Wednesday, June 10, 2015

From The American Language

Captain Basil Hall, who was here in 1827 and 1828, and published his “Travels in North America” in 1829, was so upset by some of the novelties he encountered that he went to see Noah Webster, then seventy years old, to remonstrate. Webster upset him still further by arguing stoutly that “his countrymen had not only a right to adopt new words, but were obliged to modify the language to suit the novelty of the circumstances, geographical and political, in which they were placed.” The lexicographer went on to observe judicially that “it is quite impossible to stop the progress of language — it is like the course of the Mississippi, the motion of which, at times, is scarcely perceptible; yet even then it possesses a momentum quite irresistible. Words and expressions will be forced into use, in spite of all the exertions of all the writers in the world.”

“But surely,” persisted Hall, “such innovations are to be deprecated?”

“I don’t know that,” replied Webster. “If a word becomes universally current in America, where English is spoken, why should not take its station in the language?”

To this Hall made an honest British reply. “Because,” he said, “there are words enough already.”

Webster try to mollify him by saying that “there were not fifty words in all which were used in America and not in England” — an underestimate of large proportions —, but Hall went away muttering.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 4th ed. (New York: Alred A. Knopf, 1936).
I am taking on The American Language and Moby-Dick this summer, Behemoth and Leviathan. More excerpts appearing soon.

[Re: Captain Hall: see also this (apocryphal) observation.]

comments: 4

Slywy said...

Should it be "tried to mollify him"?

Michael Leddy said...

Yes. I just made the correction — thanks.

Michael Leddy said...

Every time I use Mac Dictation, I end up regretting it.

Fresca said...

"There are words enough already."
I love how people keep making new ones anyway.