Home  »  The American Language  »  6. The Materials of the Inquiry

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

I. Introductory

6. The Materials of the Inquiry

ONE familiar with the habits of pedagogues need not be told that, in their grudging discussions of American, they have spent most of their energies upon vain attempts to classify its materials. White and Lounsbury, as I have shown, carried the business to the limits of the preposterous; when they had finished identifying and cataloguing Americanisms there were no more Americanisms left to study. But among investigators of less learning there is a more spacious view of the problem, and the labored categories of White and Lounsbury are much extended. Pickering, the first to attempt a list of Americanisms, rehearsed their origin under the following headings:

  1. We have formed some new words.”
  2. To some old ones, that are still in use in England, we have affixed new significations.”
  3. Others, which have been long obsolete in England, are still retained in common use among us.”
Bartlett, in the second edition of his dictionary, dated 1859, increased these classes to nine:
  1. Archaisms, i.e., old English words, obsolete, or nearly so, in England, but retained in use in this country.
  2. English words used in a different sense from what they are in England. “These include many names of natural objects differently applied.”
  3. Words which have retained their original meaning in the United States, though not in England.
  4. English provincialisms adopted into general use in America.
  5. Newly coined words, which owe their origin to the productions or to the circumstances of the country.
  6. Words borrowed from European languages, especially the French, Spanish, Dutch and German.
  7. Indian words.
  8. Negroisms.
  9. Peculiarities of pronunciation.

Some time before this, but after the publication of Bartlett’s first edition in 1848, William C. Fowler, professor of rhetoric at Amherst, devoted a brief chapter to “American Dialects” in his well-known work on English and in it one finds the following formidable classification of Americanisms:

  1. Words borrowed from other language.
    1. Indian, as Kennebec, Ohio, Tombigbee; sagamore, quahaug, succotash.
    2. Dutch, as boss, kruller, stoop.
    3. German, as spuke(?), sauerkraut.
    4. French, as bayou, cache, chute, crevasse, levee.
    5. Spanish, as calaboose, chapparal, hacienda, rancho, ranchero.
    6. Negro, as buckra.
  2. Words “introduced from the necessity of our situation, in order to express new ideas.”
    1. Words “connected with and flowing from our political institutions,” as selectman, presidential, congressional, caucus, mass-meeting, lynch-law, help (for servants).
    2. Words “connected with our ecclesiastical institutions,” as associational, consociational, to fellowship, to missionate.
    3. Words “connected with a new country,” as lot, diggings, betterments, squatter.
  3. Miscellaneous Americanisms.
    1. Words and phrases become obsolete in England, as talented, offset (for set-off), back and forth (for backward and forward).
    2. Old words and phrases “which are now merely provincial in England,” as hub, whap (?), to wilt.
    3. Nouns formed from verbs by adding the French suffix -ment, as publishment, releasement, requirement.
    4. Forms of words “which fill the gap or vacancy between two words which are approved,” as obligate (between oblige and obligation) and variate (between vary and variation).
    5. “Certain compound terms for which the English have different compounds,” as bank-bill (bank-note), book-store (bookseller’s shop), bottom-land (interval-land), clapboard (pale), sea-board (sea-shore), side-hill (hill-side).
    6. “Certain colloquial phrases, apparently idiomatic, and very expressive,” as to cave in, to flare up, to flunk out, to fork over, to hold on, to let on, to stave off, to take on.
    7. Intensives, “often a matter of mere temporary fashion,” as dreadful, might, plaguy, powerful.
    8. “Certain verbs expressing one’s state of mind, but partially or timidly,” as to allot upon (for to count upon), to calculate, to expect (to think or believe), to guess, to reckon.
    9. “Certain adjectives, expressing not only quality, but one’s subjective feelings in regard to it,” as clever, grand, green, likely, smart, ugly.
    10. Abridgments, as stage (for stage-coach), turnpike (for turnpike-road), spry (for sprightly), to conduct (for to conduct one’s self).
    11. “Quaint or burlesque terms,” as to tote, to yank; humbug, loafer, muss, plunder (for baggage), rock (for stone).
    12. “Low expressions, mostly political,” as slangwhanger, loco foco, hunker; to get the hang of.
    13. “Ungrammatical expressions, disapproved by all,” as do don’t, used to could, can’t come it, Universal preacher (for Universalist), there’s no two ways about it.

Elwyn, in 1859, attempted no classification. He confined his glossary to archaic English words surviving in America, and sought only to prove that they had come down “from our remotest ancestry” and were thus undeserving of the reviling lavished upon them by English critics. Schele de Vere, in 1872, followed Bartlett, and devoted himself largely to words borrowed from the Indian dialects, and from the French, Spanish and Dutch. But Farmer, in 1889, ventured upon a new classification, prefacing it with the following definition:
  • An Americanism may be defined as a word or phrase, old or new, employed by general or respectable usage in America in a way not sanctioned by the best standards of the English language. As a matter of fact, however, the term has come to possess a wider meaning, and it is now applied not only to words and phrases which can be so described, but also to the new and legitimately born words adapted to the general needs and usages, to the survivals of an older form of English than that now current in the mother country, and to the racy, pungent vernacular of Western life.
  • He then proceeded to this classification:

    1. Words and phrases of purely American derivation, embracing words originating in:
      1. Indian and aboriginal life.
      2. Pioneer and frontier life.
      3. The church.
      4. Politics.
      5. Trades of all kinds.
      6. Travel, afloat and ashore.
    2. Words brought by colonists, including:
      1. The German element.
      2. The French.
      3. The Spanish.
      4. The Dutch.
      5. The negro.
      6. The Chinese.
    3. Names of American things, embracing:
      1. Natural products.
      2. Manufactured articles.
    4. Perverted English words.
    5. Obsolete English words still in good use in America.
    6. English words, American by inflection and modification.
    7. Odd and ignorant popular phrases, proverbs, vulgarisms, and colloquialisms, cant and slang.
    8. Individualisms.
    9. Doubtful and miscellaneous.

    Clapin, in 1902, reduced these categories to four:

    1. Genuine English words, obsolete or provincial in England, and universally used in the United States.
    2. English words conveying, in the United States, a different meaning from that attached to them in England.
    3. Words introduced from other languages than the English:—French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Indian, etc.
    4. Americanisms proper, i.e., words coined in the country, either representing some new idea or peculiar product.

    Thornton, in 1912, substituted the following:

    1. Forms of speech now obsolete or provincial in England, which survive in the United States, such as allow, bureau, fall, gotten, guess, likely, professor, shoat.
    2. Words and phrases of distinctly American origin, such as belittle, lengthy, lightning-rod, to darken one’s doors, to bark up the wrong tree, to come out at the little end of the horn, blind tiger, cold snap, gay Quaker, gone coon, long sauce, pay dirt, small potatoes, some pumpkins.
    3. Nouns which indicate quadrupeds, birds, trees, articles of food, etc., that are distinctively American, such as ground-hog, hang-bird, hominy, live-oak, locust, opossum, persimmon, pone, succotash, wampum, wigwam.
    4. Names of persons and classes of persons, and of places, such as Buckeye, Cracker, Greaser, Hoosier, Old Bullion, Old Hickory, the Little Giant, Dixie, Gotham, the Bay State, the Monumental City.
    5. Words which have assumed a new meaning, such as card, clever, fork, help, penny, plunder, raise, rock, sack, ticket, windfall.

    In addition, Thornton added a provisional class of “words and phrases of which I have found earlier examples in American than in English writers;… with the caveat that further research may reverse the claim”—a class offering specimens in alarmist, capitalize, eruptiveness, horse of another colour (sic!), the jig’s up, nameable, omnibus bill, propaganda and whitewash.

    Tucker, in 1921, attempted to reduce all Americanisms to two grand divisions, as follows:

    1. Words and phrases that originated in America and express something that the British have always expressed differently if they have mentioned it at all.
    2. Words and phrases that would convey to a British ear a different meaning from that which they bear in this country.

    To which he added seven categories of locutions not to be regarded as Americanisms, despite their inclusion in various previous lists, as follows:

    1. Words and phrases stated by the previous compiler himself to be of foreign [i.e., chiefly of English] origin, like Farmer’s hand-me-downs.
    2. Names of things exclusively American, but known abroad under the same name, such as moccasin.
    3. Names of things invented in the United States, like drawing-room car.
    4. Words used in this country in a sense hardly distinguishable from that they bear in England, like force for a gang of laborers.
    5. Nonce words, like Mark Twain’s cavalieress.
    6. Perfectly regular and self-explanatory compounds, like office-holder, planing-machine, ink-slinger and fly-time.
    7. Purely technical terms, such as those employed in baseball.

    No more than a glance at these discordant classifications is needed to show that they hamper the inquiry by limiting its scope—not so much, to be sure, as the extravagant limitations of White and Lounsbury, but still very seriously. They leave out of account some of the most salient characters of a living language. Only Bartlett and Farmer establish a separate category of Americanisms produced by umlaut, by shading of consonants and by other phonological changes, though even Thornton, of course, is obliged to take notice of such forms as bust and bile, and even Tucker lists buster. None of them, however, goes into the matter at any length, nor even into the matter of etymology. Bartlett’s etymologies are scanty and often inaccurate; Schele de Vere’s are sometimes quite fanciful; Thornton, Tucker and the rest scarcely offer any at all. It must be obvious that many of the words and phrases excluded by Tucker’s index expurgatorius are quite genuine Americanisms. Why should he bar out such a word as moccasin on the ground that it is also used in England? So is caucus, and yet he includes it. He is also far too hostile to such characteristic American compounds as office-holder, fly-time and parlor-car. True enough, their materials are good English, and they involve no change in the meaning of their component parts, but it must be plain that they were put together in the United States and that an Englishman always sees a certain strangeness in them. Pay-dirt, panel-house, passage-way, patrolman, night-rider, low-down, know-nothing, hoe-cake and hog-wallow are equally compounded of pure English metal, and yet he lists all of them. Again, he is too ready, it seems to me, to bar out archaisms, which constitute one of the most interesting and authentic of all the classes of Americanisms. It is idle to prove that Chaucer used to guess. The important thing is that the English abandoned it centuries ago, and that when they happen to use it today they are always conscious that it is an Americanism. Baggage is in Shakespeare, but it is not in the London Times. The Times, save when it wants to be American, uses luggage, as do the fashionable shop-keepers along Fifth avenue. Here Mr. Tucker allows his historical principles to run away with his judgment. His book represents the labor of nearly forty years and is full of shrewd observations and persuasive contentions, but it is sometimes excessively dogmatic.

    The most scientific and laborious of all these collections of Americanisms is Thornton’s. It presents an enormous mass of quotations, and they are all very carefully dated, and it corrects most of the more obvious errors in the work of earlier inquirers. But its very dependence upon quotations limits it chiefly to the written language, and so the enormously richer materials of the spoken language are passed over, and particularly the materials evolved during the past twenty years. One searches the two fat volumes in vain for such highly characteristic forms as near-accident and buttinski, the use of sure as an adverb, and the employment of well as a sort of general equivalent of the German also.

    These grammatical and syntactical tendencies are beyond the scope of Thornton’s investigation, but it is plain that they must be prime concerns of any future student who essays to get at the inner spirit of the language. Its difference from standard English is not merely a difference in vocabulary, to be disposed of in an alphabetical list; it is, above all, a difference in pronunciation, in intonation, in conjugation and declension, in metaphor and idiom, in the whole fashion of using words. A page from one of Ring W. Lardner’s baseball stories contains few words that are not in the English vocabulary, and yet the thoroughly American color of it cannot escape anyone who actually listens to the tongue spoken around him. Some of the elements which enter into that color will be considered in the following pages. The American vocabulary, of course, must be given first attention, for in it the earliest American divergences are embalmed and it tends to grow richer and freer year after year, but attention will also be paid to materials and ways of speech that are less obvious, and in particular to certain tendencies of the grammar of spoken American, hitherto not investigated.