Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 366

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

Page 366

and is presently wholly legitimatized; if, on the contrary, it is adopted by the populace as a counter-word and employed with such banal imitativeness that it soon loses any definite significance whatever, then it remains slang and is avoided by the finical. An example of the former process is afforded by tommy-rot. It first appeared as English school-boy slang, but its obvious utility soon brought it into good usage. In one of Jerome K. Jerome’s books, “Paul Kelver,” there is the following dialogue:
“The wonderful songs that nobody ever sings, the wonderful pictures that nobody ever paints, and all the rest of it. It’s tommy-rot!”
  “I wish you wouldn’t use slang.”   “Well, you know what I mean. What is the proper word? Give it to me.”   “I suppose you mean cant.”   “No, I don’t. Cant is something that you don’t believe in yourself. It’s tommy-rot; there isn’t any other word.”   Nor was there any other word for hubbub and to dwindle in Shakespeare’s time; he adopted and dignified them because they met genuine needs. Nor was there any other satisfactory word for graft when it came in, nor for rowdy, nor for boom, nor for joy-ride, nor for omnibus-bill, nor for slacker, nor for trust-buster. Such words often retain a humorous quality; they are used satirically and hence appear but seldom in wholly serious discourse. But they have standing in the language nevertheless, and only a prig would hesitate to use them as Saintsbury used the best of the bunch and joke-smith.   On the other hand, many an apt and ingenious neologism, by falling too quickly into the gaping maw of the proletariat, is spoiled forthwith. Once it becomes, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ phrase, “a cheap generic term, a substitute for differentiated specific expressions,” it quickly acquires such flatness that the fastidious flee it as a plague. One recalls many capital verb-phrases, thus ruined by unintelligent appreciation, e. g., to hand him a lemon, to freeze on to, to have the goods, to cut no ice, to give him the glad hand, to fall for it, and to get by. One recalls, too, some excellent substantives, e. g., dope and dub, and compounds, e. g., come-on and easy-mark, and verbs, e. g., to vamp. These are all quite as sound in structure as the great majority of our most familiar words and