H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
the heavy Johnsonese of current English writingthe Jargon denounced by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his Cambridge lectures. This infirmity of speech Quiller-Couch finds in parliamentary debates and in the newspapers; it has become the medium through which Boards of Government, County Councils, Syndicates, Committees, Commercial Firms, express the processes as well as the conclusions of their thought, and so voice the reason of their being. Distinct from journalese, the two yet overlap, and have a knack of assimilating each others vices.59
American, despite the gallant efforts of the professors, has so far escaped any such suffocating formalization. We, too, of course, have our occasional practitioners of the authentic English Jargon; in the late Grover Cleveland we produced an acknowledged master of it. But in the main our faults in writing lie in precisely the opposite direction. That is to say, we incline toward a directness of statement which, at its greatest, lacks restraint and urbanity altogether, and toward a hospitality which often admits novelties for the mere sake of their novelty, and is quite uncritical of the difference between a genuine improvement in succinctness and clarity, and mere extravagant raciness. The tendency, says one English observer, is to consider the speech of any man, as any man himself, as good as any other. 60 All beauty and distinction, says another,61 are ruthlessly sacrificed to force. The Americans, in a kind of artistic exuberance, says a third,62 are not afraid to
Note 59.Cf. the chapter, Interlude: On Jargon, in Quiller-Couchs On the Art of Writing; New York, 1916. Curiously enough, large parts of the learned critics book are written in the very Jargon he attacks. See also ch. vi. of Growth and Structure of the English Language, by O. Jespersen, 3rd ed. rev.; Leipzig, 1919, especially pp. 143 ff. See also Official English, in English, March, 1919, p. 7; April, p. 45, and Aug., p. 135, and The Decay of Syntax, in the London Times Literary Supplement, May 8, 1919, p. 1. [back]
Note 60. Alexander Francis: Americans: an Impression; New York, 1900. [back]
Note 61. G. Lowes Dickinson, in the English Review, quoted by Current Literature, April, 1910. [back]
Note 62. Frank Dilnot: The New America; New York, 1919, p. 25. The same author describes two tendencies in American, one toward the reinvigoration of English, the other toward its dilution and corruption. He regards the language as far more vivid and effective than the English of England. Show me the alert Englishman, he says, who will not find a stimulation in those nuggety word-groupings which are the commonplaces in good American conversation. They are like flashes of crystal. They come from all kinds of peoplewho are brilliantly innocent of enriching the language. The written word in America follows generally along the lines of the spoken word. In writing as well as in speech there is a widespread range of what to an Englishman is looseness, occasionally slovenliness. The American tongue, written or spoken, with its alteration from the English of England, is a potent and penetrating instrument, rich in new vibrations, full of joy as well as shocks for the unsuspecting visitor. [back]