The Two Tongues

WHOEVER would read a profound political pamphlet under the guise of a brilliant novel may find it in “ Sibyl, or The Two Nations.” The gay overture of “ The Eve of the Derby,” at a London club, with which the curtain rises, contrasts with the evening amusements of the prolétaire in the gin-palaces of Manchester in a more than operatic effectiveness, and yet falls rather below than rises above the sober truth of present history. And we are often tempted to bind up the novel of the dashing Parliamenteer with our copy of “ Ivanhoe,” that we may thus have, side by side, from the pens of the Right Honorable Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Walter Scott, the beginning and the end of these eight hundred years of struggle between Norman rule and Saxon endurance. For let races and families change as they will, there have ever been in England two nations; and the old debate of Wamba and Gurth in the forest-glade by Rotherwood is illustrated by the unconscious satires of last week’s “Punch.” In Chartism, Reform-Bills, and Strikes, in the etiquette which guards the Hesperides of West-End society, in the rigid training which stops many an adventurer midway in his career, are written the old characters of the forest-laws ot Rufus and the Charter of John. Races and families change, but the distinction endures, is stamped upon all things pertaining to both.

We in America, who boast our descent from this matrimony of Norman and Saxon, claim also that we have blent the features of the two into one homogeneous people. In this country, where the old has become new, and the new is continually losing its raw lustre before the glitter of some fresher splendor, the traces of the contest are all but obliterated. Only our language has come to us with the brand of the fatherland upon it. In our mother-tongue prevails the same principle of dualism, the same conflict of elements, which not all the lethean baptism of the Atlantic could wash out. The two nations of England survive in the two tongues of America.

We beg the reluctant reader not to prematurely pooh-pooh as a “ miserable mouse ” this conclusion, thinking that we are only serving up again that old story of Wamba and Gurth with an added sauce-piquante from Dean Trench. We admit that we allude to that original composition of English past and present from a Latin and a Teutonic stock. But that is to us not an ultimate, but a primal fact. It is the premise from which we propose to trace out the principle now living and working in our present speech. We commence our history with that strife of the tongues which had at the outset also their battle of Hastings, their field of Sanilac. There began the feud which to-day continues to divide our language, though the descendants of the primitive stocks are inextricably mingled.

For it is as in “ Sibyl.” That novel showed us the peer’s descendants at the workman’s forge, while the manufacturer’s grandchildren were wearing the ermine and the strawberry-leaves. There is the constant passing to and fro across the one border-line which never changes. Dandy Mick and Devilsdust save a little money and become “ respectable.” We can follow out their history after Mr. Disraeli leaves them. They marry Harriet and Caroline, and contrive to educate a sharp boy or two, who will rise to become superintendents in the mills and to speculate in cotton-spinning. They in turn send into trade, with far greater advantages, their sons. The new generation, still educating, and, faithful to the original impulse, putting forth its fresh and aspiring tendrils, gets one boy into the church, another at the bar, and keeps a third at the great Rouge-et-Noir table of commerce. Some one of their stakes has a run of luck. Either it is my Lord Eldon who sits on the wool-sack, or the young curate bids his Oxford laurels against a head-mastership of a public school and covers his baldness with a mitre, or Jones Lloyd steps from his back parlor into the carriage which is to take Lord Overstone to the House of Peers. From the day when young Osborne, the bold London ’prentice, leaped into the Thames to fish up thence his master’s daughter, and brought back, not only the little lady, but the ducal coronet of Leeds in prospective, to that when Thomas Newcome the elder walked up to the same London that he might earn the “ bloody hand ” for Sir Brian and Sir Barnes, English life has been full of such gallant achievements.

So it has been with the words these speak. The phrases of the noble Canon Chaucer have fallen to the lips of peasants and grooms, while many a pert Cockney saying has elbowed its sturdy way into her Majesty’s High Court of Parliament. Yet still there are two tongues flowing through our daily talk and writing, like the Missouri and Mississippi, with distinct and contrasted currents.

And this appears the more strikingly in this country, where other distinctions are lost. We have an aristocracy of language, whose phrases, like the West-End men of “ Sibyl,” are effeminate, extravagant, conventional, and prematurely worn-out. These words represent ideas which are theirs only by courtesy and conservatism, like the law-terms of the courts, or the “cant” of certain religious books. We have also a plebeian tongue, whose words are racy, vigorous, and healthy, but which men look askance at, when met in polite usage, in solemn literature, and in sermons. Norman and Saxon are their relative positions, as in the old time when “ Ox ” was for the serf who drove a-field the living animal, and “Beef” for the baron who ate him ; but their lineage is counter-crossed by a hundred, nay, a thousand vicissitudes.

With this aristocracy of speech we are all familiar. We do not mean with the speech of our aristocracy, which is quite another thing, but that which is held appropriate for “ great occasions,” for public parade, and for pen, ink, and types. It is cherished where all aristocracies flourish best,— in the “ rural districts.” There is a style and a class of words and phrases belonging to country newspapers, and to the city weeklies which have the largest bucolic circulation, which you detect in the Congressional eloquence of the honorable member for the Fifteenth District, Mass., and in the Common-School Reports of Boston Corner, — a style and words that remind us of the country gentry whose titles date back to the Plantagenets. They look so strangely beside the brisk, dapper curtnesses in which metropolitan journals transact their daily squabbles ! We never write one of them out without an involuntary addition of quotation-marks, as a New-Yorker puts to his introduction of his verdant cousin the supplementary, “From the Jerseys.” Their etymological Herald’s Office is kept by schoolmasters, and especially schoolma'ams, or, in the true heraldic tongue, “ Preceptresses of Educational Seminaries.” You may find them in Mr. Hobbs, Jr.’s, celebrated tale of “ The Bun-Baker of Cos-Cob,” or in Bowline’s thrilling novelette of “ Beauty and Booty, or The Black Buccaneer of the Bermudas.” They glitter in the train of “ Napoleon and his Marshals,” and look down upon us from the heights of “ The Sacred Mountains.”

Occasionally you will find them degraded from their high estate and fallen among the riff-raff of slang. They become “ seedy ” words, stripped of their old meaning, mere chevaliers d’industrie, yet with something of the air noble about them which distinguishes them from the born “ cad.” The word “ convey ” once suffered such eclipse, (we are glad to say it has come up again,) and consorted, unless Falstaff be mistaken, with such low blackguards as “nim” and “cog” and “ prig ” and similar “ flash ” terms.

But we do not propose to linger among the “ upper-ten ” of the dictionaries. The wont of such is to follow the law of hereditary aristocracies: the old blood gets thin, there is no sparkle to the sangre azul, the language dies out in poverty. The strong, new, popular word forces its way up, is heard at the bar, gets quoted in the pulpit, slips into the outer ring of good society. King Irving or King Emerson lays his pen across its shoulder and it rises up ennobled, till finally it is accepted of the “ Atlantic Monthly,” and its Court-presentation is complete.

We have thus indicated the nature of the great contest in language between the conventional and the idiomatic. Idioms are just what their name implies. They are the commonalty of language,— private, proletarian words, who do the work, “ dum alteri tulerunt honores.” They come to us from all handiworks and callings, where you will always find them at their posts. Sharp, energetic, incisive, they do the hard labor of speech,

— that of carrying heavy loads of thought and shaping new ideas.

We think them vulgar at first, and savoring of the shop; but they are useful and handy, and we cannot do without them. They rivet, they forge, they coin, they “ fire up,” “ brake up,” “ switch off,” “ prospect,” “ shin ” for us when we are “ short,” “ post up ” our books, and finally ourselves, “ strike a lead,” “ follow a trail,” “ stand up to the rack,” “ dicker,” “ swap,” and “ peddle.” They are “ whole teams” beside the “ one-horse” vapidities which fail to bear our burdens. The Norman cannot keep down the Saxon. The Saxon finds his Wat Tyler or Jack Cade. Now “Mose ” brings his Bowery Boys into our parlor, or Cromwell Judd recruits his Ironsides from the hamlets of the Kennebec.

We declare for the prolétaires. W e vote the working-words ticket. We have to plead the cause of American idioms. Some of them have, as we said, good blood in them and can trace their lineage and standing to the English Bible and Book of Common Prayer; others are “ new men,” born under hedge-rows and left as foundlings at furnace-doors. And before we go farther, we have a brief story to tell in illustration of the two tongues.

A case of assault and battery was tried in a Western court. The plaintiff’s counsel informed the jury in his opening, that he was “ prepared to prove that the defendant, a steamboat-captain, menaced his client, an English traveller, and put him in bodily fear, commanding him to vacate the avenue of the steamboat with his baggage, or he would precipitate him into the river.” The evidence showed that the captain called out, — “ Stranger, of you don’t tote your plunder off that gang-plank, I’ll spill you in the drink.”

We submit that for terseness and vigor the practitioner at the bar of the Ohio had the better of the learned counsel who appeared at the bar of justice, albeit his client was in a Cockney mystification at the address.

The illustration will serve our turn. It points to a class of phrases which are indigenous to various localities of the land, in which the native thought finds appropriate, bold, and picturesque utterance. And these in time become incorporate into the universal tongue. Of them is the large family of political phrases. These are coined in moments of intense excitement, struck out at white heat, or, to follow our leading metaphor, like the speakers who use them, come upon the stump in their shirt-sleeves. Every campaign gives us a new horde. Some die out at once; others felicitously tickle the public ear and ring far and wide. They “ speak for Buncombe,” are BarnBurners, Old Hunkers, Hard Shells, Soft Shells, Log-Rollers, Pipe-Layers, Woolly Heads, Silver Grays, Locofocos, FireEaters, Adamantines, Free Soilers, Freedom Shriekers, Border Ruffians. They spring from a bon-mot or a retort. The log-cabin and hard-cider watchwords were born of a taunt, like the “ Gueux” of the Netherlands. The once famous phrase, Gerrymandering, some of our readers may remember. Governor Elbridge Gerry contrived, by a curious arrangement of districts in Massachusetts, to transfer the balance of power to his own party. One of his opponents, poring over the map of the Commonwealth, was struck by the odd look of the geographical lines which thus were drawn, curving in and out among the towns and counties. “ It looks,” said he, “ like a Salamander.” “ Looks like a Gerry-mander!” ejaculated another; and the term stuck long and closely.

Now and then you have the aristocratic and democratic sides of an idea in use at the same time. Those who style themselves “ Gentlemen of the Press ” are known to the rest of mankind as “ Dead Heads,”—being, for paying purposes, literally, capita mortua.

So, too, our colleges are provided, over and above the various dead languages of their classic curriculum, with the two tongues. The one serves the young gentlemen, especially in their Sopliomoric maturity, with appropriate expressions for their literary exercises and public flights. The other is for their common talk, tells who “flunked’’and was “deaded,” who “ fished ” with the tutor, who “ cut ” prayers, and who was “ digging ” at home. Each college, from imperial Harvard and lordly Yale to the freshest Western “ Institution,” whose three professors fondly cultivate the same number of aspiring Alumni, has its particular dialect with its quadrennial changes. The just budded Freshmen of the class of'64 could hardly without help decipher “ The Rebelliad,” which in the Consulship of Plancus Kirkland was the epic of the day. The good old gentlemen who come up to eat Commencement dinners and to sing with quavery voices the annual psalm thereafter, are bewildered in the mazes of the college-speech of their grandsons. Whence come these phrases few can tell. Like witty Dr. S——’s “ quotation,” which never was anything else, they started in life as sayings, springing full-grown, like Pallas Athene, from the laboring brain of some Olympic Sophister. Here in the quiet of our study in the country, we wonder if the boys continue as in our day to “ create a shout,” instead of “ making a call,” upon their lady acquaintances, — if they still use “ ponies,”—if they “group,” and get, as we did, “ parietals ” and “ publics ” for the same.

The police courts contribute their quota. Baggage-smashing, dog-smudging, ring-dropping, watch-stuffing, the patentsafe men, the confidence men, garroters, shysters, policy-dealers, mock-auction Peter Funks, bogus-ticket swindlers, are all terms which have more or less outgrown the bounds of their Alsatia ot Thieves’ Latin and are known of men.

Even the pulpit, with its staid decorums, has its idioms, which it cannot quite keep to itself. We hear in the religious world of “ professors,” and “ monthly concerts,” (which mean praying, and not psalmody,) of “sensation-preaching,” (which takes the place of the “ painful ” preaching of old times,) of “ platform-speakers,” of “ revival-preachers,” of “ broad pulpits,” and “Churches of the Future,” of the “Eclipse of Faith” and the “Suspense of Faith,” of “ liberal ” Christians, (with no reference to the contribution-plates,) of “subjective” and “objective” sermons, “ Spurgeonisms,” and “ businessmen’s meetings.” And we can never think without a smile of that gifted genius, whoever he was, who described a certain public exercise as “ the most eloquent prayer ever addressed to a Boston audience.” He surely created a new and striking idiom.

The boys do, as Young America should, their share. And the sayings of street urchins endure with singular tenacity. Like their sports, which follow laws of their own, uninfluenced by meteorological considerations, tending to the sedentary games of marbles in the cold, chilly spring, and bursting into baseand football in the midsummer solstice, strict tradition hands down from boy to boy the well-worn talk. There are still “ busters,” as in our young days, and the ardent youth upon floating cakes of ice “run bendolas” or “kittly-benders,” or simply “ benders.” In different latitudes the phrase varies,—one-half of it going to Plymouth Colony, and the other abiding in Massachusetts Bay. And this tendency to dismember a word is curiously shown in that savory fish which the Indian christened “scup-paug.” Eastward he swims as “ scup,” while at the Manhattan end of the Sound he is fried as “ porgie.” And apropos of him, let us note a curious instance of the tenacity of associated ideas. The street boys of our day and early home were wont to term the hetairai of the public walks “ scup.” The young Athenians applied to the classic courtesans the epithet of σαπέρδιον, the name of a small fish very abundant in the Black Sea. Here now is a bit of slang which may fairly be warranted to keep fresh in any climate.

But boy-talk is always lively and pointed ; not at all precise, but very prone to prosopopeia; ever breaking out of the bounds of legitimate speech to invent new terms of its own. Dr. Busby addresses Brown, Jr., as Brown Secundus, and speaks to him of his “ young companions.” Brown himself talks of “ the chaps,” or “ the fellows,” who in turn know Brown only as Tom Thumb. The power of nicknaming is a school-boy gift, which no discouragement of parents and guardians can crush out, and which displays thoroughly the idiomatic faculty. For a man’s name was once his, the distinctive mark by which the world got at his identity. Long, Short, White, Black, Greathead, Longshanks, etc., told what a person in the eyes of men the owner presented. The hereditary or aristocratic process has killed this entirely. Men no longer make their names; even the poor foundlings, like Oliver Twist, are christened alphabetically by some Bumble the Beadle. But the nickname restores his lost rights, and takes the man at once out of the ignobile vulgus to give him identity. We recognize this gift and are proud of our nicknames, when we can get them to suit us. Only the sharp judgment of our peers reverses our own heraldry and sticks a surname like a burr upon us. The nickname is the idiom of nomenclature. The sponsorial appellation is generally meaningless, fished piously out of Scripture or profanely out of plays and novels, of given with an eye to future legacies, or for some equally insufficient reason apart from the name itself. So that the gentleman who named his children One, Two, and Three, was only reducing to its lowest term the prevailing practice. But the nickname abides. It has its hold in affection. When the “old boys” come together in Gore Hall at their semi-centennial Commencement, or the “Puds” or “ Porcs” get together after long absence, it is not to inquire what has become of the Rev. Dr. Heavysterne or his Honor Littleton Coke, but it is, “Who knows where Hockey Jones is ? ” and “ Did Dandy Glover really die in India?” and “Let us go and call upon Old Sykes” or “Old Roots” or “Old Conic-Sections,”—thus meaning to designate Professor———, LL.D.,

A. A. S., F. R. S., etc. A college president who had no nickname would prove himself, ipso facto, unfit for his post, It is only dreadfully affected people who talk of “ ’Tully” ; the sensible all cling to the familiar “Chick-Pea” or Cicero, by which the wart-faced orator was distinguished. For it is not the boys only, but all American men, who love nicknames, the idioms of nomenclature. The first thing which is done, after a nominating convention has made its platform and Balloted for its candidates, is to discover or invent a nickname: Old Hickory, Tippecanoe, The Little Giant, The Little Magician, The Mill-Boy of the Slashes, Honest John, Harry of the West, Black Dan, Old Buck, Old Rough and Ready. A “ good name ” is a tower of strength and many votes.

And not only with candidates for office, the spots on whose “ white garments” are eagerly sought for and labelled, but in the names of places and classes the principle prevails, the democratic or Saxon tongue gets the advantage. Thus, we have for our states, cities, and ships-of-war the title of fondness which drives out the legal title of ceremony. Are we not “Yankees” to the world, though to the diplomatists “ citizens of the United States of America”? We have a Union made up upon the map of Maine, New Hampshire, etc., to California; we have another in the newspapers, composed of the Lumber State, the Granite State, the Green-Mountain State, the Nutmeg State, the Empire State, the Keystone State, the Blue Hen, the Old Dominion, of Hoosiers, Crackers, Suckers, Badgers, Wolverines, the Palmetto State, and Eldorado. We have the Crescent City, the Quaker City, the Empire City, the Forest City, the Monumental City, the City of Magnificent Distances. We hear of Old Ironsides sent to the Mediterranean to relieve the Old Tea-Wagon, ordered home. Everywhere there obtains the Papal principle of taking a new title upon succeeding to any primacy. The Norman imposed his laws upon England; the courts, the parish-registers, the Acts of Parliament were all his; but to this day there are districts of the Saxon Island where the postman and censustaker inquire in vain for Adam Smith and Benjamin Brown, but must perforce seek out Bullhead and Bandyshins. So indomitable is the Saxon.

We have not done yet with our national idioms. In the seaboard towns nautical phrases make tarry the talk of the people. “ Where be you a-cruising to ? ” asks one Nantucket matron of her gossip. “ Sniver-dinner, I’m going to Egypt; Seth B. has brought a letter from Turkeywowner to Old Nancy.” “ Dressed-todeath-and-drawers-empty, don’t you see we’re goin’ to have a squall? You had better take in your stu’n’-sails.” The good woman was dressed up, intending, “ as soon as ever dinner was over,” to go, not to the land of the Pharaohs, but to the negro-quarter of the town, with a letter which “ Seth B.” (her son, thus identified by his middle letter) had brought home from Talcahuana.

For the rural idioms we refer the reader to the late Sylvester Judd’s “ Margaret” and “Richard Edney,” and to the Jack Downing Letters.

The town is not behind the country. For, whatever is the current fancy, pugilism, fire-companies, racing, railway-building, or the opera, its idioms invade the talk. The Almighty Dollar of our worship has more synonymes than the Roman Pantheon had divinities. We are not “well-informed,” but “posted” or “posted up.” We are not “hospitably entreated ” any more, but “ put through.” We do not “meet with misadventure,” but “ see the elephant,” which we often do through the Hibernian process of “ fighting the tiger.”

Purists deplore this, but it is inevitable ; and if one searches beneath the surface, there is often a curious, deposit of meaning, sometimes auriferous enough to repay our use of cradle and rocker. We “ panned out,” the other day, a phrase which gave us great delight, and which illustrated a fact in New England history worth noting. We were puzzling over the word “socdollager,” which Bartlett, we think, defines as “Anything very large and striking,”—Anglicé, a “ whopper,”— “ also a peculiar fish-hook.” The word first occurs in print, we believe, in Mr. Cooper’s “Home as Found,” applied to a patriarch among the white bass of Otsego Lake, which could never be captured. We assumed at once that there was a latent reason for the term, and all at once it flashed upon us that it was a rough fisherman's random-shot at the word “ doxology.” This, in New England congregations, as all know, was wont to be sung, or “j’ined in,” by the whole assembly, and given with particular emphasis, both because its words were familiar to all without book, and because it served instead of the chanted creed of their Anglican forefathers. The last thing, after which nothing could properly follow, the most important and most conspicuous of all, it represented to our Yankee Walton the crowning hope of his life, — the big bass, after taking which he might put hook-andline on the shelf. By a slight transposition, natural enough to untrained organs, “ doxology” became “ socdollager.”

We are not making a dictionary of Americanisms, but merely wandering a little way into our native forests. We refer to the prevalent habit of idiomatic speech as a fact that makes part of our literature. It cannot be ignored, nor do we see how it is to be avoided. It is well, of course, to retain the sterling classic basis of our speech as we received it from abroad, and to this all that is best and purest in our literature past and present will tend. But we hold to no Know-Nothing platform which denies a right of naturalization to the worthy. As Ruskin says of the river, that it does not make its bed, but finds it, seeking out, with infinite pains, its appointed channel, so thought will seek its expression, guided by its inner laws of association and sympathy. If the mind and heart of a nation become barbarized, no classic culture can keep its language from corruption. If its ideas are ignoble, it will turn to the ignoble and vulgar side of every word in its tongue, it will affix the mean sense it desires to utter where it had of old no place. It converts the prince’s palace into a stable or an inn; it pulls down the cathedral and the abbey to use the materials for the roads on which it tramples. It is good to sanctify language by setting some of its portions apart for holy uses, — at least, by preserving intact the high religious association which rests upon it. The same silver may be moulded to the altar-chalice or the Bacchic goblet; but we touch the one with reverent and clean hands, while the other is tossed aside in the madness of the revel. Men clamor for a new version of the Sacred Scriptures, and profess to be shocked at its plain outspokenness, forgetting that to the pure all things are pure, and that to the prurient all things are foul. It was a reverent and a worshipping age that gave us that treasure, and so long as we have the temper of reverence and worship we shall not ask to change it.

And to return once more to our original illustration. We have the two nations also in us, the Norman and the Saxon, the dominant and the aspiring, the patrician and the prolétaire. The one rules only by right of rule, the other rises only by right of rising. The power of conservatism perishes, when there is no longer anything to keep; the might of radicalism overflows into excess, when the proper check is taken away or degraded. So long as the noble is noble and “ noblesse oblige,” so long as Church and State are true to their guiding and governing duties, the elevation of the base is the elevation of the whole. If the standards of what is truly aristocratic in our language are standards of nobility of thought, they will endure and draw up to them, on to the episcopal thrones and into the Upper House of letters, all that is most worthy. Whatever makes the nation’s life will make its speech. War was once the career of the Norman, and he set the seal of its language upon poetry. Agriculture was the Saxon’s calling, and he made literature a mirror of the life he led. We in this new land are born to new heritages, and the terms of our new life must be used to tell our story. The Herald’s College gives precedence to the PatentOffice, and the shepherd’s pipe to the steam-whistle. And since all literature which can live stands only upon the national speech, we must look for our hopes of coming epics and immortal dramas to the language of the land, to its idioms, in which its present soul abides and breathes, and not to its classicalities, which are the empty shells upon its barren sea-shore.