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

III. The Period of Growth

4. Loan-Words and Non-English Influences

THE INDIANS of the new West, it would seem, had little to add to the contributions already made to the American vocabulary by the Algonquins of the Northwest. The American people, by the beginning of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, knew almost all they were destined to know of the aborigines, and they had names for all the new objects thus brought to their notice and for most of the red man’s peculiar ceremonials. A few translated Indian terms, e. g., squaw-man, Great White Father, Father of Waters, and happy-hunting ground, represent the meagre fresh stock that the western pioneers got from him. Of more importance was the suggestive and indirect effect of his polysynthetic dialects, and particularly of his vivid proper names, e. g., Rain-in-the-Face, Young-Man-Afraid-of-His-Wife and Voice-Like-Thunder. These names, and other word-phrases like them, made an instant appeal to American humor, and were extensively imitated in popular slang. One of the surviving coinages of that era is Old-Stick-in-the-Mud, which Farmer and Henley note as having reached England by 1823.

Contact with the French in Louisiana and along the Canadian border, and with the Spanish in Texas and further West, brought many more new words. From the Canadian French, as we have already seen, prairie, batteau, portage and rapids had been borrowed during colonial days. To these French contributions bayou, picayune, levee, chute, butte, crevasse and lagniappe were now added, and probably also shanty and canuck. The use of brave to designate an Indian warrior, almost universal until the close of the Indian wars, was also of French origin. From the Spanish, once the Mississippi was crossed, and particularly after the Mexican war, there came a swarm of novelties, many of which have remained firmly imbedded in the language. Among them were numerous names of strange objects: lariat, lasso, ranch, loco (weed), mustang, sombrero, canyon, desperado, poncho, chapparal, corral, broncho, plaza, peon, cayuse, burro, mesa, tornado, presidio, sierra and adobe. To them, as soon as gold was discovered, were added bonanza, eldorado, placer and vigilante. Cinch was borrowed from the Spanish cincha in the early Texas days, though its figurative use did not come in until much later. Ante, the poker term, though the etymologists point out its obvious origin in the Latin, probably came into American from the Spanish. Thornton’s first example of its use in its current sense is dated 1857, but Bartlett reported it in the form of anti in 1848. Coyote came from the Mexican dialect of Spanish; its first parent was the Aztec coyotl. Tamale had a similar origin, and so did frijole and tomato. None of these is good Spanish. As usual, derivatives quickly followed the new-comers, among them peonage, broncho-buster, hot-tamale, ranchman and ranch-house, and such verbs as to ranch, to lasso, to corral, to ante up and to cinch. To vamose (from the Spanish vamos, let us go), came in at the same time. So did sabe. So did gazabo in the American sense.

This was also the period of the first great immigrations, and the American people now came into contact, on a large scale, with peoples of divergent race, particularly Germans, Irish Catholics from the South of Ireland (the Irish of colonial days “were descendants of Cromwell’s army, and came from the North of Ireland”), and, on the Pacific Coast, Chinese. So early as the 20’s the immigration to the United States reached 25,000 in a year; in 1824 the Legislature of New York, in alarm, passed a restrictive act. The Know-Nothing movement of the 50’s need not concern us here. Suffice it to recall that the immigration of 1845 passed the 100,000 mark, and that that of 1854 came within sight of 500,000. These new Americans, most of them Germans and Irish, did not all remain in the East; a great many spread through the West and Southwest with the other pioneers. Their effect upon the language was a great deal more profound than most of us think. The Irish, speaking the English of Cromwell’s time, greatly reinforced its usages in the United States, where it was beginning to yield to the schoolmasters, who were inclined to follow contemporary English precept and practice. “The influence of Irish-English,” writes an English correspondent, “is still plainly visible all over the United States. About nine years ago, before I had seen America, a relative of mine came home after twelve years’ farming in North Dakota, and I was struck by the resemblance between his speech and that of the Irish drovers who brought cattle to Norwich market.” We shall see various indications of the Irish influence later on, not only on the vocabulary, but also upon pronunciation and idiom. The Germans also left indelible marks upon American, and particularly upon the spoken American of the common people. The everyday vocabulary is full of German words. Sauerkraut and noodle, as we have seen, came in during the colonial period, apparently through the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch, i. e., a mixture, much debased, of the German dialects of Switzerland, Suabia and the Palatinate. The later immigrants contributed pretzel, pumpernickel, hausfrau, lager-beer, pinocle, wienerwurst (often reduced to wiener or wienie), frankfurter, bock-beer, schnitzel, leberwurst (sometimes half translated as liverwurst), blutwurst, rathskeller, schweizer (cheese), delicatessen, hamburger (i. e., steak), kindergarten and katzenjammer. From them, in all probability, there also came two very familiar Americanisms, loafer and bum. The former, according to the Standard Dictionary, is derived from the German laufen; another authority says that it originated in a German mispronunciation of lover, i. e., as lofer. Thornton shows that the word was already in common use in 1835. Bum was originally bummer, and apparently derives from the German bummler. Both words have produced derivatives: loaf (noun), to loaf, cornerloafer, common-loafer, to bum, bum (adj.) and bummery, not to mention on the bum. Loafer has migrated to England, but bum is still unknown there in the American sense. In England, indeed, bum is used to designate an unmentionable part of the body and is thus not employed in polite discourse.

Another example of debased German is offered by the American Kriss Kringle. It is from Christkindlein, or Christkind’l, and properly designates, of course, not the patron saint of Christmas, but the child in the manager. A German friend tells me that the form Kriss Kringle, which is that given in the Standard Dictionary, and the form Krisking’l, which is that most commonly used in the United States, are both quite unknown in Germany. Here, obviously, we have an example of a loan-word in decay. Whole phrases have gone through the same process, for example, nix come erous (from nichts kommt heraus) and ’rous mit ’im (from heraus mit ihm). These phrases, like wie geht’s and ganz gut, are familiar to practically all Americans, no matter how complete their ignorance of correct German. So are such slang phrases, obviously suggested by German, as ach Louie and on the Fritz. So is the use of dumb for stupid, a borrowing from the German dumm. Most of them know, too, the meaning of gesundheit, k¨mmel, seidel, wanderlust, stein, speck, männerchor, schützenfest, sängerfest, turn-verein, hoch, yodel, zwie-back and zwei (as in zwei bier). I have found snitz (=schnitz) in Town Topics. Prosit is in all American dictionaries. Bower, as used in cards, is an Americanism derived from the German bauer, meaning the jack. The exclamation, ouch! is classed as an Americanism by Thornton, and he gives an example dated 1837. The New English Dictionary refers it to the German autsch, and Thornton says that “it may have come across with the Dunkers or the Mennonites.” Ouch is not heard in English, save in the sense of a clasp or buckle set with precious stones (=OF nouche), and even in that sense it is archaic. Shyster is very probably German also; Thornton has traced it back to the 50’s. Rum-dumb is grounded upon the meaning of dumb borrowed from the German; it is not listed in the English slang dictionaries. Bristed says that the American meaning of wagon, which indicates almost any four-wheeled, horse-drawn vehicle in this country but only the very heaviest in England, was probably influenced by the German wagen. He also says that the American use of hold on for stop was suggested by the German halt an, and White says that the substitution of standpoint for point of view, long opposed by all purists, was first made by an American professor who sought “an Anglicized form” of the German standpunkt. The same German influence may be behind the general facility with which American forms compound nouns. In most other languages, for example, Latin and French, the process is rare, and even English lags far behind American. But in German it is almost unrestricted. “It is,” says L. P. Smith, “a great step in advance toward that ideal language in which meaning is expressed, not by terminations, but by the simple method of word position.”

The immigrants from the South of Ireland, during the period under review, exerted an influence upon the language that was vastly greater than that of the Germans, both directly and indirectly, but their contributions to the actual vocabulary were probably less. They gave American, indeed, relatively few new words; perhaps shillelah, colleen, spalpeen, smithereens and poteen exhaust the unmistakably Gaelic list. Lallapalooza is also probably an Irish loan-word, though it is not Gaelic. It apparently comes from allay-foozee, a Mayo provincialism, signifying a sturdy fellow. Allay-foozee, in its turn, comes from the French allez-fusil, meaning “Forward the muskets!”—a memory, according to P. W. Joyce, of the French landing at Killala in 1798. Such phrases as Erin go bragh and such expletives as begob and egorry may perhaps be added: they have got into American, though they are surely not distinctive Americanisms. But of far more importance, in the days of the great immigrations, than these few contributions to the vocabulary were certain speech habits that the Irish brought with them—habits of pronunciation, of syntax and even of grammar. These habits were, in part, the fruit of efforts to translate the idioms of Gaelic into English, and in part, as we have seen, survivals from the English of the age of James I. The latter, preserved by Irish conservatism in speech came into contact in America with habits surviving, with more or less change, from the same time, and so gave those American habits an unmistakable reinforcement. The Yankees had lived down such Jacobean pronunciations as tay for tea and desave for deceive, and these forms, on Irish lips, struck them as uncouth and absurd, but they still cling, in their common speech, to such forms as h’ist for hoist, bile for boil, chaw for chew, jine for join, sass for sauce, heighth for height, rench for rinse and lep for leaped, and the employment of precisely the same forms by the thousands of Irish immigrants who spread through the country undoubtedly gave them support, and so protected them, in a measure, from the assault of the purists. And the same support was given to drownded for drowned, oncet for once, ketch for catch, ag’in for against and onery for ordinary. Grandgent shows that the so-called Irish oi-sound in jine and bile was still regarded as correct in the United States so late as 1822, though certain New England grammarians, eager to establish the more recent English usage, had protested against it before the end of the eighteenth century. The Irish who came in in the 30’s joined the populace in the war upon the reform, and to this day some of the old forms survive. Certainly it would sound strange to hear an American farmer command his mare to hoist her hoof; he would invariably use hist, just as he would use rench for rinse.

Certain usages of Gaelic, carried over into the English of Ireland, fell upon fertile soil in America. One was the employment of the definite article before nouns, as in French and German. An Irishman does not say “I am good at Latin,” but “I am good at the Latin.” In the same way an American does not say “I had measles,” but “I had the measles.” There is, again, the use of the prefix a before various adjectives and gerunds, as in a-going and a-riding. This usage, of course, is native to English, as aboard and afoot demonstrate, but it is much more common in the Irish dialect, on account of the influence of the parallel Gaelic form, as in a-n-aice=a-near, and it is also much more common in American. There is, yet again, a use of intensifying suffixes, often set down as characteristically American, which was probably borrowed from the Irish. Examples are no-siree and yes-indeedy, and the later kiddo and skiddoo. As Joyce shows, such suffixes, in Irish-English, tend to become whole phrases. The Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration. The American is in like case. His speech bristles with intensives; bet your life, not on your life, well I guess, and no mistake, and so on. The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart. The American borrowed, not only occasional words, but whole phrases, and some of them have become thoroughly naturalized. Joyce, indeed, shows the Irish origin of scores of locutions that are now often mistaken for native Americanisms, for example, great shakes, dead (as an intensive), thank you kindly, to split one’s sides (i. e., laughing), and the tune the old cow died of, mot to mention many familiar similes and proverbs. Certain Irish pronunciations, Gaelic rather than archaic English, got into American during the nineteenth century. Among them, one recalls bhoy, which entered our political slang in the middle 40’s and survived into our own time. Again, there is the very characteristic American word ballyhoo, signifying the harangue of a ballyhoo-man, or spieler (that is, barker) before a cheap show, or, by metaphor, any noisy speech. It is from Ballyhooly, the name of a village in Cork, once notorious for its brawls. Finally, there is shebang. Schele de Vere derives it from the French cabane, but it seems rather more likely that it is from the Irish shebeen.

The propagation of Irishisms in the United States was helped, during many years, by the enormous popularity of various dramas of Irish peasant life, particularly those of Dion Boucicault. So recently as 1910 an investigation made by the Dramatic Mirror showed that some of his pieces, notably “Mavourneen,” “The Colleen Bawn” and “The Shaugraun,” were still among the favorites of popular audiences. Irish plays of that sort, at one time, were presented by dozens of companies, and a number of actors, among them Andrew Mack, Joe Murphy, Chauncey Olcott and Boucicault himself, made fortunes appearing in them. An influence also to be taken into account is that of Irish songs, once in great vogue. But such influences, like the larger matter of American borrowings from Anglo-Irish, remain to be investigated. So far as I have been able to discover, there is not a single article in print upon the subject. Here, as elsewhere, our philologists have wholly neglected a very interesting field of inquiry.

From other languages the borrowings during the period of growth were naturally less. Down to the last decades of the nineteenth century, the overwhelming majority of immigrants were either Germans or Irish; the Jews, Italians, Scandinavians, and Slavs were yet to come. But the first Chinese appeared in 1848, and soon their speech began to contribute its inevitable loan-words. These words, of course, were first adopted by the miners of the Pacific Coast, and a great many of them have remained California localisms, among them such verbs as to yen (to desire strongly, as a Chinaman desires opium) and to flop-flop (to lie down), and such nouns as fun, a measure of weight. But a number of others have got into the common speech of the whole country, e. g., fan-tan, kow-tow, chop-suey, ginseng, joss, yok-a-mi and tong. Contrary to the popular opinion, dope and hop are not from the Chinese. Neither, in fact, is an Americanism, though the former has one meaning that is specially American, i. e., that of information or formula, as in racing-dope and to dope out. Most etymologists derive the word from the Dutch doop, a sauce. In English, as in American, it signifies a thick liquid, and hence the viscous cooked opium. Hop is simply the common name of the Humulus lupulus. The belief that hops have a soporific effect is very ancient, and hop-pillows were brought to America by the first English colonists.

The derivation of poker, which came into American from California in the days of the gold rush, has puzzled etymologists. It is commonly derived from primero, the name of a somewhat similar game, popular in England in the sixteenth century, but the relation seems rather fanciful. It may possibly come, indirectly, from the Danish word pokker, signifying the devil. Pokerish, in the sense of alarming, was a common adjective in the United States before the Civil War; Thornton gives an example dated 1827. Schele de Vere says that poker, in the sense of a hobgoblin, was still in use in 1871, but he derives the name of the game from the French poche (=pouche, pocket). He seems to believe that the bank or pool, in the early days, was called the poke. Barrère and Leland, rejecting all these guesses, derive poker from the Yiddish pochger, which comes in turn from the verb pochgen, signifying to conceal winnings or losses. This pochgen is probably related to the German pocher (=boaster, braggart). There were a good many German Jews in California in the early days, and they were ardent gamblers. If Barrère and Leland are correct, then poker enjoys the honor of being the first loan-word taken into American from the Yiddish. But more likely it is from the German direct. “There is a little-known German card game,” says a correspondent, “which goes by the name of poch. It resembles poker in a number of ways. Its name is derived from the fact that at one stage of the game the players in turn declare the state of their hands by either passing or opening. Those who pass, signify it by saying, ‘Ich poche,’ or ‘Ich poch.’ This is sometimes indicated realistically by knocking on the table with one’s knuckles.” I leave the problem to the etymologists of the future.