a serious fissure in the language. Of course there is no reason why Mr. Lang should force himself to use a word that is uncongenial to him; but if "fall" is congenial to me, I think I ought to be allowed to use it "without fear and without reproach."

Take, now, a colloquialism. How formal and colourless is the English phrase "I have enjoyed myself" beside the American "I have had a good time"! Each has its uses, no doubt. I am far from suggesting that the one should drive out the other. It is precisely the advantage of our linguistic position that it so enormously enlarges the stock of semi-synonyms at our disposal. To reject a forcible Americanism merely because we could, at a pinch, get on without it, is—Mr. Lang will understand the forcible Scotticism—to "sin our mercies."

Mr. Lang is under a certain illusion, I think, in his belief that in hardening our hearts against Americanisms we should raise no barrier between ourselves and the classical authors of America. He says: "Let us remark that they [Americanisms] do not occur in Hawthorne, Poe, Lowell, Longfellow, Prescott, and Emerson, except when these writers are consciously reproducing conversations in dialect." He made the same remark on a previous occasion; when his opponent (see the Academy, March 30, 1895) opened a volume of Hawthorne and a volume of Emerson, and in five minutes found in Hawthorne "He had named his two children, one for Her Majesty and one for Prince Albert," and in Emerson "Nature tells every secret once. Yes; but in man she tells it all the time." The latter phrase is one which Mr. Lang explicitly puts under his ban. He is an ingenious and admirable translator: I wish he would translate Emerson's sentence from American into English, without loss of brevity, directness, and simple Saxon strength. For my part, I can think of nothing better than " In man she is always telling it," which strikes me as a feeble makeshift. "All the time," I suggest, is precisely one of the phrases we should accept with gratitude—if, indeed, it be not already naturalised.

Mr. Lang is peculiarly unfortunate in calling Oliver Wendell Holmes to witness against his particular and pet aversion " I belong here " or " That does not belong there." Writing of " needless Americanisms," he says, "The use of 'belong' as a new auxiliary verb [an odd classification, by the way] is an example of what we mean. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a stern opponent of such neologisms." I turn to the Oxford Dictionary, and the one quotation I find under " belong " in this sense, is—"'You belong with the last set, and got accidentally shuffled with the others.'—O. W. Holmes, 'Elsie Venner?'" But this, Mr. Lang may say, is in dialogue. Yes, but not in dialect. I am very much mistaken if the locution does not occur elsewhere in Holmes. If Mr. Lang, in a leisure hour, were to undertake a search for it, he might incidentally find cause to modify his view as to the sternness of the Autocrat's anti-Americanism.

Let me not be thought to underrate the services which, by sound precept and invaluable example, Mr. Lang has rendered to all of us who use the English tongue. Conservatism and liberalism are as inevitable, nay, indispensable, in the world of words as in the world of deeds; and I trust Mr Lang will not set down my liberalism as anarchism. He and I, in this little discussion, are simply playing our allotted parts. I believe (and Mr. Lang would probably admit with a shrug) that the forces of the future are on my side. May I recall to him that charming anecdote of Thackeray and Viscount Monck, when they were rival candidates for the representation of Oxford in Parliament? They met in the street one day, and exchanged a few words. On parting, Thackeray shook hands with his opponent and said, " Good-bye; and may the best man win!" "I hope not," replied Viscount Monck, with a bow. A hundred years hence, if some English-speaker of the future should chance to disinter this book from the recesses of the British Museum or the Library of Congress, and should read these final paragraphs, I doubt not he will say for the immortal soul of the language even anarchism cannot affect—"the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong."

Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & Co
London & Edinburgh

 
  1. "What great city of this country," Mr. Tucker inquires, "has developed, or is likely to develop, any peculiar class of errors at all comparable in importance to those of the Cockney speech of London?" The answer is pat: New York and Chicago—unless Mr. Townsend's Chimmie Fadden and Mr. Ade's Artie are sheer linguistic libels.
  2. It must be very painful to Mr. Tucker to find Shakespeare talking of the "two hours' traffic of our stage." He was a hardened offender, was Shakespeare, against Mr. Tucker's ideal of one single, inelastic, cast-iron signification for every word in the language.
  3. "Surely, on Mr. Archer's own showing," writes Mr. A. B. Walkley, "the Englishman has the advantage here, for 'when he wants to be emphatic' he can be, whereas the American cannot." This is a misapprehension on Mr. Walkley's part. The American ā can be spoken with or without emphasis, just as the speaker pleases. It is because we are accustomed always to associate this particular sonority with emphasis that even when it is spoken without emphasis, we imagine it to be emphatic.
  4. Mr. Andrew Lang says: "Plenty of other words are formed on the same analogy: the Greeks, in the verb 'to Medize,' set the example. But we happen to have no use for 'scientist.'" It is not quite clear whether Mr. Lang employs "have no use" in the American sense, expressing sheer dislike, or in the literal and English sense. In the latter case I can only say that he has been fortunate in never coming across conjunctures in which "man of science" came in awkwardly and inelegantly.
  5. Mr. Walkley reports that he has heard a Cockney policeman, speaking of a street row, say, "There's been a little scrappin'."
  6. "About a dozen ringers followed us into the church and stood around rubberin'." "Gettin' next to the new kinds o' saddles and rubber-neckin' to read the names on the tyres."—Artie. A writer in the New York Sun says: "I first heard the term 'rubbernecks' in Arizona, about four years ago, applied to the throngs of onlookers in the gambling-houses, who strove to get a better view of the games in progress by stretching or bending their necks."
  7. "We didn't break into sassiety notes, but that cuts no ice in our set."—Artie.
  8. Extract from a letter to the Chicago Evening Post: "I do not at all subscribe to the sneering remark of a talented author of my acquaintance, to the effect that there were not enough cultured people in Chicago to fill a grip-car. I asked him if he meant a grip-car and a trailer, and he said, 'No; just one car.' And I told him right there that I could not agree with him."