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

Page 48

inventions, and to denounce them, when found, with vast acerbity. The Monthly Review opened the new offensive in July, 1797, with an attack upon the American spelling in Webster’s “Dissertations,” and the European Magazine and London Review joined it a month later with a violent diatribe against Jefferson’s Americanisms in his “Notes on Virginia.” “For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” it roared. “Why, after trampling upon the honour of our country, and representing it as little better than a land of barbarism—why, we say, perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language, and make that appear as Gothic as, from your description, our manners are rude?—Freely, good sir, will we forgive all your attacks, impotent as they are illiberal, upon our national character; but for the future spare—O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue!” The Edinburgh joined the charge in October, 1804, with a patronizing article upon John Quincy Adams’ “Letters on Silesia.” “The style of Mr. Adams,” it said, “is in general very tolerable English; which, for an American composition, is no moderate praise.” The usual American book of the time, it went on, was full of “affectations and corruptions of phrase,” and they were even to be found in “the enlightened state papers of the two great Presidents.” The Edinburgh predicted that a “spurious dialect” would prevail, “even at the Court and in the Senate of the United States,” and that the Americans would thus “lose the only badge that is still worn of our consanguinity.” The appearance of the five volumes of Chief Justice Marshall’s “Life of George Washington,” from 1804 to 1807, brought forth corrective articles from the British Critic, the Critical Review, the Annual, the Monthly, and the Eclectic. The Edinburgh, in 1808, declared that the Americans made “it a point of conscience to have no aristocratical distinctions—even in their vocabulary.” They thought, it went on, “one word as good as another, provided its meaning be as clear.” The Monthly Mirror, in March of the same year, denounced “the corruptions and barbarities which are hourly obtaining in the speech of our trans-atlantic colonies (sic),” and reprinted with approbation a parody by some anonymous Englishman of the American style of the day. Here is an extract from it, with the words that the author regarded as Americanisms in italics: