Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 93

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

Page 93

them short and pithy and others extraordinarily elaborate, but all showing the true national talent for condensing a complex thought, and often a whole series of thoughts, into a vivid and arresting image. Of the first class are to fill the bill, to fizzle out, to make tracks, to peter out, to plank down, to go back on, to keep tab, to light out and to back water. Side by side with them we have inherited such common coins of speech as to make the fur fly, to cut a swath, to know him like a book, to keep a stiff upper lip, to cap the climax, to handle without gloves, to freeze on to, to go it blind, to pull wool over his eyes, to have the floor, to know the ropes, to get solid with, to spread one’s self, to run into the ground, to dodge the issue, to paint the town red, to take a back seat and to get ahead of. These are so familiar that we use them and hear them without thought; they seem as authentically parts of the English idiom as to be left at the post. And yet, as the labors of Thornton have demonstrated, all of them are of American nativity, and the circumstances surrounding the origin of some of them have been accurately determined. Many others are palpably the products of the great movement toward the West, for example, to pan out, to strike it rich, to jump or enter a claim, to pull up stakes, to rope in, to die with one’s boots on, to get the deadwood on, to get the drop, to back and fill, to do a landoffice business and to get the bulge on. And in many others the authentic American is no less plain, for example, in to kick the bucket, to put a bug in his ear, to see the elephant, to crack up, to do up brown, to bark up the wrong tree, to jump on with both feet, to go the whole hog, to make a kick, to buck the tiger, to let it slide and to come out at the little end of the horn. To play possum belongs to this list. To it Thornton adds to knock into a cocked hat, despite its English sound, and to have an ax to grind. To go for, both in the sense of belligerency and in that of partisanship, is also American, and so is to go through (i. e., to plunder).
  Of adjectives the list is scarcely less long. Among the coinages of the first half of the century that are in good use today are non-committal, highfalutin, well-posted, down-town, two-fer, played-out, flat-footed, whole-souled and true-blue. The first appears in a Senate debate of 1841; highfalutin in a political speech of the same decade. Both are useful words; it is impossible, not employing them, to