H.L. Mencken and The American Language: the writer defends his native tongue

H.L. Mencken, writer and journalist, comes to mind when the American public or American culture needs criticism and a bit of biting satire. He knew how to do that and did it better during this 40-plus-year as a newspaper columnist and magazine editor than anyone else.

He did it so well that we forget that there was more to the man than his cigar-chomping, beer-drinking, fiery typewriter wit. Much more.

Mencken took a scholar’s and a collector’s interest in the English language, especially as it was used by Americans. He was fascinated by the language, beginning with the way Americans differed from the English. He began to take note of these differences early in his writing and editing career, and this notice morphed into a study of the language itself — the American language.

Mencken wrote several newspaper columns about his interest in the language and the items he had noticed in his wide reading and in his discussions with people in Baltimore — a hotbed of innovative language use.  In the second decade of the 20th century, Mencken decided it was time for someone to become a modern-day Noah Webster. That someone would be him.

The American Language was published in 1919 by Alfred A. Knopf, one of its earliest titles.

It sold well and received excellent reviews. It was revised three times during Mencken’s lifetime and has been revised since his death.

Unlike Mencken’s acerbic views of American politics and the collective ignorance of the American electorate, Mencken celebrated the American language and came to its defense when it was attacked, particularly by English critics. Here’s an excerpt from the section on the Characters of American:

The Characters of American

American thus shows its character in a constant experimentation, a wide hospitality to novelty, a steady reaching out for new and vivid forms. No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy. It is producing new words every day, by trope, by agglutination, by the shedding of inflections, by the merging of parts of speech, and by sheer brilliance of imagination. It is full of what Bret Harte called the “sabre-cuts of Saxon”; it meets Montaigne’s ideal of “a succulent and nervous speech, short and compact, not as much delicated and combed out as vehement and brusque, rather arbitrary than monotonous, not pedantic but soldierly, as Suetonius called Caesar’s Latin.” One pictures the common materials of English dumped into a pot, exotic flavorings added, and the bubblings assiduously and expectantly skimmed. What is old and respected is already in decay the moment it comes into contact with what is new and vivid. Let American confront a novel problem alongside [Pg027] English, and immediately its superior imaginativeness and resourcefulness become obvious. Movie is better than cinema; it is not only better American, it is better English. Bill-board is better than hoarding. Office-holder is more honest, more picturesque, more thoroughly Anglo-Saxon that public-servant. Stem-winder somehow has more life in it, more fancy and vividness, than the literal keyless-watch. Turn to the terminology of railroading (itself, by the way, an Americanism): its creation fell upon the two peoples equally, but they tackled the job independently. The English, seeking a figure to denominate the wedge-shaped fender in front of a locomotive, called it a plough; the Americans, characteristically, gave it the far more pungent name of cow-catcher. So with the casting where two rails join. The English called it a crossing-plate. The Americans, more responsive to the suggestion in its shape, called it a frog.

The American Language is pure Mencken and a delight to read. While you can purchase a copy from Amazon, it is available free through Google’s Project Gutenberg.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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