Mencken's America Speaking

"Mr. Mencken, as we know, defends the American vernacular and at the same time is ever ready to laugh at the follies of its makers."
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To the nineteen-twenties H. L. Mencken was a dangerous iconoclast, the relentless and often ribald derider of what he called the booboisie; a man who consorted nightly with the works of Nietzsche and spent the day tracking down Americana for the inside pages of his "anti-American" Mercury. To the forties, on the contrary, he appears simply as a voluminous lexicographer; and this, as everyone knows from Dr. Johnson's definition, is to be "a maker of dictionaries, a harmless drudge."

With Mr. Mencken's latest work before us, Supplement One to his celebrated American Language, the contrast in reputations is piquant but not convincing. The Mercurial Mencken of the twenties was not a ghoul, and the Monumental Mencken of the forties is anything but harmless. They are indeed the same man, his vocation unchanged. Nor is this a mere impression, but an observation verifiable by dates and facts.

The first edition of The American Language was written during the original World War and appeared in 1919. The work has grown fat on its maker's feeding, and changed internally through four revisions, the last of which appeared nine years ago. Beyond revision, it must now be supplemented; but the spirit that animates the whole is the same throughout—a spirit I should like to call, in spite of paradox, satirical love of country. For America has always been Mr. Mencken's subject; he still fondles it with ridicule; but on a true view both emerge greater from an embrace that often resembles a pugilistic clinch.

Perhaps we have forgotten that the very phrase "American Language" wore in its earlier days an air of defiance and heresy which some found provincial and even chauvinistic, despite the author's well-known hatred of war and empire. For the name American Language embodied an unfamiliar thesis, which was that the people of the United States had developed their share of English speech into a separate idiom following a destiny of its own. No longer were Americanisms the misdeeds of abandoned colonials; they were the spontaneous and legitimate forms of expression of a people as independent in thought as in polity.

Some time after this first blast, Mr. Mencken went even further and showed that the important branch of the once common tongue was now American and not English. American was spoken by a far greater population and exerted a steady pressure upon English, with hardly any corresponding influence in return. Europe and Asia were learning our words and our pronunciation, and the potential world language, under whatever name it might be adopted, was the American Language.

To point out these truths implied no misplaced patriotism, but only philosophical reflection on a mounting pile of linguistic facts. The very nature of American speech, with its great borrowings from Indian and European tongues, its archaisms and neologies, its rapid rate of change and astonishing uniformity over wide areas, made it more than a national achievement: not yet an international tongue, it was already an imperial medium of exchange.

All this Mr. Mencken was not alone in asserting, though the bulk of professional drudging and dredging followed rather than preceded his initial effort. But what made the four editions of The American Language, like this newest Supplement, so accessible and hence so influential, was its enormous literary skill and vigilant cultural criticism. As such it stands high in the tradition of the great amateurs, from Dr. Johnson himself to Horne Tooke and Noah Webster.

This is not to say that Mr. Mencken is not also scholarly. He is admirably and delightfully so. His footnotes are as good as his text, and one finds in him that whimsical excess of information which shows a man superior to his system and amused at the ramifications of inquiry. For instance, in explaining the term "baloney dollar" in the present work, he tells us not only its inventor and its meaning, but also its value and the date of the decree establishing its gold contents. If you want to know the scope of the word nylon, you have only to turn to page 341 and learn about the DuPont Company's nurturing of "a whole group of synthetic polyamides." As for a brief history of osteopathy—but the truly marvelous thing is that all these facts, which could be as heavy as lead, and as gray, float and sparkle on a vast Mississippi of comment that sweeps us along and puts everything in its place.

And these waters, though deep, are tonic. For the satirical cast of Mencken's thought leads him constantly to exemplify the qualities of the language he describes. We find twice over, so to speak, the vigor, freshness, and exuberance of the American imagination. Clear, colloquial, astringent, Mencken's prose—like Mark Twain's—reveals its subject and conceals its art. The only ornament it tolerates is a figure of rhetoric which deserves to be called a Menckenism—something that ranges between irony and sarcasm, less premeditated than the first and more impassive than the second—but so sparing of effect that it almost always takes the reader unaware. How easy, for instance, to take "wilds" literally in the following sentence—but you mustn't, or you will miss the raillery about "Captain Basil Hall, who ventured into the American wilds in 1827 and 1828 and published an account of his sufferings on his return home."

Let me quote again—though in disregarding the author's spacing, one spoils the effect of his shots. Here a trailing phrase shows how soberly Mencken loves his country, even when accusing himself of partiality: "I permitted myself in a newspaper article a chauvinistic sniff, for it was impossible for me to imagine a British don getting to really close grips with the wayward speech of this great Republic.'' Again, though the American vernacular is his domain, he has a deft way with foreign, technical, or learned words: "Poe, whose Tamerlane and Other Poems had come out pianissimo in 1827.... Plans are now afloat to reset the work at the conclusion of World War II and its sequelae." At other times, the image involves a social judgment: "The Commonwealth Fund withdrew its support, Lamont turned to forums of the uplift less loathsome, and the hundred immortals were never actually appointed." (That is, no academy shall fix our language, with or without English help.)

But do not infer that Mr. Mencken will fraternize freely with the "assiduous members of Rotary and other clubs of organized lovey-dovey." He is not, like "Stuart Chase, busy with the salvation of humanity on a dozen fronts," nor will he democratically accept the "jargon that Dogberries in and out of office use for their revelations to the multitude." Yet he pays a sardonic attention to the complaints of Realtors, a title which "in its early days was frequently assumed without authority . . . [though] a series of legal battles that began in 1925 and ended triumphantly in 1936 disposed of this effrontery." For his journalistic confreres, Mencken has the affectionate contempt that comes of fellow slavery, and he lights it up with a verbal trouvaille too good to miss: "The commissioner's studio was abandoned to the ecdysiasts [strip-teasers], their press-agent, and forty head of reporters and photographers."

The effect of Mencken's sallies against our culture can therefore be compared to the workings of a thermostat: it chills hot air and turns the heat on the Philistines, and with an even temper achieves an even temperature. But admirable as it is, this device of blowing hot and cold is often less than adequate to the reader's needs as a user of language, and this leaves him either bewildered or in the clutch of common superstitions. Since, as I believe, this neglect involves a threat to the language itself, I should like to say more about it.

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Mr. Mencken, as we know, defends the American vernacular and at the same time is ever ready to laugh at the follies of its makers. Are the fools, then, building better than they know? Or is there a standard by which we can pick and choose among the inventions of a verbally exuberant people? Most of the time, Mr. Mencken thinks there is not. Rather, he grows harsh or toplofty when he has to record the objections of living writers to specified new words. He denounces, with the support of learned philologists, the "vicious purism" that would prune or destroy, and he indulges a retrospective scorn for the eighteenth century, notably for Swift, Gray, and Johnson, who fought against innovations, some of them now part of our speech.

What is wrong with these notions? In the first place, usage is not the simple thing it seems. Its effect is not only to establish words but also to change their qualities. With the passage of years, mob has become disinfected, renovated; it has killed off possible rivals, buried its sordid origins, and acquired proper connections. It is strictly not the same word that Swift disliked—as we can see when we compare it with another short form, say, rep (for reputation), which Swift also condemned and which is just as tawdry now as then.

In the second place, it is not only the right but the duty of any author in any century to choose his words: that is what writing consists in, and Mr. Mencken's admirable diction proves that he knows this and acts on it. Why then shouldn't writers—Swift or Shaw or Mencken—go one step further and give us from time to time reasons for their choice among the verbal novelties of their day? I say reasons, for in spite of popular belief it is both possible and important to reason out matters of language. It is important because words point to ideas and suggest feelings, which together constitute ''style," in the sense of moral and intellectual fitness.

Few things are bettor worth discussing. If the American Language is something to be proud of, the reason is that its words and turns of phrase record fine, great, true, or funny things. This is another way of saying that a language is not a gadget; it is a fund of embodied ideas, the first raw shape of poetry. Hence changes brought about by new forms and sounds in the web of its inner relations are as debatable as a piece of foreign policy or a bronze nude in a public square. I should like to illustrate this by treating of the evil passions wrapped up in the use of the verb to contact, but that is really a theme for a whole article.

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Having shown the need, I return to the possibility, so often questioned, of rational argument about language. To appeal to usage, as do the enemies of such reasoning, is to beg the question, for usage is not an agent but a result—the result of innumerable "votes" cast, over the years for or against a particular word. And the leaders in this popular choice are the men who write and speak professionally—the Roosevelts and Churchills, Hemingways and Audens. If, as often happens, such a man is also a theorist about his own art, he will tell us his loves and hates among vocables. As user and critic, he himself is the voice of usage, himself his own highest authority, with power of life and death over current forms. And as old words are not sacred and may be changed, so new ones are not sacred and may be liquidated. It is the one instance in which rational killing is no murder.

But the word "murder" reminds us that to speak of language as "living" is at best a slippery truth. Some languages continue to change while others do not or, like unspoken Latin and Greek, cannot. Actually, what makes a language live is that people speak it, whether or not their newspapermen spawn new expressions every morning. Indeed—and this reinforces the practical importance of arguing about words—it is not hard to imagine a tongue changing so rapidly and breeding so many new terms that it would "die" of overcrowding, confusion, and incoherence. Not every "addition" adds itself: it may displace a clearer, handsomer term or clutter up speechways until we find ourselves in a jungle barring communication. To put it abstractly, not all "growths" are equally fit for use, and there is no guarantee that the fittest will survive.

Mr. Mencken admits this in one place, and in a few others shows a willingness to pass judgment on some of the monsters in his studbook. He speaks of words that seem to him "more urban than urbane" and of others whose Philistine or ephemeral attributes make them of doubtful value.

Among the latter one finds a product of Chicago journalism according to which a man-hater is called a misterogynist. It is not likely that the word will find favor and appear in future masterpieces by cynics yet unborn. But the fact of its coinage—or rather its counterfeiting—seems to rue the symptom of a disease now attacking American speech. This hybrid word, which takes the Greek root for "woman'' and tacks it on to mister out of a doped inkling of what misogynist means, does indeed betray an interest in words, but hardly an informed or a critical interest: it is the interest of pretentious illiteracy.

And daily experience, confirmed by Mr. Mencken's collection, shows that this is no isolated state of mind. When a taxi driver, holding out his palm to the first drops of rain, says: "Another one fraught with precipitation!" or when a young soldier, joshing his fellows in slang, winds up with "Aw! don't be unmitigated!" one should perhaps wonder whether spoken American is still the fresh, tough, imaginative vernacular we boast of, or actually past its prime and tricked out in frippery old and new.

This is the point where I feel that critical lexicographers like Mr. Mencken should give us some principles and rules of thumb. At one time the vagaries of the press or of the downright foolish could be ignored; we could trust to the common language used in print to keep our speech relatively fixed. But mass reading of mass literature has broken down the dyke. There is no main stream; rather there is a hood of mixed jargons. "Entertainment" and topical books are couched in a slang that will be unintelligible twenty years hence; next to these are their counterparts in academic, pseudo-technical, or coterie prose. Pick up for comparison with either sort a mid-Victorian book—say Carlyle's Frederick the Great—and you get, not the "stuffiness" that you expect, but genuine colloquial English mixed, like sparkling water, with a little Scotch.

To be sure, there have always been cant words, slang, and academic must; that is precisely the point: they existed and were consciously neglected or attacked. Today we multiply their kind and wallow among them indiscriminately. Only think of the needless enormities we have fashioned and got used to in the last few years: evaluate (everything at every turn) ; collaborationist; specialistic (throughout the Harvard Report); absenteeism (misused for absences from work); nourishments (that is, snacks between meals at military hospitals); issuance (usually in pursuance of somebody's—not order, but ordinance); radioitis (and other -itis words, quite meaningless); vis-à-vis ("be careful vis-à-vis the steam table"); finalize, directive, to implement, cheeseburger—the list stretches on: read Mr. Mencken.

To trust to the digestive powers of usage alone seems, in these conditions, rather too blithe. It amounts to fatalism, a gay and even perverse, fatalism, since its adherents call any attack on these parasitic growths meddlesome and inimical to "life"—as if life in a language were not simply the power to remain intelligible over wide areas and reasonably long periods of time. This is the problem, at any rate, for an imperial language; yet from learned as well as secular quarters the one solution proposed is the superartifice of a so-called Basic idiom—a kind of linguistic contraception—which not even the inventors' fellow citizens can understand without study or study without laughter.

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Oddly enough, the same Americans who do not hesitate to confuse, misuse, duplicate, and miscegenate words remain absurdly conventional about grammar, especially in print. On second thoughts, there is nothing odd about it, for it is part of the same uncertain desire to show off knowledge, fostered in this case by the etiquette of the "Write It Right." books and editorial style sheets. Yet when everybody "knows enough" not to split an infinitive, or makes some similar bugbear equivalent to a knowledge of the mother tongue, it is perhaps time to reconsider what the schools and the books should teach as good English.

In the last edition of The American Language, Mr. Mencken had a chapter on "the Future of the Language," part of which dealt with the vernacular as against the "correct'' grammar. This chapter is to be amplified in the forthcoming Second Supplement, and it will be interesting to see whether he considers any of these deviations to have become good usage.

For my part, I should like to see war made on dinosaur words (clumsy and obscene) like misterogynist, and generally on the impulse to make up a new and special word for each minute variation in common experience. But I should even more strenuously attack the conservatism that refuses to sanction well-established popular usages in grammar. Vernacular grammar not only simplifies; I also think its reasoned acceptance would teach us something about the genius of the language that is obscured by our shoddy and excessive word-making. For example, preferring aint I? to the prissy am I not?; getting rid of whom, and accepting he dont (with no apostrophe in this or similar contractions) would really be "modernizing" in a fashion tolerably practical and democratic.

Everyone will at once think of other forms also pressing for recognition—the use of like for as with verbs, first of all: it is current in the South, in England, in Suburbia; precedents for it exist in the prose of poets from Shakespeare to William Morris and Day Lewis; it is simple, sharp, and clear; and what is perhaps just as important, the enforcement of the "correct" usage has begun to generate absurdities. Last year I read in a dispatch from the front: "As the English, we attacked at dawn."

The same considerations apply to two other stumbling blocks: the right adjective or pronoun to follow everyone, anyone, nobody, everybody, and the like; and the use of adverbs with verbs expressing motion or condition: "Pass it quick"—or "quickly"? As to the first difficulty, it seems to me clear that good sense requires us to say "Everybody took their hats and filed out." His-or-her is idiotic. Cardinal Newman did not disdain the plural, and it recurs throughout the recently published literary remains of a fine American stylist, F. Scott Fitzgerald. If everybody aren't plural now, it's high time they were.

As to the second, the right impulse is equally plain: whenever possible use the short form—and do it quick. New England will hold out to the last, very likely, with its ingrained habit of "rest easily," and "I feel terribly" (which ought to mean, respectively, "be lazy" and "I am numb") but the overwhelming tendency is shown by "drive slow," "he talks silly," "don't act insane." Here again, sense and simplicity go together. If the New Yorker tidbits bore the caption "This item from Dubuque is reprinted entire," we should be spared the pompous "in its entirety" as well as the ghostly presence of "this item, reprinted entirely."

Other concessions to instinctive practice might be made which I cannot argue here. I think we fuss too much about dangling participles. Only a few are ludicrous or reprehensible. Let us also have the so-called "fused" form—"I can't stand him grumbling''; it is not quite the same as "his grumbling" and distinctions are worth having. Contrariwise, I should be willing to forget the differences between those erratic duplicates, lie and lay, sit and set; though I am not yet willing to die a martyr to this cause.

To deliberately adopt some of these new habits, new though ancient in "bad usage," would naturally seem to many a piece of self-inflicted violence. Yet that is how change, "growth," improvement, simplification, and all the kindred merits we vaunt in our speech must come about. And in making the suggestion I am not merely having my say according to the privilege I claimed earlier for conscious writers. I am also trying to reinforce the choices already expressed by those whose ways of speech unconsciously follow some felt need in the language itself.

This is an important difference. The coiners whose words I attacked respond to needs outside language: the advertiser wants to sell; the journalist wants to astonish; the bureaucrat wants to impress. You may say the writer similarly wants to charm or persuade, but presumably as a craftsman he cherishes language and follows rules arising from his daily handling of it—rules that are often hard to state, but which those other improvised tinkers do not even suspect exist. Neither does the neutral public that endures when it might be made to judge. Hence my regret that Mr. Mencken, the satiric guardian angel of our national soul, should not hold it a part of his great task to exhibit formally, side by side with his own genius, that of our language.

 

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