Monday, July 11, 2005

The American Language

I've been reading Mencken's The American Language (Supplement I, 1945), and find it tremendously entertaining in small doses:
Since the earliest days the two Houses have devoted immense amounts of time and wind to pursuing such wicked men and things as Bourbons, slavocrats, embargoroons, gold-bugs, plutocrats, nullifiers, war-hawks, embalmed beef, ..., economic royalists, princes of pelf, land-grabbers, land-sharks, mossbacks, the open shop, the closed shop, and labor and other racketeers. Even Washington made a contribution to the menagerie with his foreign entanglements; as for Jefferson, he produced two of the best bugaboos of all time in his war-hawks and monocrats. From 1875 onward until the late 80s waving the bloody shirt was the chief industry of Republican congressmen, and from the early 90s onward the crime of '73 engaged the Democrats.

It's also genuinely informative at times, providing, for instance, an extensive list of words of Algonquian origins, and revealing that the term African-American (whose modern popularity, of course, came long after the book was written) is not a pure neologism, but has roots in a term that was popular around 1835, Africo-American, and one from 1880, Afro-American. (In a footnote to that section, he quotes a Liberian diplomat as noting that "Liberians consider the term Americo-Liberian opprobious as reflecting upon their [ancestors'] condition of servitude in the United States. Hence they prefer to be called civilized or Monrovian Liberians to distinguish them from the natives of the hinterland..." Diplomatic speech does change!)

In his discussion of social attitudes towards the emerging American dialect, he gives an 1820 quote from a British reviewer, Sydney Smith, that, apparently, "rankled in American bosoms for many years":
In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? or eats from American plates? or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets? Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?"

What an embarrassment for the poor fellow - to have been significant enough to give such offence, yet to be remembered two hundred years later principally for the shortsighted arrogance of his sneering asides! Even his last sentence, a justified blow at the time, would soon be made obsolete by a titanic effort. Let the Kilroy-Silks of our own day take note.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

There are lots of better things that Sydney Smith is remembered for, notably (on two wrangling publicans on opposite sides of the street) "They will never agree, for they are arguing from different premis(s)es."

And then there's his comment on a dinner party with candle sconces mounted close to the ceiling: "I like it not at all, Sir: above there is a blaze of light, and below, nothing but darkness and gnashing of teeth."

Lastly and apocryphally, when a painter asked Smith to sit for him, he replied "Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?" The painter, however, denied that he "ever did or ever could ask so ugly a fellow to sit for him."