Page:The American Language.djvu/61

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lickety–split, or such substantives as bull–frog, hog–wallow and hoe–cake; but under their eyes there arose a contumacious proletariat which was quite capable of the business, and very eager for it. In Boston, so early as 1628, there was a definite class of blackguard roisterers, chiefly made up of sailors and artisans; in Virginia, nearly a decade earlier, John Pory, secretary to Governor Yeardley, lamented that "in these five moneths of my continuance here there have come at one time or another eleven sails of ships into this river, but fraighted more with ignorance than with any other marchansize." In particular, the generation born in the New World was uncouth and iconoclastic; [1] the only world it knew was a rough world, and the virtues that environment engendered were not those of niceness, but those of enterprise and resourcefulness.

Upon men of this sort fell the task of bringing the wilderness to the ax and the plow, and with it went the task of inventing a vocabulary for the special needs of the great adventure. Out of their loutish ingenuity came a great number of picturesque names for natural objects, chiefly boldly descriptive compounds: bull–frog, canvas–back, lightning–bug, mud–hen, cat–bird, razor–back, garter–snake, ground–hog and so on. And out of an inventiveness somewhat more urbane came such coinages as live–oak, potato–bug, turkey–gobbler, poke–weed, copper–head, eel–grass, reed–bird, egg–plant, blue–grass, pea–nut, pitch–pine, cling–stone (peach), moccasin–snake, June–bug and butter–nut. Live–oak appears in a document of 1610; bull–frog was familiar to Beverley in 1705; so was James–Town weed (later reduced to Jimson weed, as the English hurtleberry or whortleberry was reduced to huckleberry}. These early Americans were not botanists. They were often ignorant of the names of the plants they encountered, even when those plants already had English names, and so they exercised their fancy upon new ones. So arose Johnny–jump–up for the Viola tricolor, and basswood for the common European linden or lime–tree (Tilia), and locust for the Robinia pseudacacia and its allies. The Jimson weed itself was anything but a

  1. Cf. The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. i, pp. 14 and 22.