H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
writing in the Fortnightly Review in the Spring of 1918, denounced this tendency with a vigor recalling the classical anathemas of Dean Alford and Sydney Smith.5 Stale American phrases, he said, are infecting even our higher journalism and our parliamentary and platform oratory . A statesman is now out for victory; he is up against pacificism . He has a card up his sleeve, by which the enemy are at last to be euchred. Then a fierce fight in which hundreds of noble fellows are mangled or drowned is a scrap . To criticise a politician is to call for his scalp . The other fellow is beaten to a frazzle. And so on. Bolshevism, concluded Harrison sadly, is ruining language as well as society. Other watchmen have often sounded the same alarm, sometimes in very acrimonious terms. Thou callest trousers pants, roared Samuel Butler in his Psalm to Montreal, whereas I call them trousers; therefore thou art in hell-fire and may the Lord pity thee!6
But though there are many such protests, the majority of Englishmen make borrowings from the tempting and ever-widening American vocabulary, and many of these loan-words take root, and are presently accepted as sound English, even by the most squeamish. The two Fowlers, in The Kings English, separate Americanisms from other current vulgarisms, but many of the latter on their list, in the sense indicated, are actually American in origin, though they do not seem to know itfor example, to demean and to transpire. More remarkable still, the Cambridge History of English Literature lists backwoodsman, know-nothing and yellow-back as English compounds, apparently in forgetfulness of their American origin, and adds skunk, squaw and toboggan as direct importations from the Indian tongues, without noting that they came through American, and remained definite Americanisms for a long while.7 It even adds musquash, a popular name for the Fiber zibethicus, borrowed from the Algonquin muskwessu but long since degenerated to muskrat in America. Musquash has been in disuse in this country, indeed, since the middle of the last century, save as a stray localism,
Note 5. Reprinted, in part, in the New York Sun, May 12, 1918. [back]
Note 6. The Note-Books of Samuel Butler; New York, 1917, p. 389. [back]