Mencken and After

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If Noah Webster was the father of English-language spelling reform, H.L. Mencken was the strong son making good his inheritance.  Mencken’s claim was to be the father of the American language.  He named it.  As with mountains and planets, the one who names is honored with immortality, and The American Language, first published in 1919, was the work of H.L. Mencken.  Until then, American English was regarded as a sturdy cadet branch of English.  Our language, said Mencken, is ours and no other’s.  It dwells in a respectful relationship with the King’s English but is different and coequal.  No one had said this before, and no book to my knowledge was titled “The American Language.”  He declared independence.  And the reviewers loved it, both in the U.S. and in England, where he was highly praised for being “genuinely American.”  Mencken shoulder-charged a door that was already ajar, and on oiled hinges.

He was on to something both grand and subtle: an appreciation of the ways in which American usage differs from the parent tongue.  These were vast.  We can pass quickly over the spelling changes that Webster inaugurated, which were modest and innocuous.  They have never been augmented.  An English writer for U.S. publication will find his spelling silently altered, as do Americans writing for the English press.  It is merely a matter of editorial correction of slight misspellings, and is never an issue.  In his vision of characteristically American features Mencken was uninhibited and perceptive.  He was not at all a linguistics expert, and indeed at that time linguistics was hardly recognized as a discipline.  As a highly successful journalist, he was famous for his writings and much-quoted quips.  To Mencken we owe this thought: “Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.”  Also: “Husbands never become good; they merely become proficient.”  And: “When women kiss it always reminds one of prize-fighters shaking hands.”  This man was of an independent cast of mind.  He loved to taunt the “booboisie,” his own term for the bourgeoisie.  His great enemy was the genteel—overrefined, affected—which at that time was overly impressed with the English way of doing things.  And this was the psychological basis for The American Language.  For him, his language was freedom, comfort, the sense that Americans belonged in their own linguistic space and should never apologize for it.

That sense has always energized the vocabulary of Americans, with which the world is not always familiar.  Churchill, in the third volume of his war memoirs, cites an amusing difficulty with the Combined Chiefs of Staff.  The British Staff prepared a paper which they wished to raise as a matter of urgency, and informed their American colleagues that they wished to “table it.”  To the American Staff “tabling” a paper meant putting it away in a drawer and forgetting it.  A long and even acrimonious argument ensued before both parties realized that they were agreed on the merits and wanted the same thing.

Beyond the lexical, the American language has always claimed a stylistic space.  Hemingway did more than any other writer to invent a new style, as can be seen in a throwaway remark reported by a barroom friend: “Time is the least thing we have of.”  You have to be Hemingway to get away with that.  I think he did, and have quoted that line ever since.

But American usage is far more than idiosyncrasies.  It is founded on the granite of the language itself, Old English with its top layer of Norman French.  That layer remains as a vestigial but real evidence of power, the power of conquest.  To this day the Queen signs bills into law with “La Reine le veult.”  As Burgoyne says in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, “My good sir, without a Conquest you cannot have an aristocracy.”  The residue of the Norman conquest is a regard for words at the upper end of the register.  In general prose, the Latinate element is stronger in England than in the U.S., and American prose works toward the basics of the language, the Anglo-Saxon foundation.  Melvyn Bragg wrote that “We can have intelligent conversations in Old English, and only rarely need to swerve away from it.”  This goes well with the laws of George Orwell, the Hammurabi of prose style.  Good English does not “imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.”  It comes down to his second rule: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”  Curiously enough, posthumous support for Orwell comes in the most recent of innovations, Twitter.  The Twitterati have to condense language into irreducible capsules.  They daily display that invaluable exercise, précis.

The most characteristically American usage is surely the phrasal verb, when prepositions link up with a verb to form a new meaning.  This practice is held to enrich the language.  Thus take off(“remove”) but also “imitate,” “become airborne”; take on (“accept a challenge,” “engage an employee,” “acquire”); and take in (“deceive,” “understand,” “admit” (of a lodger), “visit” (the sites on a journey).  A simple verb, take, adds enormously to its power by linking up with a humble preposition.  These added meanings seem to have little to do with each other.  For example, pass out can mean “faint” or “complete one’s military training.”  You just have to know which meaning is intended.  There is nothing new in this.  The great Dr. Johnson first noted the trend in the Preface to his Dictionary (1755).  He thought it most puzzling to those learning the English language, and that is still so.  But it was clearly a tide coming in.  And here we are, wondering what we can do to stem the tide.

For the preposition continues to march forward linked with verbs while overpowering all resistance.  Much blame for this is directed at Americans.  They stand as so often in the dock, charged with flooding the language with barbarous new phrasal verbs.  But the fact is that British usage (again, as so often) is enthralled by American usage, and after a decent period of protest quietly submits.

Here are some leading cases.  Meet with is now widely accepted in the U.K. media.  The distinction between meet (“I met George in the street,” a casual encounter) and meet with (“I met with the Secretary of State,” a formal and planned occasion) is too useful to lose.  (But meet up with is indefensible.)  There are other examples.  From the Times: “Then . . . he learnt that he had missed out to Christine Channon.”  Why couldn’t he have lost to Christine?  Dumb down is moving from colloquial to standard.  Other cases are open to challenge.  I name my prime suspect: up.

“It’s time for the police to tech up” (BBC-TV).  Can you see why so many of us hold in disdain the standards of the BBC?

“It’s necessary for the Department to staff up” (the Times).  Easier than saying “increase their staff numbers,” I suppose.

Free up: This is now general.  What is even better than freedom?  Freedom in an upward direction, of course.  But what is freed up is not about to fan out over the countryside, like Spartacus’ followers.  The resources involved are diverted to other spending projects.  This one is a great favorite of governments.  The freed-up moneys, beyond a brief period of probation, are electronically tagged.  Up suggests progress, optimism, achievement, high and higher standards, onward and upward.  The preposition is upwardly mobile.  Even so, the preposition is without useful meaning.  It is a mere garnish at the side of the plate.

Another issue is the tendency to add prepositions, as with Iraq, which the British military “are planning to pull out of in May.”  Three in a row is too many for me.  But Stephen Fry creates a sentence that raises the bar to seven.  He imagines a child who asks her mother to find a book with a bedtime story.  Mother goes downstairs and returns with a book on Australia.  “Mother, what on earth did you bring a book to read out of about Down Under up for?”  That’s cheating, I know.  Down Under, meaning Australia, is really a noun here.  That still leaves us with five prepositions clustered menacingly around a single verb.  To adapt a famous cry, “The influence of prepositions has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.”

What would Mencken make of today’s scene?  He would recognize that his historic foe, genteelism, has now fallen back upon its safe space, academe.  It is guarded by a stockade well able to repel intruders.  Of countless unwelcome examples, I cite a conference where I heard the plenary session speaker say to an admiring audience, “I am re-positioning my centrality.”  Nobody laughed.  Of the counterpart to American English, Mencken would be interested to note that “the King’s English” is not much named today (and “the Queen’s English,” even less so).  The idea of a standard English has waned.  The King’s English is actually the title of a book, by Kingsley Amis, but refers to the author only.  Published posthumously (1997) it is Amis’s A Guide to Modern Usage, and is quirky but excellent.  The key word is usage, and on that rock all judgments rest.  When Fowler brought out his classic Modern English Usage in 1926, it commanded the field until 1965, when Sir Ernest Gowers (of Plain Words fame) edited the revised second edition.  The third edition (1996) was by a New Zealander, Robert W. Burchfield, who much widened the range of non-British sources.  These were all from writers and journals in good standing.  And the latest revision (2015) was entrusted by Oxford to Jeremy Butterfield, a lexicographer.

The relationship between American and British English is one of peaceful coexistence, in Khrushchev’s phrase, and is a plateau of tiny accommodations, sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected.  The American hospitalized is now widely accepted in England, because there is no other convenient single word that serves for went into hospitalBurglarized is rejected, because there is a perfectly good English word, burgled.  I do not see in this a grand scenario.  But the steady pressure of the American language will continue.

And always the English language broadens out beyond the founding nations.  All nations borrow freely from English, thus following the habit of the original Great Raptor.  Canada and Australia have increasingly assertive national identities, reflected in their preferred styles of English.  Of India, “English,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, “is our major window on the world.”  Nehru—an old Inns of Court man—was not about to turn his back on the English language.  We can note that the Times of India has ten times the circulation of the Times of London.  With all their distinctive features, these peoples come together in a global linguistic confluence, the Anglosphere.

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