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

Page 89

through a new Dark Age. The typical American, in Paulding’s satirical phrase, became “a bundling, gouging, impious” fellow, without either “morals, literature, religion or refinement.” Next to the savage struggle for land and dollars, party politics was the chief concern of the people, and with the disappearance of the old leaders and the entrance of pushing upstarts from the backwoods, political controversy sank to an incredibly low level. Bartlett, in the introduction to the second edition of his Glossary, described the effect upon the language. First the enfranchised mob, whether in the city wards or along the western rivers, invented fantastic slang-words and turns of phrase; then they were “seized upon by stump-speakers at political meetings”; then they were heard in Congress; then they got into the newspapers; and finally they came into more or less good usage. Much contemporary evidence is to the same effect. Fowler, in listing “low expressions” in 1850, described them as “chiefly political.” “The vernacular tongue of the country,” said Daniel Webster, “has become greatly vitiated, depraved and corrupted by the style of the congressional debates.” Thornton, in the appendix to his Glossary, gives some astounding specimens of congressional oratory between the 20’s and 60’s, and many more will reward the explorer who braves the files of the Congressional Globe. This flood of racy and unprecedented words and phrases beat upon and finally penetrated the retreat of the literati, but the purity of speech cultivated there had little compensatory influence upon the vulgate. The newspaper was enthroned, and belles lettres were cultivated almost in private, and as a mystery. It is probable, indeed, that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” both published in the early 50’s, were the first contemporary native books, after Cooper’s day, that the American people, as a people, ever read. Nor did the pulpit, now fast falling from its old high estate, lift a corrective voice. On the contrary, it joined the crowd, and Bartlett denounced it specifically for its bad example, and cited, among its crimes against the language, such inventions as to doxologize and to funeralize. To these novelties, apparently without any thought of their uncouthness, Fowler added to missionate and consociational.
  As I say, the pressure from below broke down the defenses of the purists, and literally forced a new national idiom upon them. Pen