Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  English and New-English, Eighty Years Ago

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

English and New-English, Eighty Years Ago

By Royall Tyler (1757–1826)

[The Yankey in London. 1809.]

MY EXCELLENT FRIEND: There are certain scoriæ floating on the English language, too light and heterogeneous to incorporate with the mass, but which appear and remain until skimmed off by the hand of fashion. These cant words, or quaint expressions, are not peculiar to the present day. They were noticed and ridiculed by Shakespeare, and even foisted into the plays of Ben Jonson. Sir Richard Steele and Dr. Arbuthnot mention “bite” and “bamboozle” in their time. The cant of later times has been exhibited in certain unmeaning words, and quaint phrases, introduced without the least regard to application or propriety, as expletives in discourse. Some years since “all the rage” was the cant, and an Englishman asserted that universal philanthropy and peace were “all the rage.” To this succeeded “quiz” and “quizzical;” every man of common-sense was a quiz, and every blockhead quizzical. To these succeeded “bore,” everything animate, and even inanimate, was a “bore,” a “horrid bore!” I am not certain that I give you the correct order of succession, for, indeed, I am not ambitious of the correctness in the genealogy of nonsense. The cant expressions now in vogue are, “I owe you one,” and “that’s a good one;” and if, in the warmth of friendly fervor, you should communicate a pathetic tale to an English friend—tell him, with tears in your eyes, of the loss of an affectionate wife, or blooming babes—of all bereaved “at one fell swoop,” you might expect to have your deadly griefs consoled with, “well, that’s a good one.” But, besides these evanescent vulgarisms of fashionable colloquy, there are a number of words now familiar, not merely in transient converse, but even in English fine writing, which are of vulgar origin and illegitimate descent, which disgust an admirer of the writers of their Augustan age, and degrade their finest modern compositions by a grotesque air of pert vivacity. Among these is the adjective clever; a word not derived from those pure and rich sources which have given all that is valuable to the English language—a word not used by any English prose writer of eminence until the reign of George the Third, nor ever introduced into a serious poem until adopted by Cowper—a word which, if we may judge of adjectives as we do of men, by their associates, shows the baseness of its origin by the company it keeps, being generally coupled with fellow, a term I conceive of no respect except in courts and colleges. Englishmen, from the peer to the peasant, cannot converse ten minutes without introducing this pert adjunct. The English do not, however, use it in the same sense we do in New England, where we apply it to personal grace, and call a trim, well-built young man, clever—which signification is sanctioned by Bailey’s and the elder English Dictionaries; nor do they use it in our secondary sense, when applying it to qualities of the mind; we intend by it “good-humored,” they use it to signify skilful, adroit; and the man who breaks a dwelling-house, a prison, or a neck adroitly, is “clever.” I heard a reverend prebend, in company with several clergymen of the Episcopal Church (after having magnified the genius of the prelate), pronounce the Archbishop of Canterbury a very “clever fellow.” A native of England may be distinguished as readily by the frequent use of the adjective “clever” as the native of New England by that of the verb guess. It was not until I had been some months in London that I discovered how often I exposed myself to ridicule by the repeated use of this verb. My new friend B——, of the Inner Temple, who has a profound knowledge of every subject but the law, as he is one of those assiduous benchers described by Pope,
  • “Who pens a sonnet when he should engross,”
  • pointed out to me this “provincialism,” as he styled it. “What is the reason,” he inquired, “that you New Englandmen are always guessing?” I replied, coolly, “because we imagine it makes us appear very clever fellows.” Now, here, to my astonishment, B—— was in the same predicament as myself; although he had repeated “clever” and “clever fellow” perhaps twenty times in this interview, he had not noticed it: he was a gentleman of too refined a taste to advocate this Alsatia term, but would hardly be persuaded of its exuberant use until I had drawn his attention to it in conversation with several of his countrymen—and was at length obliged to send him half a sheet of extracts, in prose and verse, to convince him of its absurd recurrence in the modern English fine writing. But B—— is really a “clever fellow,” learned and candid, terms seldom united by a London copula, and we agreed to assist each other in divesting our style of these silly colloquialisms. Soon after, B—— said to me, with earnestness, “now you have read Boswell, you must acknowledge Dr. Johnson to have been a very clever fellow.” “I guess he was,” I replied.

    If, however, I should be requested to note some shibboleth to distinguish an Old from a New Englandman it would not be like the Israelites in pronunciation, nor yet in expression or accent—not in words but in mode. An Englishman puts and answers a question directly, a New Englandman puts his questions circuitously and always answers a question by asking another. I am indebted, in some measure, to B—— for this distinction, who, in early life spent a winter in Hartford, Connecticut, but which your own observations, even in Boston, will abundantly confirm. When my friend, the Templar, first noticed this local peculiarity, I was inclined to dispute its universality among us; B—— offered to risk the decision of our dispute upon the reply of the first New Englandman we should chance to accost—and, as an Englishman who is opposed to you in argument always has a bet or a blow at your service, he offered a small wager that he would propose a direct question to him, and the Yankee should reply by asking another. We were strolling in St. James’s Park, and who should approach, very opportunely, but Charles ——, of Salem. After the first salutations, B—— said, “pray Mr. ——, what time of the day is it by your watch?” “Why I can’t say, what o’clock is it by yours?” This was followed by a hearty laugh: but when the affair was explained to Charles, he insisted it was merely fortuitous, and might not happen again in a thousand instances, and, finally, when B——, in the pride of victory, offered to double the bet, and repeat the experiment, he took him up. B—— said, “select your man—but here comes your countryman, Dr. ——; you will allow him to be as correct a speaker as any in New England; all shall be fair; I will put the question in such a way as shall preclude the possibility of his being taken by surprise.” Charles acknowledged Dr. —— was the very man he would have selected. The doctor, by this time, joined our party. “Pray, doctor, (said B—— very deliberately), what is the reason you New Englandmen always reply to a question by asking another?” “Why, is that the case, sir?”

    As you are a very “clever fellow” and I “guess” you are wearied by this time, I will conclude my letter, lest you should not be in a humor to say “that’s a good one.”