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

II. The Beginnings of American

3. New Words of English Material

BUT of far more importance than these borrowings was the great stock of new words that the colonists coined in English metal—words primarily demanded by the “new circumstances under which they were placed,” but also indicative, in more than one case, of a delight in the business for its own sake. The American, even in the early eighteenth century, already showed many of the characteristics that were to set him off from the Englishman later on—his bold and some-what grotesque imagination, his contempt for dignified authority, his lack of æsthetic sensitiveness, his extravagant humor. Among the first colonists there were many men of education, culture and gentle birth, but they were soon swamped by hordes of the ignorant and illiterate, and the latter, cut off from the corrective influence of books, soon laid their hands upon the language. It is impossible to imagine the austere Puritan divines of Massachusetts inventing such verbs as to cowhide and to logroll, or such adjectives as no-account and stumped, or such adverbs as no-how and 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 months 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; 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, 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, sweet-potato, poke-weed, copper-head, eel-grass, reed-bird, egg-plant, blue-grass, pea-nut, pitch-pine, cling-stone (peach), moccasin-snake, June-bug, lightning-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 that 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 novelty, but the pioneers apparently did not recognize it as the Datura stramonium, and so we find Beverley reporting that “some Soldiers, eating it in a Salad, turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days.” The grosser features of the landscape got a lavish renaming, partly to distinguish new forms and partly out of an obvious desire to attain a more literal descriptiveness. I have mentioned key and hook, the one borrowed from the Spanish and the other from the Dutch. With them came run, branch, fork, bluff (noun), neck, barrens, bottoms, watershed, foot-hill, water-gap, under-brush, bottom-land, clearing, notch, divide, knob, riffle, rolling-country and rapids, and the extension of pond from artificial pools to small natural lakes, and of creek from small arms of the sea to shallow feeders of rivers. Such common English topographical terms as downs, weald, wold, fen, bog, fell, chase, combe, dell, tarn, common, heath and moor disappeared from the colonial tongue, save as fossilized in a few localisms and proper names. So did bracken.

With the new landscape came an entirely new mode of life—new foods, new forms of habitation, new methods of agriculture, new kinds of hunting. A great swarm of neologisms thus arose, and, as in the previous case, they were chiefly compounds. Back-country, back-woods, back-woodsman, back-settlers, back-settlements: all these were in common use early in the eighteenth century. Back-log was used by Increase Mather in 1684. Log-house appears in the Mary-land Archives for 1669. Hoe-cake, Johnny-cake, pan-fish, corn-dodger, roasting-ear, corn-crib, corn-cob and pop-corn were all familiar before the Revolution. So were pine-knot, snow-plow, cold-snap, land-slide, ash-can, bob-sled, apple-butter, salt-lick, prickly-heat, shell-road and cane-brake. Shingle was a novelty in 1705, but one S. Symonds wrote to John Winthrop, of Ipswich, about a clap-boarded house in 1637. Frame-house seems to have come in with shingle. Trail, half-breed, Indian-summer, Indian-giver, and Indian-file, were obviously suggested by the Red Men. Statehouse was borrowed, perhaps, from the Dutch. Selectman is first heard of in 1685, displacing the English alderman. Mush had displaced porridge by 1671. Soon afterwards hay-stack took the place of the English hay-cock, and such common English terms as byre, mews, wier and wain began to disappear. Hired-man is to be found in the Plymouth town records of 1737, and hired-girl followed soon after. So early as 1758, as we find by the diary of Nathaniel Ames, the second-year students at Harvard were already called sophomores, though for a while the spelling was often made sophimores. Camp-meeting was later; it did not appear until 1799. But land-office was familiar before 1700, and side-walk, spelling-bee, bee-line, moss-back, crazy-quilt, mud-scow, stamping-ground and a hundred and one other such compounds were in daily use before the Revolution. After that great upheaval the new money of the confederation brought in a number of new words. In 1782 Gouverneur Morris proposed to the Continental Congress that the coins of the republic be called, in ascending order, unit, penny-bill, dollar and crown. Later Morris invented the word cent, substituting it for the English penny. In 1785 Jefferson proposed mill, cent, dime, dollar and eagle, and this nomenclature was adopted.

Various nautical terms peculiar to America, or taken into English from American sources, came in during the eighteenth century, among them, schooner, cat-boat and pungy, not to recall batteau and canoe. According to a recent historian of the American merchant marine, the first schooner ever seen was launched at Gloucester, Mass., in 1713. The word, it appears, was originally spelled scooner. To scoon was a verb borrowed by the New Englanders from some Scotch dialect, and meant to skim or skip across the water like a flat stone. As the first schooner left the ways and glided out into Gloucester harbor, an enraptured spectator shouted: “Oh, see how she scoons!” “A scooner let her be!” replied Captain Andrew Robinson, her builder—and all boats of her peculiar and novel fore-and-aft rig took the name thereafter. The Dutch mariners borrowed the term and changed the spelling, and this change was soon accepted in America. The Scotch root came from the Norse skunna, to hasten, and there are analogues in Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Old High German. The origin of cat-boat and pungy I have been unable to determine. Perhaps the latter is related in some way to pung, a one-horse sled or wagon. Pung was once widely used in the United States, but of late it has sunk to the estate of a New England provincialism. Longfellow used it, and in 1857 a writer in the Knickerbocker Magazine reported that pungs filled Broadway, in New York, after a snow-storm.

Most of these new words, of course, produced derivatives, for example, to shingle, to shuck (i. e., corn), to trail and to caucus. Backwoods immediately begat backwoodsman and was itself turned into a common adjective. The colonists, indeed, showed a beautiful disregard for linguistic nicety. At an early date they shortened the English law-phrase, to convey by deed, to the simple verb, to deed. Pickering protested against this as a barbarism, and argued that no self-respecting law-writer would employ it, but all the same it was firmly entrenched in the common speech and it has remained there to this day. To table, for to lay on the table, came in at the same time, and so did various forms represented by bindery, for book-binder’s shop. To tomahawk appeared before 1650, and to scalp must have followed soon after. Within the next century and a half they were reinforced by many other such new verbs, and by such adjectives made of nouns as no-account and one-horse, and such nouns made of verbs as carry-all and goner, and such adverbs as no-how. In particular, the manufacture of new verbs went on at a rapid pace. In his letter to Webster in 1789 Franklin denounced to advocate, to progress, and to oppose—a vain enterprise, for all of them are now in perfectly good usage. To advocate, indeed, was used by Thomas Nashe in 1589, and by John Milton half a century later, but it seems to have been reinvented in America. In 1822 and again in 1838 Robert Southey, then poet laureate, led two belated attacks upon it, as a barbarous Americanism, but its obvious usefulness preserved it, and it remains in good usage on both sides of the Atlantic today—one of the earliest of the English borrowings from America. In the end, indeed, even so ardent a purist as Richard Grant White adopted it, as he did to placate.

Webster, though he agreed with Franklin in opposing to advocate, gave his imprimatur to to appreciate (i. e., to rise in value, and is credited by Sir Charles Lyell with having himself invented to demoralize. He also approved to obligate. To antagonize seems to have been given currency by John Quincy Adams, to immigrate by John Marshall, to eventuate by Gouverneur Morris, and to derange by George Washington. Jefferson, always hospitable to new words, used to belittle in his “Notes on Virginia,” and Thornton thinks that he coined it. Many new verbs were made by the simple process of prefixing the preposition to common nouns, e. g., to clerk, to dicker, to dump, to negative, to blow (i. e., to bluster or boast), to cord (i. e., wood), to stump, to room and to shin. Others were produced by phonological changes in verbs of the orthodox vocabulary, e. g., to cavort from to curvet, and to snoop from to snook. Others arose as metaphors, e. g., to whitewash (figuratively) and to squat (on unoccupied land). Others were made by hitching suffixes to nouns, or by groping for roots, e. g., to deputize, to locate, to legislate, to infract, to compromit and to happify. Yet others seem to have been produced by onomatopœia, e. g., to fizzle, or to have arisen by some other such spontaneous process, so far unintelligible, e. g., to tote. With them came an endless series of verb-phrases, e. g., to draw a bead, to face the music, to darken one’s doors, to take to the woods, to fly off the handle, to go on the war-path and to saw wood—all obvious products of pioneer life. Many coinages of the pre-Revolutionary era later disappeared. Jefferson used to ambition, but it dropped out nevertheless. So did conflagrative, though a president of Yale gave it his imprimatur. So did to compromit (i. e., to compromise), to homologize and to happify. Fierce battles raged ’round some of these words, and they were all violently derided in England. Even so useful a verb as to locate, now in quite respectable usage, was denounced in the third volume of the North American Review, and other purists of the times tried to put down to legislate.

The young and tender adjectives had quite as hard a row to hoe, particularly lengthy. The British Critic attacked it in November, 1793, and it also had enemies at home, but John Adams had used it in his diary in 1759 and the authority of Jefferson and Hamilton was behind it, and so it survived. Years later James Russell Lowell spoke of it as “the excellent adjective,” and boasted that American had given it to English. Dutiable also met with opposition, and moreover it had a rival, customable; but Marshall wrote it into his historic decisions, and thus it took root. The same anonymous watchman of the North American Review who protested against to locate pronounced his anathema upon “such barbarous terms as presidential and congressional,” but the plain need for them kept them in the language. Gubernatorial had come in long before this, and is to be found in the New Jersey Archives of 1734. In-fluential was denounced by the Rev. Jonathan Boucher and by George Canning, who argued that influent was better, but it was ardently defended by William Pinkney, of Maryland, and gradually made its way. Handy, kinky, law-abiding, chunky, solid (in the sense of well-to-do), evincive, complected, judgmatical, underpinned, blooded and cute were also already secure in revolutionary days. So with many nouns. Jefferson used breadstuffs in his Report of the Secretary of State on Commercial Restrictions, December 16, 1793. Balance, in the sense of remainder, got into the debates of the First Congress. Mileage was used by Franklin in 1754, and is now sound English. Elevator, in the sense of a storage house for grain, was used by Jefferson and by others before him. Draw, for drawbridge, comes down from revolutionary days. So does slip, in the sense of a berth for vessels. So does addition, in the sense of a suburb. So, finally, does darkey.

The history of many of these Americanisms shows how vain is the effort of grammarians to combat the normal processes of language development. I have mentioned the early opposition to dutiable, influential, presidential, lengthy, to locate, to oppose, to advocate, to legislate, and to progress. Bogus, reliable and standpoint were attacked with the same academic ferocity. All of them are to be found in Bryant’s Index Expurgatorius (circa 1870), and reliable was denounced by Bishop Coxe as “that abominable barbarism” so late as 1886. Edward S. Gould, another uncompromising purist, said of standpoint that it was “the bright particular star … of solemn philological blundering” and “the very counterpart of Dogberry’s non-com.” Gould also protested against to jeopardize, leniency and to demean, and Richard Grant White joined him in an onslaught upon to donate. But all of these words are in good use in the United States today, and some of them have gone over into English.