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

VI. Tendencies in American

3. Processes of Word-Formation

SOME of the tendencies visible in American—e. g., toward the facile manufacture of new compounds, toward the transfer of words from one part of speech to another, and toward the free use of suffixes and prefixes and the easy isolation of roots and pseudoroots—go back to the period of the first growth of a distinct American dialect and are heritages from the English of the time. They are the products of a movement which, reaching its height in the English of Elizabeth, was dammed up at home, so to speak, by the rise of linguistic self-consciousness toward the end of the reign of Anne, but continued almost unobstructed in the colonies.

For example, there is what philologists call the habit of clipping or back-formation—a sort of instinctive search, etymologically un-sound, for short roots in long words. This habit, in Restoration days, precipitated a quasi-English word, mobile, from the Latin mobile vulgus, and in the days of William and Mary it went a step further by precipitating mob from mobile. Mob is now sound English, but in the eighteenth century it was violently attacked by the new sect of purists, and though it survived their onslaught they undoubtedly greatly impeded the formation and adoption of other words of the same category. There are, however, many more such words in standard English, e. g., patter from paternoster, van from caravan, wig from periwig, cab from cabriolet, brandy from brandy-wine (=brandewyn), pun from pundigrion, grog from grogram, curio from curiosity, canter from Canterbury, brig from brigantine, bus from omnibus, bant from Banting and fad from fadaise. In the colonies there was no such opposition to them as came from the purists of the English universities; save for a few feeble protests from Witherspoon and Boucher they went unchallenged. As a result they multiplied enormously. Rattler for rattle-snake, pike for turnpike, draw for drawbridge, coon for raccoon, possum for opossum, cuss for customer, cute for acute, squash for askutasquash—these American back-formations are already antique; Sabbaday for Sabbath-day has actually reached the dignity of an archaism, as has the far later chromo for chromolithograph. To this day they are formed in great numbers; scarcely a new substantive of more than two syllables comes in without bringing one in its wake. We have thus witnessed, within the past few years, the genesis of scores now in wide use and fast taking on respectability: phone for telephone, gas for gasoline, co-ed for co-educational, pop for populist, frat for fraternity, gym for gymnasium, movie for moving picture, plane for air-plane, prep-school for preparatory-school, auto for automobile, aero for aeroplane and aeronautical. Some linger on the edge of vulgarity: pep for pepper, flu for influenza, plute for plutocrat, vamp for vampire, pen for penitentiary, con for confidence (as in con-man, con-game and to con), convict and consumption, defi for defiance, beaut for beauty, rep for reputation, stenog for stenographer, ambish for ambition, vag for vagrant, champ for champion, pard for partner, coke for cocaine, simp for simpleton, diff for difference, grass for asparagus, mum for chrysanthemum, mutt for muttonhead, wiz for wizard, rube for Reuben, hon for honey, barkeep for barkeeper, divvy for dividend or division, jit for jitney. Others are already in good usage: smoker for smoking-car, diner for dining-car, sleeper for sleeping-car, oleo for oleomar-garine, hypo for hyposulphite of soda, Yank for Yankee, confab for confabulation, memo for memorandum, pop-concert for popular-concert, gator for alligator, foots for footlights, ham for hamfatter (actor), sub for substitute, knicker for knickerbocker. Many back-formations originate in college slang, e. g., prof for professor, prom for promenade, soph for sophomore, grad for graduate (noun), lab for laboratory, dorm for dormitory, plebe for plebeian. Ad for advertisement is struggling hard for general recognition; some of its compounds, e. g., ad-writer, want-ad, display-ad, ad-card, ad-rate, column-ad and ad-man, are already accepted in technical terminology. Boob for booby promises to become sound American in a few years; its synonyms are no more respectable than it is. At its heels are bo for hobo, and hoak for hoakum, two altogether fit successors to bum for bummer. Try for trial, as in “He made a try at it,” is also making progress but perhaps try-out, a characteristically American combination of verb and preposition, will eventually displace it. This production of new words by clipping, back-formation and folk-etymology is quite as active among the verbs as among the nouns. I have already described the appearance of such forms as to locate in the earliest days of differentiation and the popularity of such forms as to enthuse and to phone today. Many more verbs of the same sort have attained to respectability, e. g., to jell, to auto, to commute, to typewrite, to tiptoe (for to walk tiptoe). Others are still on probation, e. g., to reminisce, to insurge, to vamp, to peeve, to jubilate, to taxi, to orate, to bach (i. e., to live in bachelor quarters), to emote. Yet others are still unmistakably vulgar or merely waggish, e. g., to plumb (from plumber), to barb (from barber), to chauf (from chauffeur), to ready (from to make ready), to elocute, to burgle, to ush, to sculp, to butch, to con (from confidence-man), to buttle, to barkeep, to dressmake, to housekeep, to boheme, to photo, to divvy. Such forms seem to make an irresistible appeal to the American; he is constantly experimenting with new ones. “There is a much greater percentage of humorous shortenings among verbs,” says Miss Wittmann, “than among other parts of speech. Especially is this true of verbs shortened from nouns and adjectives by subtracting what looks like a derivative suffix, e. g., -er, -or, -ing, -ent from nouns, or -y from adjectives. Many clipped verbs have noun parallels, while some are simply clipped nouns used as verbs.” Miss Wittmann calls attention to the curious fact that very few adjectives are clipped in American; there are actually more of them in British English. Sesech (from secessionist, really a noun, but often used as an adjective) is one of the few familiar examples. Adjectives are made copiously in American, but most of them are made by other processes.

Another popular sort of neologism is the blend- or portmanteau- word. Many such words are in standard English, e. g., Lewis Carroll’s chortle (from chuckle and snort), dumbfound (from dumb and confound), luncheon (lunch+nuncheon), blurt (blare+spurt). American contributed gerrymander (Gerry+salamander) so long ago as 1812, and in more recent years has produced many blends that have gone over into standard English, e. g., cablegram (cable+telegram), electrocute (electricity+execute), electrolier (electricity+chandelier, Amerind (American+Indian), doggery (dog+groggery), riffle (in a stream) (probably from ripple and ruffle). Perhaps travelogue (travel+monologue), Luther Burbank’s pomato (potato+tomato), slanguage (slang+language), and thon (that+one) will one day follow. Boost (boom+hoist) is a typical American blend. I have a notion that blurb is a blend also. So, perhaps, is flunk; Dr. Louise Pound says that it may be from fail and funk. Aframerican, which is now very commonly used in the Negro press, is not American, but was devised by Sir Harry Johnston. Allied with the portmanteau words are many blends of a somewhat different sort, in which long compounds are displaced by forms devised by analogy with existing words. Printery (for printing-office) appeared very early, and in late years it has been reinforced by many analogues, e. g., beanery, bootery, boozery, toggery. Condensery is used in the West to indicate a place where milk is condensed. I have encountered breadery in Baltimore; Dr. Pound reports hashery and drillery. Somewhat similar are the words suggested by cafeteria, once a California localism. Among other strange forms I have encountered haberteria (for haberdashery) and groceriteria (for grocery-store). The wide use of the suffix –ette in such terms as farmerette, conductorette, kitchenette, cellarette, featurette, leatherette, flannelette, crispette, usherette and huskerette, is due to the same effort to make one word do the work of two. In Baltimore, in 1918, the street railways company appealed to the public to drop conductorette and go back to woman conductor, but the new word survived. I suspect that the popularity of near- as a prefix has much the same psychological basis. Near-beer is surely simpler than imitation beer or non-alcoholic beer, and near-silk is better than the long phrase that would have to be used to describe it accurately. So with the familiar and numerous terms in –ee, -ite, -ster, -ist, -er, -dom, -itis, -ism, -ize, etc., e. g., draftee, Kreislerite, dopester, chalkologist, soap-boxer, picturedom, golfitis, Palmerism, to hooverize, and so on. They all represent efforts to condense the meaning of whole phrases into simple and instantly-understandable words. “The great majority of shortened forms,” says Miss Wittmann, “are clearly made for convenience; their speakers employ them to save time and trouble.” Here, incidentally, the influence of newspaper head-lines is not to be overlooked. The American head-line writer faces peculiar difficulties; he must get clearly explanatory phrases into very small space, and almost always he is handicapped by arbitrary regulations as to typographical arrangement—regulations which do not oppress his English colleague. As a result he is an ardent propagandish gandish for short words, e. g., probe (for investigation), grab, steal, haul, wed (for wedded), hello-girl (for telephone-girl), soul-mate, love-nest, love-pirate, and so on. He constantly uses up in the something’s up sense, e. g., “Dry QuestionUp in Legislature.” The popularity of Hun, during the War, was no doubt largely due to the exigencies of his calling. He never uses a long word when a short one will answer, and he never uses articles when they can be avoided. Possibly the omission of the article in such American phrases as up street, all year and all Sunday (the Englishman would probably say all day on Sunday) is largely due to his influence. Certainly, he is an eager merchant of all such neologisms as sub-deb, stand-pat, try-out, co-ed, gym, auto, defi and phone.

The same motives show themselves in the great multiplication of common abbreviations in America. “Americans, as a rule,” says Farmer, “employ abbreviations to an extent unknown in Europe.… This trait of the American character is discernible in every department of the national life and thought.” O. K., C. O. D., N. G., G. O. P. (get out and push) and P. D. Q. are almost national hall-marks; the immigrant learns them immediately after damn and go to hell. Thornton traces N. G. to 1840; C. O. D. and P. D. Q. are probably almost as old. As for O. K., it was in use so early as 1790. “In colonial days,” says a floating newspaper paragraph, “the best rum and tobacco were imported from Aux Cayes, in Santo Domingo. Hence the best of anything came to be known locally as Aux Cayes, or O. K. The term did not, however, come to be generally used until the Presidential campaign of 1828, when the supposed illiteracy of Andrew Jackson, sometimes known as the founder of Democracy, was the stock in trade of his Whig opponents. Seba Smith, the humorist, writing under the name of ‘Major Jack Downing,’ started the story that Jackson endorsed his papers O. K., under the impression that they formed the initials of Oll Korrect. Possibly the General did use this endorsement, and it was used by other people also. But James Parton has discovered in the records of the Nashville court of which Jackson was a judge, before he became President, numerous documents endorsed O. R., meaning Order Recorded. He urges, therefore, that it was a record of that court with some belated business which Major Downing saw on the desk of the Presidential candidate. However this may be, the Democrats, in lieu of denying the charge, adopted the letters O. K. as a sort of party cry and fastened them upon their banners.” There is, however, a rival etymology for O. K., whereby it is derived from an Indian word, okeh, signifying “so be it.” Dr. Woodrow Wilson supported this derivation, and used okeh in approving papers to him as President; it also appears as the name of a popular series of phonograph records. Bartlett says that the figurative use of A No. 1, as in an A No. 1 man, also originated in America, but this may not be true. There can be little doubt, however, about T. B. (for tuberculosis), G. B. (for grand bounce), 23, on the Q.T., f.o.b., D. & D. (drunk and disorderly) and the army verb, to a. w. o. l. (to be absent without leave). The language breeds such short forms of speech prodigiously; every trade and profession has a host of them; they are innumerable in the slang of sport. Often they represent the end-products of terms long in decay, e.g., elevated railway: elevated: el: L.

What one sees under all this is a double habit that sufficiently explains the gap which begins to yawn between English and American, particularly on the spoken plane. On the one hand it is a habit of verbal economy—a jealous disinclination to waste two words on what can be put into one, a natural taste for the brilliant and succinct, a disdain of all grammatical and lexicographical daintinesses, born partly, perhaps, of ignorance, but also in part of a sound sense of their imbecility. And on the other hand there is a high relish and talent for metaphor—in Brander Matthews’ phrase, “a figurative vigor that the Elizabethans would have realized and understood.” Just as the American rebels instinctively against such parliamentary circumlocutions as “I am not prepared to say” and “so much by way of being,” just as he would fret under the forms of English journalism, with its reporting empty of drama, its thirdperson smothering of speeches and its complex and unintelligible jargon, just so, in his daily speech and writing he chooses terseness and vividness whenever there is any choice, and seeks to make one when it doesn’t exist. There is more than mere humorous contrast between the famous placard in the wash-room of the British Museum: “These Basins Are For Casual Ablutions Only,” and the familiar sign at American railroad-crossings: “Stop! Look! Listen!” Between the two lies an abyss separating two cultures, two habits of mind, two diverging tongues. It is almost unimaginable that Englishmen, journeying up and down in elevators, would ever have stricken the teens out of their speech, turning sixteenth into simple six and twenty-fourth into four; the clipping is almost as far from their way of doing things as the climbing so high in the air. Nor have they the brilliant facility of Americans for making new words of grotesque but penetrating tropes, as in corn-fed, tight-wad, bone-head, bleachers and juice (for electricity); when they attempt such things the result is often lugubrious; two hundred years of school-mastering has dried up their inspiration. Nor have they the fine American hand for devising new verbs; to maffick, to limehouse, to strafe and to wangle are their best specimens in twenty years, and all have an almost pathetic flatness. Their business with the language, indeed, is not in this department. They are not charged with its raids and scoutings, but with the organization of its conquests and the guarding of its accumulated stores.

For the student interested in the biology of language, as opposed to its paleontology, there is endless material in the racy neologisms of American, and particularly in its new compounds and novel verbs. Nothing could exceed the brilliancy of such inventions as joy-ride, high-brow, road-louse, sob-sister, frame-up, loan-shark, nature-faker, stand-patter, lounge-lizard, hash-foundry, buzz-wagon, has-been, end-seat-hog, shoot-the-chutes and grape-juice diplomacy. They are bold; they are vivid; they have humor; they meet genuine needs. Joy-ride is already going over into English, and no wonder. There is absolutely no synonym for it; to convey its idea in orthodox English would take a whole sentence. And so, too, with certain single words of metaphorical origin: barrel for large and illicit wealth, pork for unnecessary and dishonest appropriations of public money, joint for illegal liquor-house, tenderloin for gay and dubious neighborhood. Many of these, and of the new compounds with them, belong to the vocabulary of disparagement, e. g., bone-head, skunk, bug, jay, lobster, boob, mutt, gas (empty talk), geezer, piker, baggage-smasher, hash-slinger, clock-watcher, four-flusher, coffin-nail, chin-music, batty and one-horse. Here an essential character of the American shows itself: his tendency to combat the disagreeable with irony, to heap ridicule upon what he is suspicious of or doesn’t understand.

The rapidity with which new verbs are made in the United States is really quite amazing. Two days after the first regulations of the Food Administration were announced, to hooverize appeared spontaneously in scores of newspapers, and a week later it was employed without any visible sense of its novelty in the debates of Congress and had taken on a respectability equal to that of to bryanize, to fletcherize and to oslerize. To electrocute appeared inevitably in the first public discussion of capital punishment by electricity; to taxi came in with the first taxicabs; to commute no doubt accompanied the first commutation ticket; to insurge attended the birth of the Progressive balderdash. Of late the old affix -ize, once fecund of such monsters as to funeralize, has come into favor again, and I note, among its other products, to belgiumize, to vacationize, to picturize, to scenarioize, to cohanize, to citizenize and to institutionalize. But often the noun or adjective is used in its original form, without any attempt at explanatory inflection. Thus, I have encountered to census, to wassermann, to major (i. e., to make this or that subject a major study in college), to debut, to author, to press-agent, to sacrilege, to house-clean, to reunion, to headquarters, to pendulum, to janitor, and to vacation. Many such verbs are in the vocabularies of the arts and crafts. American librarians say that a new book has been accessioned, trained nurses speak of specialing, firemen use siamesed hoses, uplifters report that they have contacted with cases, dealers in kitchen appliances promise to service them (i. e., to keep them in repair for a definite time), and the managers of a well-known chain of hotels advertise that they are Statler-operated. The theatrical magazine, Variety, always brilliant with novel Americanisms, uses many such verbs, e. g., to lobby-display (i. e., to display photographs of a performer in a theatre lobby). A great boldness shows itself in the making of these new verbs. To demote, when it came in during the war, was scarcely challenged. To renig, a few years before, had been fashioned, as a matter of course, from renegade by back-formation. To knock, to rattle, to roast and to pan, when they appeared, were accepted without question as quite regular. I have found to s o s, in the form of its gerund. To loan, still under the ban in England, has been long in very respectable use in the United States. I have observed its employment by a vice-president of the National City Bank of New York, by the dramatic critic of the Nation, and by the secretary of the Poetry Society of America. Where a verb differs etymologically from its corresponding noun or is otherwise felt to be clumsy or pedantic, the tendency seems to be to dispose of the difference by manufacturing a new verb. Examples are afforded by to injunct, to steam-roller and to operate (transitive). To injunct, I note, has begun to crowd out to enjoin; it is obviously more in harmony with its noun, injunction. To steam-roller early displaced to steam-roll. As for to operate, the Journal of the American Medical Association wars upon it in vain. More and more, surgeons report that they operated a patient, not on him.

This last example, however, violates one tendency almost as clearly as it shows another. In general, the English habit of hitching a preposition to a verb is carried to even greater lengths in America than it is in England. The colloquial language is very rich in such compounds, and some of them have come to have special meanings. Compare, for example, to give and to give out, to go back and to go back on, to beat and to beat it, to light and to light out, to butt and to butt in, to turn and to turn down, to show and to show up, to put and to put over, to wind and to wind up. Sometimes, however, the addition seems to be merely rhetorical, as in to start off, to finish up, to open up, to beat up (or out), to try out, to stop over (or off), and to hurry up. To hurry up is so commonplace in America that everyone uses it and no one notices it, but it remains rare in England. Up seems to be essential to many of these latter-day verbs, e. g., to pony up, to doll up, to ball up; without it they are without significance. Sometimes unmistakable adverbs are substituted for prepositions, as in to stay put and to call down. “Brush your hat off” would seem absurd to an Englishman; so would “The Committee reported out the bill.” Nearly all of these reinforced verbs are supported by corresponding adjectives and nouns, e. g., cut-up, show-down, kick-in, come-down, hand-out, start-off, wind-up, run-in, balled-up, dolled-up, bang-up, turn-down, frame-up, stop-over, jump-off, call-down, buttinski.

The rapidity with which words move through the parts of speech must be observed by every student of American. The case of bum I have already cited: it is noun, adjective, verb and adverb. The adjective lonesome, in “all by her lonesome,” becomes a sort of pronoun. The verb to think, in “he had another think coming,” becomes a noun. Jitney is an old American noun lately revived; a month after its revival it was also an adjective, and before long it will be a verb. To lift up was turned tail first and made a substantive, and is now also an adjective and a verb. Joy-ride became a verb the day after it was born as a noun. So did auto and phone. So did the adjective, a. w. o. l. Immediately the Workmen’s Compensation Act began to appear on the statute-books of the States, the adjective compensable was born. Other adjectives are made by the simple process of adding –y to nouns, e. g., classy, tasty, tony. And what of livest? An astounding inflection, indeed—but with quite sound American usage behind it. The Metropolitan Magazine, of which Col. Roosevelt was an editor, announces on its letter paper that it is “the livest magazine in America,” and Poetry, the organ of the new poetry movement, used to print at the head of its contents page the following encomium from the New York Tribune: “the livest art in America today is poetry, and the livest expression of that art is in this little Chicago monthly.”

We have seen how readily new prefixes and affixes are adopted in America. Often a whole word is thus put to service, and such amalgamations produce many new words. Thus smith threatens to breed a long series of new agent nouns, e. g., ad-smith, joke-smith; and fiend (a characteristic American hyperbole) has already produced a great many, e. g., movie-fiend, drug-fiend, bridge-fiend, golf-fiend, coke-fiend, kissing-fiend. Moreover, there is no impediment to their almost infinite multiplication. If some enterprising shoe-repairer began calling himself a shoe-smith tomorrow no one would think to protest against the neologism, and if some new game were introduced from abroad, say the German Skat, the corresponding fiend would come with it. Always the effort is to dispose of a long explanatory phrase by substituting a succinct and concrete term. This effort is responsible for many whole classes of compounds, e. g., the hospital series: doll-hospital, china-hospital, camera-hospital, pipe-hospital, etc. It is responsible, too, for many somewhat startling derivatives, e. g., mixologist and tuberculogian. And it lies behind the invention of many words that are not compounds, but boldly put forth new roots, many of them etymologically unintelligible, e. g., jazz, jinx, hobo, woozy, goo-goo (eyes), hoakum, sundae. A large number of characteristic Americanisms are deliberate inventions, devised to designate new objects or to clothe old objects with a special character. The American advertiser is an extraordinarily diligent manufacturer of such terms, and many of his coinages, e. g., kodak, vaseline, listerine, postum, carborundum, klaxon, jap-a-lac, pianola, victrola, dictagraph and uneeda are quite as familiar to all Americans as tractor or soda-mint, and have come into general acceptance as common nouns. The Eastman Kodak Company, indeed, has sometimes had to call attention to the fact that kodak is its legal property, and in the same way the Chesebrough Manufacturing Company has had to protect vaseline. Dr. Louise Pound has made an interesting study of these artificial trade-names. They fall, she finds, into a number of well defined classes. There are the terms that are simple derivatives from proper names, e. g., listerine, postum, klaxon; the shortenings, e. g., jell-o, jap-a-lac; the extensions with common suffixes, e. g., alabastine, protectograph, dictograph, orangeade, crispette, pearline, electrolier; the extensions with new or fanciful suffixes, e. g., resinol, thermos, grafanola, shinola, sapolio, lysol, neolin, crisco; the diminutives, e. g., cascaret, wheatlet, chiclet; the simple compounds, e. g., palmolive, spearmint, peptomint, auto-car; the blends, e. g., cuticura, damaskeene, locomobile, mobiloil; the blends made of proper names, e. g., Oldsmobile, Hupmobile, Valspar; the blends made of parts of syllables or simple initials, e. g., Reo, nabisco; the terms involving substitution, e. g., triscut; and the arbitrary formations, e. g., kodak, tiz, clysmic, vivil. Dr. Brander Matthews once published an Horatian ode, of unknown authorship, made up of such inventions. I transcribe it for the joy of connoisseurs:

  • Chipeco thermos dioxygen, temco sonora tuxedo
  • Resinol fiat bacardi, camera ansco wheatena;
  • Antiskid pebeco calox, oleo tyco barometer
  • Postum nabisco!
  • Prestolite arco congoleum, karo aluminum kryptok,
  • Crisco balopticon lysol, jello bellans, carborundum!
  • Ampico clysmic swoboda, pantasote necco britannica
  • Encyclopædia?
  • One of the words here used is not American, but Italian, i. e., fiat, a blend made of the initials of Fabbrica Italiano Automobili Torino; most of the others are quite familiar to all Americans. “But only a few of them,” says Dr. Matthews, “would evoke recognition from an Englishman; and what a Frenchman or a German would make out of the eight lines it is beyond human power even to guess. Corresponding words have been devised in France and in Germany, but only infrequently; and apparently the invention of trade-mark names is not a customary procedure on the part of foreign advertisers. The British, although less affluent in this respect than we are, seem to be a little more inclined to employ the device than their competitors on the continent. Every American, traveling on the railways which converge upon London, must have experienced a difficulty in discovering whether the station at which his train has paused is Stoke Pogis or Bovril, Chipping Norton or Mazzawattee. None the less it is safe to say that the concoction of a similar ode by the aid of the trade-mark words invented in the British Isles would be a task of great difficulty on account of the paucity of terms sufficiently artificial to bestow the exotic remoteness which is accountable for the aroma of the American ‘ode’.”

    Of analogous character are artificial words of the scalawag and rambunctious class, the formation of which constantly goes on. Some of them are telescope forms: grandificent (from grand and magnificent), sodalicious (from soda and delicious) and warphan (age) (from war and orphan [age]). Others are made up of common roots and grotesque affixes: swelldoodle, splendiferous and peacharino. Yet others are stretch forms or mere extravagant inventions: scallywampus, supergobsloptious and floozy. Many of these are devised by advertisement writers or college students and belong properly to slang, but there is a steady movement of selected specimens into the common vocabulary. The words in -doodle hint at German influences, and those in -ino owe something to Italian or maybe to Spanish.