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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter I. Vocabulary


THOUGH we take these separately from foreign words, which will follow next, the distinction is purely pro forma; Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated. To say this is not to insult the American language. If any one were asked to give an Americanism without a moment’s delay, he would be more likely than not to mention I guess. Inquiry into it would at once bear out the American contention that what we are often rude enough to call their vulgarisms are in fact good old English. I gesse is a favourite expression of Chaucer’s, and the sense he sometimes gives it is very finely distinguished from the regular Yankee use. But though it is good old English, it is not good new English. If we use the phrase—parenthetically, that is, like Chaucer and the Yankees—, we have it not from Chaucer, but from the Yankees, and with their, not his, exact shade of meaning. It must be recognized that they and we, in parting some hundreds of years ago, started on slightly divergent roads in language long before we did so in politics. In the details of divergence, they have sometimes had the better of us. Fall is better on the merits than autumn, in every way: it is short, Saxon (like the other three season names), picturesque; it reveals its derivation to every one who uses it, not to the scholar only, like autumn; and we once had as good a right to it as the Americans; but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny. The other side of this is that we are entitled to protest when any one assumes that because a word of less desirable character is current American, it is therefore to be current English. There are certain American verbs that remind Englishmen of the barbaric taste illustrated by such town names as Memphis and those mentioned in the last section. A very firm stand ought to be made against placate, transpire, 1 and antagonize, all of which have English patrons. There is a real danger of our literature’s being americanized, and that not merely in details of vocabulary—which are all that we are here directly concerned with—but in its general tone. Mr. Rudyard Kipling is a very great writer, and a patriotic; his influence is probably the strongest that there is at present in the land; but he and his school are americanizing us. His style exhibits a sort of remorseless and scientific efficiency in the choice of epithets and other words that suggests the application of coloured photography to description; the camera is superseding the human hand. We quote two sentences from the first page of a story, and remark that in pre-Kipling days none of the words we italicize would have been likely; now, they may be matched on nearly every page of an ‘up-to-date’ novelist:
Between the snow-white cutter and the flat-topped, honey-coloured 2 rocks on the beach the green water was troubled with shrimp-pink prisoners-of-war bathing.—Kipling. Far out, a three-funnelled Atlantic transport with turtle bow and stern waddled in from the deep sea.—Kipling.
The words are, as we said, extremely efficient; but the impulse that selects them is in harmony with American, not with English, methods, and we hope it may be developed in America rather than here. We cannot go more fully into the point in a digression like this. But though we have digressed, it has not been quite without purpose: any one who agrees with us in this will see in it an additional reason for jealously excluding American words and phrases. The English and the American language and literature are both good things; but they are better apart than mixed. Fix up (organize), back of (behind), anyway (at any rate), standpoint (point of view), back-number (antiquated), right along (continuously), some (to some extent), just (quite, or very—’just lovely’), may be added as typical Americanisms of a different kind from either fall or antagonize; but it is not worth while to make a large collection; every one knows an Americanism, at present, when he sees it; how long that will be true is a more anxious question.
And, back of all that, a circumstance which gave great force to all that either has ever said, the rank and file, the great mass of the people on either side, were determined…—Choate. Hand-power, back-number, flint-and-steel reaping machines.—Kipling. Some of them have in secret approximated their standpoint to that laid down by Count Tisza in his programme speech.—Times.
We close the section by putting placate and antagonize in the pillory. It may be remarked that the latter fits in well enough with Emerson’s curious bizarre style. Another use of just is pilloried also, because it is now in full possession of our advertisement columns, and may be expected to insinuate itself into the inside sheets before long. 3
When once placated the Senators will be reluctant to deprive honest creditors of their rights.—Spectator.
It is true the subject is American politics; but even so, we should have liked to see this stranger received ceremoniously as well as politely, that is, with quotation marks; the italics are ours only.
The old Imperial naval policy, which has failed conspicuously because it antagonized the unalterable supremacy of Colonial nationalism.—Times. If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate.—Emerson. Have you ever thought just how much it would mean to the home if…—Advertisements passim.
Note 1
Even in the legitimate sense (see Malaprops), originally a happy metaphor for mysterious leaking out, but now vulgarized and ‘dead’. [back]
Note 2
Not that this word calls for censure in itself; but when packed into a sentence with snow-white, green, and shrimp-pink, it contributes noticeably to that effect of brief and startling exhaustiveness which is one variety of what we have stigmatized as efficiency. [back]
Note 3
It has. ‘It would be difficult to say just how many weddings of famous people have been celebrated at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square.’—Westminster Gazette. [back]