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

III. The Period of Growth

3. The Expanding Vocabulary

A GLANCE at some of the characteristic coinages of the time, as they are revealed in the Congressional Globe, in contemporary newspapers and political tracts, and in that grotesque small literature of humor which began with Judge Thomas C. Haliburton’s “Sam Slick” in 1835, is almost enough to make one sympathize with Dean Alford. Bartlett quotes to doxologize from the Christian Disciple, a quite reputable religious paper of the 40’s. To citizenize was used and explained by Senator Young, of Illinois, in the Senate on February 1, 1841, and he gave Noah Webster as authority for it. To funeralize and to missionate, along with consociational, were contributions of the backwoods pulpit; perhaps it also produced hell-roaring and hellion, the latter of which was a favorite of the Mormons and even got into a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher. To deacon, a verb of decent mien in colonial days, signifying to read a hymn line by line, responded to the rough humor of the time, and began to mean to swindle or adulterate, e. g., to put the largest berries at the top of the box, to extend one’s fences sub rosa, or to mix sand with sugar. A great rage for extending the vocabulary by the use of suffixes seized upon the corn-fed etymologists, and they produced a formidable new vocabulary in -ize, -ate, -ify, -acy, -ous and -ment. Such inventions as to obligate, to concertize, to questionize, retiracy, savagerous, coatee (a sort of diminutive for coat) and citified appeared in the popular vocabulary and even got into more or less good usage. Fowler, in 1850, cited publishment and releasement with no apparent thought that they were uncouth. And at the same time many verbs were made by the simple process of back formation, as, to resurrect, to excurt, to resolute, to burgle and to enthuse.

Some of these inventions, after flourishing for a generation or more, were retired with blushes during the period of æsthetic consciousness following the Civil War, but a large number have survived to our own day, and are in good usage. Not even the most bilious purist would think of objecting to to affiliate, to endorse, to collide, to jeopardize, to predicate, to progress, to itemize, to resurrect or to Americanize today, and yet all of them gave grief to the judicious when they first appeared in the debates of Congress, brought there by statesmen from the backwoods. Nor to such simpler verbs of the period as to corner (i. e., the market), to boss and to lynch. Nor perhaps to to boom, to boost, to kick (in the sense of to protest), to coast (on a sled), to engineer, to chink (i. e., logs), to feaze, to splurge, to bulldoze, to aggravate (in the sense of to anger), to yank and to crawfish. These verbs have entered into the very fibre of the American vulgate, and so have many nouns derived from them, e. g., boomer, boom-town, bouncer, kicker, kick, splurge, roller-coaster. A few of them, e. g., to collide and to feaze, were archaic English terms brought to new birth; a few others, e. g., to holler and to muss, were obviously mere corruptions. But a good many others, e. g., to bulldoze, to hornswoggle and to scoot, were genuine inventions, and redolent of the soil.

With the new verbs came a great swarm of verb-phrases, some of them short and pithy and others extraordinarily elaborate, but all showing the true national talent for condensing a complex thought, and often a whole series of thoughts, into a vivid and arresting image. Of the first class are to fill the bill, to fizzle out, to make tracks, to peter out, to plank down, to go back on, to keep tab, to light out and to back water. Side by side with them we have inherited such common coins of speech as to make the fur fly, to cut a swath, to know him like a book, to keep a stiff upper lip, to cap the climax, to handle without gloves, to freeze on to, to go it blind, to pull wool over his eyes, to have the floor, to know the ropes, to get solid with, to spread one’s self, to run into the ground, to dodge the issue, to paint the town red, to take a back seat and to get ahead of. These are so familiar that we use them and hear them without thought; they seem as authentically parts of the English idiom as to be left at the post. And yet, as the labors of Thornton have demonstrated, all of them are of American nativity, and the circumstances surrounding the origin of some of them have been accurately determined. Many others are palpably the products of the great movement toward the West, for example, to pan out, to strike it rich, to jump or enter a claim, to pull up stakes, to rope in, to die with one’s boots on, to get the deadwood on, to get the drop, to back and fill, to do a landoffice business and to get the bulge on. And in many others the authentic American is no less plain, for example, in to kick the bucket, to put a bug in his ear, to see the elephant, to crack up, to do up brown, to bark up the wrong tree, to jump on with both feet, to go the whole hog, to make a kick, to buck the tiger, to let it slide and to come out at the little end of the horn. To play possum belongs to this list. To it Thornton adds to knock into a cocked hat, despite its English sound, and to have an ax to grind. To go for, both in the sense of belligerency and in that of partisanship, is also American, and so is to go through (i. e., to plunder).

Of adjectives the list is scarcely less long. Among the coinages of the first half of the century that are in good use today are non-committal, highfalutin, well-posted, down-town, two-fer, played-out, flat-footed, whole-souled and true-blue. The first appears in a Senate debate of 1841; highfalutin in a political speech of the same decade. Both are useful words; it is impossible, not employing them, to convey the ideas behind them without circumlocution. The use of slim in the sense of meagre, as in slim chance, slim attendance and slim support, goes back still further. The English use small in place of it. Other, and less respectable contributions of the time are brash, bogus, brainy, peart, locoe (d), pesky, picayune, scary, well-heeled, hardshell (e. g., Baptist), low-flung, codfish (to indicate opprobrium) and go-to-meeting. The use of plumb as an adjective, as in plumb crazy, is an English archaism that was revived in the United States in the early years of the century. In the more orthodox adverbial form of plump it still survives, for example, in “she fell plump into his arms.” But this last is also good English.

The characteristic American substitution of mad for angry goes back to the eighteenth century, and perhaps denotes the survival of an English provincialism. Witherspoon noticed it and denounced it in 1781, and in 1816 Pickering called it “low” and said that it was not used “except in very familiar conversation.” But it got into much better odor soon afterward, and by 1840 it passed unchallenged. Its use is one of the peculiarities that Englishmen most quickly notice in American colloquial speech today. In formal written discourse it is less often encountered, probably because the English marking of it has so conspicuously singled it out. But it is constantly met with in the newspapers and in the Congressional Record, and it is not infrequently used by such writers as Howells and Dreiser. In the familiar simile, as mad as a hornet, it is used in the American sense. But as mad as a March hare is English, and connotes insanity, not mere anger. The English meaning of the word is preserved in mad-house and mad-dog, but I have often noticed that American rustics, employing the latter term, derive from it a vague notion, not that the dog is demented, but that it is in a simple fury. From this notion, perhaps, comes the popular belief that dogs may be thrown into hydrophobia by teasing and badgering them.

It was not, however, among the verbs and adjectives that the American word-coiners of the first half of the century achieved their gaudiest innovations, but among the substantives. Here they had temptation and excuse in plenty, for innumerable new objects and relations demanded names, and here they exercised their fancy without restraint. Setting aside loan words, which will be considered later, three main varieties of new nouns were thus produced. The first consisted of English words rescued from obsolescence or changed in meaning, the second of compounds manufactured of the common materials of the mother-tongue, and the third of entirely new inventions. Of the first class, good specimens are deck (of cards), gulch, gully and billion, the first three old English words restored to usage in America and the last a sound English word changed in meaning. Of the second class, examples are offered by gum-shoe, mortgage-shark, carpet-bagger, cut-off, mass-meeting, dead-beat, dug-out, shot-gun, stag-party, wheat-pit, horse-sense, chipped-beef, oyster-supper, buzz-saw, chain-gang and hell-box. And of the third there are instances in buncombe, greaser, conniption, bloomer, campus, galoot, maverick, roustabout, bugaboo and blizzard.

Of these coinages perhaps those of the second class are most numerous and characteristic. In them American exhibits one of its most marked tendencies: a habit of achieving short cuts in speech by a process of agglutination. Why explain laboriously, as an Englishman might, that the notes of a new bank (in a day of innumerable new banks) are insufficiently secure? Call them wild-cat notes and have done! Why describe a gigantic rain storm with the lame adjectives of everyday? Call it a cloud-burst and immediately a vivid picture of it is conjured up. Rough-neck is a capital word; it is more apposite and savory than the English navvy, and it is over-whelmingly more American. Square-meal is another. Fire-eater is yet another. And the same instinct for the terse, the eloquent and the picturesque is in boiled-shirt, blow-out, big-bug, claim-jumper, spread-eagle, come-down, back-number, claw-hammer (coat), bottom-dollar, poppy-cock, cold-snap, back-talk, back-taxes, calamity-howler, fire-bug, grab-bag, grip-sack, grub-stake, pay-dirt, tender-foot, stocking-feet, ticket-scalper, store-clothes, small-potatoes, cake-walk, prairie-schooner, round-up, snake-fence, flat-boat, under-the-weather, on-the-hoof, and jumping-off-place. These compounds (there must be thousands of them) have been largely responsible for giving the language its characteristic tang and color. Such specimens as bell-hop, semi-occasional, chair-warmer and down-and-out are as distinctively American as baseball or the quick-lunch.

The spirit of the language appears scarcely less clearly in some of the coinages of the other classes. There are, for example, the English words that have been extended or restricted in meaning, e. g., docket (for court calendar), betterment (for improvement to property), collateral (for security), crank (for fanatic), jumper (for tunic), tickler (for memorandum or reminder), Carnival (in such phrases as carnival of crime), scrape (for fight or difficulty), Flurry (of snow, or in the market), suspenders, diggings (for habitation) and range. Again, there are the new assemblings of English materials, e. g., doggery, rowdy, teetotaler, goatee, tony and cussedness. Yet again, there are the purely artificial words, e. g., sockdolager, hunky-dory, scalawag, guyascutis, spondulix, slumgullion, rambunctious, scrumptious, to skedaddle, to absquatulate and to exfluncticate. In the use of the last-named coinages fashions change. In the 40’s to absquatulate was in good usage, but it has since disappeared. Most of the other inventions of the time, however, have to some extent survived, and it would be difficult to find an American of today whom did not know the meaning of scalawag and rambunctious and who did not occasionally use them. A whole series of artificial American words groups itself around the prefix ker, for example, ker-flop, ker-splash, ker-thump, ker-bang, ker-plunk, ker-slam and ker-flummux. This prefix and its onomatopœic daughters have been borrowed by the English, but Thornton and Ware agree that it is American. Several of my correspondents suggest that it may have been suggested by the German prefix ge- —that it may represent a humorous attempt to make German words by analogy, e. g., geflop, gesplash, etc. I pass on this guess for what it is worth. Certainly such American-German words must have been manufactured frequently by the earliest “Dutch” comedians, and it is quite possible that some of them got into the language, and that the ge- was subsequently changed to ker-.

In the first chapter I mentioned the superior imaginativeness revealed by Americans in meeting linguistic emergencies, whereby, for example, in seeking names for new objects introduced by the building of railroads, they surpassed the English plough and crossing-plate with cow-catcher and frog. That was in the 30’s. Already at that day the two languages were so differentiated that they produced wholly distinct railroad nomenclatures. Such commonplace American terms as box-car, caboose and air-line are unknown in England. So are freight-car, flagman, towerman, switch, switching-engine, switch-yard, switchman, track-walker, engineer, baggage-room, baggage-check, baggage-smasher, accommodation-train, baggage-master, conductor, express-car, flat-car, hand-car, way-bill, expressman, express-office, fast-freight, wrecking-crew, jerk-water, commutation-ticket, commuter, round-trip, mileage-book, ticket-scalper, depot, limited, hot-box, iron-horse, stop-over, tie, rail, fish-plate, run, train-boy, chair-car, club-car, diner, sleeper, bumpers, mail-clerk, passenger-coach, day-coach, railroad-man, ticket-office, truck and right-of-way, not to mention the verbs, to flag, to express, to dead-head, to side-swipe, to stop-over, to fire (i. e., a locomotive), to switch, to side-track, to railroad, to commute, to telescope and to clear the track. These terms are in constant use in America; their meaning is familiar to all Americans; many of them have given the language everyday figures of speech. But the majority of them would puzzle an Englishman, just as the English luggage-van, permanent-way, goods-waggon, guard, carrier, booking-office, railway-rug, R. S. O. (railway sub-office), tripper, line, points, shunt, metals and bogie would puzzle the average untraveled American.

In two other familiar fields very considerable differences between English and American are visible; in both fields they go back to the era before the Civil War. They are politics and that department of social intercourse which has to do with drinking. Many characteristic American political terms originated in revolutionary days and have passed over into English. Of such sort are caucus and mileage. But the majority of those in common use today were coined during the extraordinarily exciting campaigns following the defeat of Adams by Jefferson. Charles Ledyard Norton has devoted a whole book to their etymology and meaning; the number is far too large for a list of them to be attempted here. But a few characteristic specimens may be recalled, for example, the simple agglutinates: omnibus-bill, banner-state, favorite-son, anxious-bench, gag-rule, executive-session, mass-meeting, office-seeker and straight-ticket; the humorous metaphors: pork-barrel, pie-counter, wire-puller, land-slide, carpet-bagger, lame-duck and on the fence; the old words put to new uses: plank, pull, platform, machine, precinct, slate, primary, floater, repeater, bolter, stalwart, filibuster, regular and fences; the new coinages: gerrymander, heeler, buncombe, roorback, mugwump and to bulldoze; the new derivatives: abolitionist, candidacy, boss-rule, per-diem, to lobby and boodler; and the almost innumerable verbs and verb-phrases: to knife, to split a ticket, to go up Salt River, to bolt, to eat crow, to boodle, to divvy, to grab and to run. An English candidate never runs; he stands. To run, according to Thornton, was already used in America in 1789; it was universal by 1820. Platform came in at the same time. Machine was first applied to a political organization by Aaron Burr. The use of mugwump is commonly thought to have originated in the Blaine campaign of 1884, but it really goes back to the 30’s. Anxious-bench (or anxious-seat) at first designated only the place occupied by the penitent at revivals, but was used in its present political sense in Congress so early as 1842. Banner-state appears in Niles’ Register for December 5, 1840. Favorite-son appears in an ode addressed to Washington on his visit to Ports-mouth, N. H., in 1789, but it did not acquire its present ironical sense until it was applied to Martin Van Buren. Thornton has traced bolter to 1812, filibuster to 1863, roorback to 1844, and split-ticket to 1842. Regularity was an issue in Tammany Hall in 1822. There were primaries in New York city in 1827, and hundreds of repeaters voted. In 1829 there were lobby-agents at Albany, and they soon became lobbyists; in 1832 lobbying had already extended to Washington. All of these terms are now as firmly imbedded in the American Vocabulary as election or congressman.

In the department of conviviality the imaginativeness of Americans was shown both in the invention and in the naming of new and often highly complex beverages. So vast was the production of novelties in the days before Prohibition, in fact, that England borrowed many of them and their names with them. And not only England: one buys cocktails and gin-fizzes to this day in “American bars” that stretch from Paris to Yokohama. Cocktail, stone-fence and sherry-cobbler were mentioned by Irving in 1809; by Thackeray’s time they were already well-known in England. Thornton traces the sling to 1788, and the stinkibus and anti-fogmatic, both now extinct, to the same year. The origin of the rickey, fizz, sour, cooler, skin, shrub and smash, and of such curious American drinks as the horse’s neck, Mamie Taylor, Tom-and-Jerry, Tom-Collins, John-Collins, bishop, stone-wall, gin-fix, brandy-champarelle, golden-slipper, hari-kari, locomotive, whiskey-daisy, blue-blazer, black-stripe, white-plush and brandy-crusta remains to be established; the historians of alcoholism, like the philologists, have neglected them. But the essentially American character of most of them is obvious, despite the fact that a number have gone over into English. The English, in naming their drinks, commonly display a far more limited imagination. Seeking a name, for example, for a mixture of whiskey and soda-water, the best they could achieve was whiskey-and-soda. The Americans, introduced to the same drink, at once gave it the far more original name of high-ball. So with ginger-ale and ginger-pop. So with minerals and soft-drinks. Other characteristic Americanisms (a few of them borrowed by the English) are red-eye, corn-juice, eye-opener, forty-rod, squirrel-whiskey, phlegm-cutter, moon-shine, hard-cider, apple-jack and corpse-reviver, and the auxiliary drinking terms, speak-easy, boot-legger, sample-room, blind-pig, barrel-house, bouncer, bung-starter, dive, doggery, schooner, moonshine, shell, stick, duck, straight, hooch, saloon, finger and chaser. Thornton shows that jag, bust, bat and to crook the elbow are also Americanisms. So are bar-tender and saloon-keeper. To them might be added a long list of common American synonyms for drunk, for example, piffled, pifflicated, awry-eyed, tanked, snooted, stewed, ossified, slopped, fiddled, edged, loaded, het-up, frazzled, jugged, soused, jiggered, corned, jagged and bunned. Farmer and Henley list corned and jagged among English synonyms, but the former is probably an Americanism derived from corn-whiskey or corn-juice, and Thornton says that the latter originated on this side of the Atlantic also.