Language and Logic

THE difference between English and American practice in the use of some of our commonest words is an interesting study, on which much has been written. There is one aspect of this subject, however, which seems to have hitherto been overlooked. No one, as far as I am aware, has yet called attention to a certain curious feature of these divergences: the strange fashion in which some of them illustrate the illogicality, or shall we call it the inconsistency, of the human mind. It is beside the mark to discuss whether a particular English or American usage is right or wrong. The dominant authority in such matters is simply the practice of the best writers, and our dictionaries and textbooks of the language do no more than codify the established custom. What one does expect, however, is that, on either side of the Atlantic, those who attach a specific meaning to a word shall use it regularly in this sense. And that is by no means what always happens.

Take, for instance, the word ‘dessert.’ It is derived from the French desservir, which means ‘to remove what has been served,’ ‘to clear the table.’ The ‘ dessert,’ accordingly, is what follows the last regular course, and the meaning of the term will therefore depend upon what you consider the last course to be. In England the pies, puddings, or other constituents of what is known as ‘the sweet course’ are regarded as the final item of the meal proper, and the name of ‘dessert’ is reserved for the uncooked fruit, nuts, and so forth, that follow. In America, on the other hand, it includes ‘the sweet course’ itself. This has been so from early days. I find in the Journal of Senator William Maclay an entry, dated 1789, describing a dinner given by President Washington at the White House at which ‘the dessert was, first apple-pies, pudding, etc.; then iced creams, jellies, etc.; then water-melons, apples, peaches, nuts.’ Only the third of these groups of dainties would be considered ‘ dessert ’ by an Englishman. But the Englishman’s idiom in the matter is far from being consistent. For one of the implements he uses at his dinner is what he calls a ‘dessert spoon,’ and this is of service to him only when he is taking ‘dessert’ in the American, not the English, sense.

It is well known that the original sense of ‘sick,’ as illustrated in many passages of the King James Version of the Bible, has long been obsolete in England in what grammarians call the predicative use. It is now restricted to mean ‘vomiting,’ or ‘about to vomit,’ and ‘ill’ has taken its place when the reference is to bodily disorders in general. Thus, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to be sick’ is the sort of remark you may expect to hear from an Englishman on a Channel steamer during a rough crossing, but that is not what he will say if he is threatened with an attack of influenza or bronchitis. Here, again, his practice is inconsistent, for there is no suggestion of the modern limitation of meaning in ‘sick bed,’ ‘sick leave,’‘sick nurse,’‘sick pay,’and ‘sick room,’to say nothing of ‘heartsick,5 ’homesick,’and ‘lovesick.‘

The American use of ‘corn5 to denote what is called in England ‘maize’ or ‘Indian corn’ is liable to cause much international misunderstanding, though not, fortunately, of a nature to disturb friendly diplomatic relations. In his Our Hundred Days in Europe Oliver Wendell Holmes pictures an average American and an average Englishman talking together. One of them speaks of the beauty of a field of corn. ‘They are thinking,’he remarks, ‘of two entirely different objects; one of a billowy level of soft waving wheat, or rye, or barley; the other of a rustling forest of tall, jointed stalks, tossing their plumes and showing their silken epaulettes, as if every stem in the ordered ranks were a soldier in full regimentals.5 Here, once more, the international difference is not carried out to its logical conclusions. For when an Englishman speaks of ‘ corn flour ’ — I believe it is called in the United States ‘cornstarch ‘ — he is referring to a product of the American, not the English, ‘corn.‘

So, too, an Englishman does not speak of the ‘engineer’ of a railway train, but of the ‘engine driver.’ He reserves ‘engineer’ for a person who follows the profession of engineering — a designer or constructor. But he backslides when he leaves the land for the sea, for he gives the name to the man in the engine room of a vessel who has not planned its machinery but is responsible for the working of its engines. In England, again, only a wholesale trader is nowadays described as a ‘merchant.’ One could not speak, as W. J. Bryan did in his ‘cross of gold’ speech, of ‘the merchant at the crossroads store.’ To this rule, however, there is one curious exception. For the English ‘wine merchant5 will not refuse to sell his wares in single bottles. The associations of the word ‘saloon’ are entirely different in the two countries. Yet, while ‘saloon5 never has in England the meaning of ‘drinking place’ part of the normal equipment of an English ‘public house’ is a ‘saloon bar.‘

My illustrations of linguistic inconsistencies have so far been drawn from my own side of the Atlantic. I have noted, in addition, a few examples from current American usage. Their first meal in a restaurant is often enough to make English visitors to America and American visitors to England aware of the fact that ‘ biscuit5 may mean something very different from what they arc accustomed to signify by that term. One wonders how the same name — which etymologically is equivalent to ‘twice cooked5 — came to be applied to two things so widely diverse as the English and the American biscuit. Yet, although the Englishman in the United States must ask for a ‘cracker5 if he wants what he has hitherto called a ‘biscuit,’he finds, to his surprise, that an American firm which manufactures it on a large scale registers itself under the name, not of the National Cracker Company, but of the National Biscuit Company.

One might, perhaps, mention as a further though minor example of verbal inconsistency the fact that, while it is an ‘administration’ at Washington that corresponds to the ‘government5 at Westminster, the individuals who compose it are known as ‘cabinet members,’not ‘cabinet ministers’ as they would be called in England.

The most remarkable cases are those in which an inconsistent idiom on one side of the Atlantic is matched by a parallel eccentricity on the other. There is an odd example in connection with the difference between English and American usage in the matter of ‘boots’ and ‘shoes.’ Hamlin Garland relates in his autobiography that, when he went to Oakland to find Joaquin Miller, a man said to him: ’Yes, I know Miller. He’s a rough old fellow — wears boots.’ So, too, the Dictionary of American Biography describes the late Senator Pettus, of Alabama, as exhibiting ‘a somewhat rustic and oldfashioned style of dress, his feet being clad in the only pair of boots then worn in the Senate.’

Both these passages would puzzle an English reader. Why, he will ask, should the wearing of boots be regarded as a sign of uncouthness or rusticity? His bewilderment will vanish when he learns that in the United States ‘boot’ is specialized to mean what he calls a ‘ high boot ’ or a ‘ Wellington,’ whereas the footwear that he ordinarily calls ‘ boots ’ is known there as ‘shoes.’

But a mystery that remains to be cleared up is why the Englishman should employ a ‘shoeblack’ to clean what he calls his ‘boots,’ while an American employs a ‘bootblack’ to perform a similar service on his ‘shoes.’ Thus, there is a passage in Sartor Resartus in which Thomas Carlyle asks whether ‘the whole finance ministers of modern Europe’ will ‘undertake to make one shoeblack happy.’ And one of the philanthropic activities of the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was the foundation of a Shoeblack (not Bootblack) Brigade. On the other hand, Dr. Charles A. Beard and William Beard tell us, in The American Leviathan, that nearly everyone in America takes part in the election of a President, from the existing holder of the office ‘ down to bootblacks and garage boys,’ and I could quote further examples of the word from other American authors, as diverse as James Truslow Adams and Anita Loos.

Again, take ‘visit.’ In England nowadays — it was not so in Jane Austen’s time — a certain element of duration is ordinarily implied in the use of this word. We ‘ visit ’ our friends for a week, or, at the least, overnight. But in America a mere afternoon call lasting no more than half an hour is regarded as sufficient to constitute a ‘visit.’ (Indeed, a casual meeting, provided that it is utilized for social converse, may be described by this term — as when two friends who have happened to travel together for a few blocks in a street car tell one another, when they separate, that they have much enjoyed ‘this pleasant visit.’) Now the etiquette of good society requires that on the occasion of such calls, in certain circumstances, a small bit of pasteboard shall be left at the house by the caller. Then, of course, in England the name for this token will be a ‘calling card’ and in America a ‘visiting card.’ Not at all; it is precisely the opposite.