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

III. The Period of Growth

2. The Language in the Making

ALL this jingoistic bombast, however, was directed toward defending, not so much the national vernacular as the national belles lettres. True enough, an English attack upon a definite American locution always brought out certain critical minute-men, but in the main they were anything but hospitable to the racy neologisms that kept crowding up from below, and most of them were eager to be accepted as masters of orthodox English and very sensitive to the charge that their writing was bestrewn with Americanisms. A glance through the native criticism of the time will show how ardently even the most uncompromising patriots imitated the Johnsonian jargon then fashionable in England. Fowler and Griswold followed pantingly in the footsteps of Macaulay; their prose is extraordinarily self-conscious, and one searches it in vain for any concession to colloquialism. Poe, the master of them all, achieved a style so ornate that many an English leader-writer must have studied it with envy. A few bolder spirits, as we have seen, spoke out for national freedom in language as well as in letters—among them, Channing—but in the main the Brahmins of the time were conservatives in this department and it is difficult to imagine Emerson or Irving or Bryant sanctioning the innovations later adopted so easily by Howells. Lowell and Walt Whitman, in fact, were the first men of letters, properly so called, to give specific assent to the great changes that were firmly fixed in the national speech during the half century between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Lowell did so in his preface to the second series of “The Biglow Papers.” Whitman made his declaration in “An American Primer.” In discussing “Leaves of Grass,” he said: “I sometimes think that the entire book is only a language experiment—that it is an attempt to give the spirit, the body and the man, new words, new potentialities of speech—an American, a cosmopolitan (for the best of America is the best cosmopolitanism) range of self-expression.” And then: “The Americans are going to be the most fluent and melodious-voiced people in the world—and the most perfect users of words. The new world, the new times, the new people, the new vistas need a new tongue according—yes, what is more, they will have such a new tongue—will not be satisfied until it is evolved.” According to Louis Untermeyer, a diligent and enthusiastic Whitmanista, old Walt deserves to be called “the father of the American language.” He goes on:

  • This, in spite of its grandiloquent sound, is what he truly was. When the rest of literary America was still indulging in the polite language of pulpits and the lifeless rhetoric of its libraries, Whitman not only sensed the richness and vigor of the casual word, the colloquial phrase—he championed the vitality of slang, the freshness of our quickly assimilated jargons, the indigenous beauty of vulgarisms. He even predicted that no future native literature could exist that neglected this racy speech, that the vernacular of people as opposed to the language of literati would form the living accents of the best poets to come. One has only to observe the contemporary works of Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, James Oppenheim, Edgar Lee Masters, John Hall Wheelock, Vachel Lindsay and a dozen others to see how Whitman’s prophecy has been fulfilled.
  • Words, especially the neglected words regarded as too crude and literal for literature, fascinated Whitman. The idea of an enriched language was scarcely ever out of his mind.… This interest … grew to great proportions; it became almost an obsession.
  • Whitman himself spoke of “An American Primer” as “an attempt to describe the growth of an American English enjoying a distinct identity.” He proposed an American dictionary containing the actual everyday vocabulary of the people. To quote him again:

  • The Real Dictionary will give all words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any. The Real Grammar will be that which declares itself a nucleus of the spirit of the laws, with liberty to all to carry out the spirit of the laws; even by violating them, if necessary.
  • Many of the slang words are our best; slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, are powerful words.… Much of America is shown in these and in newspaper names, and in names of characteristic amusements and games.…
  • Our tongue is full of strong words, native or adopted, to express the blood-born passion of the race for rudeness and resistance, as against mere polish.… These words are alive and sinewy—they walk, look, step with an air of command.…
  • Ten thousand native idiomatic words are growing, or are already grown, out of which vast numbers could be used by American writers, with meaning and effect—words that would give that taste of identity and locality which is so dear in literature—words that would be welcomed by the nation, being of the national blood.
  • As everyone knows, Whitman delighted in filling his poetry and prose with such new words, among them, the verbs to promulge, to eclaircise, to diminute, to imperturbe, to effuse and to inure, the adjectives ostent and adamic, the adverb affetuoso, and the nouns camerado, romanza, deliveress, literatus, acceptress and partiolist. Many of his coinages were in Spanish metal; he believed that American should not be restricted to the materials of English. I have heard it argued that he introduced finale into everyday American; the evidence is dubious, but certainly the word is much oftener used in the United States than in England. Most of his coinages, alas, died with him, just as ridiculosity died with its inventor, Charles Sumner, who announced its invention to the Senate with great formality, and argued that it would be justified by the analogy of curiosity. But These States has survived.

    Meanwhile, though conservatism lingered on the planes above Whitman, there was a wild and lawless development of the language on the planes below him, among the unfettered democrats of his adoration, and in the end the words and phrases thus brought to birth forced themselves into recognition, and profited by the literary declaration of independence of their very opponents. “The jus et norma loquendi,” says W. R. Morfill, the English philologist, “do not depend upon scholars.” Particularly in a country where scholarship is still new and wholly cloistered, and the overwhelming majority of the people are engaged upon novel and highly exhilarating tasks, far away from schools and with a gigantic cockiness in their hearts. The remnants of the Puritan civilization had been wiped out by the rise of the proletariat under Jackson, and whatever was fine and sensitive in it had died with it. What remained of an urbane habit of mind and utterance began to be confined to the narrowing feudal areas of the south and to the still narrower refuge of the Boston Brahmins, now, for the first time, a definitely recognized caste of intelligentsia, self-charged with carrying the torch of culture through a new Dark Age. The typical American, in Paulding’s satirical phrase, became “a bundling, gouging, impious” fellow, without either “morals, literature, religion or refinement.” Next to the savage struggle for land and dollars, party politics was the chief concern of the people, and with the disappearance of the old leaders and the entrance of pushing upstarts from the backwoods, political controversy sank to an incredibly low level. Bartlett, in the introduction to the second edition of his Glossary, described the effect upon the language. First the enfranchised mob, whether in the city wards or along the western rivers, invented fantastic slang-words and turns of phrase; then they were “seized upon by stump-speakers at political meetings”; then they were heard in Congress; then they got into the newspapers; and finally they came into more or less good usage. Much contemporary evidence is to the same effect. Fowler, in listing “low expressions” in 1850, described them as “chiefly political.” “The vernacular tongue of the country,” said Daniel Webster, “has become greatly vitiated, depraved and corrupted by the style of the congressional debates.” Thornton, in the appendix to his Glossary, gives some astounding specimens of congressional oratory between the 20’s and 60’s, and many more will reward the explorer who braves the files of the Congressional Globe. This flood of racy and unprecedented words and phrases beat upon and finally penetrated the retreat of the literati, but the purity of speech cultivated there had little compensatory influence upon the vulgate. The newspaper was enthroned, and belles lettres were cultivated almost in private, and as a mystery. It is probable, indeed, that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” both published in the early 50’s, were the first contemporary native books, after Cooper’s day, that the American people, as a people, ever read. Nor did the pulpit, now fast falling from its old high estate, lift a corrective voice. On the contrary, it joined the crowd, and Bartlett denounced it specifically for its bad example, and cited, among its crimes against the language, such inventions as to doxologize and to funeralize. To these novelties, apparently without any thought of their uncouthness, Fowler added to missionate and consociational.

    As I say, the pressure from below broke down the defenses of the purists, and literally forced a new national idiom upon them. Pen in hand, they might still achieve laborious imitations of Johnson and Macaulay, but their mouths began to betray them. “When it comes to talking,” wrote Charles Astor Bristed for Englishmen in 1855, “the most refined and best educated American, who has habitually resided in his own country, the very man who would write, on some serious topic, volumes in which no peculiarity could be detected, will, in half a dozen sentences, use at least as many words that cannot fail to strike the inexperienced Englishman who hears them for the first time.” Bristed gave a specimen of the American of that time, calculated to flabbergast his inexperienced Englishman; you will find it in the volume of Cambridge Essays, already cited. His aim was to explain and defend Americanisms, and so shut off the storm of English reviling, and he succeeded in producing one of the most thoughtful and persuasive essays on the subject ever written. But his purpose failed and the attack kept up, and eight years afterward the Very Rev. Henry Alford, D.D., dean of Canterbury, led a famous assault. “Look at those phrases,” he said, “which so amuse us in their speech and books; at their reckless exaggeration and contempt for congruity; and then compare the character and history of the nation—its blunted sense of moral obligation and duty to man; its open disregard of conventional right where aggrandisement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.” In his American edition of 1866 Dr. Alford withdrew this reference to the Civil War and somewhat ameliorated his indignation otherwise, but he clung to the main counts in his indictment, and most Englishmen, I daresay, still give them a certain support. The American is no longer a “vain, egotistical, insolent, rodomontade sort of fellow”; America is no longer the “brigand confederation” of the Foreign Quarterly or “the loathsome creature, … maimed and lame, full of sores and ulcers” of Dickens; but the Americanism is yet regarded with a bilious eye, and pounced upon viciously when found. Even the friendliest English critics seem to be daunted by the gargantuan copiousness of American inventions in speech. Their position, perhaps, was well stated by Capt. Basil Hall, author of the celebrated “Travels in North America,” in 1827. When he argued that “surely such innovations are to be deprecated,” an American asked him this question: “If a word becomes universally current in America, why should it not take its station in the language?” “Because,” replied Hall in all seriousness, “there are words enough in our language already.”