I’ve wanted to read this for awhile, and eventually decided to pick it up during my recent Dresden Files sprint, to cleanse the palate between Harry Dresden’s various lengthy and often amusing beat-downs. It took me awhile to finish, but honestly not as long as I thought it would, which is perhaps a testament to Mencken’s ability to weave an alluring tale about something as simultaneously ordinary and urbane as the everyday language in which we speak.
The main body of the book can be split into roughly three parts. The first five chapters covers the history of American as a language, starting with early recognition of the divergence of the English spoken in the New World from its parent tongue as spoken in Britain, and continuing through the influence of events such as the proliferation of movies in first third of the 20th century and the first World War. Chapters V through VIII provide various grammatical explanations of “standard” American language, as it existed in Mencken’s day, with focus and additional exposition about how various commonly recognized words, phrases and idioms came about. Chapters IX through XI focus on vulgar American language, with many humorous asides about school marm inefficacy at teaching “proper” grammar and pronunciation. After a short chapter with Mencken’s predictions on the future of the language (XII), there’s a long Appendix exploring more than two dozen languages that exist in various parts of the U.S., primarily in immigrant communities, and how those languages have changed, in both vocabulary and structure, by their contact with American.
By and large, the most interesting part of the book for me was those first few chapters exploring the history of the language. Mencken very effectively shows how there mere fact of arriving in America forced explorers and settlers to begin developing their own language to describe the new plants, animals, landscapes and peoples they encountered. One of my favorite anecdotes is Mencken’s description of the evolution of the word “raccoon” as people attempted to transcribe it from its original Native American pronunciation:
Thus, in Captain John Smith’s “True Relation,” published in 1608, one finds mention of a strange beast described variously as a rahaugcum and a raugroughcum. Four years later, in William Strachey’s “Historie of Trevaile Into Virginia Britannia” it became an aracoune, “much like a badger,” and by 1624 Smith had made it a rarowcun in his “Virginia.” It was not until 1672 that it emerged as the raccoon we know today.
Mencken doesn’t only focus how new words come into the language. He also shows how America’s separation from England prevented developments in the parent tongue from replicating in American. For example, while Shakespeare was busily coining words and phrases in Elizabethan England, the American language had little opportunity, initially anyway, to benefit directly from his inventiveness. Few copies of his works made it to the colonies before the 18th century, perhaps due more to early puritan attitudes about theater than the texts themselves. The first cataloged edition of Shakespeare’s plays is at Harvard in the mid-1720s, a hundred years after the dramatist’s death, and the first American edition of his complete works was published seventy years later in Philadelphia — though according to Shakespeare in America by Alden and Virginia Vaughn, Shakespeare was popular enough by the early days of the republic for Washington to sneak out of the Continental Congress to see The Tempest.
Such differences due to separation weren’t limited to new vocabulary. Existing words also changed their meaning, including which words were acceptable to speakers of “standard” English. Mencken points to a number of cases in which perfectly legitimate English terminology and phraseology survived in America but became disused in England, and then later became known as Americanisms, although they could more accurately be called archaisms that had simply fallen out of vogue.
Mencken also spends a lot of time showing how American language absorbed the language of other cultures. Many more words than “raccoon” have their roots in Native American language. Likewise, contact with the various explorers, settlers and later immigrants brought new words and phrases into the language. Most interestingly, however, Mencken notes the propensity of Americans to simply create new words to accommodate ideas as they are needed. Some of these stick around, though many tend, eventually, to fall by the wayside. And it’s hard to predict which will remain ahead of time.
It is, indeed, very difficult, dealing with neologisms, to know how to rate them. The most seemly, etymologically speaking, are often rejected in the long run, and the most grotesque are accepted. Many more go on dwelling in a twilight region, ordinarily disdained but summoned out for service on special occasions. In that twilight region are large numbers of the words that everyone who investigates the American language must discuss.
This applies, of course, not only to everyday words used in public, but also to myriad curses. “Many lack the natural gift for [swearing],” Mencken writes, “and others are too timorous.” He then goes on to list a stunningly large number of supposedly offensive words that I could only laugh, both at its size and the relative mildness of its members, before wondering whether he had a private list of more uncivil terms — and how I might get my hands on it.
As might be expected in a book on language, such lists are prevalent throughout the volume, especially in the later chapters. And as might be expected, they are at times a little tedious. Part of why I like the earlier chapters so much is that they tell a story, weaving words and word groups together with their historical context and how they both affected and were affected by the people who used them. In the last few chapters, Mencken tends to ditch narrative and undertake the role of cataloger. That isn’t to say the those chapters are useless — rather, I expect the lists of proper names in Chapter X would be useful to any creative writer, for example — but that they are more practical as reference than as narrative. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to glossing over some portions of the last several chapters. Likewise for the Appendix.
That said, overall Mencken does an excellent job of balancing scholarship with storytelling. For anyone who has even the slightest interest in American as a language, there are a lot of treasures to uncover, and undoubtedly you will come away with ideas and inquiries to pursue further. This was the last edition Mencken produced, and it still remains a compelling read today. Although there have been other books written about the American language (or aspects of it) since 1936, I suspect it would be difficult to find any that are more enjoyable.