The American Language: An Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States

A Guide to good Books
As a cub reporter, Henry Louis Mencken first Broke into print in 1899. He has Been in it ever since: a journalist, he helped the Baltimore Sun to shine; an editor, he gave character to the Smart Set and the American Mercury; a literary critic, he walloped mediocrity and championed new talent. A man of admirable prejudices, he is undoubtedly the most invigorating single force in the American language to-day.
[Knopf, $5.00]
ITALIANS in the United States transliterate ‘bricklayers’ as bricchellieri, ‘yard’ as gliarda, and ‘I got ya’ as aigaccia. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English, Baptist congregations of the deep South sometimes confer a D. D. upon a dismissed pastor as a solatium. For some cisatlantic plants the earliest colonists evolved new names — for example, ‘Jimson weed,’ via ‘Jamestown weed’ — through simple failure to identify the plants with English counterparts. ‘Skirt’ for ‘woman’ and ‘hick’ for ‘countryman’ are British importations by way of Australia and California, circa 1850. The English hundredweight is 112 pounds; the British stone is fourteen pounds for a man, but only eight for a COWL ‘Wrangler’ (in the Western sense) is by folk etymology from caballerango. A Negro baby born during a flood was named William McKinley Louisiana Levee Bust Smith. When Sir William Craigie was called to the University of Chicago to preside over the projected Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, the Chicago Tribune reported the event under the headline, ‘Midway Signs Limey Prof. to Dope Yank Talk.’
Mr. Mencken has stowed probably 30,000 such odd data in the third of a million words and 700 text pages of his new fourth edition, which is the third so drastically rewritten and enlarged that no more than rudimentary deposits of it survive. His new list of words and phrases contains upwards of 11,000 entries, the vast majority of them Americanisms. His bibliography (vested in footnotes) approaches the omniscient. There are, for example, over seventy references to Dialect Notes, several times as many to American Speech, over fifty to the Oxford Dictionary, a score to Ring Lardner, thirty-odd to the work of Dr. Louise Pound, sixteen to Thomas Jefferson, and forty-one to Noah Webster, not including thirty-two to Webster’s New International Dictionary. As exhaustively as the differentiation between British and American speech habits can be covered in one practicable volume, Mr. Mencken has covered it for all cultural levels, all linguistic sources and influences, from the time of Captain John Smith’s Map of Virginia to that of the National Industrial Recovery Act.
Any reader, no matter what his background or predilections, will find in so vast a report, no matter who wrote it, some assertions of fact which do not tally with his own observation; also, no doubt, some inferences from fact with which he cannot agree. But most qualified readers will, I think, find that they have but relatively few and trivial quarrels with the text, at least on the historical, factual side. And, qualified or not, they will find The American Language superb reading. Thousands of its facts and citations are as diverting as they are curious. They are brought together nowhere else, not even in a philological library; for a good share of them have accrued from the author’s personal observation over decades and would be inaccessible to any man lacking an acute ear and an insatiable interest in his fellow men’s habits of speech and thought.
Furthermore, the book conduces to a proud self-congratulation on the simple fact of being an American — a sufficiently curious result to follow from anything signed by the former editor of the American Mercury and author of Notes on Democracy. For not the most servile Anglophile will be able to read these twelve chapters without perceiving in spite of himself that American English, where it diverges from British English, is as a rule incomparably superior to it in gusto, wit, force, liveliness — superior not five times out of a possible ten, but nine times out of ten, and perhaps ninety-nine out of a hundred. The future of English as a growing and flexible — that is, living — organism is on this continent.
A reservation about the doctrine laid down in this fruitful and stimulating book has plagued me steadily since the first (1919) edition. I shall suggest it briefly by denouncing the The in the title. That The, in the interest of dramatizing the subject by an arresting challenge, greatly overstates the homogeneity of cisatlantic speech and tendencies in speech. Mr. Mencken would have written an even truer, sounder, more reservation-proof book if he had called it American Language, simply, and written all, as he has most, at that title.
A language, perhaps to be the world’s greatest, is in the making here. This is a book about the materials which already coalesce to its making. But with what color of plausibility can one assert that it is made? Any American seriously trying to communicate by words has to do just what Mr. Mencken has been doing for over a third of a century; he has to synthesize his linguistic instrument out of all the available materials, American and English, literary and vulgar, old and not so old, according to such taste and judgment as he can muster. To the American language the native writer who aspires to use it will have to speak yet a while according to the principle (if not the arithmetic) of Ambrose Bierce’s rueful little address to Liberty: —
’I think you are by twenty centuries unborn.‘