Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 236

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

Page 236

hatred.” There is something inordinately offensive to English purists in the very thought of taking lessons from this side of the water, particularly in the mother-tongue. The opposition, transcending the academic, takes on the character of the patriotic. “Any American,” said Matthews in 1892, “who chances to note the force and the fervor and the frequency of the objurgations against American spelling in the columns of the Saturday Review, for example, and of the Athenœum, may find himself wondering as to the date of the papal bull which declared the infallibility of contemporary British orthography, and as to the place where the council of the Church was held at which it was made an article of faith.” 19 But that, as I say, was in 1892. Since then there has been an enormous change, and though the editors of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, so recently as 1914, pointedly refrained from listing forms that would “strike every reader as Americanisms,” they surrendered in a wholesale manner to forms quite as thoroughly American in origin, among them, ax, alarm, tire, asphalt, program, toilet, balk, wagon, vial, inquire, advertisement, pygmy and czar. The monumental New English Dictionary upon which the Concise Oxford is chiefly based shows many silent concessions, and quite as many open yieldings—for example, in the case of ax, which is admitted to be “better than axe on every ground.” Moreover, practical English lexicographers tend to march ahead of it, outstripping the liberalism of its editor, Sir James A. H. Murray. In 1914, for example, Sir James was still protesting against dropping the first e from judgement, a characteristic Americanism, but during the same year the Concise Oxford put judgment ahead of judgement, and two years earlier the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary, edited by Horace Hart, 20 had dropped judgement altogether. Hart is Controller of the Oxford University Press, and the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary is an authority accepted by nearly all of the great English book publishers and newspapers. Its last edition shows a great many American spellings. For example, it recommends the use of jail and jailer in place of the English gaol and gaoler, says that ax is better than axe, drops the