Home  »  The American Language  »  2. Briticisms in the United States

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

V. International Exchanges

2. Briticisms in the United States

NOR did the American troops pick up many Briticisms during their year and a half in France, save temporarily. In an exhaustive and valuable vocabulary of soldiers’ slang compiled by E. A. Hecker and Edmund Wilson, Jr., I can find few words or phrases that seem to be certainly English in origin. To carry on retains in American its old American meaning of to raise a pother, despite its widespread use among the English in the sense of to be (in American) on the job. Even to wangle, perhaps the most popular of all the new verbs brought out of the war by the English, has never got a foothold in the United States, and would be unintelligible to nine Americans out of ten.

It is on far higher and less earthly planes that Briticisms make their entry into American, and are esteemed and cultivated. Because the United States has failed to develop a native aristocracy of settled position and authority, there is still an almost universal tendency here, among folk of social pretensions, to defer to English usage and opinion. The English court, in fact, still remains the only fount of honor that such persons know, and its valuations of both men and customs take precedence of all native valuations. I can’t imagine any fashionable American who would not be glad to accept even so curious an English aristocrat as Lord Reading or Lord Birkenhead at his face value, and to put him at table above a United States Senator. This emulation is visible in all the minutiæ of social intercourse in America—in the hours chosen for meals, in the style of personal correspondence, in wedding customs, in the ceremonials incidental to entertaining, and in countless other directions. It even extends to the use of the language. We have seen how, even so early as Webster’s time, the intransigent Loyalists of what Schele de Vere calls “Boston and the Boston dependencies” imitated the latest English fashions in pronunciation, and how this imitation continues to our own day. New York is but little behind, and with the affectation of what is regarded as English pronunciation there goes a constant borrowing of new English words and phrases, particularly of the sort currently heard in the West End of London. The small stores in the vicinity of Fifth avenue, for some years past, have all been turning themselves into shops. Shoes for the persons who shop in that region are no longer shoes, but boots, and they are sold by bootmakers in bootshops. One encounters, too, in Fifth avenue and the streets adjacent, a multitude of gift-shops, tea-shops, haberdashery-shops, book-shops, luggage-shops, hat-shops and print-shops. Every apartment-house in New York has a trades-men’s entrance. To Let signs have become almost as common, at least in the East, as For Rent signs. Railway has begun to displace railroad. Charwoman has been adopted all over the country, and we have begun to forget our native modification of char, to wit, chore. Long ago drawing-room was borrowed by the haut ton to take the place of parlor, and hired girls began to be maids. Whip for driver, stick for cane, top-hat for high-hat, and to tub for to bathe came in long ago, and guard has been making a struggle against conductor in New York for years. In August, 1917, signs appeared in the New York surface cars in which the conductors were referred to as guards; all of them are guards on the elevated lines and in the subways save the forward men, who remain conductors officially. In Charles street in Baltimore, some time ago, the proprietor of a fashionable stationery store directed me, not to the elevator but to the lift. During the war even the government seemed inclined to substitute the English hoarding for the American billboard. In the Federal Reserve Act it actually borrowed the English governor to designate the head of a bank.

The influence of the stage is largely responsible for the introduction and propagation of such Briticisms. Of plays dealing with fashionable life, most of those seen in the United States are of English origin, and many of them are played by English companies. Thus the social aspirants of the towns become familiar with the standard English pronunciation of the moment and with the current English phrases. It was by this route, I suppose, that old top and its analogues got in. The American actors, having no court to imitate, content themselves by imitating their English colleagues. Thus an American of fashionable pretensions, say in Altoona, Pa., or Athens, Ga., shakes hands, eats soup, greets his friends, enters a drawing-room and pronounces the words path, secretary, melancholy and necessarily in a manner that is an imitation of some American actor’s imitation of an English actor’s imitation of what is done in Mayfair—in brief, an imitation in the fourth degree. No wonder it is sometimes rather crude. This crudity is especially visible in speech habits. The American actor does his best to imitate the pronunciation and intonation of the English, but inasmuch as his name, before he became Gerald Cecil, was probably Rudolph Goetz or Terence Googan, he frequently runs aground upon laryngeal impossibilities. Here we have an explanation of the awful fist that society folk in Des Moines and Little Rock make of pronouncing the test words in the authentic English manner. All such words are filtered through Gaelic or Teutonic or Semitic gullets before they reach the ultimate consumer.

The influence of the Protestant Episcopal Church is also to be taken into account. It was the center of Loyalism during the Revolution, and it has fostered a passionate and often excessive Anglomania ever since. In the larger American cities entrance into it is the aim of all social pushers—including, of late, even the Jews—and once they get in they adopt, in so far as they are able, the terminology of its clergy, whose eagerness to appear English is traditional. The fashionable preparatory schools for boys and finishing schools for girls, many of which are directly controlled by this sect, are also very active centers of Anglomania, and have firmly established such Briticisms as headmaster, varsity, chapel (for the service as well as the building), house-master, old boy, monitor, honors, prefect and form, at least in fashionable circles. The late Woodrow Wilson, during his term as president of Princeton, gave currency to various other English academic terms, including preceptor and quad, but the words died with his reforms. At such schools as Groton and Lawrenceville the classes are called forms, and elaborate efforts are made in other ways to imitate the speech of Eton and Harrow. Dr. J. Milnor Coit, while rector of the fashionable St. Paul’s School, at Concord, N. H., gave a great impetus to this imitation of English manners. Says a leading authority on American private schools: “Dr. Coit encouraged cricket rather than baseball. The English schoolroom nomenclature, too, was here introduced to the American boy. St. Paul’s still has forms, but the removes, evensong and matins, and even the cricket of Dr. Coit’s time are now forgotten. Most boys of the three upper forms have separate rooms. The younger boys have alcoves in the dormitories similar to the cubicles of many of the English public schools.”

Occasionally some uncompromising patriot raises his voice against such importations, but he seldom shows the vigorous indignation of the English purists. White, in 1870, warned Americans against the figurative use of nasty as a synonym for disagreeable. The use of the word was then relatively new in England, though, according to White, the Saturday Review and the Spectator had already succumbed. His objections to it were unavailing; nasty quickly got into American and has been there ever since. In 1883 Gilbert M. Tucker protested against good-form, traffic (in the sense of travel), to bargain and to tub as Briticisms that we might well do without, but all of them took root and are perfectly sound American today. The locutions that are more obviously merely fashionable slang have a harder time of it, and seldom gain lodgment. When certain advertisers in New York sought to appeal to snobs by using such Briticisms as swagger and topping in their advertisements, the town wits, led by the watchful Franklin P. Adams (though he serves the Tribune, which Clement K. Shorter once called “more English than we are English”), fell upon them, and quickly routed them. To the average American of the plain people, indeed, any word or phrase of an obviously English flavor appears to be subtly offensive. To call him old dear would be almost as hazardous as to call him Claude or Clarence. He associates all such terms, and the English broad a no less, with the grotesque Britons he sees in burlesque shows. Perhaps this feeling entered into the reluctance of the American soldier to borrow British war slang.

I incline to think that both the grand dialects of English would be the better for a somewhat freer interchange, and fully endorse the doctrine laid down by Prof. Gordon Hall Gerould, of Princeton, who argues that it would be a sensible thing for Americans to adopt the English lift and tram in place of the more cumbersome elevator and trolley-car, and that the English, in their turn, would find the communication of ideas easier if they borrowed some of our American neologisms. “Logophobia,” he says, “has usually been a sign, in men of our race, of a certain thinness of blood. The man of imagination and the man with something to say have never been afraid of words, even words that have rung strangely on the ear. It has been the finicking person, not very sure of himself, who has trod delicately between alternatives, and used the accepted and time-worn word in preference to the newer coinage, out of his abhorrence born of fear .… I do not wish to urge … the wiping out of those peculiarities of vocabulary by which one region of the English-speaking world is made to seem slightly exotic to the visitor from another. Without such differences of idiom, the common speech of the race would be the poorer, as the waters from many rivulets are needed to feed the river. Let him who says naturally a pail of water say so still, and him to whom a bucket is more familiar rejoice in his locution. Let my English friend call for his jug, while I demand my pitcher; for he will—if he be not afflicted with logophobia—enjoy what seems to him the fine archaic flavor of my word. What I would commend is a generous reciprocity in vocabulary, as between section and section, commonwealth and commonwealth, country and country. If it should become convenient for us Americans to use a word now peculiar to Great Britain, I hope we should not be so silly as to stop it at the tongue’s end out of national pride or chauvinistic delicacy. It is evident that any ‘American’ language which might be evolved by the sedulous fostering on our part of native idioms would still retain a good deal of the original English language. Why, then, should we shut ourselves off from the good things in words that have been invented or popularized in Great Britain since the Pilgrims sailed? And why, on the other hand, should the Englishman disdain the ingenious locutions that have come to light on this side the Atlantic?”

A correspondent makes the suggestion that such exchanges, if they were more numerous, would greatly enrich each language’s stock of fine distinctions. A loan-word, he says, does not usually completely displace the corresponding native word, but simply puts a new distinction beside it. Unquestionably, this often happens. Consider, for example, the case of shop. As it is now used in the American cities it affords a convenient means of distinguishing between a large store offering various lines of merchandise and a small establishment specializing in one line. The old-fashioned country store remains a store and so does the department-store. To call either a shop would seem absurd. Shop is applied exclusively to smaller establishments, and almost always in combination with some word designating the sort of stock they carry. Shop, indeed, has always been good American, though its current application is borrowed from England. We have used shop-worn, shoplifter, shopping, pawn-shop, shopper, shop-girl and to shop for years. In the same way the word penny continues to flourish among us, despite the fact that there has been no American coin of that name for more than 125 years. We have nickel-in-the-slot machines, but when they take a cent we call them penny-in-the-slot machines. We have penny-arcades and penny-whistles. We do not play cent-ante, but penny-ante. We still “turn an honest penny” and say “a penny for your thoughts.” The pound and the shilling became extinct legally a century ago, but the penny still binds us to the mother-tongue. But an American knows nothing of pence. To him two pennies are always pennies.

Exchanges in spelling, some of them very important, are discussed in Chapter VIII.