Thou Spell Avaunt!


I WAS once honored by the friendship of a man of explosive prejudices. He was a proof-reader, and worthy to be coupled with Alexander the Corrector. Amenity itself in the commerce of private life, in his office he was immitigable. His honesty was aggressive ; his frankness had the inhuman innocency of childhood. Like some other zealous magistrates, he made incursions beyond the legitimate boundary of his province. No misquotation but he set it in the pillory ; no mixed metaphor but he pursued it through all its windings like a ferret; he was a killing frost to every over-venturesome flower of speech; none such could take his winds of March with its beauty ; a faulty construction quailed before him like a prevaricating witness before Jeffries, and every solecism found in him a Torquemada. His were, indeed, bloody assizes, and on the margin of a proof-sheet his red pencil left a calamitously sanguine trail behind it. He would have dealt as unmercifully with his own epitaph, could he have had the chance, and I trust there is no misplaced comma therein to disturb his well-earned rest. But, above all, his bile was blackened by any indecency in spelling. The kindest hearted of men (he would have made one say “ the most kind hearted ”), to young authors he seemed a very Ogre. The Muse of accuracy rent her garments with a feeling of irrecoverable loss when he died. Si quis piorum manibus locus, I fancy him haunting now the English alcoves of “ The beatific Bodley of the Deity,” to whose shelves no volume is admitted that has not passed the censorship of impeccable orthoepy.

I had occasion to visit this Rhadamanthus one day, where he sat in chambers at the printing-house. Ordinarily his good-momings were ceremonious, and one approached business by a gentle slope through health and weather; but now he turned upon me with a glare in his spectacles as of personal wrong, and without preliminary greeting blared forth : “ Mr. X, when I come down to my office in the morning, it is my habit to begin the duties of the day by reading a chapter of the New Testament. But if by any chance it should happen that I found the words of my Blessed Redeemer printed in the Websterian cacography, I’d hurl them behind the backlog ! ” All this in a single jet, and with an absence of punctuation that would never have escaped him in a proof-sheet. Recovering himself with a courteous apology for his abruptness, he explained that he had been correcting a manuscript polluted with those heresies of spelling.

I confess that I share these orthodox antipathies and resentments, that I too glow with these sacred heats. Are they the less grateful that they are unreasonable ? They are peremptory as instincts, and will not be denied. The ancient leading case of Martialis v. Sabidium settled the matter once for all without appeal. I cheerfully admit that Webster was right nine times out of ten in the reforms he proposed ; that he has logic, analogy, simplicity, and oftentimes etymology on his side. But what are all these against habit and prepossession ? You will say, perhaps, that the meaning is the main thing, and, provided that be clear, the spelling may go hang. But stay; since we have but twenty-six letters to spend upon our literature, since Shakespeare had no more for his all-potent incantations, should there not be method and frugality in the administering of so small a patrimony ? Not that a seemly superfluity should not be indulged on occasion. Does not “ honour ” lose something of its state and “ favour ” of its benevolence when the u in each has been economized ? A cynic will scowl at this as a trifling ceremonial, but such niceties are the thin partitions that divide us from barbarism. Nay, the mere misplacing of a letter or an accent may vulgarize a fine sentiment, or make a harmlessly erroneous statement offensive. If a man write that he was standing in the centre of the street when he means the middle, does not his crime call for sterner discipline if he call his impossible whereabouts the “ center " ? I am willing that my gas or my water should be measured by a “ meter,” though I may have misgivings as to the scrupulous impartiality of the contrivance, but I challenge peremptorily the competence of his ear who should offer to instruct me in the “ meter ” of Milton. Are these things merely nugatory ? The Homoousians and Homoiousians took a more serious view of them, cheerfully inflicting and enduring martyrdom for a vowel more or less. Ask the first beggar you meet whether he feel not an inhuman change in the word “altruism ” where the You is dropped and the I left unsocially alone, as usually it is in their hurry by those who use it oftenest ?

And yet, though a purist of the strictest sect, I sometimes look backwards with a sigh of regret to those happier days when every man did his spelling for himself. Then could some prodigal son beguile the gripple avarice of the alphabet and squander in the debauch of a single period letters enough to have fed a page. Thus dealt a lay brother of Greenwich Priory nearly three centuries ago with the word “ susspissyous ” giving it that sibilancy of the Old Serpent which should have put Eve on her guard. These were their épanchements. But they could be niggard also at a pinch, and the sister of Henry VIII., herself a queen, makes “ marvellously ” cringe to “merwously ” at much sacrifice of backbone in her service. What freshness must there have been in language when every word was a very Proteus at taking new shapes ! Even more than a hundred years later, though dictionaries had begun to do their deadly work, the pen could still expatiate in the pigeon-wing of a flourish now and then. There is still a pleasant suggestion of gentlemanlike leisure and of a roomier world in such forms as “ musique ” and “ physique ; ” and one may easily believe that when these, like tadpoles, had to sacrifice their tails at the bidding of evolution, there were men who no longer found pleasure in the quavers of Cuzzoni or efficacy in the drugs of Dr. Mead. I suppose that I prefer the old-fashioned switch-tailed “ cheque ” to the docked form my countrymen have adopted. To me this has the air of a disrespectful nickname for that species of literature which has the supreme art of conveying the most pleasure in the least space. Not that I am fanatical, for the editor would not find me implacable who should write to me that he “enclosed his check ” for double the amount I expected. Yet there are outrages in the like kind which it would be pusillanimous to endure meekly. Such is the Revised Version of the Scriptures, for example. It may be more true to the letter that killeth, but does it not prosaically evaporate that aroma of association at once the subtlest and the most potent gramarye of Imagination? Does it not make the Almighty speak like a spruce writer of leaders ?

At last Dr. Johnson’s folio was laid heavily over the springing shoots of our language, like the traditional tile over the acanthus. In England it seems to have done its work of flattening and repressing effectually, but when the same feat was attempted on this offshoot transplanted to our virginly vigorous soil, the uncontrollable plant sprang up on every side, and, if it could not transform its incubus into a Corinthian capital, at least wreathed it with an arabesque of foliage not its own. Or did the original stock perish, and was this adventitious greenery but the pushing insolence of native weeds? To drop figures of speech for those of arithmetic, I believe that the American vocabularies contain more words than the British ; but in spite of this victory of superior numbers, it is becoming in us to be merciful, and to admit that the English have some rights in their mother tongue which an American is bound to respect. When our cousins are in good humor, they talk of our common language ; when they are not, they tax us with an uncommon language, and spice their abhorrence of it with modes of speech in which I am quite willing to renounce any share whatever.

I was put upon these reflections by seeing, in Notes and Queries, the copy of a letter from Mr. W. E. Norris to the editor of the London Times, protesting against any complicity in the spelling used in a book of his printed in England from plates made in America. Notes and Queries is a useful and even excellent periodical, whose more serious labors are mitigated by communications every week from every Q in a corner who wishes to inform the world that there is anything he does not know, — an inexhaustibly prolific theme. The querulous voice of the doddypoll, elsewhere extinct, as the dodo, may be heard in its thickets. Mr. W. E. Norris is the author of several entertaining novels, written in a very comfortable English, as times go. He tells us that he wrote his letter “ with tears running down his pen,” and it would be easy to turn the tables upon him by hinting that a careful analysis could detect no salt in the water which he mixes with his ink. But this were a cheap advantage to take, especially in the case of one to whom I am a debtor for much wholesome and innocent entertainment. Besides, it is not with Mr. Norris that I have a crow to pluck, and I have said enough to show that I entirely sympathize with his feeling of the indignity that has been put upon him. No; what I protest against is that his letter should be printed under the heading of “Americanisms,” — a heading under which certain contributors to Notes and Queries seem eager to show how easy it is to trip over ignorance into ill manners. They write about the English and American language without knowing the rudiments of either. To drop the u out of “ honour ” or to write “ plow ” for “ plough ” may be archaisms, if you will, but they are not Americanisms. Formerly, all English words derived from French originals ending in eur changed it to our ; and properly enough, since the accent fell on the last syllable, as may be seen in Chaucer. The accent had been shifted to the first syllable as early as Elizabeth’s time, though some poets who Chaucerized, as it was called, occasionally followed the archaic accentuation even during the reign of James. “ Plow ” was a common spelling in English books for a century at least. Do Englishmen never read their older literature in the original editions, as Charles Lamb loved to do? Such spellings are not Americanisms, but survivals. True Americanisms are selfcocking phrases or words that are wholly of our own make, and do their work shortly and sharply at a pinch. Of the former we have invented many so bewitching for their quaintness or brevity, their humor or their fancy, that our English cousins have not been squeamish in corroborating the urbanely languid ranks of their diction with these backwoods recruits. Of the latter we have coined too many that are refused admission to the higher society of the vocabulary because they are unidiomatic or vulgar, or both. Of acceptable and sure-to-be-accepted words I cite “ shadow ” and “stage ” as active verbs, both in unassailable analogy with “ coach,” “ floor,” “ ship,” and so many others. “ To voice,” which is laid at our door, is an inheritance, and though I cannot now lay my hand on the reference that would prove it, I feel sure that “ to shadow ” will yet prove its Elizabethan origin, as its features seem to warrant. These and their like spare us cumbersome periphrases, and are sure of adoption because they chime in with that instinct for short cuts which connotes English as the language that, beyond all others, means business and the hurry implied in it.

I believe that one of the spellings that were too much for Mr. Norris’s sensibilities was “ center.” I do not wonder. But this again is no Americanism. It entered the language in that shape, and kept it at least so late as Defoe. The Mirror for Magistrates, Cotgrave, Minsheu, and the Glossographia Nova (1707) all spell it so. In its modern form, it makes, with half a dozen more, an exception to our general treatment of the French termination in tre, and to our invariable rule as regards that in dre. So, too, the banishing of the u from such words as “ honour.” Its presence there was once uniform ; it is now an exception. But no indictment for mayhem, if such it be, will lie against us. More than two hundred years ago James Howell proposed and practised this curtailment with others like it. Most of these have been adopted. In a very few words the u has been obstinate. The only argument in its favor that I have seen is that, in losing it, we lose all trace of its direct adoption from the French. This is a fact of more interest to the historians than to the writers of our language, and is, moreover, secure enough in the dictionaries. But why, then, retain the u in “ parlour,”the French original of which does not end in eur, but in oir ? And if “ parlour,” why not " mirrour ” also, as of old ? I am convinced that

u’s room, in all these cases, is better than his company ; yet is old habit so strong that I shudder, and seem to hear a sad Quid miserum laceras ? reproaching its evulsion. Dear old French friends, you of the vieille roche, the De Trops, as I part with you I sigh loyally, —

“ God bless their pigtails though they ’re now cut off! ”

Another imputed Americanism which has been trampled upon in Notes and Queries is the locution “come and ” do this, that, or tother. Why, the first motto adopted by our emigrant ancestors was “ Come over and help us,” not “ to help us,” and did they get it of the redskins ? Naturally not, but from the Scriptural “ Come over [into Macedonia] and help us,” where the construction, of course, is not in the least affected by the intervening words. The phrase is a common English idiom, and one of which Thackeray (who wrote classically colloquial English, if ever any man did) was rather fond. With other hardy perennials it came over in the Mayflower, which, naturally enough, brought also “ crank,” lately stigmatized as autochthonous, as if what was a boast in Athens must needs be a shame in America.

The best English commerces alike with the shelf and the street. Formal logic can never be applied to language, which has a logic of its own of more than feminine nimbleness, and verbal critics should learn their own tongue before they meddle with others. As for idioms, I should advise such critics to ponder deeply what the Rev. E. Young in his Pre-Raffaellitism says of definitions : “ It may be almost said of them as Confucius said of the gods : Respect them; take care not to offend them ; have as little to do with them as possible.” And on our side we should remember that we have every right in the language we have inherited which our elders and betters had, that we may enlarge, enrich, and modify, but may not deface it.