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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 in Newspapers and Novels

By Adams Sherman Hill (1833–1910)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1833. Died there, 1910. Our English. 1889.]

IN both novels and newspapers, precision in language and nice distinctions in thought are rare. Superlatives abound. There is little gradation, little light and shade, little of the delicate discrimination, the patient search for truth, and the conscientious effort to express truth exactly, which characterize the work of a master….

Newspapers and novels alike keep “pet words”—words which, like other pets, are often in the way, often fill places that belong to their betters. A good speech is termed “breezy” or “neat”; a good style “crisp” or “incisive”; an “utterance” or a comely countenance, “clear-cut” or “clean-cut.” Bad features are “accentuated” by sickness. Lectures are “punctuated” with applause. A clergyman “performs” at a funeral; a musician “officiates” or “presides” at the piano-forte. Many things, from noses to tendencies, are “pronounced”; many things, from a popular novel to a popular nostrum, are “unique,” and one journal calls a thing “one of the most unique”; many things, from a circus to a book, have an “advent.” Questions are “pivotal,” achievements “colossal” or “monumental,” books “epoch-making.” Every week something is “inaugurated” or “initiated,” and somebody or something is “in touch with” somebody or something else. We are often asked to “await developments.” A few years ago newspapers were talking of A and B. “and others of the same ilk.” A word just now in vogue is “weird.” We read not only of the “weird” beauty of Keats, but also of the “weirdest” misconstructions of facts, or misstatements of principles. “Factor” and “feature” appear in the oddest company, and “environment” has become a weariness to the spirit.

Some novels and most newspapers are prompt to adopt the slang of the day, whatever its source. We read, for example, of schemes for “raking in the dimes.” One poetical paragraph ends, “It pulls one up dreadfully in one’s reverie to hear,” etc. Newspapers “take stock in” a senator, and “get to the bottom fact” of a discussion. The hero of one novel is “padded to the nines”; the heroine of another has a brow, eyes, and face that are all “strung up to the concert-pitch.” The journalist’s candidate and the novelist’s hero alike “put in an appearance,” and “pan out well.”

The disposition to obscure the meaning by technical expressions is not unknown in newspapers, but it shows itself chiefly in novels. Even in “The Heart of Midlothian” we are told that “the acid fermentation” of a dispute was “at once neutralized by the powerful alkali implied in the word secret.” Even George Eliot, in her description of Gwendolen at the beginning of “Daniel Deronda,” uses “dynamic” in a way which called forth much criticism when the book was published. A later novelist talks of “neuralgia of the emotions”; another of the “effect of the meerschaum’s subtle influence upon certain groups of ganglionic nerve-cells deep in his cerebrum.” Another calls the hero “one of the coefficients of the age”; and still another remarks that, “as men gravitate towards their leading grievance, he went off at a tangent.” We read of fancy’s taking “a tangential flight”; of the “inspiration that was to coördinate conflicting data”; of a man’s “undergoing molecular moral disintegration”; of life as “being a function of two variables, money and fashion”; and of death as a “common and relentless factor, getting, as time went on, increasing value in the complicated equation of being.”

One set of faults seems to spring from the belief on the part of some journalists and novelists, and of young writers who have caught the malady from them, that there are not enough words in the English language to supply their needs, and that therefore, it is necessary to coin just a few more, or at least to take them from the mint of some other writer of the day. Hence, new forms for old words, and new formations from old words. One journal tells its readers that “‘mentality,’ though not in the dictionaries, is a good English word.” Another says: “‘Christmassing’; we ought to have such a word.” The hero of one novel is engaged in “battle-axing” difficulties; the heroine of another has a terrible “disappoint.” A traveller “gondoles” in Amsterdam, “hotelizes” in London, and is “recepted” and “dined” on his return to New York. A popular writer talks of rural mechanics too idle to “mechanize.” “Burglarize” is a newspaper word; “burgled” has been borrowed for fiction from “The Pirates of Penzance.” We read of sounds hollow and “echoey”; of “mayoral” qualities; of “faddists” (people with fads); of a bow which “grotesqued” a compliment: of an “aborigine” (apparently the singular of aborigines); of “caddesses” and “flirtees”; of the “genius of swellness”; of little fellows who “cheek” bigger ones; of men whose good looks do not atone for the “lackness” of their characters, and of desires which are “wide-horizoned.” It would be easy to extend this list, if either my readers or I had the appetite to go through what a recent writer terms “a menu bristling with word-coinage.” “There’s nae living,” as Meg Dods, in “St. Ronan’s Well,” says—“there’s nae living for new words in this new world neither, and that is another vex to auld folks as me.”

Another characteristic of both newspapers and novels comes sometimes from the ambition to command language that moves in the highest circles, and sometimes from the determination to be funny. I refer, of course, to the practice of using the longest and most high-sounding words and expressions—words which no one would think of using in conversation or in familiar correspondence. “Scribes” of this class, as they call themselves, “savor” their wine instead of tasting it, “locate” men and women instead of placing them, “imbibe” or “perform the rites of Bacchus,” instead of drinking. In the morning they “unclose” the eyelids, and “perform the usual operation of a diligent friction of the organs of vision”; in the evening they occupy “curule chairs” until it is time for them to “withdraw to their apartments.” Their spectacles are “lenses”; their burglar “reckons up the harvest of his hands”; their facts are “proven,” their streets “paven” or “semi-paven”; the people who dine at their houses are “commensals,” and those who ride in their cabs are “incumbents.” With them snow becomes “white crystals” or “fluffed ermine purity,” rain “an effusion of water,” crape “sable insignia of death,” potatoes and bread “staple edibles,” a dressing-case “travelling arrangements”; “sales-ladies” wait upon “gilded youth”; names are “retired” from visiting-cards; seats are “resumed”; souls are “perused”; prices are “altitudinous”; a politician who happens to be in town blossoms into a “visiting statesman”; an author “obligates” instead of binding himself; a visitor “refreshes his olfactory organ” with a pinch of snuff; a fortune quickly made is said to be “as stupendously large as phenomenally swift won.” The last citation, which is from a prominent journalist, is perhaps no worse in its way than “potential liquid refreshment,” an expression used by Lord Beaconsfield and copied many times since; than a later novelist’s remark that “the footfalls of a little black mare annotated the silence of the place,” while “an isolated stellulated light illumined the snow”; or than a clever woman’s designation of veteran soldiers as “mutilated pages of history.” Perhaps, however, the palm may be carried off by the novelist who speaks of “the impression she gave from her little slit-like tacit sources”—that is, apparently, her eyes.

In this last characteristic, novels have, perhaps, taken the lead. Instances of it in its serious form are to be found even in Scott, when he is in what he himself calls his “big bow-wow” mood; as, “The creak of the screw-nails presently announced that the lid of the last mansion of mortality was in the act of being secured above its tenant”; “My blood throbbed to my feverish apprehension, in pulsations which resembled the deep and regular strokes of a distant fulling-mill, and tingled in my veins like streams of liquid fire.” Instances of it in its humorous form are to be found even in Dickens, when the reporter in him gets the better of the humorist; as, “ligneous sharper,” i.e., Wegg with his wooden leg; he was “accelerated to rest with a poker”; “The celebration is a breakfast, because a dinner on the desired scale of sumptuosity cannot be achieved within less limits than those of the non-existent palatial residence of which so many people are madly envious.”

Word-pictures, so-called, sometimes hang on newspaper columns; and they abound in recent novels. One author declares that “God’s gold” was in the heroine’s hair, for “it was shot through with sunset spikes of yellow light.” Another says of the heroine that “the sunlight made a rush at her rich chestnut hair,” and affirms that she had “white teeth showing like pearls dropped in a rose, and a white throat in a foam of creamy laces.” Another says that “the moon searched out the deep-red lines” in the heroine’s hair, and that her lips had “musical curves.” We read of “sultry eyes flashing with the vistas of victory”; of “the amber and crimson lustres of joy”; of a sun “resting on the hill like a drop of blood on an eyelid”; of a head “with one little round spot on the top reminding one of what a bird’s-eye view might show of Drummond Lake in the Dismal Swamp”; of a landscape which is “a perfect symphony in “brown”; of a woman who is “a ravishing symphony in white, pale green, and gold”; of another who “clings to the fringes of night”; of another whose “small hand, which seemed to blush at its own naked beauties, supported her head, embedded in the volumes of her hair, like the fairest alabaster set in the deepest ebony”; and of another whose “soft, impotent defiance flew like an angry bird, and was transfixed on the still penetrating gaze of his eyes.”

Such are some of the varieties of bad English to be found in newspapers and novels, bad English to which we are exposed, and by which our own English will be injured unless we guard it with the utmost care. For the sake of our English, if for no other reason, we should all try to like something better than reading of this class, and should persist in the effort until we succeed.