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Notices & Reviews of Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett (1848)

While later generations have found John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms a useful and surprisingly readable glimpse into what came out of the mouths of many 19th-century Americans, 19th-century critics were a little pickier. Oh, they agreed that it was readable; Littell’s Living Age and The North American Review specifically recommended the book for entertainment on long winter evenings. However, most reviewers took issue in some form with the Dictionary. “We rejoice that some one has at length taken the American tongue in hand,” the Literary World asserts—and then goes on to point out that a number of the “Americanisms” are actually “Britishisms.” Nearly every reviewer could find a word or two missing from the book or an incorrect definition or etymology. The American Review (whose definition of a “passing notice” is at least two pages of extracts and criticism) states that “[t]he work appears to be quite full, judging from one’s inability to remember many common words and phrases which it is found not to contain”—and then finds two words which “we rather wonder should have escaped the author.”

Another interesting aspect of the reviews is social class. Reviewers tended to use words like “coarse” to describe the Americanisms and to hope that the book would teach young professionals “what words they are to avoid, if they aim to speak pure and correct English.” The Southern Literary Messenger goes so far as to lament that certain speech patterns have been preserved in text and spread, thus causing American literature to be “debased by vile thoughts and disfigured by unworthy expressions.”

For later researchers, the reviews are a fuller look at language in 19th-century America. Samuel Gilman Brown’s unsigned essay in the North American Review is a luxurious history of Americanisms and a survey of attitudes about language and class. Like most of the other reviewers, Brown notes words left out of the Dictionary and thus provides yet more information on how Americans—especially New Yorkers—spoke.


The Literary World. 19 August 1848

The American Review. September 1848

Christian Register. 23 September 1848

Southern Literary Messenger. Oct 1848

Spirit of the Times. 4 November 1848

Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany. January 1849

Littell’s Living Age. 13 January 1849 [Reprinted from the Boston Advertiser]

The North American Review. July 1849


Review. The Literary World 3 (19 August 1848): 561-562.

Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett. 1 vol. 8vo. Bartlett & Welford. 1848.

We rejoice that some one has at length taken the American tongue in hand; nor could the matter have fallen into better hands than those of Mr. Bartlett, who seems to have ransacked the Union to get up his vocabulary of the various Americanese idioms. There is many a phrase here which, although frequently used in our country newspapers, would be “above one’s bend” so far that he might “absquatulate” without “acknowledging the corn;” all of which expressions the reader will find explained and illustrated with quotations, upon the first page of Mr. Bartlett’s Dictionary. Now although it be only in the most select circles that these choice Alleghanic idioms prevail, yet it is well for people generally to be aware of their true purport. Americans, “the most intelligent people on earth,” should at least be fully conversant with all the lights and shades of their own language.

But let us look at this matter in a more serious light. A friend recently travelling in England, after an agreeable conversation in the cars with a well-informed islander, was complimented by the Englishman as speaking English remarkably well for a foreigner; as the American very properly took an early opportunity to profess himself.

“I beg your pardon,” said our friend, “I do not talk English!”

“Not English?”

“No, I talk Americanese, as I perceive you do; for the English, as spoken by a majority of your countrymen, seems to be a very different thing from my vernacular.”

The whim of the remark struck the opposite party, and led to a familiar discussion, in which the English gentleman confessed himself worsted.

Now without taking the Cockney talk of Dickens’s principal characters, or the provincialisms of the different counties of England as specimens of the prevalent language of the people, it must be admitted that the language of Shakspeare and Milton, to which both nations are common heritors, is more universal in this country than in England. An ingenious article, in a former number of this journal, entitled “Maine Yankeeisms,” offered a curious list of phrases in familiar use in this country, and often termed vulgarisms by half-enlightened ignorance, all of which were long since made classic by Ford, Massinger, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the other elder dramatists. A vast majority of our supposed modern slang phrases belongs to this order of words. The term “to cotton to,” which Mr. Bartlett merely notes as being of common use in the Southwestern States, meaning “to take a liking to you—to stick to him as cotton would,” still in common colloquial use in England, as we are informed, occurs repeatedly in Beaumont and Fletcher. The same dramatists, too, use, in its present sense, the verb to lam—which a witty American child derived from the Latin lambo, to lick, and which Walter Scott,, in a note to Peveril of the Peak, erroneously deduces from the treatment of Dr. Lamb by the mob of Peveril’s time.

The verb to progress, which the English so long laughed at as an Americanism, we believe they have latterly re-admitted into the language, upon the authority of Shakspeare and Ford, backed by Washington Irving and the London Quarterly Review.

“Let me wipe off this honorable dew

That slowly doth progress on thy cheeks.”

SHAKSPEARE.

“—Although the popular blast

Hath reared thy wave up in bestride a cloud,

Or progress in the chariot of the sun.”

FORD.

Even the word calculate may be found, if we recollect aright, used in its American sense, in a passage of “Julius Cæsar.” Now, while Young England is constantly degrading the flow of its manly vernacular with sloppy words, like “potter,” or new applications of old words, like any of the thousand fashionable applications of the nursery term “nice,” we do not see that Americans are in any way compelled to draw from these muddled tributaries instead of the well of English undefiled. Nor will the present provincial imitation of every new-fashioned English term continue long among us. “In our hot youth, when George the fourth was King,” an English coat and an English hat were indispensable to the young leaders of the haut ton. But we all know now, that though English cloth and sewing, and indeed all that belongs to the useful arts in the make of garments, is perfection—yet that the cut of a coat, which is properly a branch of the fine arts, is rarely attainable by an Englishman. So too with hats! The idea of a uniform shape of cylindrical hat, with a brim of so many inches to every physiognomy, could only have grown up in a country where thoroughly mechanized habits had obliterated all delicacy of discrimination in the application of individual taste; had, in a word, turned taste into an arbitrary code instead of leaving it the happy inspiration of genius. As with the dress of our persons so will it soon be with the dress of our minds. The fibrous staple of clear, hard, honest English thought must indeed every possess a value in this country proportionate to the rarity of the commodity among our own mercurial and poetic race. But in the development of language it even now is evident that the preponderance of fancy and imagination among the masses in this country will inevitably soon make the English tributary to us. They have already borrowed from the grotesque expressions rife among our common people, a greater number of new phrases than we take from them, although this country is drenched with cheap books redolent of English slang.

Mr. Bartlett has shown great industry in collecting these colloquialisms into a really interesting and quite entertaining vocabulary of four hundred octavo pages. In an introductory paper on “American Dialects” his comments upon one of the sources of their origin are worth noting from the ease with which we may all verify the facts. This is nothing more than the existence of crowded neighborhoods all over the country, of people who, though speaking English, are by descent of other than English origin. Mr. Bartlett gives many words in familiar use in the State of New York, which have come down from its ancient Dutch colonists. The Germans of Pennsylvania, the French of Louisiana, and the Spaniards of Florida have likewise supplied many phrases; which, with our locomotive population, become rapidly distributed over the region, and are fast being incorporated with the general vernacular—the instances of the Hollanders’ word Boss, the French Levee, and the Spanish Canyon are familiar, as we find them used in newspapers throughout the United States.

The origin of the word Caucus, now an indispensable term in politics, Mr. Bartlett leaves as much in the dark as he finds it, quoting only Gordon’s History of the American Revolution, 1688, as giving the earliest account of the word. From Gordon’s remarks Mr. Pickering derives the word from the habits of the ship business of New England, in which the Caulkers of course figures.

This must be entirely erroneous. The word is evidently of Indian origin. It is from the same dialect probably with the Long Island word Secaucees, and its use and meaning were probably once nearly identical with that of the Iroquois word Kanticoy mentioned by Colden a hundred years ago as having precisely the same import among the Mohawks as it now has among the people of some of the western counties of New York, “kanticoy” being still used in some neighborhoods for a particular social gathering just as caucus is applied all over the Union for a special political meeting. We imagine that at the south west Mr. Bartlett might much extend his list of words of a similar origin to these.

Some of his definitions are not so full as they might be. To the word mull, for instance, he only appends Johnson’s definition, “to soften and dispirit.” Mr. Bartlett might, if on a sleighing party anywhere within a dozen miles of this city, hear as many orders given to innkeepers on a cold winter’s night, to mull a pitcher of claret for this or that party of merry-makers. And a delicious draught it is too, a tumbler of mulled claret, as every well-graduated tee-totaler ought to remember—or, if not remembering, ought to have drunk before he took the pledge.

Upon the word loafer our Philologist dilates “considerably,” but he does not seem to think of identifying it in origin with the word loper, or land-loper, which he gives on another page. Our authority for this suggestion is no less a personage than that erudite soldado, Major Dugald Dalgetty, in Scott’s Legend of Montrose. The Major, fresh from the wars of the immortal Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden,

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p. 562

calls Ranald of the Mist a land-lougher. But here again another point is suggested. The old Swedish colony, established on the Delaware 200 years ago, by the famous Oxenstern, was broken up, as all know how who have read Knickerbocker’s veritable history. And it is among the descendants of the Swedes in New York and Philadelphia that we get the first traces of this now universal and indispensable word, which describes a portion of the population of this great city as characteristically as does the Italian Lazzaroni or the Spanish Lepero identify their brothers of Naples or Mexico. By the way, it just occurs to us that one of Paulding’s tales in commemorating the Swedish rising under “Koningsmark the Long Finn” makes that doughty hero one of the original loughers or loafers of the land. But it is time for us to stop, albeit we could find argument enough for several pages of the slip-shod talk in Mr. Bartlett’s curious volume.


Review. The American Review 2 (September 1848): 326-328.

Dictionary of Americanisms. A Glossary of Words and Phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett, Corresponding Secretary of the American Ethnological Society, and Foreign Corresponding Secretary of the new York Historical Society. New York: Bartlett & Welford. 1848.

This work is so suggestive of amusement, that we very much regret the necessity of letting it go by with only a passing notice. The title sufficiently explains its object, which is, not to distinguish all the pure Americanisms, but simply to collect “all the words usually called provincial or vulgar—all the words, whatever be their origin, which are used in familiar conversation, and but seldom employed in composition—all the perversions of language and abuses of words into which people, in certain sections of the country, have fallen, and some of those remarkable and ludicrous forms of speech which have been adopted in the Western States.”

The author states that on comparing familiar New England words “with the provincial and colloquial language of the Northern counties of England, a most striking resemblance appeared, not only in the words commonly regarded as peculiar to New England, but in the dialectical pronunciation of certain words, and in the general tone and accent.”

“In fact, it may be said, without exaggeration, that nine tenths of the colloquial peculiarities of New England are derived directly from Great Britain; and that they are now provincial in those parts from which the early colonists emigrated, or are to be found in the writings of well accredited authors of the period when that emigration took place. Consequently, it is obvious, that we have the best authority for the use of the words referred to.

“It may be insisted, therefore, that the idiom of New England is as pure English, taken as a whole, as was spoken in England at the period when these colonies were settled. In making this assertion, I do not take as a standard the nasal twang, the drawling enunciation, or those perversions of language which the ignorant and uneducated adopt. Nor would I acknowledge the abuse of many of our most useful words. For these perversions I make no other defence or apology, but that they occur in all countries, and in every language.”

The work appears to be quite full, judging from one’s inability to remember many common words and phrases which it is found not to contain. For the political slang and other phrases, the author acknowledges himself indebted to John Inman, Esq., editor of the Commerical Advertiser. The best idea of the manner of its execution, may be gained from a few examples; the list of authorities is often laughable enough:—

Absquatulate. To run away, to abscond. Used only in familiar language.

W—— was surrendered by his bail, who was security for his appearance at court, fearing he was about to absquatulate.—N. Y. Herald, 1847.

All-fired. Very, in a great degree. A low American word.

The first thing I know’d, my trowsers were plastered all over with hot molasses, which burnt all-fired bad.—Maj. Jones’s Courtship, p. 87.

Old Haines sweating like a pitcher with ice-water in it, and looking all-fired tired.—Porter’s Tales of the Southwest, p. 50.

I was woked up by a noise in the street; so I jumps up in an all-fired hurry, ups with the window, and outs with my head.—Sam Slick.

You see the fact is, Squire (said the Hooshier), they had a mighty deal to say up in our parts about Orleans, and how all-fired easy it is to make money in it; but it’s no ham and all hominy, I reckon.—Pickings from the Picayune, p. 47.

I’m dying—I know I am! My mouth tastes like a rusty cent. The doctor will charge an all-fired price to cure me.—Knickerbocker Mag. 1845.

To axe. (Ang. Sax. acsian, axian.) To ask.

This word is now considered a vulgarism; though, like many others under the same censure, it is as old as the English language. Among the early writers it was used the same as ask is now. In England it still exists in the colloquial dialect of Norfolk and other counties. A true born Londoner, says Pegge, in his Anecdotes of the English Language, always axes questions, axes pardon, and at quadrilles, axes leave. In the United States it is somewhat used by the vulgar.—Forby’s Vocabulary. Richardson’s Dic.

And Pilate axide him, art thou Kyng of Jewis? And Jhesus answeride and seide to him, thou seist.—Wiclif, Trans of the Bible.

A poor lazar, upon a tide,

Came to the gate, and axed meate.—Gower, Con. Anc.

Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, in a letter to her son, Henry VII., concludes with—

As herty blessings as ye can axe of God.—Lord Howard.

In the next reign, Dr. John Clarke writes to Cardinal Wolsey, and tells him that—

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p. 327

The King axed after your grace’s welfare.—Pegge’s Anecdote.

Day before yesterday, I went down to the Post Office, and ax’d the Post-master if there was anything for me.—Maj. Jones’s Courtship, p. 173.

I have often axed myself what sort of a gall that splendiferous Lady of the Lake of Scott’s was.— Sam Slick in Eng., ch. 30.

To know b from a bull’s foot. It is a common phrase to say, “He does not know B from a bull’s foot,” meaning that a person is very illiterate, or very ignorant. The term bull’s foot is chosen merely for the sake of the alliteration; as in the similar phrases, “He does not know B from a broomstick;” or “B from a battledoor.” It is a very old saying; Mr. Halliwell finds it in one of the Dighy MSS.

I know not an A from the wynd mylne,

Ne a B from a bole-foot, I trowe, ni thiself nother.

Archaic and Provincial Glossary.

Clam-shell. The lips, or mouth. There is a common though vulgar expression in New England, of “Shut your clam-shell,” that is, Shut your mouth, hold your tongue.

Coupon. A financial term, which, together with the practice, is borrowed from France. In the United States, the certificates of State stocks drawing interest are accompanied by coupons, which are small tickets attached to the certificates. At each term when the interest falls due, one of these coupons is cut off (whence the name); and this being presented to the State treasurer, or to a bank designated by him, entitles the holder to receive the interest. The coupons attached to the bonds of some of the Western States have not been cut off for several years.

Loco-foco. The name by which the Democratic party is extensively distinguished throughout the United States. This name originated in the year 1835, when a division arose in the party, in consequence of the nomination of Gideon Lee as the Democratic candidate for Congress, by the committee chosen for that purpose. This nomination, as was customary, had to be confirmed at a general meeting of Democrats held at Tammany Hall. His friends anticipated opposition, and assembled in large numbers to support him. “The first question which arose,” says Mr. Hammond, “and which would test the strength of the parties, was the selection of Chairman. The friends of Mr. Lee, whom we will call Tammany men, supported Mr. Varian; and the anti-monopolists, Mr. Curtis. The Tammanies entered the hall as soon as the doors were opened, by means of back stairs; while at the same time the Equal Rights party rushed into the long room up the front stairs. Both parties were loud and boisterous; the one declaring that Mr. Varian was chosen Chairman, and the other that Mr. Curtis was duly elected the presiding officer. A very tumultuous and confused scene ensued, during which the gas-lights, with which the hall was illuminated, were extinguished. The Equal Rights party, either having witnessed similar occurrences, or having received some intimations that such would be the course of their opponents, had provided themselves with loco-foco matches and candles, and the room was re-lighted in a moment. The ‘Courier and Enquirer’ newspaper dubbed the anti-monopolists, who used the matches, with the name of Loco-focos; which was soon after given to the Democratic party, and which they have since retained.”—Hammond’s Political History of New York, Vol. II. p. 491.

To row up salt river, is a common phrase, used generally to signify political defeat. The distance to which a party is rowed up Salt river depends entirely upon the magnitude of the majority against its candidates. If the defeat is particularly overwhelming, the unsuccessful party is rowed up to the very head waters of Salt river.

It is occasionally used as nearly synonymous with to row up, as in the following example, but this application is rare:

Judge Clayton made a speech that fairly made the tumblers hop. He rowed the Tories up and over Salt river.—Crockett, Tour Down East, p. 46.

To row up Salt river has its origin in the fact that there is a small stream of that name in Kentucky, the passage of which is made difficult and laborious as well by its tortuous course as by the abundance of shallows and bars. The real application of the phrase is to the unhappy wight who has the task of propelling the boat up the stream; but in political or slang usage it is to those who are rowed up—the passengers, not the oarsman. [J. Inman.]

Small potatoes. An epithet applied to persons, and signifying mean, contemptible; as, ‘He is very small potatoes.’ Small potatoes are not fit for eating, and except for the feeding of hogs and cattle,, are worthless; hence the expression as applied to men. It is sometimes put into the more emphatic form of small potatoes and few in a hill; see Sam Slick in England for an explanation of the latter, ch. 6.

Give me an honest old soldier for the Presidency—whether a Whig or Democrat—and I will leave your small potato politicians and petty-fogging lawyers to those who are willing to submit the destiny of this great nation to such hands.—N. Y. Herald, Dec. 13, 1846.

The very incidents of the meeting, and the names of the speakers [noticed by the Washington Union], induce a strong suspicion that it was rather small potatoes.—N. Y. Com. Adv., April 15, 1848.

Sistern, for sisters. A vulgar pronunciation sometimes heard from uneducated preachers at the West.

“Brethurn and sisturn, it’s a powerful great work, this here preaching of the gospel, as the great apostle hisself allows in them words of hissin what’s jest come into my mind; for I never knowed what to preach till I ris up.”—Carlton, The New Purchase, Vol. I. p. 203.

(We have heard in a conference meeting a speaker desiring to “hear something from the female breetheren!”—Ed. Rev.)

Tooties. A common term in nursery language for the feet. A corruption of footies, i. e. feet. Used in England as well as with us.

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One luckless day last week the poet met

A maid of such perfection, such a face,

Such form, such limbs, such more than mortal grace,

Such dark expressive eyes, such curls of jet,

Arched brows, straight nose, round chin, and lips a prince

Might sue to kiss—in brief, so many beauties,

Such hands, such waist, such ankles—O such tooties!

He really has not been his own man since:

Rum-punch will not restore his appetite,

Nor rarebits even make him sleep at night!—Am. Rev., July 1848.

There are two words, or rather applications of words, which we rather wonder should have escaped the author. One is “moderate,” pronounced mordrit, which is much used in New England to express any amount of diminution either directly in bulk or quality, or metaphorically in mind or character. After hearing old Deacon X., for instance, declare that the new minister was “ruther m-o-r-drit,” we should feel positive that a few months would witness a change of dynasty. The other is the Pennsylvania “ordinary,” pronounced ornary, and applied in much the same way as the Yankee “moderate.” that young lady in a backwoods village would not be a very desirable acquaintance, respecting whom the neighbors should unite in saying “she is ornary.”

Every reader will probably call to mind similar examples which this collection does not contain; still it is as complete, perhaps, as could be expected for such a work, and may serve a good purpose in separating the language of coarseness from that of elegance.


Review. Christian Register 27 (23 September 1848): 154.

Dictionary of Americanisms. A Glossary of Words and Phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett. New York. Bartlett and Welford. 1848.

We have here a large octavo volume of 440 pages, recording the local dialects, the unwritten vocabularies, of the heterogeneous population of the United States—a work, therefore, whose usefulness will be so extensive with our vast territory, and as acceptable in the far West or the remote South, as in New York or New England. It is evidently a labor of love with Mr. Bartlett, and the fruit of vast labor and research. As far as we have been able to examine it, it appears to have been very carefully and thoroughly prepared, and, what can be said of few works of this class, it is replete with amusement as well as instruction. It is in fact, a very readable book. The great use of such a work, we conceive, is to show writers and speakers, legislators, preachers, advocates, particularly the younger members of the professions, what words they are to avoid, if they aim to speak pure and correct English. For this purpose Mr. Bartlett’s book is invaluable, and ought to be on the table of every American scholar. Our limits forbid taking a more extended notice of this work, but we regret this the less, as it will undoubtedly receive a full and critical examination in the North American, or some other of our leading reviews.


Review. Southern Literary Messenger 14 (Oct 1848): 623-629.

“AMERICANISMS” *

We are a great people. That is, we, the universal Yankee nation, and not we, the writer of this article. There can be no doubt of our greatness. From the night when the tea was thrown overboard from the ships in Boston harbor, we have been progressing, (a good word, in spite of the lexicographers, until this day—the first of October, in the year Eighteen Hundred and Forty eight, the date of the Messenger’s publication—we stand among the other nations of the earth, like Saul among the men of Israel, or

— velut inter ignes

Luna minores.

The idea of Britannia’s marching over the mountain wave, as mistress of the seas, may be all very well in Mr. Campbell’s lyrics, and France may claim to be the propagandist of the fashions, but we boldly assert the proud supremacy of Brother Jonathan, in the eyes of the world. Something, perhaps, might be said in praise of English learning and French science, of the British Museum and the discovery of Le Verrier, if we were disposed to do justice to our transatlantic neighbors; but we have set out in this article to brag of America and brag we shall, to the best of our ability. It would be quite improper, certainly, to sound the praises of any other country. We know a gentleman, who once went to Liverpool as supercargo in a commercial enterprise and who remained in England three months, without seeing London. We ventured to ask him on his return why he had not visited the metropolis? “Sir,” said he, “I had my luggage taken down to the station and was on my way to get a ticket, when I met a friend, who assured me that London was a very stupid place, and so I came back again.” It is just in this manner that we shall speak of Albion or any other nation when compared with ourselves. We have learned long since, on fourth-of-July days, to boast of America as a pretty considerable sort of country and no mistake, and, in the true spirit of our national anthem, to

— Stick a feather in our cap

And call it macaroni!

Are we not “going ahead” in every branch of human improvement? Not only is the schoolmaster abroad, but his smart scholars are making themselves known in all directions. We have accomplished wonderful things in arts and arms, in letters and locomotion, and while skirting the Atlantic for two thousand miles with populous and thriving cities, we have carried our julaps and our jurisprudence across the Rocky Mountains, among strange tribes of dusky and barbarous Injuns! As our policy is peace, we shall soon reach the Pacific, and, acting over again the energetic measures of Augustus, who “found Rome of brick and left it of marble,” shall rear the temples of justice and religion, and lift up the voice of enlightened morality, where now is heard only

The wolf’s long howl on Onalaska’s shore!

There, that will do! We take breath, and come more immediately to the subject we propose to discuss.

That subject is “Americanisms.”

And to define the term, we recur, before proceeding farther, to the very excellent volume of Mr. Bartlett:

Americanism. A way of speaking peculiar to this country.—Witherspoon.

“ ‘By Americanism,’ says Dr. Witherspoon, ‘I understand a use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences, even among persons of rank and education, different from the use of the same terms or phrases, or the construction of similar sentences, in Great Britain. In this sense it is exactly similar in its formation and signification to the word Scotticism.’ ”

This definition is quite sufficient and satisfactory, although we might carp at the term “rank” as somewhat aristocratic for our institutions.

We now assert, in the face of Blackwood and his Anglo-American correspondent, that, with all our Americanisms, we speak, as a nation, better English than do the people of the “fast-anchored isle.” True it is, that in some sections of the United States, from local influences and foreign admixtures, the vernacular, throwing off the trammels of the schools, has assumed a flexibility and copiousness quite unknown to the 17th century. But this does not weaken our position at all. For we believe that even in these sections better English is spoken than among similar classes of society in England. The b’hoys in the Bowery, for example, do not converse with any strict observance of grammar or any remarkable purity of expression, but their lingo is better than that of the young gentlemen of st. Giles, who have been introduced to us, in all their larcenous extravagance, in Mr. Ainsworth’s novels. The slang of collegians is very similar in both countries and is not worse, we apprehend, at Yale or the University of Virginia than at Oxford or Cambridge. Among the nobility, in the circles of Belgrave Square, we do not doubt that the language is spoken with great


* Dictionary of Americanisms. A Glossary of Words and Phrases, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett, Corresponding Secretary of the American Ethnological Society and Foreign Corresponding Secretary of the New York Historical Society. New York: Bartlett and Welford, No. 7 Astor House, 1848. Richmond, for sale by Drinker and Morris.

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p. 624

purity, but it is spoken quite as well by educated people in Boston, in Baltimore, in Richmond, in Charleston or in St. Louis. What indeed shall we say of the dialects of Yorkshire and Cornwall, or where among our people is such English employed?

We are right glad that the subject has at length engaged the attention of one so well qualified to do it entire justice as Mr. Bartlett. Well-known for his philological attainments and his accurate research, his studies have made him familiar, in an uncommon degree, with the rise and progress of our tongue. We have read his book with great pleasure and we consider it a most acceptable contribution to literature. Any one, who will take it up, while he will derive abundant amusement from the novelties it contains, will be surprised to find how many words, which have been set down as of our own invention, are based upon genuine Biblical or Shaksperian usage.

The verb to progress, which we have used in our foregoing remarks, after having been excluded from the language by the “best authorities,” must again be admitted under the sanction of the London Quarterly Review, and the occurrence of it in the writings of the old dramatists.

“Let me wipe off this honorable dew

That slowly doth progress on thy cheeks.”

King John, v. 2.

“—Although the popular blast

Hath reared thy wave up in bestride a cloud,

Or progress in the chariot of the sun.”

FORD.—Broken Heart.

It is a very common opinion that “axe” for ask is a vulgarism indigenous to the Southern States of America. We have had it quoted to us as an instance of Virginia coinage. But the verb to axe is as old as the language. In the Ang. Sax. it is acsian, axian. Mr. Bartlett cites the following authorities for it:

“And Pilate axide him, art thou King of Jewis? And Jhesus answeride and saide to him, thou seist.—Wiclif, Trans. of the Bible.

A poor lazar, upon a tide,

Came to the gate, and axed meate.—

Gower, Con. Anc.

Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, in a letter to her son, Henry VII., concludes with—

As herty blessings as ye can axe of God.—

Lord Howard.

In the next reign, Dr. John Clarke writes to Cardinal Wolsey, and tells him that—

The King axed after your grace’s welfare.—

Pegge’s Anecdote.

The expression SHARP SET in the sense of hungry is given very properly as in frequent colloquial use both in England and the United States. In support of this, the writer might have referred to one of the best of Charles Lamb’s puns. In a letter to his friend Manning, a mathematical tutor at Cambridge, he says, “Puns I have not made many, (nor punch much) since the date of my last; one I cannot help relating. A constable in Salisbury Cathedral was telling me that eight people dined at the top of the spire of the Cathedral, upon which I remarked, that they must be very sharp-set.”

There are many other words of this description in Mr. Bartlett’s Dictionary, some of which he has failed to trace to their origin or to notice as common in England. We suggest three or four examples. We think it strange that the plain derivations and authorities of these words did not occur to so well-informed and accurate an author.

On page 61, Mr. Bartlett gives us

Callithumpians. It is a common practice in New York, as well as other parts of the country, on New-Year’s eve, for persons to assemble with tin horns, bells, rattles, and similar euphonious instruments, and parade the streets making all the noise and discord possible. This party is called the Callithumpians, or the Callithumpian Band. On wedding nights the happy couple are sometimes saluted with this discord by those who choose to consider the marriage an improper one, instead of a serenade.—See Chiravari.

While this definition describes well enough the maner of the performance and the instruments generally used, our author has been singularly unfortunate, we think, in locating the practice; for we entertain no sort of doubt that if it is common for parties of this description, to go out on New Year’s Eve to make night hideous in the streets of New York and fright Manhattan Isle from its propriety, it is also common for them to be put in the watch-house for their trouble. They must either yield, or, like Hood’s prowler,

Frightened by Policeman B. 3, flee.

The fact is, the Callithumpians flourish most in colleges situated in small towns or villages, where the constable can do nothing to suppress disorder, against a large force of students, without the posse comitatus. We know something about it from personal experience, and we can assure Mr. Bartlett that the word has an excellent Greek derivation. It comes from [Greek word], pleasant, and [Greek word], the soul, because they are pleasant souls, or jolly fellows, who engage in the sport.

Page 205. Licking. A flogging; a beating.”

The authorities given for this are Col. Crockett and the Charcoal Sketches of the late Joseph C. Neal.

Now there is no better word than “licking.” Its

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foot is lictor, the name of the official who carried around the fasces to thrash the rabble into a proper respect for the Roman magistracy.

Again. Page 298. “Shindy. A Row or Spree.”

Mr. Bartlett gives no other authority for this than Mr. Neal and thus admits that the word is an Americanism proper. ‘Shindy’ is one of those specimens of slang, which have been brought with spices from India. It is from the name of an Indian general, Scindia, who always got up a fight wherever he went.

It is very possible that our speculations with regard to these words may be considered fanciful and extravagant. But there is a phrase given by Mr. Bartlett as of native growth, about which there can be no dispute whatever, when we point out the source from which it comes. He does not mention a single passage in English literature in which it occurs, and seems to consider it as obnoxious to the charge of being American born. The phrase is

By the Skin of One’s Teeth. When a man (says our author) has made a narrow escape from any dilemma, it is a common remark to say, that he has saved himself ‘by the skin of his teeth.’ ”

To put the matter forever at rest, so far as the propriety of the phrase is concerned, we quote a passage from the most splendid of all compositions. in the book of Job, xix chap., 20 verse, it is thus written,

“My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.”

There must be inevitably very many additions to language in the advancement of the sciences and the important changes of national character. New discoveries and new combinations of long-established facts and principles involve the absolute necessity of new terms by which to designate them. In this manner, the United States had added largely to the vocabulary of Dr. Johnson. Nor can it be questioned that many phrases and expressions have crept into use, which have no sufficient origin and would be little understood out of the country. Some of these are curious and amusing. We shall mention several of each class, as given by Mr. Bartlett.

Backwoods. The partially cleared forest region on the western frontier of the United States, called also the back settlements. This part of the country is regarded as the back part or rear of Anglo-American civilization, which fronts on the Atlantic. It is rather curious that the English word back has thus acquired the meaning of Western, which it has in several Oriental languages, and also in Irish.”

Brother Jonathan.—The origin of this term, as applied to the United States, is given in a recent number of the Norwich Courier. The Editor says it was communicated by a gentleman now upwards of eighty years of age, who was an active participator in the scenes of the Revolution. The story is as follows:

“When General Washington, after being appointed commander of the army of the Revolutionary war, came to Massachusetts to organize it and make preparations for the defence of the country, he found a great want of ammunition and other means necessary to meet the powerful foe he had to contend with, and great difficulty to obtain them. If attacked in such condition, the cause at once might be hopeless. On one occasion at that anxious period, a consultation of the officers and others was had, when it seemed no way could be devised to make such preparation as was necessary. His Excellency, Jonathan Trumbull the elder, was then Governor of the State of Connecticut, on whose judgment and aid the General placed the greatest reliance, and remarked, “We must consult ‘Brother Jonathan’ on the subject.” The General did so, and the Governor was successful in supplying many of the wants of the army. When difficulties afterwards arose, and the army was spread over the country, it became a by-word, “We must consult Brother Jonathan.” The term Yankee is still applied to a portion, but “Brother Jonathan” has now become a designation of the whole country, as John Bull has for England.”

Diggings. A word first used at the Western lead mines, to denote places where the ore was dug. Instead of saying this or that mine, it is these diggings, or those diggings. The phrase these diggings is now provincial in the Western States, and is occasionally heard in the Eastern, to denote a neighborhood, or particular section of country.”

We now quote one of the most curious of Americanisms, which has given rise to much discussion in different parts of the country with regard to its origin. it is the

Dollar Mark ($). The origin of this sign to represent the dollar has been the cause of much discussion of late in the newspapers. One writer says it comes from the letters U. S. (United States) which, after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, were prefixed to the Federal currency, and which afterwards, in the hurry of writing, were run into one another; the U being made first and the S over it. Another, that it is derived from the contraction of the Spanish word pesos, dollars, or pesos fuertes, hard dollars. A third, that it is a contraction of the Spanish fuertes, hard, to distinguish silver or hard dollars from paper money. The more probable explanation is, that it is a modification of the figure 8, and denotes a piece of eight reals, or, as a dollar was formerly called, a piece of eight. It was then designated by the figures 8/8.”

Mr. Bartlett could not have seen a letter, addressed to the Editors of the Southern Standard, (a paper published about two years since in Rich-

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mond,) from the pen of Judge Beverly Tucker, of William and Mary College, on the use of the Dollar Mark in Pleading. Judge Tucker’s hypothesis is certainly the most striking, if not the most rational, we have ever seen. He says—

“The Straits of Gibraltar, called of old the ‘Pillars of Hercules,’ were called the ne plus ultra of the world. Spain pushed her discoveries to this continent, and when she carried home the wealth that rewarded her enterprise, she coined it into dollars, and stamped them with a triumphant allusion to her great achievement. The pillars they bear are the Pillars of Hercules and across them is twined a fillet marked with the beautiful words ‘plus ultra’—‘farther yet.’ The two straight lines are supposed to represent these pillars, and the line that waves across them stands for the fillet; and thus the mark $ is but a rude picture of this part of the impression.”

Our quotations are certainly most diverse in their nature, for we now come to a phrse, which defies a satisfactory explanation and which must sound singularly in the ears of an Englishman:

Knocked into a Cocked Hat. Knocked out of shape; spoiled; ruined. The allusion or metaphor seems to be that of the hat of some unlucky wight, which, by a violent blow, has been knocked into a sort of flattened, three-cornered shape, resembling an old-fashioned cocked hat.

“In consequence of a severe storm of rain and a freshet that followed, some time during the winter of 1842, the mails were behind several days and no news was received. In speaking of the storm, the New York Commercial Advertiser states that they were unable to give any news, for, owing to the storm and freshet, the mails were all knocked into a cocked hat. A London paper, in quoting news from America, observed that a singular occurrence had taken place, which had kept back the usual supply of news from New York, as it appeared that the mails were knocked into a cocked hat—a most extraordinary circumstance, the meaning of which it was wholly out of their power to define.”

It is not generally known that “sundown” is purely an Americanism. The Dictionary says,

Sundown. Sunset. Peculiar to the United States.”

An English lady making the tour of the United States, with whom it was our fortune on one occasion to ride twenty miles in the stage coach, complained that wherever she went in the interior, she was treated with “a sunrise breakfast and a sundown bed.” She spoke freely of the liberties we took with the language and told an amusing story of a Western steamboat captain, who, just as he was leaving a landing on the Mississippi river, where the boat had stopped for freight, saw a carryall on the wharf and cried out to a man on shore, “Does that caryall want to come on board?”

Recurring to the Dictionary, however, we are attracted by a word, which is the very last that a Virginian would be willing to see expunged from the language. It embodies all his love of country and pride of birth-place, because he regards it as the synonym of his State’s renown. If carried from his home to inhospitable climes, or placed

—sub curru nimium propinqui

Solis, in terrâ domibus negaiâ,

he would not feel so deeply the maladie du pays as the want of his best comforter, the solace of all his woes. The reader has already anticipated us in the word—Tobacco. we need not recur to the palmy days of the court of Elizabeth, to see Raleigh introducing the weed into use among that crowd of wits and gallants that encircled the Virgin Queen, nor need we invoke in its praise the muse of Byron, who sings

Sublime tobacco! which from east to west

Cheers the tar’s labors and the Turkman’s rest.

It is enough for us that it is the staple product of Virginia to make us regard it with peculiar favor, and though we use it only as it comes in cigars from Cuba, we incline to think that the American was right, who, being asked in England for what the United States was remarkable, replied, “Pretty women, canvass-back ducks, trotting horses and tobacco.”

But what says Mr. Bartlett?

Tobacco. (Span. tabaco.) An American plant; the dried leaves of the plant used for smoking, chewing, and for making snuff. The name is supposed to be derived from Tabaco, a province of Yucatan, where it was first found by the Spaniards.—Worcester. According to Gilii, it is the name of an instrument which the Indians used for smoking.—Storia Americana.

“Among the host of names given to the weed according to the various modes in which it is prepared for chewing are, Pig-tail, Ladies’ twist, Cavendish, Honey-dew, Negro-head (pron. Nigger-head), Long cut, Short cut, Bull’s eye, Plug, Oronoko leaf, Nail-rod or 32’s, Roll, Fine spun, Pound, &c. &c.”

We clipped from a newspaper, some time since an account of the origin of the term, Cavendish Tobacco, which, not because we think it very interesting but that it seems to be a leaf of our history, we here insert and commend to the notice of the virginia historical Society.

“There lived in the County of Mecklenburg, and Colony of Virginia, some seventy-five years ago, a Colonel Cabanis, a successful planter and ‘prosperous gentleman.’ Now, in those ancient days of Virginia, the habit was to export the tobacco grown in the Colony to the mother country, to be manufactured, and then to be re-exported to

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Virginia, there to be masticated and spirted upon its native soil.

“Our worthy Colonel was the first to start domestic manufactures in the South on his own hook, by the reection of a private establishment for the manufacture of chewing tobacco on a small scale. And a prime article was turned out from this infant, and, we may say, isolated manufactory of the olden time. And the good Colonel, who was a member of the House of Burgesses, would at every annual visit to Williamsburg, put into his saddle-bags a choice twist for each of his brother members and chewers of the House; and anxiously, indeed, was his advent, or rather that of his saddle-bags, looked for, while many a smacking of lips, as well as shaking of hands, greeted the arrival of the manufacturer of Mecklenburg at the Capitol.

“Now the Cabanis twist beat all competition; it had the taste, the twang, the real game flavor, and many and earnest were the inquiries as to the modus operandi by which such an exquisite article was produced. At length the Colonel divulged the mighty secret—He always pressed his prime, the real Cabanis, in an old bee gum!

“Gentle readers, who are masticators of the weed, rejoice! After the lapse of three quarters of a century the truth, the mighty truth, is out at last. So let us hear no more of Cavendish Tobacco, but of Cabanis No., 1, real Bee Gum and no mistake!

With the word Tobacco, we shall conclude our extracts from Mr. Bartlett’s volume; not however without some anxiety, lest that gentleman may institute legal proceedings against us for a violation of his copy-right. The attentive reader, too, may possibly lay an action of deceit, for our having inveigled him into a perusal of this article, under the title of “Americanisms,” when we have wandered from the subject to treat de omnibus rebus et quibusdam aliis. We ask pardon of both and return to the matter in hand.

Our author has treated, (in his Introduction,) of Dialects and the causes that produce them. there can be no doubt that the most satisfactory reasons may be found for the introduction of so large a number of slang expressions into our American English, especialy in the Southern States. The institution of slavery insures the presence of a large class among us, who talk an unwritten language, of course a bad imitation of their masters’ vocabulary. Thus corruptions sometimes become common among the people at large and are occasionally adopted as mere farcical phrases, not to be employed in composition. The want of an adequate system of education, arising from our sparse population, consigns many to hopeless barbarism of speech. Their perversions are frequently in the highest degree amusing. There is a very handsome plantation residence in the neighborhood of Charlottesville, which is familiarly known as “Pinetops.” We lived in sight of it for two years, before we were made acquainted with its original designation. It was named by Mr. Jefferson Pantops, from [three Greek words], all, and [Greek word], seeing, signifying that an extensive prospect might be seen from the house. But the general title is, as we have said, Pinetops. In like manner, a spot on the Mississippi river, settled by the French, is now known by a dreadful perversion of the name they gave to it. From the appearance of the country around, they called the settlement Bois brulé, or burnt-wood. It is now called Bob Ruly!

It frequently happens that settlements, immediately adjoining each other, are peopled by foreigners, whose languages widely differ. Words and phrases are soon interchanged, and the transmutations of names are sometimes ludicrous enough. The following amusing story is told by Mr. Livingston, in his admirable answer to Mr. Jefferson’s defence of his conduct to Mr. L. for ousting him from the possession of the famous batture at New Orleans, purchased by Mr. Livingston from Gravier. It is intended to show how, by translations and retranslations, a troublesome word may be made to mean anything: “An unfortunate Scotchman, whose name was Ferguson, was obliged, in pursuit of fortune, to settle among some Germans in the western part of New York. They translated him literally into German and called him Fuerstein. On his return to an English neighborhood, his new acquaintances discovered that Fuerstein in German meant Flint in English. they retranslated instead of restoring him his name, and the descendants of Ferguson go by the name of Flint to this day. I ought, however, to except one of his grandsons, who settled at the Acadian coast, on the Mississippi, whose name underwent the fate of the rest of the family; he was called by a literal translation into French ‘Pierre à fusil,’ and his eldest son returning to the family clan underwent another change, and was called Peter Gun!”

The case of the worthy Irishman, Mr. O’Trotter, is not so remarkable, but is sufficiently ludicrous. He started out on his travels as Mr. O’Trotter. In Scotland he was called Mr. McTrotten. In England he was accosted as Mr. Trottignac, and in another part of France M. Trottinville. He went to Italy, where he was addressed as Trottini; thence to Holland, where he became Van Trotten; subsequently, in Germany, he was designated Von Trotten; in Poland, it was Trottinski; in Russia, Trottingoff; and when at length he reached the Celestial Empire, the Chinese immediately transformed his plastic name into Trottinfou!

There is a weighty objection to the volume of Mr. Bartlett, which we cannot help expressing, as lovers of the English language. It is the intro-

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duction of so large a number of mere blackguardisms, which would pass away with the generation that employs them, but for this recognition of their existence. Some appear for the first time in a book, others are gleaned from the local sketches of low character, which have been published in various parts of the country. If it be said that we should also object to the sketches themselves, to Judge Longstreet and Judge Halliburton, for the employment of slang,—we answer that this has all been in character, and was well understood, and there is as little danger that the language will be corrupted by Sam Slick or Billy Stallings as by any of the stable boys or Alsatians in the Waverley Novels. We very much fear, however, that the bare preservation of such vulgarisms, in the form of a Glossary, will tend to increase their use. In this way they will emerge from colloquial service into the purposes of composition and our literature, debased by vile thoughts and disfigured by unworthy expressions, will display in choice profusion those exotics of rhetoric, which flourish in the genial soil of Cockiagne.

We love the English language. It is perhaps because we know little of any other. But we are so much attached to its idioms, its modes of speech, its stately dignity, that we are unwilling to see it changed in aught from that perfect vocabulary, which has come down to us from the old masters of eloquence and poesy. We like the Miltonic march of words, words that sweep along the pages of the Paradise Lost, like the army of the fallen cherubim,

In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood

Of flutes and soft recorders.

We believe that in the writings of Bunyan and Baxter, of Sir William Temple and Defoe, of Dryden and Bolingbroke, (not to mention others of their time nor many that have succeeded them,) may be found words enough for all the purposes of thought. It should be borne in mind, too, that just in proportion as we alter or modify the acceptation of original English words or substitute new forms of expression for those already in use, we shall render it difficult for posterity to read understandingly the works of these authors, rich mines, as they are, of intellectual wealth. Let us then adhere to the language as it is, and take great caution in the employment of any innovations.

We must be pardoned for saying a few words with regard to another matter, more germane perhaps to a discussion of style than to the subject before us, but which, as a national offence, may be considered an Americanism. It is that weakness which has been so often derided by Englishmen,—extravagance of ornament in what we write and speak. They say, and with some truth, it must be admitted, that we talk only in superlatives and that in writing we are always on stilts. It is not enough to introduce a metaphor here and a trope there, simply to lighten what might otherwise drag somewhat heavily, but we search through nature for figures, and exhaust Lempriere for classical allusions, only to misapply the one and mix the other in hopeless catechresis. We plead guilty to the charge for ourselves and a large number of our fellow citizens. But we must be allowed to traverse that count in the indictment which alleges that the fault is most frequently committed in the Southern States. In doing so, we do not charge that it occurs oftener in the North. But we happen to have near us a capital specimen of the very style complained of, in an extract from a speech delivered in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, in opposition to some resolutions introduced by Mr. Cushing with regard to the Mexican war, which we cannot help quoting for the amusement of the reader. The speech was transmitted to the member’s own town, and was there published for the enlightenment of his constituents. Heare the peroration:

“And, if Massachusetts’ firm judgment—solid understanding—friendly heart of sympathy and God-based Reason are cloven down, in this disastrous battle-field, and when the heat and dust of the conflict are over, glittering, polished beams of night reflected from the Milky Way of Heaven, and from the luminous fog of sea breeding storms and the smoke of rosewood shavings kindled over the ashes of Martin Luther, borne by a cold, isolated breeze of sorrow over a cheerless sea, are suffered, with their hazy mists, to dim the Pilgrim [and] Patriot burnished brightness of the Coat of Arms of Massachusetts, the wails of wo and lamentation which will hereafter arise from her thick, crowded cities, from the villages clustering around her sea-girt rocks to the remotest hamlet on her barrier hills, will drown all sympathy for suffering and all cries of agony from the battle-fields of Mexico and from the Country of the Aztecs.”

In justice to Massachusetts and the country, however, we must admit that the above is rather more ridiculous than any other similar performance that has come under our observation. It will serve as a specimen of the offence, of which we complain and set it strongly before our readers. We must also insist that it was frequently committed by English writers, long before any English settlement on American soil, and though much practised among us now, certainly had its origin as early as the grammar of the language itself. This will abundantly appear in the following excellent advice of quaint old Thomas Wilson, who flourished in the 16th century and became Dean of Durham. We commend it especially to all lecturers and speakers of orations, whether in colleges or lyceums.

“Among other lessons,” says he, “this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly re-

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ceived; neither seeking to be over fine, nor yet living over careless; using our speech as most men do, and ordering our wits as the fewest have do[ne]. Some seek so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mother’s language. And I dare swear this, if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell what they say, and yet these fine English clerks will say they speak in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them with counterfeiting the King’s English. Some far journied gentlemen, at their return home, like as they love to go in foreign apparel, so they will powder their talk with over-sea language. He that cometh lately out of France will talk French English and never blush at the matter. Another chops in with English Italianated, and applieth the Italian phrase to our English speaking; the which is, as if an oration that professeth to utter his mind in plain Latin, would needs speak poetry, and far fetched colours of strange antiquity. * * The mystical wise men, and poetical clerks, will speak nothing but quaint proverbs and blind allegories: delighting much in their own darkness, especially when none can tell what they do say. The unlearned or foolish fantastical, that smells but of learning, (such fellows as have seen learned men in their days,) will so Latin their tongues, that the simple cannot but wonder at their talk, and think surely they speak by some revelation. I know them, that think rhetoric to stand wholly upon dark words; and he that can catch an inkhorn term by the tail, him they count to be a fine Englishman and a good rhetorician.”

Having given this good counsel far more effectually in the words of another than we could have done it ourselves, we resume, in conclusion, the vaunting spirit with which we commenced, and claim for the United States the credit of having within its borders some of the best writers and speakers of the English language now living. To the State papers of the country, we might refer with pride for models of excellence. We have many accurate scholars, thoroughly acquainted with their vernacular, at the bar and in the Senate, at the sacred desk and in the editorial chair. We trust it may long be so and that our countrymen may retained [sic] unweakened and unchanged the vocabulary of the great founders of the Republic; feeling assured that, although the nation may one day reach a pitch of prosperity, of which its present condition is but a dim foreshadowing, it will always be

Praise enough

To fill the ambition of a private man,

That Marshall’s language was his mother tongue,

And Wirt’s great name compatriot with his own!


Review. Spirit of the Times 18 (4 November 1848): 444.

“A Dictionary of Americanisms,” by John Russell Bartlett, has been issued by Bartlett & Welford, 7 Astor House, is a clever compilation of many familiar and colloquial words and terms employed by the Americans in ordinary conversation. There is no nation under the sun who are as addicted to the employment of coarse, or rather anti-classic, phrases and expressions as we Americans; and although the work of Mr. Bartlett is in some degree incomplete, still it may be considered a very fair and valuable glossary of the true common-place language of our nation. We shall take the liberty of supplying, on some future occasion, many omissions, and correcting.


E. Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany 46 (January 1849): 146-147.

Dictionary of Americanisms. A Glossary of Words and Phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett, Corresponding Secretary of the American Ethnological Society, and Foreign Corresponding Secretary of the New York Historical Society. New York: Bartlett & Welford. 1848. 8vo. pp. 412.

How far the rights asserted for us in our Declaration of Independence, and yielded to us by our treaty with the monarch of Great Britain absolved us from allegiance to the “King’s English,” might afford a subject for a debating society. It would involve the question of our liberty to make what new words we pleased, and even to form a new language, if we wished for one. this liberty has been assumed and acted upon to some extent in our country, and Mr. Bartlett has given himself to the task of searching out the fruits of its moderate exercise, and of its occasional excesses. His work must have required great labor, yet could not have been without interest to one, like the author, fondly addicted to ethnological and philosophical studies. of the precise value of the volume before us there will be different estimates. For ourselves, we commend Mr. Bartlett’s object, and would bear testimony to the pains with which he has pursued it, and to the successful and satisfactory result. Two useful purposes may be supposed to be answered by his volume. First, to the inhabitants of different sections of this country respectively,

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and to foreigners, it will furnish a glossary of words and terms which occur in our local anecdotes, in our political contests, and in our letters, newspapers, and books; and, secondly, it may help towards preventing the further corruption of our language, may restrain the use of vulgarisms and barbarisms, and may favor refinement of speech among all classes of our citizens. The work must necessarily be imperfect. The wonder is, that Mr. Bartlett has been able to collect and define so many words and phrases which are used as vulgarisms or colloquialisms in different parts of our country. Probably every reader, who has had much intercourse either in a wide neighbourhood or over the whole Union, can at once supply many words and phrases that will not be found in this volume. But at the same time, he must be a very sociable and inquisitive man, and have travelled widely and have mingled with a great many people, who has actually met with all the articulate utterances collected in this book.

The Introductory Remarks on the Dialects of England and America contain much condensed and valuable information. Mr. Bartlett quotes English authority to substantiate his own belief, that “the English language is in no part of the world spoken in greater purity by the great mass of the people than in the United States.” The following sentence might challenge discussion, if we were examining the volume at any length:—“But the greatest injury to our language arises from the peerversion of the legitimate words and the invention of hybrid and other inadmissible expressions by educated men, and particularly by the clergy.” The following are quoted as specimens,—to fellowship, to difficult, to eventuate, to doxologize, to happify, to donate. It happens, at the present day, that a “clergyman” and “an educated man” are not identical terms. We never heard either of the above quoted expressions from an educated person. We have frequently met with the spurious verb to fellowship, and the still more objectionable compound to disfellowship, in the papers of some religious denominations. We cannot agree with Mr. Bartlett in his opinion, that “residents of the city of New York are, perhaps, less marked in their pronunciation and use of words than the inhabitants of any other city or State.” We can distinguish a New Yorker as far as we can hear him. His shil’n, for shilling, and his haaf for half, etc., betray him at once;—to say nothing of the practice which prevails in some pulpits of that city, of uttering such words as broken, open, token, as if they were written op’un, brok’un, etc. Speaking of clergymen, we would suggest to Mr. Bartlett the propriety of giving, by way of appendix to his second edition, a glossary of the new words invented and used by the late Dr. Chalmers, who exceeded all the divines whose works are known to us in his liberties with language.


“Dictionary of Americanisms.” Littell’s Living Age 20 (13 January 1849): 79-80. Reprinted from the Boston Advertiser

Mr. John Russell Bartlett, a gentleman of New York, well known to students of American history, has completed and published his “glossary of words and phrases usually regarded as peculiar to the United States.” In a handsome volume of 400 pages, he goes over his ground with great care and erudition. The introduction contains an agreeable and sound essay on the dialects of this country and of England. Mr. Bartlett constantly illustrates the fact that many of our provincialisms are the repetitions of those of the mother country, brought hither by the English settlers. Many more are words which have died out of use in England, but have been more tenacious of life here. let this encourage those who are fearful that some wandering Englishman may pronounce them unworthy of kin with Shakspeare;—let it be a warning to those who are putting their syllables all in training, in the hope that at some future day, a good-natured “blue-nose” or York-shire-man may pronounce them to speak English “almost as well as an Englishman.” If you have flap-jacks for breakfast, call them flap-jacks, and learn from Mr. Bartlett, if you have forgotten it before, that in Shakspeare’s Pericles (if it be Shakspeare’s) you may read,

we ’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks.

The width of ground to be covered in a book of this kind is wider, probably, than the study of the dialects of any other nation. Thus, to speak simply of the origin of our people, Mr. Bartlett reminds us, that he has to trace dialects derived from English, Scotch, Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Norwegian, French and Spanish colonists, besides the words and phrases of the aborigines, which still linger in our use, for which, and the things they represent, we cannot be too grateful, as in the cases of samp, hominy, supawn, and suckatash. All these various sources he has investigated with great success; and, while a dictionary of any sort is always entertaining, here we have one peculiarly interesting to our travellers and readers.

We were a little surprised to find from the preface that “the residents of the city of New York are perhaps, less marked in their pronunciation and use of words, than the residents of any other city or state.” To a New Yorker, of course, they are. But in the matter of intonation and pronunciation, no section of the country can call the other black. The chickn, and opn, and v’cashn of the New Yorker are a sibboleth which expose his nativity as quickly as the dooty of the Bostonian.

The whole book is so diligently compiled, with such careful study of the classics of dialect and idiom, Major Jones, Jack Downing, Sam Slick, Margaret, and others, that it is hard to pick out any class of phrases as better illustrated than the rest. Mr. Inman, of the Commercial Advertiser, has furnished the political phrases; articles especially interesting in the ramifications of the incomprehensible party lines of the state of New York. The quotations introduced to show instances of the use of words are very laughable. The whole book, indeed, furnishes a fund of fun to entertain any winter circle of true-bred Americans.

We make two or three extracts only, of these, almost at random; a dictionary, of course, is only to be judged as a whole. And whoever undertakes to have any books of reference at hand, must obtain Mr. Bartlett’s for himself.

Huckleberry above the Persimmon.—A Southern phrase.

The way he and his companions used to destroy the beasts of the forests, was huckleberry above the persimmon of any native in the country.—Thorpe, Backwoods, p. 166.

Peck of Troubles.—Great trouble.

Neptune at that his speed redoubles,

To ease them of their peck of troubles.—Cotton, Virgil Travestie, B. I.

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When I wrote my last letter to you, I was in a peck of troubles, and it did seem to me like heaven and earth was inspired agin me.—Maj. Jones’s Courtship, p. 106.

Rock.—A stone. In the Southern and Western States, stones of any size are absurdly called rocks. [This absurdity is in use in some parts of New England.]

To Rock.—To throw stones at; to stone. This supremely ridiculous expression is derived from the preceding.

They commenced rocking the Clay Club House in June, on more occasions than one, and on one occasion, threw a rock in at the window, &c., &c.—Jonesborough, Tennessee, Whig.

Smart Sprinkle.—A good deal; a good many. Used in the interior of the Western States.

In answer to some query about snakes, our landlord said there was a smart sprinkle of rattlesnake on Red Run; and a powerful nice day to sun themselves.—Carlton’s New Purchase.

Mr. Pickering, late President of the American Academy, published, in 1816, a vocabulary of this character, which Mr. Bartlett has, of course, occasion to refer to. But since that time the number of Americanisms has probably at least kept pace with the increase of the people that uses them. Full as is Mr. Bartlett’s book, even, a travelling commission on provincialisms would probably make many additions to it, which have never slipped into print or away from the frontiers. The value of merely bringing them to the light would be questionable, but each such provincialism gives very valuable suggestions in philology, and every new phrase fixed assists in tracing the derivation of others. In this view we regard this curious volume as of very great value.

Mr. Bartlett defines Cat-stick a bat or cudgel, used by boys in a game at ball—giving Rhode Island as the locality of the phrase. The word has a more general use; it is Yankee for any un-split stick of wood with the bark on, which is small enough to be grasped in the hand. This is probably the English provincial use of it. The stick used in playing ball is the hockey-stick, or hawky-stick, [see Mr. Abbot’s Caleb in Boston for the latter spelling,] of the New England play-ground, the bandy-stick of the southern and English schools. It must have a crook at the end farthest from the hand.

Fillipeen, or Phillipina.—Mr. Bartlett describes pleasantly this little game, and gives an account of a similar game in Germany, where the presents given in it are called viel-liebchens. From this word he derives ours. The derivation is more probably a hybrid one, perhaps through the French, from philos, a friend, and poena, a gage, fine, or pledge. The proper spelling is philopoena.

Huge Paws is not of New York, but of Boston origin.

Caucus.—A private meeting of the leading politicians of a party to agree upon the plans to be pursued in an approaching election.

This is the leading meaning of this word, but in New England at least, it also covers any party meeting however large—held with reference to an election.

Lucy-vee.—[Omitted.] Fr. Loup-cervier. The wild-cat or lynx of Maine.

Sass-tea.—A decoction of Sassafras,” (says Mr. Bartlett.) He has been happy enough never to have met with Jarsey-tea, or mint-tea, or sage-tea. We must beg him to spend a few months in the back of New Hampshire or Maine, to prepare himself to re-write his articles on Sass and Sauce. His definition is Webster’s: “Culinary vegetables and roots eaten with flesh.” This is quite too much limited. Conscious of this, perhaps, he has added in his appendix, misled by Carlton, the word Sarves for preserves, giving the following authority:—

We had also custard pies and maple molasses, (usually called “them ’are molasses,”) and preserved apples, preserved water melon rinds, and preserved red peppers and tomatoes, all termed for brevity’s sake, (like words in Webster’s Dictionary,) sarves.—Carlton’s New Purchase.

Mr. Carlton’s ear misled him, if, as is probable, the parent word was sauce. Ude’s boast, that he could give a new sauce for every day of a man’s life, who would live as short a life as one of Ude’s clients would be apt to, is nothing compared with the resources which the provincial language gives to the American housekeeper.

In this passage we observe that Mr. Carlton says “for brevity’s sake.” Of this “rather lengthy” phrase, the true rendering is “for short.”

My little gal’s name is helen, but we call her Heelen “for short.”—Washington Coachman.

It has been understood that in Miss Edg[e]worth’s unpublished novel, “Taking for Granted,” one of the characters is a proverbial philosopher, whose speech flows with as varied phrases an Iancho’s. [sic] Miss Edg[e]worth has asked the assistance of her friends here in furnishing American phrases. Mr. Bartlett’s admirable book will fully supply her.


Samuel Gilman Brown. Review. The North American Review 69 (July 1849): 94-110.

Art. IV.—Dictionary of Americanisms; a Glossary of Words and Phrases,, usually regarded as peculiar to the United States. By John Russell Bartlett, Corresponding Secretary of the American Ethnographical Society, &c. New York: Bartlett & Welford. 1848.

Without going so far as the old lady, who declared that a dictionary was very delightful reading, owing to the great regularity with which the words were arranged, and to the ease of understanding them on account of the copious definitions of their meaning, we confess that a dictionary is by no means the most tedious book that reviewers are obliged to examine. In one of these ponderous records of a language we find no slight indication of the taste and intellectual spirit of the nation which uses it. In a dictionary of archaisms and provincialisms, we have revealed quite as plainly the whims and oddities, the local customs and prejudices, the political and religious strifes, the partial knowledge, and perverse ignorance of the uneducated multitude. it is no unfruitful study for those who would understand the habits and temper of a people, to find out the origin and uses of watchwords and proverbs, and the causes of the perversion of legitimate expressions.

Mr. Bartlett’s volume is far the most complete glossary of Americanisms that has yet been published. We hail it as a sign of attention paid to a subject of some importance, which we have a thousand temptations to forget or neglect. Since the valuable vocabulary by Mr. Pickering, no very serious attempt has been made to collect our peculiar forms of speech. We are aware of the obstacles in the way of the undertaking; how difficult it is to fix very rigidly the limits to such a work; what extensive observation, and that too, of a peculiar kind, and what varied reading, are required to make it even tolerably complete. We are not surprised, then, at occasional omissions even of familiar peculiarities, nor at occasional insertions of words which are, at best, of rare use. We doubt sometimes how far the authorities upon which Mr. Bartlett depends indicate the real usage of the people. In depicting the strange manners and odd expressions, either of Yankees or of settlers in the far West, the writer who wishes to tell a

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piquant story is almost irresistibly tempted to color the picture very highly. Many of our American oddities, we suspect, have no better origin than the fancy of such writers. One might travel for a lifetime in search of a Sam Slick, or even a Jack Downing, without finding either.

But were Mr. Bartlett’s book not half as complete and well arranged as it is, we should still be very thankful for it. While it places on record a great many singular idioms, slang phrases, and uncommon expressions, it also shows how small a part of the whole are of American origin, and of those which are, how very few have the sanction of good use. Notwithstanding the diligence of our author, and the variety of sources from which he drew his materials, the number of words is greatly exceeded by the most recent English glossaries. Halliwell’s “Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words,” published in London in 1847, contains more than fifty thousand words. A writer in the Edinburgh Review, a few years since, estimated the number of provincialisms in the colloquial tongue of the lower classes at “fifty-nine thousand words which can, for the chief part, produce proofs of legitimate origin; about the same number, in short, of authorized words that are admitted into Todd’s edition of Johnson’s dictionary.”

Besides accomplishing his main purpose, Mr. Bartlett has certainly made a very entertaining book for a winter evening. The illustrations of political watchwords are chosen with great adroitness, and the sly humor which often gleams through the becoming gravity of the lexicographer would win a smile even from a political opponent. In proof, we may refer our readers to the articles, loco foco, constructive-mileage, nullification, native-American, and defining one’s position. Nor are our political follies the only ones which are here chronicled and chastised by ridicule.

The tone of English criticism respecting the United States was, unhappily, for a long time, neither candid nor generous. It was denied that we had either the “accent of Christian,” or the “gait of Christian.” We were degenerating in language as rapidly as in every thing else. Every English traveller in America seemed to think it his duty to bring back, among other novelties, a fresh batch of barbarisms and vulgarisms; and these were charged, not upon the classes who

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used them, if anybody did, but upon the whole people. It is gratifying to observe, that foreign criticism is fast becoming more just and genial. From the severity of English criticism, however, we derived some benefit. Our scholars began thoroughly to examine how far we were justly chargeable with corrupting the king’s English, and our writers probably became more careful of sanctioning unauthorized words and phrases. About the close of the last century, Dr. Witherspoon, in the fifth number of The Druid, used the following language:—“I shall also admit, though with some hesitation, that gentlemen and scholars in Great Britain speak as much with the vulgar in common chitchat, as persons of the same class do in America; but there is a remarkable difference in their public and solemn discourses. I have heard in this country in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms, which hardly any person of the same class, in point of rank and literature, would have fallen into in Great Britain.” More than thirty years ago, Mr. Pickering, in a paper communicated to the American Academy, gave it as his deliberate conclusion, “that although the language of the United States has, perhaps, changed less than might have been expected, when we consider how many years have elapsed since our ancestors brought it from England; yet it has in so many instances departed from the English standard, that our scholars should lose no time in endeavoring to restore it to its purity, and to prevent future corruption.”

In order to determine the relative purity of speech in the two countries, the usage of Parliament has sometimes been compared with that of Congress. But we think the comparison unfair for evident reasons. Our representatives are often taken from a class in society which is seldom able to send a delegate to the English legislature. Parliament, it has been said, is mainly composed of Lords and of those who are to be Lords—Lords in esse and Lords in posse—of the best bred and best educated persons in the kingdom. Besides, the insanabile loquendi cacoëthes is more prevalent here than there. In England, the stout country gentleman, from whose honest lips a provincialism might, now and then, slip unheeded, thinks that he performs his duty if he patiently

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endures the debate, and votes with his party; speaking he leaves to the leaders. With us, a representative is expected not only to study the subjects of legislation carefully, and to vote wisely and independently, but to perpetrate at least one speech to—his constituents, if not to the House. Amidst so much speaking, from men of more action than education, from men living two thousand miles apart, in different climates and with different manners, is it to be wondered at that strange literary enormities should be occasionally committed, the criminal all the while being quite unconscious of guilt, or, if aware of the law, willing to show his independence by practical nullification? If any comparison is to be made, it should be between the same classes in the two countries; between English and American scholars, or the English and American people. From the mistakes of our pubic men, however, it is as natural that imputations should rest upon our use of language, as that imputations should rest upon our use of language, as that imputations upon our manners should spring from acts of rudeness (to use no stronger word) in the legislative halls.

But it is of far more consequence to be aware of our dangers, than to be able to compare ourselves favorably with another nation; and although we may doubt whether the remark of Dr. Witherspoon would apply to our writers at the present time, the caution of Mr. Pickering has not yet lost its force.

American scholars should watch the purity of their mother tongue with a care proportioned to the dangers to which it is here exposed. One reason for exercising this watchfulness is to be found in that extension of our territorial limits to which we have already referred. It is true, that west of the Alleghanies, there are now few literary men whose writings will hereafter be standards; but there are politicians, and orators, and preachers; there are governments, too, whose state papers and public documents are among the precedents entitled to authority in the republic of letters. Corruptions of language do not come at once into general use; they creep in stealthily. They often spring from ignorance or caprice; then they do some service in an humble way in the market or the courts, ministering to the wants of the poor and ignorant; then they attract the favor of the press in its least authoritative form; and finally, partly by assumption and partly from

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necessity, they come to be acknowledged as good citizens and freeholders of the realm. Now, since these creatures of ow and foreign birth have such advantages of access from the very extent of our frontier, it becomes us to be careful that they gain no undue advantage over the freeborn natives.

Another reason why we should be jealous of our language is, that we have no authoritative guardians of it, constituted either by law or fashion. We have no metropolis, no court, no learned order, no academy. Usage, to be sure, is the law of language, but usage, of course, within certain restrictions; not the usage of the majority, but of the learned; not usage reckoned from the origin of the tongue, but of the present day; not provincial, but national. To determine all this easily and readily, England appeals to her scholars and to the court, as by presumption affording the best authority; while France and italy depend much upon their academies. London, to be sure, has its cockneyisms; but London, for a portion of the year, contains the wealth, fashion, and elegant society of the whole kingdom. Liverpool and Manchester, York and Bristol, always yield to its authority. We have no single city to control by its laws the speech of the nation. We reckon, we guess, we expect, we calculate, in defiance of Boston or New York, Cincinnati or Charleston. We profess, indeed, to be as obedient to the laws as any good citizens can be; but the police is not very active, and it may be a long time after the offence is committed before we receive, by a peculiar tap on the shoulder and the exhibition of the staff of office, an intimation that we are held amenable to the broken statute.

A third reason for care may be found in the fact that newspapers have with us so extensive a circulation, and constitute almost the sole literature of large classes of people. The first printed corruptions of the language will be apt to find their way into the daily and weekly journals. Now this would be of little moment, were it not that many of the persons whose early reading has not gone much beyond the newspapers may be promoted, in a government like ours, to places of responsibility, and thus may themselves become prominent violators of the laws of our tongue.

Again, the heterogeneous nature of our population in some portions of the country exposes the language to corruption.

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When a score of nations, each with its own dialect, unite to make up our population, some effect must be produced on our language; some peculiar threads will be found after a while interwoven with the national web. the ear will no longer be delicate in detecting mispronunciations; the quick apprehension of barbarisms and solecisms will be lost. Even now, the west takes a pride in its not very elegant dialects. it demands of its popular speakers free manners and bold words; it feels its political importance, is conscious of its exhaustless resources, and naturally enough, cares as little for the canons of verbal criticism as for the authority of the English parliament. This region has already proved a fruitful source of American peculiarities. The Dutch in New York, the Germans in Pennsylvania, the Welsh in both these States, the Norwegians in Illinois, the Spanish in Florida, the French in Louisiana, have already imparted a hue to the English in contact with them.

“If a few Dutch colonists,” says Mr. Bartlett, “mingled with the English have been able to engraft so many words on our language, what may we expect from the hundreds of thousands of Germans in the State of Pennsylvania? There the German language will doubtless exist for centuries; for although they are situated in the midst of an English-speaking population far more numerous than themselves, and although the government and laws are conducted through the English language, still the tendency of a people of common origin to cling together,—the publication of newspapers, almanacs, and books in German,—and the cultivation to some extent of German literature, will tend to preserve the idiom and nationality of the people. It is true the language is already much corrupted, and in the course of time it must give way to the English; but it will leave behind it an almost imperishable dialect as a memento of its existence. In the State of Ohio, where there are large settlements of Germans, a similar result must follow.”

It is also evident, that the nature of our language facilitates the introduction of foreign words. Without the homogeneousness of the Greek and German, and with little power of growth from its original elements, it cannot, either by composition or derivation, make any great addition to its vocabulary. In order to express a new idea, or a delicate modification of an old one, it must generally divert from its ancient meaning some word which it already possesses, or borrow a foreign

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one. It is made up of such a variety of foreign elements, which often cohere so loosely as seemingly to have no vital union, but only a mechanical juxtaposition, that it is difficult to tell where the liberty of appropriation ends. It may be asked, if we have not the right to coin or borrow words with the same freedom as the English? Undoubtedly we have; but it is a right which we should exercise with the same caution, and under the same limitations. If a new word be needed to express a new thought, or a nice shade of thought; if it be formed according to the analogy of the language; or if, the idea being a foreign one for which our language has no substitute, we therefore borrow a foreign word to express it, no just objection can be made. “Purism,” says Menzel, speaking of the German tongue, “is praiseworthy, when it teaches us to express the same idea which a foreign word expresses, as comprehensively and intelligibly by a German word; but it is to be rejected, when the foreign word is more comprehensive or intelligible, or when it signifies an idea entirely foreign to our language.”

In all languages there are to be found provincialisms, vulgarisms, cant phrases, and the like, which are not chargeable to the negligence of scholars, because these peculiarities are entirely beyond their control. Neither is the existence of them a proof of general degeneracy or looseness of speech, because they have been found from the earliest times, and among the most polished nations. How the English provincialisms, as to their extent and distinct character, compare with those of other European nations, we do not care to inquire; but we have supposed they were not less marked, and differed not less widely from the authorized national standards. It is a singular fact, that in a country but little larger than the State of New York, whose language has been settled for five hundred years, the people for almost as long a period having been at the head of the world in power, wealth, refinement, and learning, there should still be found a dozen provinces with dialects so distinct, that the inhabitant of any one of them can with difficulty understand his neighbor. The origin of these dialects is to be traced, probably, to the fact that the different parts of the island were early occupied by different foreign tribes; and it is not difficult to understand how, among a stationary peasantry, a dialect has been handed

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down for hundreds of years essentially unchanged. Nothing is so fleeting as speech, yet nothing is so permanent. Idioms almost as remarkable as those of England may hereafter be found among the descendants of our German, French, Welsh, and Irish emigrants; although this result will be in part counteracted by the fact, that we have no peasantry properly so called, by the increasing facilities for intercommunication, and by the prevalence of education.

It is a more interesting question, how far we are guilty of abusing the language which we have inherited. Mr. Bartlett states it as his own opinion, fortified by the observations of intelligent English travellers, that “the English language is in no part of the world spoken in greater purity by the great mass of the people than in the United States.” “We cannot say as much, however,” he adds, “in favor of ur literary dialect. The ripest scholars among us acknowledge the fact, that in the best authors and public speakers of Great Britain, there is a variety in the choice of expressions, a correctness in the use of the particles, and an idiomatic vigor and freshness of style, to which few or none of our writers can attain.” If we feel constrained to assent to this remark as containing much truth, though stated too broadly, notble instances of incorrectness in the use of language are certainly to be found on the other side of the water. Indeed, it would be difficult, we think, to find in all our little phalanx of writers for the last forty years, so much bad writing as is exhibited in the really great and valuable work of the latest British historian of the French Revolution, the Consulate, and the Empire.

Without attempting a very definite classification of peculiarities, which are quite various and disconnected, we may point out some classes of unauthorized words by way of illustrating our subject. One kind of genuine Americanisms, though we are aware that they are not included in any strict definition of the term, is found in the Indian names of mountains, lakes, rivers, and states. No frequency of sibilants, no perverse combination of gutturals, can destroy the moral interest of all these names, while some of them are as musical as a lute. They are almost the only old things we have, almost the only relics left to remind us that human beings roamed over these hills, and floated on these waters, before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Massachusetts and Ohio,

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Monadnock and Monongahela; Seneca and Oneida, Huron and Ontario, are sonorous and beautiful words; they are as precious as an inheritance of gold. We wish the good taste which preserved these mementos of departed tribes had been extended a little farther. Much as we venerate the first president of our country, the original Indian name would please us far better than Mount Washington; but pardoning that, we come almost into the region of the ridiculous, when, in the same group, we find Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Lafayette.* The mighty Himalayas would thank no foolish geographer for calling their peaks Marlborough or Wellington; and Popocatapetl and Chimborazo would shrink from their grandeur under the poor appellations of Cortez or Pizarro. As a mark of better taste, we are glad to notice that in many parts of the country the Indian names are beginning to be revived, in spite of the statue of limitations claimed against them by the modern titles. Horicon almost takes the palm from Lake George; Onion river (what Egyptian priest worshipping leeks and garlic—what emigrant on its banks, who wept when he remembered Wethersfield—what satiric rogue afflicted with ophthalmia—gave to so beautiful a stream a name so odorous?) has nearly yielded to Winooski.

In providing names of towns, our countrymen have exhibited remarkable ingenuity, and seem to have nearly exhausted the nomenclatures of all other ages and countries. We have Jericho and Bagdad, Hebron and Sharon, and Babylon and Sodom; we have Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Canton, Cairo, Mexico, Peru, Delhi, and China; we have Ox-bow, Painted Post, Paw Paw, Mud Creek, Penn Yan, and White Oak. We have Brownsville, and Edwardsburg, and Hillsdale, and Jonesborough, and Blissfield, and Cassopolis. We have all battlefields, from Thermopylæ to Waterloo; all warriors, from Alexander to Tecumseh; all poets, from Homer to Barlow;


* The White Mountains were early called the Crystal Hills, which, though perhaps more poetic than the name they now bear, does not distinguish them from similar hills, and has not the definiteness nor the peculiar associations of the native appellation. In a ballad on Lovewell’s Fight, we find the following musical stanza, which introduces the Indian name.

“Then did the crimson streams that flowed

Seem like the waters of the brook

That brightly shine, that loudly dash,

Far down the cliffs of Agiochook.[”]

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all lawgivers, from Solon to Houston; all orators, from Cicero to Crockett. Nor can we stop here.

“Now the Mexican war is over,” to quote from Mr. Bartlett, “we shall doubtless have a large fund of names to use in our newly acquired territories, and the new States at the West. The old generals of the Revolution will be passed by, and the span-new heroes of this war will be handed down to the admiration of posterity in the metamorphosed shape of cities, towns, and villages yet to come into existence. As the simplicity of the revolutionary period no longer remains, the plain surnames will not answer nowadays; but the love of glory and the love of magniloquence may both be gratified in such euphonious compounds as Quitmanville, Pillowtown, and Polkopolis.”

One class of words, sometimes charged upon us as Americanisms, consists of those which have grown obsolete in England, while they have been retained in this country; or which have here preserved the old authorized meanings that have gone out of use in the country of their birth. Many decayed gentlemen, who centuries ago lost caste at home, followed our fathers across the Atlantic, were hospitably entertained, and in return have done us very good service. We have sometimes been blamed for adopting a new word; then, the word having been found among English writers, we have been scolded for claiming the honor of producing it. This, as Mr. Pickering shows, was the course pursued respecting the verb to advocate. First reproved for using it at all, we were next, the authority of Milton and Burke being found in its favor, warned not to plume ourselves on the pretended improvement, and at once to withdraw our “unfounded claims to discovery.” The late Dr. Porter remarks on this criticism, that though “we sometimes coin, or introduce, a new word, we never discover one.”

Progress, as a verb, has received a good share of criticism. Perhaps it has not the best modern authority, but it is not an Americanism. It is found into the old writers accented on the first syllable. Mr. Bartlett gives illustrations from Shakspeare and Ford. Milton too, in his tract on the Reformation in England, has this clause:—“progressing the dateless and irrevoluble circle of eternity.” This is said to have been a Devonshire peculiarity, from which county came many of the early settlers of the American colonies. Mr. Gifford, in his

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edition of Ford, acknowledges it as one of the words lost to England, but which, having crossed the water, have been retained by the English race in America. We recently heard of a singular instance of the preservation of the ancient meaning of a word. A farmer in one of the interior towns of New England, who had recently lost his wife, called upon a lawyer of the place for advice under his bereavement, remarking that “he wished to express a proper resentment on the occasion.” This we find to be very nearly the meaning in which the word is used by Barrow, Cudworth, Bull, and other writers of their times. The following examples exhibit it:—“First by expressing such a hearty resentment of the excellence of piety.” Cudworth, Int. Syst. p. 25. “Throughout this excellent song, the sacred virgin expresseth a deep sense of her own unworthiness, and upon that account, a profound resentment of the singular favor of the Almighty bestowed upon her.” Bull, Vol. I. Serm. 4.

Another class of words, charged upon us as Americanisms, we derive from English provincial usage. Such are expect for suspect, reckon for think,* and guess for suppose, which is so used in Kent and Derbyshire. We do not mention this to excuse our perversion of good words, but would cheerfully second Mr. Bartlett’s somewhat energetic warning against the dangerous “tendency to banish from common use a number of the most useful and classical English expressions, by forcing one word to do duty for a host of others of somewhat similar meaning. If not checked and guarded against in time, it will corrode the very texture and substance of the language, and rob posterity of the power of appreciating and enjoying those masterpieces of literature bequeathed to us by our forefathers, which form the richest inheritance of all that speak the English tongue.”

A larger class of Americanisms is formed by giving a new use, or new meaning, to old words. Among them are clever for good natured; desk for pulpit, the distinction between the two being marked in the following quotation,—“What we want for our security is, that the voice from the pulpit may concur with the voice from the desk;” and improve for occupy, or employ, as “Ann Cole, a person of serious piety, living in


*On one occasion, we heard a preacher infer from Rom. VIII. 18, (“For I reckon,”) that Paul was a great mathematician, because he reckoned! This, however, is an exegetical, rather than a rhetorical illustration.

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Hartford, in 1662, was taken with very strange fits, whereon her tongue was improved by a demon to express things unknown to herself,” (Mather’s Magnalia.) Solemnize for to make serious, long condemned as a clerical fault, has spread wide through the country, and has even been admitted into the later English Dictionaries. We are reluctant to allow this valuable word to be perverted from its legitimate signification, but we find its new meaning sanctioned by a writer so sensitive to the delicacies of language as De Quincey, and it is reported to have been so employed by one of our orators, who is as much distinguished for purity of diction as for manly and vigorous eloquence. Transpire for happen is a bad usage, because by making synonymes of words with meanings so distinct, it deprives us of the power of expressing that delicate shade of thought which the former word, as shown by its etymology, would indicate. Temper in the sense of passion, or irritation, is used by the English with just the opposite meaning;—e. g. “Hook was nearly engaged in a duel, in which transaction, from first to last, he showed equal temper and spirit;”—hence, too, the derivatives temperate, intemperate, &c.

But there is a graver view of the subject. The importance of preserving our language in its purity and strength cannot be easily overestimated. This is a responsibility of educated men, from which they should not shrink, and which they should never forget. It can do no harm to learn the opinion of our author respecting the fidelity of one class of professional men to this trust.

“The greatest injury to our language arises from the perversion of legitimate words, and the invention of hybrid and other inadmissible expressions, by educated men, and particularly by the clergy. This class is the one, above all others, which ought to be the conservator rather than the perverters of language. It is nevertheless a fact which cannot be denied, that many strange and barbarous words, to which our ears are gradually becoming familiar, owe to them their origin and introduction; among them may be mentioned such verbs as to fellowship, to difficult, to eventuate, to doxologize, to happify, to donate,” &c.

It is something more than a figure of speech which ascribes life to a spoken tongue. Even as the body, by mysterious vital forces, is ever assimilating to itself the crude and dead

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material which it receives, and at the same time is throwing off the decaying and useless, so language, which is the living body of thought, is ever renewing itself; is ever flowing, yet permanent; ever changing, yet the same; unlike what it was, yet never losing its identify; and he who studies it wisely must not treat it as a production of mechanism, which may be dissected and put together again according to the humor of the mechanic, but as a vital, organic product of profound sympathies, sentiments, and reflections. Some men, even those of considerable learning, have dealt with our language as if it were a mere thing, mangling its orthography, congealing its freedom under icy restrictions, shaping it according to whim or caprice, cutting off or gluing together with the coolness of a carpenter, as if entirely incapable of appreciating the affection with which we cling to authorized forms of speech and idiomatic phrases, and destitute of the true historical feeling which regards language in its growth, and as the “incarnation of thought.” That was a fine burst of enthusiastic indignation at the abuse of the English tongue, which prompted the criticism of De Quincey upon Keats, though one might judge unfairly of the poet from this quotation separated from the attendant, earnest, sympathizing and deserved praise.

“If there is any thing in this world,” he says, “that next after the flag of his country and its spotless honor, should be holy in the eyes of a young poet, it is the language of his country. He should spend the third part of his life in studying this language and cultivating its total resources. He should be willing to pluck out his right eye, or to circumnavigate the globe, if by such a sacrifice, if by such an exertion, he could attain to greater purity, precision, compass, or idiomatic energy of diction. This, even if he were a Kalmuck Tartar, who, by the way, has the good feeling and patriotism to pride himself upon his beastly tongue. But Keats was an Englishman; Keats had the honor to speak the language of Chaucer, Shakspeare, Bacon, Milton, Newton. The more awful was the obligation of his allegiance; and yet, upon this mother tongue, upon this English language, he trampled as with the hoofs of a buffalo. With its syntax, with its prosody, with its idiom, he has played such fantastic tricks as could enter only into the heart of a barbarian, and for which only the anarchy of chaos could furnish a forgiving audience. Verily it required the Hyperion to weigh against the deep treason of these unparalleled offences.”

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We can neither understand our language, nor become masters of it, unless we study it historically. We speak of it sometimes as a compound tongue; but we have a very erroneous idea, if we suppose that the Saxon, Danish, Norman, French, Latin, and other elements were shaken together in some strange crucible, and finally poured out good English; though it is the harmonious union and interpenetration of these various elements which render our native tongue so powerful, so rich, so plastic, so full of beauty. Languages are not so formed. Mysterious in their origin and growth, they are the organic product of thousands of minds, of most varied tastes and capacities, acting through a long course of years, perhaps of centuries, in ten thousand thousand circumstances and relations, upon ten thousand different materials.

We are therefore jealous of pretended improvements, even in orthography, to say nothing of the abominations of phonotypy. We have no right, literary or moral, to treat our language with indifference, or contumely, or caprice. For, first, it is the treasury of a literature richer in some of its forms than any other people ever produced. In it is preserved the wisdom of our fathers, and the spirit of a nation grander than Rome, of orators as patriotic as Demosthenes, yet broader in their sweep of thought, and more humane in sentiment, of poets not second to Homer and Sophocles, of a religious faith such as Socrates never dreamed of. It comes to use hallowed by a thousand associations, tinged with hues caught from the radiant glories of that manly, vigorous, poetic, chivalric life which history has not begun to be weary of portraying, and some of whose mightier elements tragedy has not yet gathered into her garner. Its words are strong and rigid as iron; they are flexible and pliant as the willow. They soar to the transcendent height of the epic; they march along in the dignified tread of history; they fail not in the subtlest speculations of philosophy; and only seem to halt, if anywhere, in the region of vagaries and dreams. They are sufficient for the prose of Taylor, of South, of Hooker, of Burke, of Hall; and in all the affairs of practical, energetic men, they allow no superior, no equal. Now their music swells in the organ tones of Milton; now entrances us in Spenser’s “notes of linked sweetness long drawn out;” now murmurs in the plaintive melodies of Cowper; is now wild and fitful like an

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Æolian harp; now rich, grand, resounding, like the harmonies of a lofty choral anthem. Our language, to vary the figure, stands like an ancient and venerable temple, sombre with age, yet cheerful with the varied lights of sunrise and noonday, that cease not to play upon its surface. How many great and good have wandered in its “long drawn aisles,” and worshipped beneath its echoing arches! All that remains of thousands, for whose existence we give daily thanks, lies here. Some of its buttresses have fallen, some of its oratories are neglected, and the grass has overgrown its pavements in some deserted corners; but it is every day enlarging its walls, to meet the wants of the new generations which flock to it, and are enfolded within its ample embrace.

And it is not spoken by effete nations, by a people shattered and dispirited, worn out and lying down to die. Every zone and both hemispheres are familiar with it. It is the mother tongue to men whose homes are on the dark Atlantic and the smiling Pacific, on the shores of India and China, of New Holland and New Zealand; of a people not multitudinous and semi-barbarous, like the unwieldy masses of central Asia and the Celestial Empire, but enlightened, conservative, energetic, Christian, in the full maturity of life and strength; over whom, if true to themselves and to God, coming centuries may yet roll, and their power not begin to wane.

Once more, and chiefly, should we guard well this rich, this invaluable inheritance, because of its close connection with our various welfare as a nation. It is in some sense a conservator of the national character. That people cannot be wholly degraded whose dialect is ample, delicate, and supple. Especially do a people spread over broad territories need this centripetal force to preserve them one. Heart beats with heart among those whom the subtile, mysterious, mighty bond of a common language links closely together. Their sympathies are one; they have sung the same songs, have sat at the same firesides, have learned of the same masters, have kindled their lamps at the same shrine; and this too, though oceans roll between them and different zones contain them. The dweller in the Indias remembers affectionately, reverently, the little parent isle whose tongue is his, whose fame in letters as well as in arms is partly his. The dwellers in the far, far West cannot be wholly separated

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from their parent stock on the rough Atlantic slope, so long as both speak familiarly of the same orators, poets, and historians; so long as a common language compels them to have so many common sympathies. It was, indeed, this very circumstance, the speaking of one and the same tongue, which, in the wars between ourselves and England, gave even in the apprehension of the common soldier the deepest horror to the strife; for when the fight was done, and victors and vanquished were mingled, no barrier of an unfamiliar speech kept them apart; the thirsty asked for water, the hungry for bread, in words familiar to the homes of both;—to shoot a Hessian was not like shooting an Englishman. English and Americans—they were, after all, brothers, children both of the same benignant mother; and war never put on so terrible a visage as when it made them foes.

If people are so strongly united by these innumerable cords, then, on the other hand, will they become disunited as these bands are relaxed or sundered. From the confusion of tongues at Babel followed of necessity the dispersion of the race; and wherever a similar experiment is repeated a similar result will follow.

It is, moreover, a fact established by the concurrent testimony of history and philosophy, that the corruption of the language of a people is accompanied or followed by their general degradation in character. Language follows pretty closely the fortunes of its masters. “From errors in words to errors in things the road is short.” Hence, too, he who rescues an important word from abuse, who restores its true and full meaning in the public estimation, may do more for the welfare of his country than he who gains a battle; and he who degrades or perverts a single important word may do more for its injury than even a tyrant. It is the remark of Milton, that “it ought not to be thought a matter of small importance, whether the language of a people be pure or corrupt, and what is the character of their daily speech; since, whenever a language becomes inaccurate and vicious, the degeneracy of it will soon be followed by the downfall of the state, and a degraded and inglorious condition;—for when there is a lazy or licentious use of words, with ignorance or carelessness of their genuine meaning, is not this one plain mark of a people unprincipled and sluggish, and full ready

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for some slavery or other? But on the other hand, there never was empire or state, which did not flourish more or less, so long as the people dutifully cultivated their language and upheld its character.”

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