Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 424

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

Page 424

to try” of the great masses of the plain people to such exhilarating confections of the wall-card virtuosi as “The elevator to success is not running; take the stairs.” Naturally enough, a grotesque humor plays about this literature of hope; the folk, though it moves them, prefer it with a dash of salt. “Smile, damn you, smile!” is a typical specimen of this seasoned optimism. Many examples of it go back to the early part of the last century, for instance, “Don’t monkey with the buzz-saw,” “The silent hog eats the swill,” and “It will never get well if you pick it.” Others are patently modern, e. g., “The Lord is my shepherd; I should worry” and “Roll over; you’re on your back.” The national talent for extravagant and pungent humor is well displayed in many of these maxims. It would be difficult to match, in any other folk-literature, such examples as “I’d rather have them say ‘There he goes’ than ‘Here he lies,”’ or “Don’t spit: remember the Johnstown flood,” or “Shoot it in the leg; your arm’s full,” or “Foolishness is next to happiness,” or “Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” or “It’s better to be a has-been than a never-was,” or “Cheer up; there ain’t no hell,” or “If you want to cure homesickness, go back home.” Many very popular phrases and proverbs are borrowings from above. “Few die and none resign” originated with Thomas Jefferson; Bret Harte, I believe, was the author of “No check-ee, no shirt-ee,” General W. T. Sherman is commonly credited with “War is hell,” and Mark Twain with “Life is one damn thing after another.” An elaborate and highly characteristic proverb of the uplifting variety—“So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell”—was first given currency by one of the engineers of the Panama Canal, a gentleman later retired, it would seem, for attempting to execute his own counsel. From humor the transition to cynicism is easy, and so many of the current sayings are at war with the optimism of the majority.“Kick him again; he’s down” is a depressing example. “What’s the use?” is another. The same spirit is visible in “Tell your troubles to a policeman,” “How’d you like to be the ice-man?” “Some she do and some say she don’t,” “Nobody loves a fat man,” “Ain’t it hell to be poor!”, “Have a heart!”, “I love my wife, but O you kid,” and “Would you for fifty cents?” The last originated in the ingenious mind of an advertisement writer and was immediately adopted. In