The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States

By H. L. Mencken | Go to book overview
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VI.

TENDENCIES IN AMERICAN

1.
General Characters

The elements that enter into the special character of American have been rehearsed in the first chapter: a general impatience of rule and restraint, a democratic enmity to all authority, an extravagant and often grotesque humor, an extraordinary capacity for metaphor 1in brief, all the natural marks of what Van Wyck Brooks calls "a popular life which bubbles with energy and spreads and grows and slips away ever more and more from the control of tested ideas, a popular life with the lid off." 2 This is the spirit of America, and from it the American language is nourished. "The wish to see things afresh and for himself," says Dr. Harry Morgan Ayres, 3 "is so characteristic of the American that neither in his speech nor his most considered writing does he need any urging to seek out ways of his own. He refuses to carry on his verbal traffic with the well-worn counters; he will always be new-writing them. He is on the lookout for words that say something; he has a sort of remorseless and scientific efficiency in the choice of epithets! ... The American ... has an Elizabethan love of exuberant language." Brooks, perhaps, generalizes a bit too lavishly; Ayres calls attention to the fact that below the surface there is also a curious conservatism, even a sort of timorousness. In a land of manumitted peasants the primary trait of the peasant is bound to show itself now and then; as Wendell Phillips once said, "more

____________________
1
An interesting note on this characteristic is in College Words and Phrases, by Eugene H. Babbitt, Dialect Notes, vol. ii, pt. i, p. 11.
2
America's Coming of Age; p. 15.
3
Art. The English Language in America, Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. iv, p. 570.

-173-

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