H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.III. The Period of Growth
2. The Language in the Making
Whitman himself spoke of “An American Primer” as “an attempt to describe the growth of an American English enjoying a distinct identity.” He proposed an American dictionary containing the actual everyday vocabulary of the people. To quote him again:
As everyone knows, Whitman delighted in filling his poetry and prose with such new words, among them, the verbs to promulge, to eclaircise, to diminute, to imperturbe, to effuse and to inure, the adjectives ostent and adamic, the adverb affetuoso, and the nouns camerado, romanza, deliveress, literatus, acceptress and partiolist. Many of his coinages were in Spanish metal; he believed that American should not be restricted to the materials of English. I have heard it argued that he introduced finale into everyday American; the evidence is dubious, but certainly the word is much oftener used in the United States than in England. Most of his coinages, alas, died with him, just as ridiculosity died with its inventor, Charles Sumner, who announced its invention to the Senate with great formality, and argued that it would be justified by the analogy of curiosity. But These States has survived.
Meanwhile, though conservatism lingered on the planes above Whitman, there was a wild and lawless development of the language on the planes below him, among the unfettered democrats of his adoration, and in the end the words and phrases thus brought to birth forced themselves into recognition, and profited by the literary declaration of independence of their very opponents. “The jus et norma loquendi,” says W. R. Morfill, the English philologist, “do not depend upon scholars.” Particularly in a country where scholarship is still new and wholly cloistered, and the overwhelming majority of the people are engaged upon novel and highly exhilarating tasks, far away from schools and with a gigantic cockiness in their hearts. The remnants of the Puritan civilization had been wiped out by the rise of the proletariat under Jackson, and whatever was fine and sensitive in it had died with it. What remained of an urbane habit of mind and utterance began to be confined to the narrowing feudal areas of the south and to the still narrower refuge of the Boston Brahmins, now, for the first time, a definitely recognized caste of intelligentsia, self-charged with carrying the torch of culture through a new Dark Age. The typical American, in Paulding’s satirical phrase, became “a bundling, gouging, impious” fellow, without either “morals, literature, religion or refinement.” Next to the savage struggle for land and dollars, party politics was the chief concern of the people, and with the disappearance of the old leaders and the entrance of pushing upstarts from the backwoods, political controversy sank to an incredibly low level. Bartlett, in the introduction to the second edition of his Glossary, described the effect upon the language. First the enfranchised mob, whether in the city wards or along the western rivers, invented fantastic slang-words and turns of phrase; then they were “seized upon by stump-speakers at political meetings”; then they were heard in Congress; then they got into the newspapers; and finally they came into more or less good usage. Much contemporary evidence is to the same effect. Fowler, in listing “low expressions” in 1850, described them as “chiefly political.” “The vernacular tongue of the country,” said Daniel Webster, “has become greatly vitiated, depraved and corrupted by the style of the congressional debates.” Thornton, in the appendix to his Glossary, gives some astounding specimens of congressional oratory between the 20’s and 60’s, and many more will reward the explorer who braves the files of the Congressional Globe. This flood of racy and unprecedented words and phrases beat upon and finally penetrated the retreat of the literati, but the purity of speech cultivated there had little compensatory influence upon the vulgate. The newspaper was enthroned, and belles lettres were cultivated almost in private, and as a mystery. It is probable, indeed, that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Ten Nights in a Bar-room,” both published in the early 50’s, were the first contemporary native books, after Cooper’s day, that the American people, as a people, ever read. Nor did the pulpit, now fast falling from its old high estate, lift a corrective voice. On the contrary, it joined the crowd, and Bartlett denounced it specifically for its bad example, and cited, among its crimes against the language, such inventions as to doxologize and to funeralize. To these novelties, apparently without any thought of their uncouthness, Fowler added to missionate and consociational.
As I say, the pressure from below broke down the defenses of the purists, and literally forced a new national idiom upon them. Pen in hand, they might still achieve laborious imitations of Johnson and Macaulay, but their mouths began to betray them. “When it comes to talking,” wrote Charles Astor Bristed for Englishmen in 1855, “the most refined and best educated American, who has habitually resided in his own country, the very man who would write, on some serious topic, volumes in which no peculiarity could be detected, will, in half a dozen sentences, use at least as many words that cannot fail to strike the inexperienced Englishman who hears them for the first time.” Bristed gave a specimen of the American of that time, calculated to flabbergast his inexperienced Englishman; you will find it in the volume of Cambridge Essays, already cited. His aim was to explain and defend Americanisms, and so shut off the storm of English reviling, and he succeeded in producing one of the most thoughtful and persuasive essays on the subject ever written. But his purpose failed and the attack kept up, and eight years afterward the Very Rev. Henry Alford, D.D., dean of Canterbury, led a famous assault. “Look at those phrases,” he said, “which so amuse us in their speech and books; at their reckless exaggeration and contempt for congruity; and then compare the character and history of the nation—its blunted sense of moral obligation and duty to man; its open disregard of conventional right where aggrandisement is to be obtained; and I may now say, its reckless and fruitless maintenance of the most cruel and unprincipled war in the history of the world.” In his American edition of 1866 Dr. Alford withdrew this reference to the Civil War and somewhat ameliorated his indignation otherwise, but he clung to the main counts in his indictment, and most Englishmen, I daresay, still give them a certain support. The American is no longer a “vain, egotistical, insolent, rodomontade sort of fellow”; America is no longer the “brigand confederation” of the Foreign Quarterly or “the loathsome creature, … maimed and lame, full of sores and ulcers” of Dickens; but the Americanism is yet regarded with a bilious eye, and pounced upon viciously when found. Even the friendliest English critics seem to be daunted by the gargantuan copiousness of American inventions in speech. Their position, perhaps, was well stated by Capt. Basil Hall, author of the celebrated “Travels in North America,” in 1827. When he argued that “surely such innovations are to be deprecated,” an American asked him this question: “If a word becomes universally current in America, why should it not take its station in the language?” “Because,” replied Hall in all seriousness, “there are words enough in our language already.”