Some Alleged Americanisms
REVERTING to a subject which I have treated heretofore, in The Atlantic and elsewhere,1 I have to begin by a caution which indeed may be regarded as a monition : this, — that the stigmatizing of a word, or a phrase, or even a pronunciation, as an Americanism, by any censor, however accomplished or however thoroughly English, or by any “authority ” (so called), British or American, however high, is not to be regarded as of very great moment in the settlement of the question, still less as at all decisive. It is very rarely that a word or a phrase can be set down as an Americanism except upon probability and opinion; whereas the contrary is shown, if shown at all, upon fact-proof that cannot be gainsaid. The citation of a word from English literature at or before the time of Dryden shows that it cannot possibly be “ American ” in origin ; evidence of its continued use by British writers during the last century and the present proves the impossibility of its being an Americanism in any sense of that term. Indeed, evidence and proof should hardly be mentioned in relation to this showing. Of words and phrases which have such origin and history as has just been specified, it is simply to be said that they are English. To stamp a word or a phrase as an Americanism, it is necessary to show that (1) it is of so-called “American” origin, — that is, that it first came into use in the United States of North America ; or that (2) it has been adopted in those States from some language other than English, or has been kept in use there while it has wholly passed out of use in England.
Now these points are very difficult of sufficient proof ; and the defeats of those who have assumed them in various instances are almost numberless. The production of unknown and unsuspected evidence has often toppled bold assertions over, and swept into oblivion judgments long reverently accepted; and it may at any time do so again. When those who assume to speak authoritatively upon the subject declare that a word or a phrase is an Americanism, they must be prepared with a full and satisfactory answer to the question, What do you know about it ? They may perhaps know what is English, but how will they prove the negative, that this or that word or phrase is not English ? Indeed, generally the declaration that a word is an Americanism (or not English) can only be (what it almost always is) the mere expression of the declarer’s opinion that he or she does not remember having heard the word, and rather dislikes it, and therefore assumes that it is not English, but “ American.” At its strongest, such a judgment is the mere opinion of a critical scholar whose reading in English literature, ancient and modern, has been both wide and observant. An opinion from such a quarter has some value ; but it becomes absolutely worthless in the presence of adverse facts.
Now it is very significant of the difficulty which besets this question that British journals of the highest standing keep up the manufacture of an everlengthening chain of blunders in regard to it; each one, now and then, as if impelled by some blind instinct, adding its little link of welded Ignorance and prejudice; and hardly less remarkable is it that studious men, not taught by study the wisdom of reserve, make assertions which rival those of the journalists in rashness and in error.
An astonishing blunder, or rather series of blunders, was committed in the past summer (July 21st) by a London journal of the highest standing, the Spectator. There is not in England, hardly in Europe, a journal whose opinions upon politics, literature, society, and art are more worthy of consideration. This eminent British journal published a long and carefully written critical article on Walt Whitman’s prose ; and in summing up a well-merited condemnation remarked that " unless the reader possesses considerable familiarity ,with American slang he will frequently be stopped by such expressions as ’ fetching up,’ ’ scooted,’ ’ derring do,’ ‘out of kilter,’ ” etc. American slang! Revered shades of Edmund Spenser and of Walter Scott, refrain your ghostly vengeance while one of your devoted worshipers cites you as evidence that “derring do” is “ American ” and slang !
That mortal hands may not withstand his might,
Drad for his derring doe and bloudy deed ;
For all in bloud and spoile is his delight.”
(Faerie Queen, II. c. i. st. 42.)
(The harder it to make them well agree).”
(Idem, IV. c. ii. st. 38.)
“ ’ I will put my faith in the good knight whose axe hath rent heart of oak and bars of iron. Singular,’ he again muttered to himself, ’ if there be two who can do such a deed of derring do. ‘” (Ivanhoe, chap. xxix.)
In truth, this piece of alleged " American ” slang would not be understood by one person in five hundred thousand in " America; ” and my attention was called to it by inquiries as to its meaning and its origin by two intelligent friends.
The other phrases cited as Americanisms by the Spectator are folk phrases of such character that they would not be easily discovered in literature; but they are so purely English that it would seem quite impossible for a competent English scholar to regard them as having any other origin. It is only necessary to turn to Halliwell’s dictionary to find “Scooter : a syringe or squirt. To go like a scooter ; that is, very quick.” “Kilters : tools, instruments; the component parts of a thing.” To scoot, therefore, means to move very quickly; and out of kilter, to have the component parts deranged. Both words are East Anglican provincialisms. They are not “classical” in England; neither are they so in the United States. They have just the same form, the same meaning, and the same status in both countries. The like is true of " derring do,” as to which the facts are these : Spenser used, according to wont, an archaic phrase ; Scott remembered it, and introduced it in Ivanhoe, a tale of the twelfth century ; and Walt Whitman, remembering Scott, used it, as to sense, just as he did.
The Spectator, however, does not stop here. It goes on to say that Walt Whitman " is compelled to employ a large original vocabulary,” and as a part of this vocabulary it quotes “jetted,” “ostent,” and “promulge.” Now as to the originality of a large part of that self-styled “ Cosmos” there will be no dispute among persons competent to form an opinion; but again this censor of things " American ” is very unfortunate in his specification of what is " American.” The words which he regards as original in Walt Whitman have been in use by the best English writers for centuries. For instance : —
“ O, peace ! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him : how he jets under his advanc’d plumes!” (Twelfth Night, Act II. Sc. 5, 1. 26.)
Like one another’s glass to trim them by.”
(Pericles, Act I. Sc. 4, 1. 26.)
Like one well studied in a sad ostent
To please his grandam.”
(The Merchant of Venice, Act II. Sc. 4,1. 175.)
As to “ promulge,” it is only necessary to say that it is found in all modern English dictionaries (even the Glossographia Anglicana Nova, 1707, and Miege, 1679), in which examples of its use are cited from such writers as Prynne, South, Pearson, and Atterbury. It must be very much older; for it is of Old French origin.
What shall be said when we find a writer, to whom a journal of the grade of the London Spectator assigns the task of writing a critical article upon style, setting forth boldly and without qualification such words as these as Americanisms, either slang or the original inventions of an “ American ” writer ? It shall be said merely that this is a fair example of the knowledge of what is English that is displayed by most British critics when they unfold themselves upon this subject. For to know what is English is the first and essential qualification for pronouncing judgment upon what is not English ; and on this point almost all persons who have written upon this subject—not only British critics, lay and professional, but compilers of dictionaries of Americanisms — have shown themselves distinctively ignorant. Like that of the samphire gatherers, theirs is a “ dreadful trade.” They are likely to be cast headlong at any minute by a misstep, even when they feel most sure of their footing ; and they who in such case feel much pity must have more sympathy with their business than I have. Searching for Americanisms is the pettiest subdivision of the pettiest department of literature, — verbal criticism.
A terrible example of the destructive uncertainty which attends this envious business is the phrase “ enjoys poor health.” If there is one phrase which more surely than any other has been regarded as an Americanism, and as such has been scoffed at by British critics, it is this. I have heretofore shown that it is well known in England, colloquially and as a provincialism, in Leicestershire and in Warwickshire; but lately, turning to the fly-leaves of a book which I had not seen for some years, I found a memorandum of its use by a writer than whom there could not be better evidence as to what is English. The Reverend Henry Venn, author of the famous book The Complete Duty of Man, one of the most celebrated evangelical divines and preachers of the last century, was born in Surrey in 1724. His ancestors were clergymen of the Church of England, in an uninterrupted line, from the period of the Reformation. He was a scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and Fellow of Queen’s, of the same university. He was vicar of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, and rector of Yelling, Huntingdonshire. His style is remarkable, even in his letters, for a union of correctness and ease, and his English for its purity. This Surreyborn man and Cambridge scholar, in whom centred generations of universitybred divines, writing to his daughter, October 19, 1784, says : —
“ We expect Joseph Scott here, to take home his wife, who is something better for our air ; though, at best, she enjoys poor health ” (Life and Letters of Rev. Henry Venn, page 407. Third edition, London, 1835.)
His editor, who is his grandson, the Reverend Henry Venn, also Follow of Queen’s College, passes the phrase without remark; and I think that now we may as well have heard the last of it as an Americanism. It is more rarely heard, I believe, in the United States than in England. It is a strange phrase, and not admirable; and in regard to its origin, I venture the conjecture that it is a product of the feeling in the class of religionists, of whom the author of The Complete Duty of Man was a shining example, that everything ought to be enjoyed, even poor health, which is bestowed by Providence ; as the pious old rustic, in The Dairyman’s Daughter, said that the weather to-morrow would surely be good, because it would be such as pleased God. (I quote from memory.) So Venn afterwards, referring to his having been struck down with palsy, writes, “ I am come to the days of darkness, but not of dejection ; for why should not Christians be afraid of dejection, as they are of murmuring and complaint?” To enjoy poor health seems, then, evangelical English rather than “ American.” Yet see in a speech in Pericles (Act IV. Sc. 3), out of question written by Shakespeare, this example of a corresponding confusion of thought:—
Of all the faults beneath the heavens, the gods
Do like this worst.”
But I admit that when I see phrases branded in this way as Americanisms I have pleasure in feeling that often there is somewhere a shot in my locker that will knock the notion into splinters.
And here I am tempted to remark, as it were parenthetically, upon a very ancient prototype of what seems to be a very modern Americanism, which is noted in Bartlett’s Dictionary as “ to let slide, to let go,” with the examples, “Let him slide,” “ Let her slide,” “ Let California slide.” Now, in the first lines of Henry the Minstrel’s Wallace, composed about 1470, we find this very phrase, used exactly as it is used in the slang of the present day : —
And hald in mind thar nobille worthi deid,
Welat ourslide, throw werray sleuthfulnes;
And ws till vthir besynes.” 3 (Book I. 1. 1-4.)
It will be seen that in “ lat ourslide ” = “let slide over,” there is not a shade of difference, either in sense or in sound, from our slang phrase. Needless to say that this is not evidence that the former has been preserved for four centuries, to be heard in slangish talk in the United States (although the history of language records freaks not less strange than that would be) ; but it is worthy of remark that these lines show that the essential thought in question and the form which it takes belong to the race and the language, and not to any particular time or country.
To return to the purpose with which I set out, which is, it should be borne in mind, less the proving that certain words and phrases are not Americanisms than the showing the incompetence of nearly all the critics, British and “ American,” to pass a trustworthy opinion upon this subject; — incompetence resulting from the union of a lack of acquaintance with the vocabulary of English writers and speakers, past and present, to a misapprehension of the very little that they do know of English as it is spoken in the United States, and of true Americanisms, and I will add of “ American ” manners and customs, as well as “ American ” speech. Even when such critics are soberly and judicially disposed, there seems to be some mental or moral twist in their natures which prevents them from rightly apprehending and comprehending what they do see and hear. Mr. George Augustus Sala shall furnish us with an example in point, very trifling and simple, and therefore the more significant. In Paris Herself Again, he mentions having “ gone so far” as to ask on shipboard for “ the American delicacy of [sic] pork and beans,” 4 and then this paragraph follows : —
“ ’ It’s done, sir,’ replied the steward, who was of Milesian descent. ‘Yes,’ I told him gently, ’ I should like the pork and beans to be well done.’ ‘ Shure [Why the h in this word ? How does Mr. Sala pronounce sure ? If he had used two r’s, the reason would be plain], — shure, it’s through,’ urged the steward. I was not proficient in transatlantic parlance, and bade him bring the dish through the saloon. ‘ I mane that it’s played out,’ persisted the steward, in a civil rage with my stupidity, — ‘ that it’s finished, — that it’s clane gone.’ He should have said at first that the pork and beans were gone, and then my Anglo-Saxon mind [How came a man named Sala with an Anglo-Saxon mind ? It is quite easy to understand how he might have an English education] would have mastered his meaning.” (Chap, xxxii.)
And Mr. Sala, who is generally credited with somewhat more than the average capacity of observation, could write that passage after having been twice in the United States, for some months at least at each visit! Any “transatlantic ” boy would laugh at his blunder. The steward’s speech, if correctly reported, would have been quite as incomprehensible to any “ American ” as Mr. Sala informs us it was to him. No such use of " through ” is known in the United States ; but the passage shows an entire misapprehension of a use of that word at table, which is common. No “American” says that a dish is through, meaning that it is all gone ; but many “ Americans ” do say, unfortunately, when they have breakfasted or dined, that they are “ through ; ” that is, that they have got through their breakfast or their dinner. In William Black’s clever little novel A Beautiful Wretch, — the heroine of which, by the way, is one of his charming women,—two young men are at breakfast, and one says, “ But that ’s only her fun, don’t you know ; she’s precious glad to get out of it, — that’s my belief ; and nobody knows better than herself he would n’t do at all. Finished ? Come and have a game of billiards, then.” (Chap. ii.) Now here one of the transatlantic speakers whom Mr. Sala had in mind would have said, not “ Finished?” but “Through? Come and have a game,” etc. This trivial instance is characteristic of a common failure of apprehension in the British critic of “ American ” speech and manners.
Mr. Edmund Yates has also visited the States on a lecturing tour, I believe. Exactly how long he remained here I do not know, but long enough, it would appear, to become a British authority upon things “American,” and gain an experience which leads him to continue in England the lecturing of the “ Americans,” which seems not to have been completed in their country. Not long ago, in this vein, he stated that all that the “Americans” knew of Christmas they had learned from, or since the publication of, Dickens’s Christmas stories. (I quote from memory only ; and I ask his pardon if I am not literally correct.) An amazing announcement! The Maryland descendants and representatives of the old Roman Catholic colony of Lord Baltimore, and the New Orleans natives of the same faith, will learn with some surprise that they owed to the Protestant heretic Charles Dickens the birth of the feeling which made Christmas to them a great and solemn festival. But it is not necessary to go to Southern and Roman Catholic commonwealths to find a refutation of this wildly ignorant assertion. There are thousands and tens of thousands of men yet living, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England, who can remember that long before Dickens’s first Christmas story was published Christmas was the turning-point of their childhood’s year. It was par excellence the one great family and social festival. They can hear yet the joyful Christmas anthem chanted in churches which were great bowers of evergreens; they remember the family gatherings, the somewhat oppressive nature of which was relieved by a dinner sweeter in the mouth than in the stomach on the next day. To all this, if I may be pardoned a personal recollection, I can testify. To this my father could testify; and he did tell me that the church, in Connecticut, in which he kept Christmas, of which my grandfather was rector, was not only decked with evergreens on Christmas Eve, but illuminated, and in so ample a style that the reliquary candles, extinguished at midnight, were an important perquisite of the sexton. This takes us back three generations in a country which, Mr. Yates informs his readers, learned Christmas-keeping from Charles Dickens ! The truth is simply this: There has been in the United States, of late years, a much more nearly universal observance of this Christian festival than there was before. Of this there are two causes, Charles Dickens not being one of them : first, what has been called the “ broad church movement,” in consequence of which people of other denominations have gladly adopted, to a certain extent, the Christmas customs of the churches of England and of Rome; next, the conviction that we needed more of general holiday-keeping than we had in earlier days. These causes have come into their full operation necessarily since the publication of Dickens’s Christmas stories, but not because of them: they were post hoc, but not propter hoc. The inference that they were so is exemplary of the nearness of approach by most British critics to truth as to things “ American.” Frenchmen are so ludicrously far away from it that what they say is worthy of no consideration, except in case of a patient investigator and thinker like De Tocqueville, and even he made some striking blunders.
Generally, however, it is true that the European traveler — and the more surely if he is British and a person of any note — leaves the States quite as ignorant of them and their people on all essential points as he was before he crossed the ocean, and with his ignorance at once confused and confirmed and elevated into conceit by misapprehension of the very little of any real significance that he has been able to see. For the distinguished traveler sees, indeed, through no fault of his own, very little that reveals to him the real condition of “American” society, of which he touches only the surface at a few salient points. All the vast level range below, not to say the yet underlying strata, is hidden from his eyes. If he is a man of any fame in politics, literature, art, or society, his arrival is announced by the press; he is interviewed; he is seized upon by various people, who, with social, business, or other motives, wish to use him for their own purposes. He is entertained, fêted, taken to this, that, and the other “ institution,” where he is expected, and indeed almost required, to “make a few remarks.” He passes over a great many miles of country shut up in a railway car, and surrounded by his “party.” He sees a big waterfall and some mountains, a president and some governors, — waterfalls and mountains in their own way ; and this is all. What does this teach him of the society of the people among whom he has been ? Entertainments, parties, receptions, among people of wealth (the only people with whom he is likely to mix), are much the same upon the surface in the superior circles of all Western nations. And who learns anything about anybody in formal “ society ” ? What do we ever learn of each other at such gatherings ? We merely go through the parade in due form. Moreover, these more or less distinguished strangers are on such occasions here the principal guests. People are invited to “ meet ” them. They are on exhibition to the other guests, and the other guests are on exhibition to them. What is the “meeting”? An introduction, a languid hand-shake of some scores or some hundreds, a few words, “ delighted to meet,” “ charmed,” “ hope,” “always remember,” and so forth ; and this repeated a dozen times in the principal places, and two or three times in the minor places. Of what significance or instructiveuess is this? It is not at such entertainments, or at formal dinners, or even at less formal breakfasts, that a people is to be studied in its habits of life, its tone of thought, its morals, or even its language. To do that it is necessary to live among them, and to live among them unremarked as a notability and a watchful stranger ; to see them when they are off their guard, and not when you are on parade to them, and they are, or wish to be, on parade to you. Probably the most ignorant man about anything essentially and characteristically “American,” who is at present in the country, is Lord Coleridge ; and so he will doubtless remain, except as to what may be seen almost as well in photograph as in reality. The Englishman who, according to my observation, is most capable, of all of his living countrymen, to write with understanding about the country told me that after having lived here a year and a half he was obliged to throw overboard all his theories and the opinions he had formed, and begin again from the foundation.5
But I have been led away from my immediate subject, to which I must return, merely remarking, by the way, upon the absurdity of Mr. Henry Irving’s proposition to publish his impressions of America. What will they be worth ? Absolutely nothing ; because Mr. Irving’s visit, unless it takes some other form than that of a professional tour, will teach him nothing.
Among our British visitors and critics Mr. Laurence Oliphant is conspicuous for common sense, for perception, and for candor. He had the advantage of seeing the country and the people as they are, and without the deceptive effect of distorting influences. He was neither a lord nor a lecturer ; and he lived here, how long I do not know, but long enough to learn something, and to understand what he learned. He treated us to some very pungent satire, — well deserved. It is not generally known, I believe, that the writer of those two papers in the North American Review of May and July, 1877, which professed to record the political impressions of a Japanese traveler, and which attracted much attention, was Mr. Laurence Oliphant. They showed that he could see to the bottom of what he looked at. And yet Mr. Oliphant, when he comes to treat “ American ” character and manners concretely, and to put language into the mouths of “ Americans,” blunders sadly in simple matters. His Irene Macgillicuddy was correct only as to the merest surface traits, and as a human creature quite an impossibility, — in this country, at least. and so, too, at least in all their distinctive traits, were the otherwise charming “ American ” girls in his recent very clever novel, Altiora Peto.6 To show this is not here pertinent; but to remark upon the failure of this unusually well-equipped observer to represent the speech of “ Americans ” is proper to my present subject. Of the personage meant to be most characteristic in this respect, Hannah Coffin, it is only necessary to remark, in the words of a discriminating critic in the New York Evening Post, that the young ladies “ have with them a terrible old companion, or chaperon, named Hannah, who talks something between a Maine Yankee and Buffalo Bill.” Hannah is an impossible personage. — in “ America,” at least; a grotesque ; not even a caricature of any actual living thing; and her talk is a monstrous gabblement, made up of perverted phrases of people who live thousands of miles apart. A woman who acted and who talked as she does would be a character, a show, a laughing-stock, in the remotest rural village in New England. And it is all the worse, so far as truthfulness of representation is concerned, that, owing to the writer’s clear imagination and his humor, her character is full of verve and life. But to consider in detail a few of Mr. Oliphant’s errors in language, which must have attracted the attention of many of his readers, here is a passage which illustrates Hannah’s impossible, hybrid talk : —
“ ’ Laws ! ’ said Hannah, who had been watching these British feminine greetings with great interest, ’ that ain’t the reason. It’s because they laces so tight. You just try and buckle yourself across the waist and chest like them gells, and then see how it eases your breathing to stick out your elbows.’ . . .
“ ’ Still, you know, that won’t account for the men doing it,’ said Mattie, anxious to get back to the safer topic of the elbows.
“ ‘ Laws! yes, it does : they jest foller the gells. It’s the gells that sets the fashion.’
“ ‘ Not in England, I assure you,’ said Lord Sark, much amused. ‘ In America, I understand, the women take the lead in most things ; but in England we flatter ourselves that the male sex holds its own.’
“ ‘ Bless you, they flatter themselves just the same with us ! The question is, Do they? Now, there ain’t no one here as knows as much about the men of both countries as Mrs. Clymer. I ’ll jest ask her what she says. Which men have you found most difficult to get along with, my dear ? ’ ” (Chap. viii.)
In this passage an error which pervades all Hannah Coffin’s speech occurs thrice, — “ gells ” for girls. This is a British provincialism. Yankees never say “ gells ; ” but some of them, like some of their cousins in England, do say “ gals.” “ Laws ” would be more naturally “ Law suz.” “ You just try ” should be “ You jess try ; ” the omission of the t being as characteristic as the e for u; and the utterance of the two contiguous f’s by a New England woman of Miss Coffin’s quality almost impossible. “ They laces ” is a violation of grammar that would make the hair of a decent New England woman of far humbler condition than hers stand on end ; and the like objection applies to her reply, in a later passage, to a young clergyman, who told her he was in holy orders : “ Holy orders is mighty difficult to obey; don’t you find ’em?” although she would say, not “ Yes, it does,” but “ Yes, it dooz,” and instead of “ the same with us,” “the same ’ith us.” The last sentence of this passage contains a blunder which spots all this worthy, but unhappily monstrous, female’s speeches : “ there ain’t no one here as knows,” etc. This preservation of the old English use of “as ” in constructions where modern English requires “ that ” is unheard and unknown in New England, where fairly “good grammar” is spoken even by those who have received only a few winters’ district-schooling, and who will use queer, uncouth phrases, pronounce grotesquely, and speak in a sharp, nasal tone that sets one’s teeth on edge. Therefore it is the more disturbing that Mr. Oliphant’s really captivating, but also somewhat impossible, “ American ” heroine exclaims, “ And how his clothes do sit!” for which we cannot account, unless by supposing — dreadful thought! — that our author himself tells Poole or Smalpage that his own trousers don’t sit well; in which case it is not improbable that the reply would be, in very good English, that they were not sitting trousers, and that he must not sit in them if he expected them to set well.
When Mr. Oliphant makes Hannah arrest Mr. Murkle’s attention by crying out “ Hyar ! ” he jumps at least live hundred miles. That form of “ here ” is Southern and Southwestern. Indeed, it is negro talk, caught by the whites in childhood from their old sable attendants : he might as well make her say “gwine” for “going,” instead of “goin’,” which she would have said, like many an Englishman of the best birth and breeding. So her “ disremember ” is Southern, although, it is sometimes heard from our Irish “ Biddies.” Yet he makes Miss Coffin say, carefully, “ curious,” when she would be very sure to say “ curus,” and “ judge ” for the invariable “ jedge ” of people of her sort. Strangest of all, almost, he makes her speak of a man “ who’s gone back to the States ; ” she would have been quite as likely to say “ the colonies.”
When, in recounting a discussion of Highland costume between Stella and Ronald MacAlpine (whose identity with a well-known æsthetic lecturer is manifest), Mr. Oliphant writes, — “‘What! leaving so much more of the limb bare ? ’ Stella had still retained too much of the prejudices of her countrywomen to say ‘ leg.’ ‘ Oh, that would be what I think you gentlemen would call quite too exquisitely precious ! ’ ” — he is correct, except in the universality of his implied assertion ; but when he afterwards makes Miss Coffin, as she is trying on a fashionable gown, exclaim, “ My, now! if I ain’t real uncomfortable about the legs! ” he is not only incorrect and inconsistent, but shows that he has failed to apprehend the truth about this squeamish feeling. Mr. Edward Everett, reproving a pupil who startled the propriety of the lecture room by a blast upon the nasal trumpet, confessed that he himself did blow his nose “in the privacy of his own apartment; ” but even there Hannah Coffin would not have admitted to her young friends that she had legs. She could not have got further than “ limbs.” But Mr. Oliphant thus brings up a little point as to Americanism which has been discussed so much and for so long that it may as well now be settled.
That many Americans — even men as well as women, but not all — do say “ limb,” when good sense, good English, good taste, and good manners require that they should say “ leg,” is true. But the squeamishness is by no means distinctively “ American.” It may be found on the pages of many British writers. In a paragraph before me from the Saturday Review (date unfortunately lost), criticising a staute of Phryne, the writer shrinks from “ legs,” even in regard to marble, and calls them “ the lower limbs.” A conspicuous and amusing example of this skittishness is found in the Shakespeare Glossary of that distinguished scholar and critic, Alexander Dyce. There has long been a question as to the meaning of Orlando’s phrase “ Atalanta’s better part,” in As You Like It. Various explanations have been offered. I produced many passages to show that the intended “ better part ” of the beautifully formed and swiftly running Atalanta was what the Saturday Review called the lower limbs, but I did not use that euphemism. Whereupon, after recounting some of the explanations, although he is writing a critical note for the critical, Mr. Dyce, blushing and shrinking behind his paper, cannot bring himself even to suggest the idea by a periphrasis, but says, “ Mr. Grant White’s explanation of the lady’s better part I had rather refer to than quote ” ! After that, I think that the pretense of any peculiar Americanism upon this point may well be given up.
In connection with this allegation, and in support of it, one assertion has been made, and made so frequently, through so many years, that it may as well be disposed of now and here forever. It is that “ the Americans ” (the general term universally applied, as usual) are so exceedingly shamefaced that they put the very legs of their pianofortes in trousers or pantalets. This ridiculous story was told long ago, in the Mrs. Trollope day ; but I believe that it first appeared in Captain Basil Hall’s book. Since that time it has pervaded British books and British newspapers. It has been one of the stock illustrations of “ American ” manners. I have seen it three or four times within the last few months. Now it is true that in Mrs. Trollope’s and Captain Hall’s day most
“American” housewives who then had piano-fortes did cover the legs of them. And yet the story, as it was told and is told, is absurdly untruthful. About that time the legs of the piano-forte, which had previously been small, straight, square mahogany sticks, began to be highly ornamental, with fluting and carving. The instrument became the most elaborately made and highly prized piece of furniture in the drawing-room, or rather parlor; and in the careful housewifery of that day (which kept parlors dark, that the sun might not fade the carpet) it was protected, except on grand occasions, — “ a party,” or the like, — with a holland cover; and the legs, that they might not be defaced, were also covered with cylinders of holland. That is all. Tables and chairs and sideboards had legs also; but they were not covered, simply because they were not ornamental and easily injured. Moreover, at festive gatherings, when the room was filled with a mixed company, in which young women predominated, the trousers, the pantalets, — oh, horror ! — were deliberately taken off the “lower limbs ” of the instrument, which were then shamelessly exposed to the naked eye. And this is the truth of that matter, which has been left to be told at this late day. It is a characteristic and worthy exemplification of the ability of the British traveler to apprehend and to set forth the truth as to what he sees in “ America.”
My article will be, I fear, like a house in which the porch is larger than the main building ; but time and space will not have been wasted if I have enabled the readers of The Atlantic, on both sides of the ocean from which it takes its name, to see with what thorough distrust and continuous doubt they should receive the assertions of European critics that this, that, or the other word, phrase, or custom is distinctively “ American.”
Let us now turn to our own seekers after Americanisms in language, and, looking chiefly to the well-known Dictionary of Americanisms, so called, of Bartlett, see, as we have seen before, with what industrious lack of essential knowledge — the knowledge of what is English — the search is prosecuted.
Under the letter N there is less occasion for criticism than we have found under its predecessors; the chief reason of which, however, is the fewness of the words which begin with that letter. For it is worthy of remark that, while the nasal sound m is copious in the introduction of words, its congener n is in all languages, at least all the Indo-European languages, much restricted in this respect.
Characteristically, the list of Americanisms under this letter is introduced by “ Nabber : in the city of New York, a thief.” The city of New York ! The word has been thus used in English time out of mind, although of course it is rare in literature. The colloquial verb nab = seize quickly and violently, is to be found in all English dictionaries, including Johnson’s. If the words were not before us, we could hardly believe that a professed dictionary of Americanisms could include nary = ne’er a, nigger, negro-fellow, negro less, negro-minstrels, negrophite, negro-worshiper, no account, no-how, nothing to nobody, to be nowhere, nobby, — all of which are, and since their beginning ever have been, as common among British as among American writers or speakers of corresponding classes. This does not need illustration. But the introduction of nation, a corruption of “ damnation,” is an offense against common sense which is of a sort so common in this book that it goes to make up the greater part of its bulk. For not only do we find nation both in Pegge’s dictionary and in Halliwell’s, with the gloss “very, excessive,” but our compiler himself remarks upon it, “ used in both ways in Old and in New England.” Pegge’s book preceded in London Bartlett’s in Boston by more than thirty years. That settled the question about this slang word, if it needed settling. But this it did not need ; for see the following example of its use by one of the recognized masters of English: “And what a nation of herbs he had procured to mollify her humours.” (Sterne, Tristram Shandy, chap. ccxxii.)
Of like non-pertinence is the next item which I shall remark upon, which, however, adds error to superfluity: —
“No—not. What the Portuguese say of the Brazilians the English say of the Americans, — that they are as fond of double negatives as Homer.” If any English writer or speaker ever said this, he showed by the mere saying that he was worthy of no attention. So far is the use of double negatives, like “ I have n’t got none,” “ I don’t know nothing,” from being an Americanism that it is far commoner in England than in the United States, where people of inferior condition are much more anxiously “ grammatical ” than they are in England, and are consequently, in general, less racy and idiomatic in their speech. Double negatives were common of old, and are so now, in English literature. The reader of Shakespeare encounters them on almost every page. Their use extends back into the time when English was Anglo-Saxon. Dr. Pegge, who indeed apologizes for them, if he does not defend them, mentions as an example the inquiry of a London citizen who had mislaid his hat, “ if nobody had seen nothing of never a hat nowheres.” Nor can any one who has been in England have failed to hear just such speeches there nowadays from speakers of superior grade to those by whom they are very rarely uttered here.
Next we remark a short series of words, of normal form and of ordinary English use, which appear in every English dictionary, from Johnson’s down, which are used in exactly the same sense in both countries, and which, when they are not of remote English origin, came to us through British channels : such are nankeen, national, naturalized, nice = fair, good, nicely = very well, non-manufacturing, non-slaveholding, north and south. It has been before remarked in these papers that a book which is known as a Dictionary of Americanisms, which is largely made up of such words as these, must produce a very erroneous and injurious impression in regard to the language of the country. The compiler has merely fallen into the weakness of specialists and of collectors. Let a man begin to collect, and he at once becomes slightly insane, and rakes into his hoard everything that for any fanciful reason he can make a part of it.
When we deduct from the list under this letter words of the sort already remarked upon, and phrases which really merit no attention, like national democrats and native Americans, non-committal, little is left; but that little includes a few genuine Americanisms, of which the following are worthy of special attention : —
Notify. The use of this verb in the sense to give information or notice to a person is of " American ” origin. For a long time it was used by the best English writers, both British and “ American,” only with the sense of to make known, to declare, as, for example, by Hooker : “ There are other kinds of laws which notify the will of God.” But about the end of the last century respectable writers began in this country to use the word in the sense, to give notice to ; and the propriety of this has been somewhat reluctantly but finally admitted by British writers of repute, by whom the word is now so used ; and in the latest English dictionary, Stormonth’s, it appears with the definition " to give notice.”
Nimshi : a foolish fellow. This is an example of a genuine Americanism of another sort. Its use is confined to New England, or to speakers of New England origin, among whom it is recognized religious cant. Mr. Bartlett says nothing by way of explanation, except (rightly, I believe) that the word came from Connecticut. It is from the Bible, in the Hebrew chronicles of which we find the name Nimshi; but we are told absolutely nothing of him, except that he was the grandfather of the fast-driving Jehu, who revolted against Jehoram and became king of Israel. Why the name of the grandfather of this successful rebel became a synonym for a fool is surely one of the things that cannot be found out.
Noodlejes is an example of a limited Americanism, and of another sort; a word never English, which is, or once was, domesticated by English-speaking people in one of the United States. It is Dutch, and means dough rolled thin and cut into slices for soup. But it has already almost passed away ; and even in New York and Long Island, where only it was heard, it is now nearly, if not quite, unknown.
Notions, in the sense of small wares or trifles, I have already shown to be of English origin and classical use.
The most astonishing of the so-called Americanisms under N is this : “Nose. ’ To bite one’s nose off’ is to foolishly inflict self-injury while striving to injure another ; ” and they who would be most astonished at its being written down as “American” would be the people living between John O’Groats and Land’s End. It is an English saying of indeterminable antiquity, and at this time of every-day use. Indeed, it may be doubtful whether, even, it is English, and whether it does not belong to the human race, with whom it has been in use ever since man had a nose to bite and spite with which to bite it. Will Mr. Bartlett go on and annex the north pole and the equator ? This item enriches only his last edition of the dictionary, or, little attention as I can give to my present subject, I should be able to put my hand upon ample evidence of ancient and modern use of this phrase in England, which, however, no person born and bred there will require.
Of the alleged Americanisms in O, we start at once by setting summarily aside the following, which are too certainly, and it should seem too notoriously, English-born to need a word of explanation or illustration : to feel one’s oats, obstropulous, odd stick for an eccentric person,—crooked being sometimes used instead of odd, — of in " feel of,” “doin’ of,”offen for " off from,” offish for “distant,” old fogy, old man for " father,” Old Scratch, onst for “ once,” ought in " had n’t oughter ” for “had n’t ought to,” ourn, outen for " out of,” outs and ins for persons out of and in office, over the left, owdacious, overly = excessively. The last, which is strangely ticketed Western (I have never been in the West, and have often heard the word in the rural districts of New England and New York), may admit the following illustration from an old English writer of high repute, Bishop Hall: —
“ Your attire (for whither do not censures reach ?) not youthfully wanton, not, in these yeeres, affectedly ancient, but grave and comely, like the minde, like the behavior of the wearer; your gesture like your habit, neither favoring of giddy lightness nor ouerly insolence nor wantonnesse, nor dull neglect of yourself.” (Epistles, Decad. V.,Epist. v., p. 163, ed. 1608.)
To these are to be added, as having no peculiar character, either ‘‘American ” or Britsh, the following: Ocelot, once and again for “ repeatedly,” office-holder, office-holding, office-hunter, office-hunting (observe how the list is lengthened by giving four compound words, when, in any case, two only were needed), okra, Old Probabilities, Old North State, oleomargarine, ordinary for “ plain, not handsome,” Oregon grape, Osage orange, Oswego tea, over and above for “ much,” “very.” Some of these, it will be seen, are mere names of American things. None of them are isms of any sort.
A few of the words under this head may admit particular remark : —
Obligement. This obsolete old English word, which needs no definition, Pickering says was used “by old people ” in New England, and these only we may be sure, when he wrote, three quarters of a century ago. But it passed away with those old people. It does not appear in literature, is now not heard, and has no proper place among Americanisms. Obtusity, instead of “ obtuseness,” is a word of the same sort.
Of. One use of this word, not set forth by Mr. Bartlett, is, I believe, distinctively an Americanism, — “ a quarter of twelve,” instead of “ a quarter to twelve;” the latter being the phrase used in England, and by the best speakers in the United States. Yet indeed there is no peculiarity in the use of the preposition. The phrases present different thoughts. One means, it lacks a quarter of an hour of twelve; the other, it is a quarter of an hour to twelve.
On, in “ I met him on the street,” “ He lives on Broadway,” is very properly presented as an Americanism ; and it is one of a very bad sort. It appears only in Mr. Bartlett’s last edition, 1877 ; but I had remarked upon it at some length, in Words and Their Uses (1871). But it is not, I suspect, of “ American ” origin. Carlyle uses it in his translation of Wilhelm Meister. In the phrase “on yesterday ” the superfluous preposition is, I believe, an unmitigated Americanism, and had its origin at the South, whence, from the Southwest particularly, come the larger number of indisputable Americanisms.
Onto. Of this compound preposition Mr. Bartlett says, “ Although used here much more frequently than in England, it is not peculiar to America.” I should think not. On the contrary, it is more frequent in England. It trips one up all through the novels of Anthony Trollope, who is the best guide to the current and accepted speech of the highest and most cultivated social class in England, and who works this phrase without mercy. Writers of like grade in this country use it rarely, if at all. Trollope constantly uses it, even in the following extreme and needless way, when it would seem that “ upon ” would naturally suggest itself : —
“ It was well he was not going fast, or he would have come on to your head.” (Last Chron. of Barset, chap. lxiii.)
“ Both the ladies sprung on to their legs. Even Miss Prettyman herself jumped on to her legs.” (Ibid., chap. lxxi.)
Outsider. Many other persons besides Mr. Bartlett regard this word as an Americanism ; wholly without reason. It is a sort of word which, from its construction and its application, could not have failed to come into use among all English-speaking people. It occurs in its political sense thus twice on one page of the London Examiner: —
“The successive efforts of France — efforts of much more cheap generosity than the Outsider seems to consider them — and the curious way in which Russia, almost against her will, became a benefactor of the new nation are well described. . . . On the other hand, the Outsider, holding the ‘legitimate aspiration ’ theory, naturally does not comprehend this, or attributes it to ‘ Turkophilism,’ to the dislike of aristocracies for revolutionists, and to other more or less irrelevant causes.”(August 9, 1879.)
Trollope uses it frequently, and even in a social sense, thus : —
“ But Lord George felt it to be a matter of offence that any outsider should venture to talk about his family.” (Is He Popenjoy ? Chap, xxix.)
Here I stay for the present our hunt for the evasive Americanism. It is not in my estimation a very sportive literary recreation ; but it is not wholly profitless. For certain of the hunters may discover by it not only that there is very little in “American” speech that may safely be made game of, but also get — what they seem to need— some knowledge of the English language.
Richard Grant White.
- Galaxy, September and November, 1877, January, 1878. Atlantic, April, May, July, September, and November, 1878, January, March, May, November, 1879, May, 1880, May, 1881. This note will, I hope, be accepted as a reply to letters addressed and otherwise to be addressed to me. I do not know where copies of the Galaxy may be obtained.↩
- These line references are to the numeration in the text of the Riverside Shakespeare.↩
- Here “ suld of reide ” =should read of; “ werray ” = very; “ ws” = us; “ vthir” = other. The rest is plain enough, antique as its form is.↩
- As to this, by the way, see England Without and Within, chap. vii.↩
- The author of that extraordinary book, Asmodée New York (Paris, 1868), which is filled from cover to cover with the products of long and patient observation, keen penetration, and reflection, but deformed and debased by some monstrous misrepresentations, says, “ Pour connaître au fond le caractère du peuple américain, il ne faut pas des semaines, il no faut pas des mois; il faut des années.” (Page 498.)↩
- Those who need no explanation of this ingenious title will pardon one for those who do. Altiora peto is Latin for “I seek higher things.” It is the motto of the Oliphant family. But Peto is an old English name, which is found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.; and some of us remember Sir Martin Peto, who was here some years ago. Altiora is enough like a woman’s name to be used for Mr. Oliphant’s high-flying heroine.↩