READERS of The Atlantic who are not interested in verbal criticism have probably no notion how large the number is of those who are so, nor of the zest with which they give themselves to discussions of this subject. It is not a department of literature which I hold in very high respect, as I have said before. No one can accuse me of magnifying my office in this regard. But I have in the correspondence which it provokes an unfailing test of the degree of interest which is widely felt in this subject. Every writer who has been some years before the public, if he has had the good fortune to win the attention of his readers, receives letters more or less encouraging or discouraging from people who know his name, although he does not know theirs. Now, upon no subject do I receive so many letters as upon language. To say that those which have come to me about my few articles on Americanisms are as twenty to one of those which have come about my many articles on England would be quite within bounds. And the former come not only from all parts of the country, but from all quarters of the earth,—from South America, from India, and from Australia. Most of them are of merely personal interest; a few contain valuable information or suggestions ; and a yet smaller number are controversial or censorious. Of the latter sort I shall present one to my readers almost as it was written ; changing it in no respect, but omitting a few unimportant passages. I do so because the letter is characteristic of a certain sort of critic and of criticism, and because the writer is evidently a man of education and intelligence, who writes with good feeling and in good faith, — two points upon which I am sorry to say that I have found that verbal critics are not always to be trusted. Another reason of my special attention to this letter is that it is from a British critic,— an Englishman born and bred in Ireland. How much in earnest he is my readers may gather from the fact that he sends me sixteen closely written pages of comment upon one or two of my articles on Americanisms. Here follows the substance of his letter, always in his own words : —
WATERFORD, March 30, 1880.
DEAR SIR, — I see The Atlantic Monthly regularly, and am always careful to read your articles. They are interesting ; but truth compels me to say that after reading one of them I feel pretty much like a cat whose hair has been stroked violently from the tail to the head. I need scarcely say that I refer mainly to the articles on philology. For myself, I may say that I have always been a purist in matters of speech and writing, am of middle age, and have been in nearly all the English counties, in half of those in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and am familiar with most of the countries of Western Europe. All my acquaintances are of the middle or upper middle class.
Some months ago you wrote a series of articles on a dictionary of Americanisms,— Bartlett’s, I think,— in which were some passages I could not agree with. I do not remember that you gave any definition of what an Americanism consists of; and all dialecticians know that no argument can be sound which is not based on a definition. My definition of an Americanism would be this : A word or phrase peculiar to America, or which is used in America in a peculiar sense. If this definition is correct (the subjunctive “ be correct” sounds pedantic), which you may perhaps dispute, it follows that it is no disproof of a peculiar meaning of a word being American to show that it was once used in that sense in England. The English language is the language now spoken in England. Being a living language, it is constantly changing ; and if the Americans choose to retain expressions which the English have dropped, that is their affair. In England the language is managed, so to speak, by a cultivated and educated class, numbering, perhaps, one million out of thirty-five. This class is aware of its responsibility, and though it sometimes speaks slang, rarely allows it to get into literature, even of the most fleeting character. In America, on the other hand, every citizen thinks himself, like Sigismund, supra grammaticam, and uses words to express his thoughts, without any thought of derivation or proper meaning. I have never been in America ; but I have felt that if a kind Providence were to lead me thither I should be in a constant state of irritation from hearing words misused around me.
Now to descend from the general to the particular. In your remarks on fix, in the sense of settle or arrange, you quoted some Englishman as using it in that sense. Did it not strike you that this might be American slang imported into England? That was what struck me, on reading the passage ; and I think that to prove that fix is habitually used in England in that sense you should go to an earlier date, say 1840 to 1850.
I do not think that anything provoked me more than what you wrote on the question of railway vs. railroad. Because some few closet philosophers and thoughtless persons use the word railroad in England, and some few newly arrived emigrants and others use the word railway in America, therefore you say (if I remember rightly) that these words are not distinctive. I am aware that you say, at the end of the passage, that a majority use the word as stated. But this is altogether too weak. The fact is that not one person in one hundred thousand ever speaks of a railroad in these kingdoms. . . .
Now for a few words about jugs and pitchers. I have often heard that what we call “jugs ” are called “pitchers” in America. In The Atlantic Monthly for March, page 329, I find the word “ cream-jug.” The tone of the article is thoroughly American ; and the only fact which might cause me to question the nationality of the writer is that she does not follow the American custom (I refrain from an adjective) of putting a lady’s Christian name after “Mrs.,” instead of her husband’s. That jug is not used in the Bible is quite true. But it seems to me that this may be due to the fact that neither the children of Israel nor the English in the time of King James had jugs as we now understand the word. I do not write as stating a fact, but rather as suggesting an hypothesis. (The n is really necessary, unless you pronounce the h violently.)
I think it most likely that our modern jugs were first introduced some time in the last century, after a distinct lodgment had been made on the American coast, and that the two sides used different words to express the new idea, just as in the case of railways all the technicals1 are differently named. I should be greatly surprised if you could find in the whole range of English literature the word pitcher applied to any vessel less than eight inches high. An American lady once told a relative of mine, as a reason for having caught cold while crossing the Atlantic, that she “ had a jug of hot water in the berth, and that it had spilled;” to which he replied, “ No wonder,” thinking a jug of hot water a strange bedfellow. In such a case we should say “jar.”
Elsewhere (page 381), you remark on a clergyman pronouncing e in mercy like that in error ; I suppose the same as in pen or melt. I have never heard anything else in England, Ireland, or Scotland. I have known Americans to be laughed at for saying Amurrika. I should not think of pronouncing the e in earth different from the e in plenty; and if I did I should get laughed at. In the Guardian Angel, by Dr. Holmes, chapter xxiii., you will find this passage, which will show you Dr. Holmes’s opinion : “‘Don’t you think she is vurry good lookin’ ? ’ said a Boston girl to a New York girl.”
Against your description of some peculiarities of English pronunciation I have not a word to say. They are wonderful. I have heard milk and silk pronounced myulk and syulk. My experience is that the Irish of English descent pronounce and speak much better English than the average English of the same class. But the accent of the Irish is often detestable ; and hey have a custom of dropping their voices at the end of their sentences.
I should now like to mention a few words in which I think the Americans are decidedly wrong.
Build. This word is used in a wholly different sense in America from that in England. The tendency of the English language is rather to restrict meanings; that of the American language to extend them. Build in England is rarely, if ever, used outside its natural meaning of masonry, except for wheeled vehicles and vessels. The putting together of a fixed steam-engine is not very dissimilar from the construction of a locomotive; but no one would speak of the maker of steam-engines as a builder. The dictionary gives as the derivative meaning of to build, to raise a dwelling place or house; and, with the above-mentioned exceptions, I do not remember ever having seen it applied to any work but masonry. Thus we speak of building a viaduct, constructing an embankment, or excavating a tunnel. I believe that build would apply to all three in America. I remember that when the Atlantic telegraph cable was first laid Mr. Seward, then secretary of state, sent a message: “I congratulate the builders of the Atlantic telegraph cable” I remember well the feeling of horror that came on me at reading such a misapplication. We should as soon think of building a book, or a shirt, as a cable.
To ride is a verb which is an excellent illustration of the narrowing tendency of the English and the widening tendency of the American language. A century ago to ride, in England, meant any kind of land traveling, except on foot. But for the last thirty or forty years, or perhaps longer, there has been a feeling among educated English people that ride should be confined to traveling on the back of an animal, and that traveling in a vehicle should be called driving. This rule is now rigidly adhered to amongst the cultivated classes, and seems sensible, corresponding to the German reiten and fahren. On the other hand, not only do the Americans use ride for railway and coach traveling, but I have read in an American paper of a person “riding ” in a ferry-boat ! Macaulay uses the word in its old sense; but I doubt if he would do so if writing now.
The verb to can occurs to me as another illustration of American widening. Can meant originally a vessel made from cane, but has for a century or more meant a vessel made of metal, usually tin. But Americans speak of “canning ” fruit, whether the vessel used be tin or earthenware. If the practice were followed here, we should probably speak of potting or preserving fruit.
Now I have liberated my soul, and shall sleep the better for it. Yours faithfully. * * *
In kindly consideration for my correspondent, for whom I have all the respect, and towards whom I have all the good feeling, one can have for a stranger, I do not give even his initials ; for I am about to show that, intelligent as he is, and purist as he describes himself, he has, in his criticism, merely given me the opportunity to present his letter to my readers as a characteristic example of the errors and the ignorance of even the better class of British critics of what he so — (like him, I tenderly refrain from using an adverb) calls “ the American language.”
From beginning to end his communication shows merely his own unfitness to say anything on the subject he has undertaken to treat, — an unfitness not at all peculiar to him among educated Britons, and not at all discreditable to him, if he had not undertaken to teach others what he did not know himself. Nor even in such large undertaking upon such insufficient means is he either peculiar or peculiarly British; for I could point out at least one “American citizen ” on his side of the world who busies himself, in his own person and under various disguises, in stigmatizing his fellow-citizens as barbarians in speech, and who like him blunders in the performance of his self-sought task. It is not, however, for the mere purpose of showing the error of my respected and intelligent correspondent, whose motives are manifestly good, that I make his communication public, but because I believe that in doing so I make a contribution of some value and interest to the discussion of a subject which engages the attention of so many of the better class of readers.
First as to himself: he is a purist in matters of speech. Now it seems more than doubtful that purism in language is an altogether admirable quality in a verbal critic. For it would be difficult to give a definition of purism which would not imply an excessive conservatism ; and in regard to what this correspondent discreetly remarks is a living language, that quality implies a tendency to an unwholesome, an absurd, and, in the end, even an impossible restraint. Living languages must change ; and although it is desirable that their changes should not be fanciful and extravagant in kind, nor greater in number than necessity demands, the mere fact that a word is new, or that a new shade of meaning is attached to an old word, is not a reasonable occasion of fault-finding. What is to be sought in this respect is that novelty should not be inconsistent with reason, nor in violation of good taste, — that change and progress should be on normal lines. It needs hardly be said that change having been made and authorized by general, including good, usage, it must be accepted, whether it is good in itself or not. But if a threatened, but not yet effected, change, or an impending novelty, is not good, it may be reasonably resisted. The humble but honorable task of verbal criticism is to guard language against absurd, pretentious, and vulgar innovation, and to aid towards a simple, clear, and manly speech.2 There is this difference, then, between my British censor and me: he is a purist; I am not.
As to what Americanism in language is, he has plainly not seen the definition which I have given of it. But that is of little importance; for I accept his without qualification. An Americanism is a word or phrase which is peculiar to America, or which is used in America in a peculiar sense. But from this definition it follows that words or phrases and senses which are not peculiar to America are not Americanisms, however much they may be open to objection on the score of formation or of taste. All Americanisms are, to a certain degree at least, bad English; but all bad English is not Americanism.
Next we are told that the English language is “ the language now spoken in England.” Is it, indeed, that, and nothing else ? In what language did Spenser write, and Shakespeare, and Bunyan ? English, I believe, and of a very good sort. Spenser wrote in an idiom somewhat older than that of his own day ; but did he any the less write what even then was English ? Did the predecessors of Cicero and Horace and Virgil write any other language than Latin ? Those writers used what the taste of the world has pronounced to be the best Latin; but their predecessors and their successors, down to the time when the language of Rome was corrupted and disintegrated by barbarian influences, wrote and spoke Latin. What was once good English can never be other than good English, although it may be old-fashioned and obsolete. Therefore, if “Americans” retain expressions which the English people of to-day have dropped (which, in any important degree, I do not admit), they may be rightly accused of speaking oldfashioned English, but not of speaking “ American ; ” nor are such words and phrases Americanisms, in the proper sense of that term.
There is no disputing that the standard of the best English of the day must be found in the speech and the writing of the best speakers and writers in England. But that my correspondent’s one million of cultivated Englishmen are so conscious of their responsibility in this respect that they exclude, even from their printed language, words and phrases, or senses of words and phrases, which they themselves would admit to be incorrect is not true, but far from being true. On the contrary, the current literature of England is full of words, of senses, and of constructions which, according to British standard, are incorrect. Of this there is overwhelming proof, easily obtainable by any one who finds the picking of such flaws to his taste, and who has the time to give to such labor. In this respect it is true only that in the journalism and the periodical literature of the United States more incompetent writers are permitted to come before the public than in the journalism and periodical literature of Great Britain. It is not true, as every competent observer knows, that in America every citizen thinks himself superior to the rules of “grammar” and the canons of good taste in language. On the contrary, there is even a greater anxiety upon this subject here than there is in England. We defer more to “authority,” and are more anxious to speak “ good grammar ” and “ dictionary English.” Uneducated and halfeducated people come more to the front here than they do in England, Ireland, and Scotland ; but the English of our best writers will compare favorably, in correctness, if not in an easy mastery of idiom, with that of the best British writers ; and if the best writers are taken as a standard of comparison on the one side, they should also be so taken on the other.
Our critic has never been in “ America.” I thought so when I began to read his letter. And yet he undertakes to say what we do and why we do it, and generally to criticise and lecture us upon the linguistic results of our social, political, and material condition. He is Irish by birth, although English by blood ; and he must pardon me for saying that in this respect he reminds me of his countryman who, being asked if he could play the violin, replied, “ I prezhoom I can ; but I niver throid.” When he has tried America he will better appreciate the nature of the task which he has undertaken.
Descending with our censor from generals to particulars, let us consider what he says in regard to certain words. He is not satisfied with a condemnation of the verb fix, in the sense of arrange, prepare, put in order; he resents any showing that the use of it in that Sense is not of “ American ” origin ; and he would set aside the evidence to that effect given in The Atlantic of November, 1878, by the supposition that the examples “ might be American slang imported into England ” ! The importation must have begun early and continued long. For the examples were from Farquhar, 1700, Lord Shaftesbury, 1703, Sterne, 1759, “ I says, says I,” 1812, Lord Pembroke, 1872, and the English Matron, 1873. Fix in the sense in question is not good English ; but it is not peculiar to America, and therefore, according to this critic’s own definition, it is not an Americanism, nor is it of American origin. American slang imported into England by Farquhar and Shaftesbury and Sterne ! We have here a beautiful example of Philistine philology, — if such trivial discussions must be dignified with the name of philology. There is more of the same sort to come, and it will be instructive to us, if not to our censor.
Nothing “ provoked ” him more (does he mean irritated, fretted, annoyed ? Or does he mean, as many of the select and conscious million write and thousands of them say, “aggravated”?) than the assertion — and, am I to say, the proof? — that the use of railway for railroad was not peculiar to America; and he would set aside the latter by the plea that “ some few closet philosophers and thoughtless persons use the word railroad in England, and some few newly arrived emigrants and others use the word railway in America.” Ingenious, but this time, I fear, not quite candid (because much-provoked) friend, let us see who were the few closet philosophers and thoughtless persons. They were Thomas Roscoe repeatedly, in the History of the Birmingham Railway, 1837 ; Cardinal Newman repeatedly, in two books ; Thackeray repeatedly ; Addison repeatedly, in his great legal work on Torts, 1837 ; and The London Week repeatedly. These are the writers whom our Philistine censor “sits upon;” probably rating Cardinal Newman among the careless writers, and Thackeray among the closet philosophers ! Let us not balk him, but furnish further occasion for his scorn.
From a score and more of like examples at my hand I select the following, for I cannot weary my readers or myself with more: —
“ The fields on each side of it are now mostly dug up for building, or cut through into gaunt corners and nooks of blind ground by the wild crossings and concurrencies of three railroads.”(John Ruskin, Fiction Fair and Foul.)
“ Do put your nose outside your own doors a bit, now that railroads are plenty and cheap.” (Essays and Papers, by H. Longueville Jones, London, 1870, page 3.)
— “ the cities you have built, the railroads you have made, the manufactures you have produced,” etc. (John Bright, quoted by Matthew Arnold in The Future of Liberalism.)
— “ but to travel by railroad, at least in England and Scotland, is now a part of the common lot of mankind.” (Saturday Review, January 3, 1880, page 7.)
It was no fault of this British critic that he did not know that railroad had been thus used by English writers from the time when railways were first laid to the present; but when in his ignorance he undertakes to lecture us poor Yankees on the subject, in what position has he placed himself ? And as to the examples given of the use of railway here being furnished by “ a few newly arrived emigrants,” he is involved in the same combination of ignorance and presumption. They were from the New York Tribune, most “ American ” of newspapers, from the letters of a gentleman who is of the very oldest New England stock, and who had never been in England, and from a paper by General Reed, United States minister to Greece ! And here follows another example from a very important and characteristic paper, the Chicago Platform of the Republican Party in 1880 : —
“ V. We affirm the belief, avowed in 1876, that the duties levied for the purpose of revenue should so discriminate as to favor American labor, that no further grant of the public domain should be made to any railway or other corporation.”
It is not worth our while to produce any more instances furnished by " newly arrived emigrants.” Did this censor ever hear of the Erie Railway, which is not laid between John O’Groat’s and Land’s End ? If he were here in New York I could show him horse-cars having on their sides the announcement that they “ cross all railways.” The simple truth is that railway, the better word, is more common in British usage, and railroad in that of the United States ; but that the latter is not an Americanism, it having been used in England before there were any railways in this country, and continued to be used by such writers as Cardinal Newman and Thackeray, such speakers as John Bright, and such journals as the Saturday Review.
As to whether it is the “ American custom ” to put a married lady’s Christian name, instead of her husband’s, after “ Mrs.,” of course my correspondent knows better than I do. I can only say that never, from my boyhood to the present day, have I received an invitation so worded, or seen a visiting-card on which such an arrangement of names appeared; but, on the contrary, “ Mrs. Thomas Brown,” “ Mrs. Richard Jones,” or “ Mrs. Henry Robinson.” I have, however, known some ladies of an “ advanced ” type to do the other thing “ in type ” in both countries.
The question as to jug and pitcher, as applied to vessels put upon the table, is a very trifling one ; but it is not without some interest in itself, and also because this is a little distinguishing trait between the present speech of the two countries. But here our censor exhibits even greater ignorance of the subject than heretofore. His suggestion that the reason why jug does not appear in the Bible, although pitcher does, is that there were no jugs in England in King James’s time would not have been made if he had known that John Florio, in his Worlde of Wonders, A. D. 1599, gives as the definition of cantharo “ a tankard or jug that houldeth much ; ” that Cotgrave, in his French and English dictionary, 1611, defines canthare as “a great jug or tankard;” and that Minsheu, in his Spanish dictionary, 1599, also says that cantaro is “ a tankard or jug that holdeth much.” And he probably forgot that one Christopher Sly, a tinker, but a somewhat renowned subject of King James, complained that his hostess “ brought stone jugs, and no sealed quarts.”
Now it is to be remarked that all these examples (and even our censor will admit that they are somewhat authoritative for their time) imply that a jug was a large, coarse vessel, which, as the passage in The Taming of the Shrew shows, was made of the coarse earthenware called “stone.” Such it was, beyond a doubt; and its coarseness and unfitness for table service is also shown by the origin of the word, which, as Kersey says, A. D. 1721, is “ probably of the nickname of Jug for Joan ; ” Joan being the name applied of old to girls of the lowest order, — “ wenches,” as they used to be called. This etymology is undoubted by the best subsequent writers on language, and has the sanction of Walter Skeat, the last and ablest of them. The use of the word in English literature until at least the beginning of this century conforms to this meaning of it; and Dr. Johnson gives as its definition, “ large drinking-vessel, with a globous or swelling belly.” To come down to the present day, Stormonth, of Cambridge (England), whose dictionary I have mentioned before, says that a jug is “ a vessel with a handle, for drink, generally swelling out in the middle, and having a narrow mouth.” This is what a jug is in America; and this, it will be seen, is not what is put upon breakfast tables to hold cream either in England or America. Briefly, according to the evidence of English literature and English lexicography, a jug is a large, big-bellied vessel, with a narrow mouth, made of coarse earthenware. Jugs rarely hold less than two quarts, and they sometimes hold two or three gallons.
Pitchers, on the contrary, have been made of all sizes and of all possible materials, even the finest and the most costly. We read of silver pitchers, of golden pitchers, and of crystal pitchers. And as to our censor’s notion, that in the whole range of English literature the word could not be found applied to any vessel less than eight inches high, it is simply the fruit of ignorance. It is strange that he should have forgotten the old English proverb, “Little pitchers have great ears.” And had he but turned to Richardson’s dictionary he would have found there Junius quoted as defining pitcher fictile poculum, that is, a little earthenware drinking - vessel, — poculum corresponding to cup, goblet, beaker; and there also he would have found, quoted from Cowper’s Task, the following passage, which is decisive on this point, and also on that of the milkpitcher having been a part of tea-table service:—
A fragment; and the spoutless teapot there.”
And to come down to the present day, even since the writing of my correspondent’s letter, in an illustrated book for children, by Eleanor W. Talbot, published in London last year, there is this rhyme: —
Filled with lovely violets like those on the hill.”
The picture shows a wide-mouthed vessel with a peak, nose, or demi-spout, manifestly made of china ; and its size is shown (whence the value of the illustration) by the violets which it contains. It cannot be more than five inches high. But apart from all this, English people in England have a right to call their cream-pitchers pails, buckets, tubs, or vats, if they choose to do so, and then pails, buckets, tubs, or vats they are in English; only other folk of English blood and speech have also a right to an opinion as to the propriety of the name and the goodness of the usage.
Our censor’s notion that jar would be the proper English word for the vessel in which a lady would have hot water applied to her feet in bed is perhaps the drollest of all his blunders. A jar, according to all English usage, is a vessel with a very wide mouth, and is generally used for honey, jam, and preserved fruit. It rarely has or admits any stopper, but is closed by paper or parchment tied over the top, as every English housewife knows. Elizabeth Acton, in her Modern Cookery, page 400 (cited by Latham), says that preserves cannot be well kept unless “ they are quite secured from the air by skins stretched over the jars’’ The invalid lady might almost as well have had a bowl of hot water put into her bed. A jug could be corked.
If this critic has never heard mercy pronounced with any other sound in the first syllable than that of pen and melt (which is very doubtful indeed), his experience is a strange one. I heard it pronounced all over England, among the best speakers, as murcy, the vowel sound being the same as that of her and term ; and that is the pronunciation given by Phelp, of Cambridge, in Stormonth’s Dictionary, 1871. But because mercy is thus pronounced, we do not therefore say Amurrika for America, or vurry for very. Those pronunciations would be regarded as very queer and coarse here as well as in England. I confess with shame that not all of the forty or fifty millions of people who are called “ Americans ” speak in the best way; and with humility I hint that, according to my observation, not all even of the elect one million do so in England. It is quite possible that there are some people between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific who speak of building steamengines, or telegraphs, or tunnels; but all those who would be regarded as speaking with average correctness would speak of making steam-engines, of making telegraphs, of laying a telegraph cable, and, in the simplest English, of tunneling a hill.
The use of ride as applied to travel in ferry-boats and the like is rare, and the effect is strange. It is the result of perplexity consequent upon the introduction of steam. Some people who are purists in the use of language are unwilling to say that they sail or row in a vessel propelled by steam; and they get out of their trouble by saying that they ride. Let such a sad result of purism he a warning to our censor.
But this discussion is becoming “ longsome ” and wearisome to me, if not to my readers ; and I shall close it with a brief examination of my correspondent’s discovery of “ the narrowing tendency of the English language and the widening of the American language.” This theory is a mere notion, which is the fruit of that fidgetty desire, so common among our British cousins, to find some radical divergence of speech and manners between the people of the two countries. There is no such tendency as to language in either country ; the informing motives of speech are the same in both. Of the absence of a narrowing tendency in English speech the word shop might (if it were needful) be cited as one example in point. Shop is applied in England both to the place where things are made and to that where they are stored and exposed for sale. In America, on the contrary, the meaning of this word is narrowed. It is applied by most persons only to a place where things are made, its true etymological meaning ; while the place where they are stored for sale is called a store. Many other such instances might be mentioned.
A word, can, which our censor greatly relies upon to illustrate and to support his theory, really furnishes a very clear and strong illustration of the way in which the British critic, even when intelligent and generally well informed, is almost sure to blunder in dealing with things “American.” Can is in this country, as in England, the name of a vessel made of metal, and generally of tin. It has no other meaning. But canning has come to be the name of a process, because it is performed only with cans. Preserving fruit is a process (in England as well as here) in which the antiseptic qualities of sugar are relied upon to keep the fruit, which has been thoroughly cooked, from decay. “ Pound for pound ” is the good housewife’s rule. But this makes a cloying confection, and also impairs the flavor of the fruit. In canning the fruit, if cooked at all, is only parboiled, and is very slightly sugared, and it is kept sound by being hermetically sealed ; the air being expelled by heat, and excluded by an ingenious contrivance of the top of the can. As this was done at first with tin cans only, and is so done now in a million cases to one, the process is called canning, to distinguish it from the old-fashioned preserving. But although glass jars are now sometimes, but rarely, used for the purpose, no sane educated “ American ” would therefore think of calling a glass jar a can.
Our censor is by no means singular among his intelligent and educated countrymen in this exhibition of ignorance and misapprehension, combined with over-eagerness in the quest of something “ American.” Indeed, it is because he is such a beautiful specimen of his kind that I have preserved him (or canned him, it he will allow me the expression), in a glass jar, so that he may be seen and admired of men, who may find the study of him instructive. I have remarked, for example, in half a dozen British publications within a year or two a halfjocular, wholly scornful mention of the word casket as the “ American word for coffin.” Now it is no such thing. A coffin is one thing ; a casket quite another. The peculiar shape of a coffin is well known ; and because it is unpleasant to many people the casket was made, which has no peculiar form; its shape, top and bottom, being that of a parallelogram, like one of the columns of this magazine. Its lid is not screwed down, but has hinges and a lock, like any other casket. And there are other less essential differences between the two things. Undertakers, in preparing for a funeral, ask if a coffin or a casket is preferred.
In the Saturday Review, not long since, was the assertion, also made in that half-jocular, wholly scornful way which, to use a phrase of our grandfathers, is so engaging, that in the United States “blinds means only Venetians, and boots Wellingtons.” This would indeed be shocking if it were true ; but it is not. Of things called blinds there are at least five kinds in use here. They are the old slat-blind, drawn up by cord and tassel ; the rolling India blind ; inner blinds (jalousies) ; blinds in the panels of inner shutters ; and outer blinds (Venetian). The first of these sorts is now uncommon, but I have known houses in which all might be found ; and it is common to find three of them in one house. All are called simply “ blinds.” But because of the glare of our sun most of our houses have Venetian blinds, which are rare in cloudy, foggy England. As to boots, men and women here wear button boots and laced boots so generally that I think I have not seen a pair of Wellington boots, even in a shoe-shop, for fifteen years. Any outside covering for the foot which rises to the ankle is called here a boot, as all my readers know.
I wrote once that such was the crazy confusion of some “ Britishers ” on this point that I did not despair of seeing “ ’am and heggs ” called an Americanism. How nearly right I was the following letter will show : —
NEW HAVEN, CONN., May 18, 1880.
DEAR SIR, — Ever since reading your article in the May Atlantic, I have been wishing to tell you my story.
Shortly after the war a party of New Haven ladies, with some others, were in Virginia, where we met an Englishman who had come here as a sort of missionary, and who had been doing mission work in Herkimer County, New York. At table, one day, the talk turned upon Americanisms. The Englishman was severe. One of the ladies spoke of the English habit of dropping the h, when John Bull told us that the English had no such peculiarity ; that “ it was an Americanism ” ! In a few moments the talk turned to his work, when he remarked, turning to a Miss Hyde, “ Why, Miss ’Yde, the people hin ’Erkimer County har perfect ’eathen ! ” What could we say ? C. M. P.
What, indeed ? After that there is nothing to be said. But the result of all this carping brings to mind the famous recipe for roasting a hare : “ First catch your hare.” When you intend to roast Americanisms, first catch your Americanism; otherwise the roasting may turn out to be not exactly what you looked for.
As to my correspondent’s feeling as if his fur had been rubbed the wrong way, is it my fault that it grows the wrong way ?
Richard Grant White.
- The word here is uncertain from obscurity in the manuscript.↩
- I observe with pleasure that Mr. John Bright, one of the best living masters of the English tongue, lately protested against the use of the word inaugurate, in the sense to introduce, to begin, and also that the Saturday Review congratulated him thereupon. Ten years ago I protested against this ridiculous perversion of that word, in Words and their Uses, which the Saturday Review thought proper to say might be read and digested with advantage in England, as well as in the United States. I am glad, and not at all surprised, to have even this slight support from a man of Mr. Bright’s robust directness of thought and speech.↩