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America To-day, Observations and Reflections
by William Archer
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The heroine of The Story of a Play says to her husband, "Are you still thinking of our scrap of this morning?" "Scrap," in the sense of "quarrel," is one of the few exceedingly common American expressions which, have as yet taken little hold in England.[V] Admiral Dewey, for instance, is admired as a "scrapper," or, as we should phrase it, a fighting Admiral. Mr. Henry Fuller, of Chicago, in his powerful novel The Cliff Dwellers, uses a still less elegant synonym for "scrap"—he talks of a "connubial spat." In the same book I note the phrases "He teetered back and forth on his toes," "He was a stocky young man," "One of his brief noonings," "That's right, Claudia—score the profession." "Score," as used in America, does not mean "score off," but rather, I take it, "attack and leave your mark upon." It is very common in this sense. For instance, I note among the headlines of a New York paper, "Mr. So-and-so scores Yellow Journalism." Talking of Yellow Journalism, by the way, the expressions "a beat," and "a scoop," for what we in England call an "exclusive" item of news, were unknown to me until I went to America. I was a little bewildered, too, when I was told of a family which "lived on air-tights." Their diet consisted of canned (or, as we should say, tinned) provisions.

The most popular slang expression of the day is "to rubberneck," or, more concisely, "to rubber." Its primary meaning is to crane the neck in curiosity, to pry round the corner, as it were.[W] But it has numerous and surprising extensions of meaning. It appears to be one of the laws of slang that when a phrase strikes the popular fancy, it is pressed into service on every possible or impossible occasion. Another favourite expression is "That cuts no ice with me."[X] I was unable to ascertain either its origin or its precise significance. On the other hand, a piece of slang which supplies a "felt want," and will one day, I believe, pass into the literary language, is "the limit" in the sense of "le comble." A theatrical poster, widely displayed in New York while I was there, bore this alluring inscription:

THE LIMIT AT LAST!

"THE MORMON SENATOR AND THE MERMAID"

JAGS OF JOY FOR JADED JOHNNIES.

A "jag," be it known, means primarily a load, secondarily a "load," or "package," of alcohol.

Collectors of slang will find many priceless gems in two recent books which I commend to their notice: Chimmie Fadden, by Mr. E.W. Townsend, and Artie, by Mr. George Ade. Chimmie Fadden gives us the dialect of the New York Bowery Boy, or "tough," in which the most notable feature is the substitution either of "d" or "t" for "th." Is this, I wonder, a spontaneous corruption, or is it due to German and Yiddish influence? When Chimmie wants to express his admiration for a young lady, he says: "Well, say, she's a torrowbred, an' dat goes." When the young lady's father comes to thank him for championing her, this is how Chimmie describes the visit: "Den he gives me a song an' dance about me being a brave young man for tumping de mug what insulted his daughter," "Mug," the Bowery term for "fellow" or "man," in Chicago finds its equivalent in "guy." Mr. Ade's Artie is a Chicago clerk, and his dialect is of the most delectable. In comparison with him, Mr. Dooley is a well of English undefiled. Here again we find traces of the influence of polyglot immigration. "Kopecks" for "money" evidently comes from the Russian Jew; "girlerino," as a term of endearment, from the "Dago" of the sunny south; and "spiel," meaning practically anything you please, from the Fatherland. When Artie goes to a wedding, he records that "there was a long spiel by the high guy in the pulpit." After describing the embarrassments of a country cousin in the city, Artie proceeds, "Down at the farm, he was the wise guy and I was the soft mark." "Mark" in the sense of "butt" or "gull" is one of the commonest of slang words. When Artie has cut out all rivals in the good graces of his Mamie, he puts it thus, "There ain't nobody else in the one-two-sevens. They ain't even in the 'also rans.'" When they have a lovers' quarrel he remarks, "Well, I s'pose the other boy's fillin' all my dates." When he is asked whether Mamie cycles, he replies, "Does she? She's a scorchalorum!" When he disapproves of another young gentleman, this is how "he puts him next" to the fact, as he himself would say—

"You're nothin' but a two-spot. You're the smallest thing in the deck.... Chee-e-ese it! You can't do nothin' like that to me and then come around afterwards and jolly me. Not in a million! I tell you you're a two spot, and if you come into the same part o' the town with me I'll change your face. There's only one way to get back at you people.... If he don't keep off o' my route, there'll be people walkin' slow behind him one o' these days.... But this same two-spot's got a sister that can have my seat in the car any time she comes in."

I plead guilty to an unholy relish for Chimmie's and Artie's racy metaphors from the music-hall, the poker-table, and the "grip-car."[Y] But it is to be noted that both these profound students of slang, Mr. Townsend and Mr. Ade, like the creator of the delightful Dooley, express themselves in pure and excellent English the moment they drop the mask of their personage. This is very characteristic. Many educated Americans take great delight, and even pride, in keeping abreast of the daily developments of slang and patter; but this study does not in the least impair their sense for, or their command of, good English. The idea that the English language is degenerating in America is an absolutely groundless illusion. Take them all round, the newspapers of the leading American cities, in their editorial columns at any rate, are at least as well written as the newspapers of London; and in magazines and books the average level of literary accomplishment is certainly very high. There are bad and vulgar writers on both sides of the Atlantic; but until the beams are removed from our own eyes, we may safely trust the Americans to attend to the motes in theirs.

POSTSCRIPT.—When this paper originally appeared, it formed the text for an editorial article in the Daily News, in which Mr. Andrew Lang's sign manual was not to be mistaken. Mr. Lang brought my somewhat desultory discussion very neatly to a point. He admitted that we habitually use "Americanism" as a term of reproach; "but," he asked, "who is reproached? Not the American (who may do as he pleases) but the English writer, who, in serious work, introduces, needlessly, an American phrase into our literature. We say 'needlessly' when our language already possesses a consecrated equivalent for the word or idiom."

In the first place, one has to remark that many English critics are far from accepting Mr. Lang's principle that "the American may do as he pleases, of course." Mr. Lang himself scarcely acts up to it in this very article. And, for my part, I think the principle a false one. I think the English language has been entrusted to the care of all of us, English no less than Americans, Americans no less than English; and if I find an American writer debasing it in an essential point, as opposed to a point of mere local predilection, I assert my right to remonstrate with him, just as I admit his right, under similar circumstances, to remonstrate with me.

It is not here, however, that I join issue with Mr. Lang: it is on his theory that an English writer necessarily does wrong who unnecessarily employs an Americanism. This is a question of great practical moment, and I am glad that Mr. Lang has stated it in this definite form. My view is perhaps sufficiently indicated above, but I take the opportunity of reasserting it with all deliberation. I believe that, as a matter both of literary and of social policy, we ought to encourage the free infiltration of graphic and racy Americanisms into our vernacular, and of vigorous and useful Americanisms (even if not absolutely necessary) into our literary language. Where is the harm in duplicating terms, if only the duplicates be in themselves good terms? For instance, take the word "fall." Mr. Brander Matthews writes: "An American with a sense of the poetic cannot but prefer to the imported word 'autumn' the native and more logical word 'fall,' which the British have strangely suffered to drop into disuse." Well, "autumn" was a sufficiently early importation. "Our ancestors," wrote Lowell (quoted by Mr. Matthews in the same article), "unhappily could bring over no English better than Shakespeare's;" and in Shakespeare's (and Chaucer's) English they brought over "autumn." The word has inherent beauty as well as splendid poetical associations. I doubt whether even Shakespeare could have made out of "fall" so beautiful a line as

"The teeming autumn, big with rich increase."

I doubt whether Keats, had he written an Ode to the Fall, would have produced quite such a miraculous poem as that which begins

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."

Still, Mr. Matthews is quite right in saying that "fall" has a poetic value, a suggestion, an atmosphere of its own. I wonder, with him, why we dropped it, and I see no smallest reason why we should not recover it. The British literary patriotism which makes a point of never saying "fall" seems to me just as mistaken as the American literary patriotism (if such there be) that makes a merit of never saying "autumn." By insisting on such localisms (for the exclusive preference for either term is nothing more) we might, in process of time, bring about a serious fissure in the language. Of course there is no reason why Mr. Lang should force himself to use a word that is uncongenial to him; but if "fall" is congenial to me, I think I ought to be allowed to use it "without fear and without reproach."

Take, now, a colloquialism. How formal and colourless is the English phrase "I have enjoyed myself!" beside the American "I have had a good time!" Each has its uses, no doubt. I am far from suggesting that the one should drive out the other. It is precisely the advantage of our linguistic position that it so enormously enlarges the stock of semi-synonyms at our disposal. To reject a forcible Americanism merely because we could, at a pinch, get on without it, is—Mr. Lang will understand the forcible Scotticism—to "sin our mercies."

Mr. Lang is under a certain illusion, I think, in his belief that in hardening our hearts against Americanism's we should raise no barrier between ourselves and the classical authors of America. He says: "Let us remark that they [Americanisms] do not occur in Hawthorne, Poe, Lowell, Longfellow, Prescott, and Emerson, except when these writers are consciously reproducing conversations in dialect." He made the same remark on a previous occasion; when his opponent (see the Academy, March 30, 1895) opened a volume of Hawthorne and a volume of Emerson, and in five minutes found in Hawthorne "He had named his two children, one for Her Majesty and one for Prince Albert," and in Emerson "Nature tells every secret once. Yes; but in man she tells it all the time." The latter phrase is one which Mr. Lang explicitly puts under his ban. He is an ingenious and admirable translator: I wish he would translate Emerson's sentence from American into English, without loss of brevity, directness, and simple Saxon strength. For my part, I can think of nothing better than "In man she is always telling it," which strikes me as a feeble makeshift. "All the time," I suggest, is precisely one of the phrases we should accept with gratitude—if, indeed, it be not already naturalised.

Mr. Lang is peculiarly unfortunate in calling Oliver Wendell Holmes to witness against his particular and pet aversion "I belong here" or "That does not belong there." Writing of "needless Americanisms," he says, "The use of 'belong' as a new auxiliary verb [an odd classification, by the way] is an example of what we mean. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was a stern opponent of such neologisms." I turn to the Oxford Dictionary, and the one quotation I find under "belong" in this sense, is:—"'You belong with the last set, and got accidentally shuffled with the others.'—O.W. Holmes, 'Elsie Venner.'" But this, Mr. Lang may say, is in dialogue. Yes, but not in dialect. I am very much mistaken if the locution does not occur elsewhere in Holmes. If Mr. Lang, in a leisure hour, were to undertake a search for it, he might incidentally find cause to modify his view as to the sternness of the Autocrat's anti-Americanism.

Let me not be thought to underrate the services which, by sound precept and invaluable example, Mr. Lang has rendered to all of us who use the English tongue. Conservatism and liberalism are as inevitable, nay, indispensable, in the world of words as in the world of deeds; and I trust Mr. Lang will not set down my liberalism as anarchism. He and I, in this little discussion, are simply playing our allotted parts. I believe (and Mr. Lang would probably admit with a shrug) that the forces of the future are on my side. May I recall to him that charming anecdote of Thackeray and Viscount Monck, when they were rival candidates for the representation of Oxford in Parliament? They met in the street one day, and exchanged a few words. On parting, Thackeray shook hands with his opponent and said, "Good-bye; and may the best man win!" "I hope not," replied Viscount Monck, with a bow. A hundred years hence, if some English-speaker of the future should chance to disinter this book from the recesses of the British Museum or the Library of Congress, and should read these final paragraphs, I doubt not he will say—for the immortal soul of the language even anarchism cannot affect—"the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong."

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote V: Mr. Walkley reports that he has heard a Cockney policeman, speaking of a street row, "There's been a little scrappin'."]

[Footnote W: "About a dozen ringers followed us into the church and stood around rubberin'." "Gettin' next to the new kinds o' saddles and rubber-neckin' to read the names on the tyres."—Artie. A writer in the New York Sun says: "I first heard the term 'rubbernecks' in Arizona, about four years ago, applied to the throngs of onlookers in the gambling-houses, who strove to get a better view of the games in progress by stretching or bending their necks."]

[Footnote X: "We didn't break into sassiety notes, but that cuts no ice in our set."—Artie.]

[Footnote Y: Extract from a letter to the Chicago Evening Post: "I do not at all subscribe to the sneering remark of a talented author of my acquaintance, to the effect that there were not enough cultured people in Chicago to fill a grip-car. I asked him if he meant a grip-car and a trailer, and he said, 'No; just one car.' And I told him right there that I could not agree with him."]



THE END

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