Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 170

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

Page 170

quad, but the words died with his reforms. At such schools as Groton and Lawrenceville the classes are called forms, and elaborate efforts are made in other ways to imitate the speech of Eton and Harrow. Dr. J. Milnor Coit, while rector of the fashionable St. Paul’s School, at Concord, N. H., gave a great impetus to this imitation of English manners. Says a leading authority on American private schools: “Dr. Coit encouraged cricket rather than baseball. The English schoolroom nomenclature, too, was here introduced to the American boy. St. Paul’s still has forms, but the removes, evensong and matins, and even the cricket of Dr. Coit’s time are now forgotten. Most boys of the three upper forms have separate rooms. The younger boys have alcoves in the dormitories similar to the cubicles of many of the English public schools.” 23
  Occasionally some uncompromising patriot raises his voice against such importations, but he seldom shows the vigorous indignation of the English purists. White, in 1870, warned Americans against the figurative use of nasty as a synonym for disagreeable. The use of the word was then relatively new in England, though, according to White, the Saturday Review and the Spectator had already succumbed. His objections to it were unavailing; nasty quickly got into American and has been there ever since. In 1883 Gilbert M. Tucker protested against good-form, traffic (in the sense of travel), to bargain and to tub as Briticisms that we might well do without, but all of them took root and are perfectly sound American today. The locutions that are more obviously merely fashionable slang have a harder time of it, and seldom gain lodgment. When certain advertisers in New York sought to appeal to snobs by using such Briticisms as swagger and topping in their advertisements, the town wits, led by the watchful Franklin P. Adams (though he serves the Tribune, which Clement K. Shorter once called “more English than we are English”), fell upon them, and quickly routed them. To the average American of the plain people, indeed, any word or phrase of an obviously English flavor appears to be subtly offensive. To call him old dear would be almost as hazardous as to call him