Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 105

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

Page 105

meaning of dumb borrowed from the German; it is not listed in the English slang dictionaries. 42 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, 43 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