Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 132

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

Page 132

other such American ferœ naturœ and are born, live, die and go to heaven without the aid of either the uplift or the chautauqua.
  In music the English cling to an archaic and unintelligible nomenclature, long since abandoned in America. Thus they call a double whole note a breve, a whole note a semibreve, a half note a minim, a quarter note a crotchet, an eighth note a quaver, a sixteenth note a semi-quaver, a thirty-second note a demisemiquaver, and a sixty-fourth note a hemidemisemiquaver, or semidemisemiquaver. If, by any chance, an English musician should write a one-hundred-and-twenty-eighth note he probably wouldn’t know what to call it. This clumsy terminology goes back to the days of plain chant, with its longa, brevis, semi-brevis, minima and semiminima. The French and Italians cling to a system almost as confusing, but the Germans use ganze, halbe, viertel, achtel, etc. I have been unable to discover the beginning of the American system, but it would seem to be borrowed from the German. Since the earliest times a great many of the music teachers in the United States have been Germans, and some of the rest have had German training.
  In the same way the English hold fast (though with a gradual slacking of the grip of late) to a clumsy and inaccurate method of designating the sizes of printers’ types. In America the simple point system makes the business easy; a line of 14-point type occupies exactly the vertical space of two lines of 7-point. But the English still indicate differences in size by such arbitrary and confusing names as brilliant, diamond, small pearl, pearl, ruby, ruby-nonpareil, nonpareil, minion-nonpareil, emerald, minion, brevier, bourgeois, long primer, small pica, pica, English, great primer and double pica. They also cling to a fossil system of numerals in stating ages. Thus, an Englishman will say that he is seven-and-forty, not that he is forty-seven. This is probably a direct survival, preserved by more than a thousand years of English conservatism, of the Anglo-Saxon seofan-and-feowertig. He will also say that he weighs eleven stone instead of 154 pounds. A stone is 14 pounds, and it is always used in stating the heft of a man. He employs such designations of time as fortnight and twelve-month a great deal more than we do, and has certain special terms of which we know nothing, for example, quarter-day, bank-holiday,