Democracy in American English

Richard W. Bailey

The University of Michigan

Modesty resists the impulse to associate my name with that of Fred Newton Scott, called by his biographer “one of the greatest men in the profession of English” (Stewart 1983, 8; see also Smith).  I make no such claim for myself, nor would Scott have done so for himself, and he was a man far more generously endowed with modesty than I am.

Scott was certainly remarkable, and, when he was in his early thirties, his colleague John Dewey predicted his future success.  Dewey wrote:

… I am not afraid to prophesy that {Mr. Scott’s work] will be marked by command of the resources available, by poise and facility of mind, by adaptation to the real currents of modern life, and, not least, by a style delicate enough to reflect the tints and shades, and broad enough to depict the leading features, of his subject matter.  (122)

 Dewey’s hope was fulfilled in Scott’s teaching and advocacy..

Scott was a public man who represented the profession and the University across America and in Europe.  He was among the most famous public intellectuals of the first quarter of the twentieth century, and, when commissions were appointed to look into national educational issues (like requirements for college admission), Scott was called upon to consult and lead.  The first president of the National Council of Teachers of English (1911-13), he had also been president of the Modern Language Association (1907); and he was a “foundation member” of the Linguistic Society of America.  He was President of the North Central Association, the accrediting body formed to free education in “the west” from the dead hand of eastern elitism.  When the American Association of Teachers of Journalism was founded, its leaders recognized that Scott had been among the very first to teach their subject in an American university, a daring accomplishment at a time when self-taught newshounds woofed at a college education.

In 1903, Scott addressed himself to defining the qualities needed in an English teacher.

The teacher who has not a passion and an aptitude for imparting instruction in English, who does not feel that it is the great thing in life to live for, and a thing, if necessary, to die for, who does not realize at every moment of his classroom work that he is performing the special function for which he was foreordained from the foundation of the world,--such a teacher cannot profit greatly by any course of training, however ingeniously devised or however thoroughly applied.  (Quoted by Stewart and Stewart 1997, 70).

In this celebration of “the teacher” we should hear echoes of Scott’s older sister Harriet who, as the Principal of the Detroit Normal Training School, wrote in similar language about “the child” and “the child’s destiny” in Organic Education, her book of 1899.  Scott very much admired Harriet, and so should we since she anticipates some of the educational ideas better know to us through her successors Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori.

            Scott’s celebration of the English teacher reveals his devotion to his vocation.  Perhaps we might deflate some of its hyperbole as merely the kind of orotund language in favor a century ago, but, even with the wind let out of it, there is still a profound and sincere belief here in the calling of teachers.  Scott’s students testified to just these passionate qualities in his teaching, and, looking over the list of them, I am struck by the fact that a great many of them are women who became prominent as faculty members elsewhere:  Gertrude Buck and Alice Snyder of Vassar, Ada Snell of Mt. Holyoke, Marjorie Hope Nicolson of Smith and Columbia, the first woman president of Phi Beta Kappa.  The second woman to be elected president of the National Council of Teachers of English, Ruth Mary Weeks, had published The People’s School—a study of vocational education in Germany, France, and Switzerland—before beginning her graduate work with Scott and under his influence wrote Socializing the Three R’s (1919), an important expression of the progressive-education movement (see Byres).

Scott’s reputation as a teacher brought students here from far and near.  Charles Carpenter Fries left a faculty appointment in the classics department at Bucknell to become Scott’s student at Michigan, and Fries carried forward at Michigan the impulse to innovation (founding, for instance, the English Language Institute), the desire to lead in scholarly organizations, and the role of public intellectual on linguistic questions.  Fries’s student, Kenneth G. Wilson left with his Michigan Ph.D. and taught me my first course in English linguistics.

With some justice, I can claim to be a fourth generation descendant of Fred Newton Scott’s intellectual legacy.  And what I propose to do today to address one of Scott’s favorite subjects, treated especially in the title essay of his collection, The Standard of American Speech (1926).

*          *          *

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months touring the eastern part of the United States, and, returning to France, composed his immense Democracy in America.  Unlike many of our visitors during this era, de Tocqueville was a sympathetic observer, and he used his observations to build a case for a kind of popular government that he thought to be genuinely new.  He marveled at the exploding population and the swarms of people moving hither and yon across the landscape.  From his visit to Michigan, he reported that, though there were only 31,639 inhabitants in 1832, there were already 940 miles of designated routes for mail delivery (de Tocqueville, 369n).  Here was an information infrastructure that, for de Tocqueville and his traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont, was staggering.  The same impulse to bandwidth fostered by recent dot-commers was apparent to these French visitors a century and three quarters ago.

Among the issues addressed in Democracy in America was this:  “How American democracy has modified the English language.” (452-58).  It was natural enough that de Tocqueville should address this question in surveying creative and intellectual life in America:  the arts, the theatre, the sciences, and so on.  No American institution would be immune to influence from democracy, even the English language.  Like many observers, then and now, de Tocqueville regarded a language as an assemblage of words rather than a set of highly nuanced social-discourse practices.  Within this limitation, however, he regarded the American linguistic scene as something new in human history.

In aristocracies, de Tocqueville wrote, institutions tend toward “repose,” and thus there would be little need for new words.  Now things would be depicted with “known words,” though progress in the sciences might introduce words having “a learned, intellectual, and philosophical character.” These innovations would remain erudite and have little impact on ordinary people.  The character of language in an aristocracy would be toward fixity, precision, and stability.

In a democracy, just the opposite would be the case:  innovation abounds, imprecision flourishes, change piles upon change.  For de Tocqueville, these tendencies seemed dangerous:  “there is no good language without clear terms,” he wrote (de Tocqueville, 455).  Borrowings from foreign languages are undesirable, he believed, because imported words lead to “impurity,” but it would be better to have languages “bristling with Chinese, Tartar, or Huron words” than to relax the precision of native words already in use.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can emphasize what a good prophet de Tocqueville was or point out his failures to discern trends that should have been apparent at the time of his visit. 

Let’s start with the failures.

De Tocqueville regarded Americans as mainly preoccupied with business and consequently speculated that most new words would come from commerce rather than from “the terrain of metaphysics and theology” (de Tocqueville, 454).  In this respect, he was quite wrong, and the enthusiasms unleashed by the second great awakening were already at hand and shaping the language:  Perfectionism, Mormonism, Adventism, all burst onto the linguistic scene with hoards of new words and new meanings for old ones:  camp-meeting (1809), disfellowship (v., 1831), ghostology (1824), revivalism (1815).  He also failed to detect the spirit of fun, often with a satiric base, that led to highfalutin new expressions.  Seba Smith’s Major Jack Downing is quoted 124 times in the Oxford English Dictionary with such expressions as conniption  (1834), getting one’s dander up (1831), pesky (1775), and stump (1807), glossed by the OED as “to nonplus.”  Stereotypes abounded, particularly in J. K. Paulding’s John Bull and Brother Jonathan, and Thomas Chandler Haliburton and other humorists in that vein opened the way for the fantastic usages of “Colonel Davy Crockett” and other frontier characters who split the hills with their oaths, drank rivers of whisky, and subdued the natural world by force and violence.

More mundane experiences of the American landscape also affected the language.  A section—a piece of land a mile square—became a routine and thoroughly defined expression (first noted in 1785), and the triangular leftover pieces when the square grid was mapped onto the round earth a goreOpenings (1704) in the forested landscape provided opportunities for cultivation that would have been impossible in the dense shade of the woodland.  By the time of de Tocqueville’s visit, foreign borrowings had begun to provide terminology for the American wilderness, and he was shrewd in recognizing that words would be borrowed from living languages because Americans were mostly ignorant of dead ones.  But these new words were not without domestic rivals:  portage (1698), from French, competed with carrying-place (1689); bayou (1766) with long-established English slough (1714 in Boston).  An abundance of new words supplied needed descriptions: arroyo (1807), canyon (1837), coulee (1839), gulch (1832).  None of these words attracted as much notice as prairie (1773 in U. S. use), and Dickens helpfully reported to his British readers that “the word Prairie is variously pronounced paraaer, parearer, paroarer.  The latter mode of pronunciation is perhaps the most in favour” (American Notes, chapter 14). 

De Tocqueville lamented the lack of a “permanent tribunal” by which words might be defined and thus supplied with authoritative pronunciations and meanings.  Of course the English had famously survived without an academy to perform these functions, but it was easy enough for a French visitor to believe in the importance of his own Academy with its forty immortals admitting or rejecting words and opining on their meaning.  (One might suppose that an academy would not have given its imprimatur to gulch.)

Close observation of the American scene, however, would have revealed that there was a well-established (and profitable) trade in English word books, at first editions imported unchanged from Britain but soon enlarged and adapted to the needs of the American market.  In 1828, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language had appeared, and this two-volume work would soon whelp into abridgments and competitors of various sizes.  George Crabb’s English Synonymes Explained had been published in London in 1816; a Boston publisher issued it in 1819 and editions began to appear in New York during de Tocqueville’s sojourn there.  Thus the imprecision of usage about which de Tocqueville fretted was put at bay by books soon given unwarranted authority in regulating meaning.  Democratic speakers might “aim at a group of ideas” (de Tocqueville, 455) but the lexicographers would say which projectiles were hits, which ones merely grazed, and which were entirely off target.

Neither the first nor the last French theorist to speculate without much regard for facts, de Tocqueville found linguistic issues to match the ideas he elaborated in considering other social institutions.  “Aristocracy” was cool, deliberate, rational; “democracy” was hot, impulsive, and rash.  Hence the American experience would swirl with “generic terms and abstract words” (de Tocqueville, 456), and the many meanings words carelessly accumulated in discourse would make for inexactness.  It is nearly impossible, of course, to determine the difference between “aristocratic” and “democratic” languages.  De Tocqueville thought that these abstract terms so favored in democracies led naturally to personification, as, indeed, he found in his own French usage of such post-revolutionary abstractions as equality.  Personifications were common enough.  In 1825, Henry Clay had written “I am a deserter from democracy” (OED, democracy 4.b) in which the abstract word is made concrete as if democracy were an army.  Yet only if the figurative meaning entirely displaces the literal has the language been affected, and there is no reason to believe that either the aristocratic or the democratic forms of government are distinctively prone to personification in linguistic innovation.

De Tocqueville was not wrong about everything in his speculations about English.  The tendency toward social leveling, he thought, would lead to occupational euphemism.  “The more the job is low and distant from science, the more the name is pompous and erudite” (deT, 454).  And American English became richly endowed with such labels:  cosmetology (1855), janitorial science (1885), mixologist (1856, ‘bartender’), mortician (1895), vermeologist (1828; ‘one who treats worms’).  Most of these post-date de Tocqueville’s visit but they certainly express the impulse he described.

An even more powerful prediction concerns the rate of innovation:  “Democratic nations, moreover, like movement for itself.  That is seen in language as well as in politics.  Even when they do not have the need to change words, they sometimes feel the desire to do it” (de Tocqueville, 453).  Concealed in this claim is the impulse toward exuberant fun that was already beginning, at the time of de Tocqueville’s visit, to supply American English with an abundance of extravagant new terms:  callithumpian (1836), hornswoggle (1829), snollygoster (1846), spondulicks (1857), teetotaciously (1833).  He also speculated that those least learned in the ancient languages would be most enthusiastic about words for which etymologies would have to be sought in antiquity (de Tocqueville, 454).

A thoroughly American specimen of this etymological enthusiasm was the Altisonant Letters published by Samuel Klinefelter Hoshour in 1844 as a means of instructing the young in the management of grand words.  The correspondence included an epistolary courtship between Lorenzo Altisonant and Sophronia Amenity.  In responding to Lorenzo’s proposal of marriage, Sophronia replies that she has so far spurned all suitors.  She explains herself:

I am still an agamist, although nubile for several annuary epochs.  I have had multitudinous allectations to enter into a maritated condition, but have as yet evitated all morsure at the proffers coming from your genus.  Whatever might evene, I was procinct against a decubation in a state of deteriority, by an infrangible consortion with an inamorato.  Petit maitres, or jackanapes in fulgid ornature, could never enter the cycle of my amorets.  (61)

The earnest schoolmaster Hoshour declares in his preface that these letters are not intended as “models of style, but a pleasant means of obtaining the meaning of the greater part of the unusual words of the English language” (iii).  Hoshour was, alas, no humorist but an earnest example of de Tocqueville’s speculation that a democracy would throw up monstrosities of etymological invention, words of “fulgid ornature,” each defined in Hoshour’s capacious appendix to his sockdolager of a book.

Unfortunately de Tocqueville did not engage the ideas of the most radical democrat of the day—that is, when he was not being a fervent monarchist:  William Cobbett.  In 1807, Cobbett had denounced instruction in Latin and Greek as erecting an obstacle to the acquisition of “real learning.”  Having in his youth memorized Lowth’s English Grammar, Cobbett in 1826 published his own grammar for an audience of “soldiers, sailors, apprentices, and plough-boys,” and he was convinced that grammatical analysis would uncover political deceit and destroy the credit of tyrants. His example sentences vigorously promoted democratic ideas; for instance, “The borough-tyrants, generally speaking, are great fools as well as rogues” (quoted in Bailey 257).  Here he illustrates, grammatically, the relation of “generally speaking” to the main sentence.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Cobbett expressed the new fervor for revolution, and he even repatriated the bones of Thomas Paine as a way of keeping the old revolution alive.

            Cobbett was not the only one to believe that grammatical study is empowering and a vehicle for upward mobility.  In his grammar of 1829, Samuel Kirkham looked back to the American revolution and told his youthful readers that “the mighty struggle for independence is over; and you live to enjoy the rich book of freedom and prosperity” (15).  It was this very grammar that was taken to heart by our own plough-boy and rail-splitter, Abraham Lincoln.

De Tocqueville made a few inquiries about the state of the American language, and he was assured by “educated Englishmen” that the “enlightened classes of the United States differ notably in their language from the enlightened classes of Great Britain” (452).  This perception had only recently dawned in Britain.  At a dinner in one of the Cambridge colleges in 1805, Benjamin Silliman—later in life one of America’s pioneer chemists—was seated next to a learned gent who declared that Americans were at too great a distance from Britain to acquire English perfectly.  Silliman reported that “he then, with much good nature and urbanity, insisted that I had been all the while amusing him with the story that I was an American, when it was evident that I must be an Englishman” (Quoted in Bailey 1991, 179).  Silliman, a recent graduate of Yale on his first trip abroad, reported that the thoughtful among the Britons believed that American English was “a colonial dialect, with a corrupt and barbarous pronunciation, and a vocabulary, interspersed with strange and unknown terms of transatlantic manufacture” (179).  That this was “the result of prejudice or ignorance” was proved, Silliman wrote, by the fact that an American might travel to the remotest parts of Britain and everywhere “pass for a Londoner.”

While this prejudice (or ignorance) was not based on fact, it was firmly embraced, and many in Britain believed that the pursuit of vulgar wealth in America—as opposed to the learned idleness of “educated Englishmen”—meant the language would be clotted with outlandish borrowings and stale commercial metaphors.  Francis Jeffrey, the scourge of the Romantic poets, made this view perfectly plain in reviewing Joel Barlow’s Columbiad in 1809.  “These federal republicans, in short, bear no sort of resemblance to the Greeks of the days of Homer, or the Italians of the age of Dante; but are very much such people, we suppose, as the modern traders of Manchester, Liverpool or Glasgow” (24).  In surveying Barlow’s epic, Jeffrey observed that it was written “in a language utterly unknown to the prose or verse of this country” (28), and he identified the categories of difference:  “a great multitude of words which are radically and entirely new, and utterly foreign”; new compounds of existing words; functional shift of nouns to verbs, adjectives as nouns, and other novelties.

These views hardened into doctrine, and de Tocqueville seems to have absorbed these ideas wholesale since nearly all of Jeffrey’s accusations are found in his book.  Further, Jeffrey had hit on an important insight:  “These republican literati seem to make it a point of conscience to have no aristocratical distinctions—even in their vocabulary” (29).  In Barlow’s poem, Jeffrey saw no distinction between “what we should call lofty and elegant, and low and vulgar expressions” (29).  De Tocqueville reached the identical conclusion from his face-to-face encounters with Americans:  “One scarcely ever encounters expressions that by their nature seem vulgar and others that appear distinguished” (456).  Unlike Jeffrey, de Tocqueville saw something meritorious in the collapse of the lofty and the low.  Artifice would vanish, he thought; questions of decency would find their foundation in “the very nature of things.”

What in fact happened to American English was very much what de Tocqueville predicted.  “In democratic times, the public often acts with authors as kings ordinarily with courtiers; they enrich them and scorn them” (450).  Precisely this happened in American English in the decades between de Tocqueville’s visit and the outbreak of the Civil War:  the enormous growth in sensational and erotic literature involving violence, voyeurism, and villainy.

De Tocqueville recognized the “vulgarity” of American newspapers and the tendency of journalists “to set aside principles in order to grab men; to follow them into their private lives, and to lay bare their weaknesses and their vices” (De Tocqueville, 177).  He saw that the vices of public figures would become essential rather than incidental qualities, that newspapers would celebrate celebrity rather than merely recognize the flaws attendant upon the human condition.  No one did this better than the editors of the lurid press who did not bother with the great issues of civic life but satisfied themselves with crimes of violence, incidents of passion, deeds of derring-do.

The consequences of these democratic impulses for the language were profound indeed.  Following Bakhtin, David Reynolds has described “the carnivalization of American language.”   As Bakhtin shows in his explication of Rabelais, a prior condition for “carnivalization” is the detachment of word from referent.  Words must be seen as arbitrary rather than natural; meanings as conventional rather than divinely inspired.  The transcendent becomes human and then corrupt; old certainties of Puritan America weredisplaced as temporal, flawed, eccentric, comic.  Language leaked its magic away.

Consider what happens in the koineization of the word hell in American English.  Satan becomes an imp; the demesne of devils becomes a place of recreation.   Here are expressions involving hell first attested in American English from 1828 to 1850:  hell hole ‘a drinking or gambling den’, give hell ‘inflict punishment’, hell in harness ‘locomotive’, hellbent ‘determined’, beat hell ‘to surpass’, hell afloat ‘a ship having brutal officers or conditions’.  An account of a conversation reported in William T. Porter’s great newspaper, The Spirit of the Times (March 16, 1844) shows that vivid language at the White House is no recent development:  “’Mr. President, the Capitol is on fire,’ said a senator.  ‘The hell it is!” said the President.’”

This example from 1850 sums it up:  “Mammy has always been hell on dignity.” [1]

Journalists especially exploited the new markets for transgressive behavior and the language that went with it.  In 1845, Richard Fox founded The National Police Gazette that stripped away unwanted commercial reports, political commentary, and improving romances so characteristic of general newspapers of the day.  The Gazette concentrated solely on lurid murders, boiler explosions on steamships, and natural catastrophes visiting mayhem on a local populace.  The frontier roarer was replaced by urban specimens of human passion unrestrained by gentility.  In the cities of the northeast, these characters came to be known as b’hoys and g’hals—the spelling and pronunciation mimicking Hiberno-English.  A new romantic notion of the violent city-dweller emerged.  As described by George A. Foster in 1849, b’hoys were feral charmers:  

Thus, their courage is quarrelsomeness; their frankness is vulgarity; their magnanimity subsides to thriftlessness; their fun expands to rowdyism; their feeling of friendship and brotherhood seeks dangerous activity in mobs and gangs who conspire against the public peace.  (44)

In his novel of 1850, The G’hals of New York, Ned Buntline mixes urban sociology with lurid narrative, explaining in one chapter, with statistics, the unfairness of low wages and dramatizing in the next what the underclass might do about them.  Both ethical and linguistic decorum are constantly violated, and in one dramatic scene two beautiful sisters confront each other at knife-point to settle the question raised by a handsome but unconscious young man sprawled on their settee—that is, which one will be the first to have her way with him once he has been restored by food and drink from his state of near starvation.  Fortunately they come to an amicable division of the spoils, and the handsome young man “was the daily and nightly companion of the two sisters, in their walks and drives by day, in their rambles at eve, in their enjoyments at night” (85).  At the end of the novel, another g’hal has found happiness and wealth as the proprietrix of one of New York’s most splendid bordellos.

The linguistic side of the narrative is equally vivid.  One self-celebrating b’hoy, leaves the scene of a nefarious courtship with the words:  “If I aint gallus, ter night, then I’m a pup.”  (Gallus can be glossed as ‘splendid, attractive’ but it has a sinister etymology:  “fit for the gallows.”)  Eyeing some ladies of the pavement, he observes that his rig and his appearance must be captivating indeed:  “If they can look once on this duck, and not rear up just as a mare does when she sees a splendid young stud rolling up, then my tailor’ll get booted for not havin’ done his duty—that’s all!” (181).

Into this heady urban scene came the editor of the Brooklyn Aurora, Walt Whitman, who made himself the poet of what he called “the blab of the pave” (33).  Emerson had already declared of the American scholar that “Life is our dictionary” and commended the language of “country labors” and even that of “trades and manufactures” (60), but Whitman was far more a democrat than he.  American English was, he thought, “lawless,” and he contemplated a “real dictionary” that would include “the bad words as well as any” (quoted and discussed by Warren, 41).

Whitman heard it all: the singing, of course; the slanging; the cursing. In the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, he had this to say about English.

The English language befriends the grand American expression . . . . it is brawny enough and limber and full enough . . . . [my ellipsis].  It is the chosen tongue to express growth faith self-esteem freedom justice equality friendliness amplitude prudence decision and courage.  It is the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible. (25)

Whitman’s English was a democratic language that had emerged from the tumult of Jacksonian frontier lingo of natives and nativists and moved into the melting pot of the cities with their boisterous urban rogues and gabbling new immigrants.  He saw the great strength of America (and of American English) in this maelstrom of humanity:  “From no one ethnic source is America sprung; the electric reciprocations of many stocks conspired and conspire” (Warren, 113).

The following year, 1856, Whitman published an essay on this same theme in Life Illustrated.  In a nearby column, the editor introduced Whitman to readers unfamiliar with his writing (as well they might be since, by that time, he had self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855 in an edition of only 795 copies).  The editor declared:  “Walt Whitman is more a Democrat than any man we ever met.  He believes in American principles, American character, American tendencies, the ‘American Era,’ to a degree that renders his belief an originality” (188).  Years later, as an old man, Whitman looked with nostalgic recollection on “The Old Bowery” and the b’hoys and g’hals of the time, city folks “with a rude good-nature and restless motion” (1190).  Their voices, he wrote, were not to be found in the American counterparts of “Dickens, or Hogarth, or Balzac” but they were profoundly influential for Whitman himself. 

In 1885, Whitman returned to this theme in an essay titled “Slang in America,” and in it he extended his earlier celebration of “the grand American expression.”

Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and provides a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech.  (1165)

Yet forces were afoot to deodorize this rankness and subvert the protestantism.  In the American language, the counter-reformation commenced.  In another late essay, Whitman reported a conversation with a policeman at the northern end of Central Park.  He told Whitman that he commonly saw on the equipage of lucky brokers and grocery-men “heraldic family crests” in defiance of the Constitutional mandate that Americans not bear titles of nobility.  The policeman saw, and Whitman reported, the desire of  “the capitalists, the highly educated, and the carriage-riding classes” to fence themselves off from “the common people” (1176).  Language could provide the shibboleth to sort one herd into the gated communities and the other into the fenced-off districts.  Gentility had begun to silence the “blab of the pave.”

In 1860, an anonymous booklet was published in Boston:  The Age of Words and Phrases.  It was one of an ever-increasing flood of attacks on the vernacular, and it promised attentive readers that they might escape censure and avoid being swept away in the flood of solecism.  Even in Boston, the citadel of correctness, all was not well.  The author lamented the condition of things:

A celebrated teacher of a public school in Boston, and his young assistant, use some of these low and improper phrases in the presence and hearing of scholars, seventeen times almost every forenoon.  (15)

This work only capitalized on a growing number of books directed toward the grammatically anxious.  Here are some specimens of these books. 

            From Philadelphia in 1847:  A Grammatical Corrector; or, Vocabulary of the Common Errors of Speech:  Being a Collection of Nearly Two Thousand Barbarisms, Cant Phrases, Colloquialisms, Quaint Expressions, Provincialisms, False Pronunciation, Perversions, Misapplication of Terms, and other Kindred Errors of the English Language, peculiar to the Different States of the Union (Hurd).

            From New York in 1856:  Over 1000 Mistakes Corrected.  Live and Learn:  A Guide for All, Who Wish to Speak and Write Correctly

            From Philadelphia in 1877:  Every-Day Errors of Speech. (Meredith).

            From Boston in 1885:  Handbook of Blunders.  (Ballard).

Such works as these fueled a national paranoia about the state of American English.  Whitman was not pleased.

The Age of Words and Phrases, the booklet from Boston I mentioned a few moments ago, is an especially wacky specimen of a fundamentally eccentric endeavor.  While opposed to the multiplication of synonymous words, the author has an affection for them, introducing whole long strings connected with the abbreviation t. i. ‘that is’.  Here’s an example.

Our home is a house, t. i. an edifice, t. i. an abode, t. i. a domicile, t. i. a habitation, t. i. a building, t. i.. a dwelling, t. i. a mansion, t. i. a residence, t. i a structure, t. i. a superstructure. (8)

If ambivalent about synonymy, the author is hell on elision, and we are entertained by two domestic conversations he concocts to show the bad and the good.

Mrs. Newlight says:  Mr. N, our home edifice has got to want paintin mos dreadful, it don’t look a bit as a superstructural domercile oughter, it aint a bit like our snug little bit of a last home; that was something like; torter be painted year ago.

Mr. N:  Nonsense.

Mrs. N. (rapidly and vehemently.)  Nosucher thing, not a bit of it, you aint a bitter courtesy, taste, sensibility, or judgment, Mr. N.

Mr. N:  True, true.  I ought to have suppressed the thought, I referred to.

Mrs. N. (interrupting with increased animation.):  Thought!  Its contempt; no business to have sucher thought; will you paint the house?  Suppress:  you aint begun to suppress half the thoughts you might to your own advantage; will you paint the house?

Mr. N.  Yes; but I cannot afford to paint it.

Mrs. N.  Afford; everybody knows you aint poor.

Mr. N.  They don’t know how much I owe.

Mrs. N.  No harm to owe a little more.

Mr. N.  I think there is harm and danger too, but I see the house must be painted.

Mrs. N.  Knew ide carry my point; nothing like perseverance.  (9)

After more triumphal encouragement from his wife, Mr. Newlight agrees to see to finding a painter.  We are instructed:  “Many of Mr. and Mrs. Newlight’s phrases are objectionable, unelegant, coarse, harsh.”

In another family, these transactions are conducted in a more elegant style.

Mrs. Tasty, (in gentle tone and pleasing manner.)  Mr. Tasty, I think our house needs painting.  Having taste, judgment, she playfully says, Mr. Tasty, can you afford to decorate our constructure, that is to say, our edifice, our domicile, this year?

Mr. Tasty.  I can; I will engage a decorater, t. i. a painter.

Mrs. T.  Thank you. (9)

Here is how such matters are negotiated in the best of families.  The hectoring of Mrs. Newlight is set in vivid contrast to the “gentle tone and pleasing manner” of Mrs. Tasty.  She is the very model of a modern major matron; she gives the information both grammatical and rhetorical.

By 1885, the Mrs. Tastys of America had the Mrs. Newlights on the run.  In that year, a young and unknown assistant librarian at the University of Michigan published an essay in the Chicago magazine, The Current, and he began with an anecdote about how families talk and how one might regard the age-old question of singular they in such sentences as “Everyone has their own opinion.”  A welter of proposed new pronouns had been concocted to “solve” this problem:  hiser, thon, and dozens of others.  And here’s what the librarian observed.

While the critics and philologists are quarreling over the relative advantages of two different modes of expression …, the great talking public, which cannot very well suspend communication until the mooted question is decided, goes on talking after its own fashion, and finally talks that fashion into our grammars and dictionaries.  (Scott, 1885, 44)

When people of “good moral character” talk in a particular way, the critics and philologists might pay respectful attention to them.

This librarian and budding author was, of course, Fred Newton Scott of the University of Michigan, and, as he grew to prominence in the profession, he became an advocate for a democratic notion of American English—not as “democratic” as Whitman’s, but more democratic than the emergent twentieth-century ideology. 

A contentious issue arose as the result of A Report on the Examinations in English for Admission to Harvard College issued in 1906 (Greenough et al.).  This document, including reproductions of entrance essays to display bad penmanship, showed that Harvard students were not, in many cases, entirely correct in their usage.  Five years earlier, Scott had contrasted the “examination” system for college admission with the “certificate” approach.  The latter was the prevailing system in the west where high-school accreditation authorized schools to “certify” graduates who would then be taken into higher education.  The former was that prevailing in the east where colleges issued lists of books to be read and then asked applicants to display their knowledge of them by written examination.  Scott called the examination “feudal” and the certificate—using a term dear to his sister Harriet’s heart—“organic” (Scott 1901).  The feudal system made vassals of teachers; the organic treated them as educators.

The Harvard Report of 1906 was yet another step in the feudal direction, and Scott was not the only one to raise objections to it.  From Columbia University, George Philip Krapp urged compassion:  “It behooves the technical drillmaster, however, to apply his rules of correctness with some circumspection and with some degree of charity to the rest of mankind” (1907, 98), he wrote.  Scott weighed in with an essay titled “What the West Wants in Preparatory English,” and he detected less charity at Harvard than Krapp had expected to find.  Scott wrote:

Some day somebody with a big ax will cut down the totem-pole which now stands in front of the eastern university.  When it falls, there will be great consternation.  The worshipers will cower and hide in crevices of the rocks, and wait for the offended deities to launch their thunderbolts.  But nothing will happen.  The deities will be on a journey, or peradventure asleep.  (1909, 16)

Here Scott saw himself as Elijah and the Harvard examiners as the prophets of Baal.  The prophets could not kindle fire for the sacrifice despite all their importunings; Elijah produced a hearty blaze by having a right spirit.  Scott was horrified by the “sarcastic” comments in the committee’s report; he wrote:  “for my part I could not view these reelings and writhings of the adolescent mind without a feeling of pity” (1909, 18).  These young people were part of “the great talking public”; to them attention must be paid.  Summing up, Scott wrote:  “…what the West wants in preparatory English is sympathetic, broad-minded, well-trained teachers.  If such teachers can be found, we are willing to trust them implicitly” (20).

Now we come at last to Scott’s essay, “The Standard of American Speech,” first presented as one of his two presidential addresses to the National Council of Teachers of English.  Here he articulated his mature view of these issues.

It is clearly not our business to force upon the younger generation the speech of any particular section of the country, or to do them to death for want of well-pronouncing shibboleth.  The speech of one’s own community, the speech which one hears day by day at home and on the street, is the speech which, in modified form, one will probably use all one’s life long” (1926, 14).

In other words, Scott urges that teachers listen respectfully to the language of home and street, and it is no accident that in that same paragraph he alluded to “that harmony of the soul of which Whitman speaks, without which, flexibility of the vocal organs is a sham and a nuisance” (14-15).

In this address, Scott celebrated American English in ways that echoed Whitman’s earlier views.

The aristocratic period has passed and we are now on a thoroughly democratic basis.  Hoosier and Wolverine and Badger and Sucker may hold up their heads when they use their native vowels, and the Southerners, who have always been justly proud of their beautiful speech, need no longer take the trouble even to defend it.  (7-8).

Alas this thoroughly democratic day has not yet arrived though it came nearer in the days of the Ann Arbor “Black English” trial of 1979; it receded during the Ebonics controversy in Oakland of 1996-97 (see Smitherman; Baugh).

In “The Standard of American Speech,” Scott quoted Whitman approvingly, and he recognized that the standard might develop in almost any direction.  “To my mind,” he declared, “the speech of Abe and Mawruss, as reported by Montague Glass, might easily prove the beginning of a type of standard English” (13).  Glass was a humorist attuned to the blab of the pave, and his humorous characters were a pair of comic cloak-and-suiters with Yiddish-influenced English. Their redeeming quality was that their speech was—these are Scott’s words—“kindly, natural, unaffected,” a far cry from the “orgiastic appeal” of the speech of the evangelist Billy Sunday (13).

Like Whitman, Scott saw the speech of ordinary people—those of “good moral character” that is--as a source of wisdom and potential excellence.  Both Whitman and Scott, of course, were rooted in the Romanticism of Wordsworth who had famously celebrated the “real” language of leech-gatherers and others representative of the folk.  If was from such language that poetry (or a future standard English) should be made, not from the affectation of the drawing rooms or the halls of academe.

Now enters the villain of our story:  Henry Louis Mencken.  Mencken would later claim to have written a newspaper story in 1910 in which he called for an inquiry into the language of ordinary people.  Whatever the truth of that assertion, he began the task himself in The American Language, a book of prodigious size that would start large in 1919 and become gargantuan as it grew from the first to fourth editions and then sprouted two  substantial “supplements.”  Mencken despised the British, and the leisure for writing that first edition came when his zeal for the Kaiser made him less employable at a journalist than he had been before 1917.  By calling his book The American Language, he wanted to separate the English of the United States from that of Britain and thus to assert its independence and worth.

Having adopted this entirely laudable objective, he then wrote in detail about the history of our language as it had evolved in this hemisphere, and he gave particular attention to what he the “American vulgate.”  This use of vulgate was inspired and allowed him to join the neutral meaning of vulgar (that is, ‘ordinary, common’) with the opprobrious sense of  ‘crude, unmannerly.’  While Mencken despised the boob-oisie—a word of his own coining--for its pretentious behavior and hypocritical morals, he reserved particular venom for common people.  He was unable to describe the “common speech” of this “American vulgate” without resorting to expressions like “violations of the polite canon” (M4, 416), and he saw those who spoke it as part of an ignorant mob, given to naming their children for body parts not normally uttered in polite company, and incapable of fine feelings.

In the first three editions of his book, Mencken provided an appendix illustrating “Specimens of the American Vulgate,” and he gave pride of place to the Declaration of Independence “translated” by his own hand into it.  He justified this exercise by declaring that “the original is now quite unintelligible to the average American of the sort using the Common Speech” (AL2, 388).  Here is the opening sentence.

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.  (AL2, 388)

And so on and so on in the same vein. [1]

In his preface to The American Language of 1919, Mencken invited the attention of persons with appropriate knowledge to the subject of the American language; “that work calls for the equipment of a first-rate philologist, which I am surely not” (AL2, viii).  He was, after all, merely a journalist. 

Persons indulgent in too much self-criticism may be taken at their word, and that is exactly what happened to Mencken when Fred Newton Scott reviewed his book in a notice of a book on American pronunciation by George Philip Krapp.  Scott declared Mencken’s large book clever and refreshing,

…but it cannot be taken seriously as an authority.  The author’s impulsive philology (which he himself decries), his defective knowledge of the work of other men in this and allied fields, and his uncritical attitude towards data drawn from a dozen different levels of authenticity, disqualify him for exact scholarship and put his work, even at its best, at a far remove from Professor Krapp’s.  (Scott 1919, 173).

This observation brought down upon Scott the wrath of Mencken, a burden not easily borne by anyone so unfortunate as to have it laden upon them.

If Scott’s words had wounded Mencken, Mencken’s representation of the “American vulgate” gnawed at Scott’s heart.  In 1923, at a conference at Columbia University, Scott spoke severely of that non-standard “Declaration”:  “Mr. Mencken has failed to perceive the gulf between the sterile vulgarity of his performance and the massive dignity of the original”  (The New York Times [June 24, 1923], 7).  Common American speech did not consist of “sterile vulgarity,” and, in an essay in a popular magazine published not long after the conference, Scott wrote proudly of “our smart, swaggering, often illiterate slang phrases.”  He listed a bunch of them and asserted that “they are the spontaneous expression of American traits, emotions, and experiences that have no counterparts in British character or life” (1925, 144).  To suggest that American speech consisted only of vulgar locutions and ignorant phrases was to traduce the American character.

Mencken waited, lurkingly, for occasions for revenge.  When Scott’s Standard of American Speech appeared, he reviewed it in The American Mercury, suggesting that Scott was mainly interested in counting the syllables in Paradise Lost.  He never touched on the central thesis of the essay collection:  the independence of American English and the democratic spirit that vitalizes it.  After Scott’s death, Mencken continued to attack him, suggesting that he had been an anglophile who distained American English, “a completely humorless man and an almost archetypical pedagogue” (S1, 134n).  Half a century would pass before Donald Stewart would review these circumstances and find only two explanations for Mencken’s vitriol.  Mencken, wrote Stewart, “was either criminally careless or intellectually dishonest” (1983, 5).

As you have learned this afternoon, Scott’s views of democracy in language have not been forgotten.  In 1908, he composed a fanciful letter that is worth recalling now.  The imaginary writer is a teacher of English in Timbuctoo and the language in which he writes is Bantu, which, by the time of writing—4000 A.D.—has “risen” from a despised vernacular to be “the common language of the world” (360).  This teacher loves the English language, finds it superior to Greek and Latin, but knows that having English a compulsory subject in schools is to inflict on students “headaches and heartaches” (362).  Teaching dead language is no proper business of education, nor usages that are foreign to a student’s natural expression.

Toward the end of his letter, this fictional future teacher recalls his own youth.

When I was a boy my greatest ambition was to throw the switch at the great falls of the Nile which supply electricity to this continent.  In imagination I could see the electric impulse rushing through the ether in every direction in countless waves, turning ten thousand wheels, lighting a million lamps in far-distant houses, driving railway trains up mountain sides, sending airships hurtling through space, raising tons of ore from deep mining shafts.  But how puerile was such an ambition compared with that which anyone can realize who cultivates his mother tongue.  What power of the electric fluid can rival that of the printed or spoken word which, thrown into the mental ether, starts vibrations that roll on forever?  What is the lighting of lamps or the driving of railway trains to the illuminating of minds or the stimulation of generous emotions in our fellow beings?  (369).

These are the ideas that Scott celebrated in his career as a faculty member at the University of Michigan, and I am glad to recall them here in the Michigan Union, an institution of which he was a founder.  Making young people articulate in their own language was his goal, and he wanted them to take pride in it.

Let me end, not with words from Scott, but with the final sentences of a prose poem published by Sherwood Anderson in 1917.  In his fiction, Anderson was a pioneer in exploring ways in which the American vernacular could be made the expression of serious literary imaginings.

And here’s what he says in “Song of the Soul of Chicago”:  “We want to give this democracy thing they talk so big about a whirl.  We want to see if we are any good out here—we Americans from all over hell.  That’s what we want” (Friebert and Young, 42).



Age of Words and Phrases, The. 1860.  Boston:  Alfred Mudge & Son.

Ballard, Harlan H.  1885.  Handbook of Blunders.  Boston:  Lee and Shepard.

Baugh, John.  2000.  Beyond Ebonics:  Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Buntline, Ned [pseud. of E. Z. C. Judson].  [1850].  The G’hals of New York.  New York:  Dewitt and Davenport.

Byres, Judy Prozzillo.  1993.  Teaching the Art of Living:  The Education Philosophy of Ruth Mary Weeks.  Fairmont State College, Occasional Papers, 4.  Fairmont, WV:  Fairmont State College.

Denny, Joseph Villers.  1932.  “Fred Newton Scott,” English Journal 21:  271-74.

Dewey, John.  [1894].  “Fred Newton Scott,” in John Dewey:  The Early Works, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University, 1971), vol. 4, pp. 119-22.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  1971.. “The American Scholar” (1837), 49-70, in The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Alfred R. Ferguson.  Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[Foster, George A.]  1849.  New York in Slices.  New York:  W. F. Burgess.

Greenough, Chester Noyes, Frank W. C. Hersey, and Charles. R. Nutter.  1906.  A Report on the Examinations in English for Admission to Harvard College.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University.

Hurd, Seth T.  1847. A Grammatical Corrector.  Philadelphia:  E. H. Butler & Co.

Jacobson, Eli. B.  1928.  English for Workers. New York:  International Publishers.

Kirkham, Samuel.  N. d.  English Grammar in Familiar Letters (1829).  11th edition.  New York:  Robert B Collins.

Krapp, George Philip.  1907.  Review of Greenough et al., Educational Review 34:  97-100.

Lighter, J. E.  1994- . Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.  New York:  Random House.

Mencken, H. L.  1921.  The American Language.  2nd ed.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

________.  1926 [1923].  The American Language.  3rd ed.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

________.  1927.  “Professors of English,” in Prejudices:  Sixth Series, 159-62.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

________.  1960 [1936].  The American Language. 4th ed.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf..

________.  1960 [1945].  The American Language:  Supplement I.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf.

________.  1963.  The American Language, abridged by Raven I. McDavid, Jr.  New York:  Alfred a Knopf.

Meredith, L. P.  1877.  Every-Day Errors of Speech.  Philadelphia:  J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Reynolds, David S.  1988.  Beneath the American Renaissance:  The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Scott, Harriet M., and Gertrude Buck.  1899.  Organic Education:  A Manual for Teachers in the Primary and Grammar Grades.  Boston:  D. C. Heath & Co.

Scott, Fred Newton.  1901.  “College Entrance Requirements in English,” School Review 9:  365-78.

________.  1908.  “A Substitute for the Classics,” The School Review 16:  360-69.

________.  1909.  “What the West Wants in Preparatory English,School Review 17:  10-20.

________.  1919.  Review of The Pronunciation of Standard English in America by George Philip Krapp and of The American Language by H. L. Mencken.  Educational Review, 58:  170-73.

________.  1925  “English and American Vernacular,” McNaught’s Monthly 3:  144-45.

________.  1926.  The Standard of American Speech and Other Papers.  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

Stewart, Donald C.  1983.  “Reputation Lost:  A Brief Note in the History of American Letters,” Menckeniana 85:  1-8.

________, and Patricia L. Stewart.  1997.  The Life and Legacy of Fred Newton Scott.  Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press.

Smith, Shirley W.  “Fred Newton Scott as a Teacher:  A Memorial to this Grest Michigan Professor,” Michigan Alumnus 39 (1933):  279-80.

Smitherman, Geneva., ed.  1981.  Black English and the Education of Black Children and Youth.  Detroit:  Wayne State University.

de Tocqueville, Alexis.  2000.  Democracy in America, tr. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

“Walt Whitman’s Article,” Life Illustrated (12 April 1856), p. 188, col. 4.

Warren, James Perrin.  1990.  Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment.  University Park:  The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Whitman, Walt. [1982].  Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, ed Justin Kaplan.  New York:  The Library of America.


[1] These examples are selected from the riches provided by Lighter.

[1] Fred Newton Scott’s own copy is in the library here, and one might suspect that the angry underlinings in this section are his.)  In the third edition of The American Language issued in 1926, Mencken added the note that a government agency had in 1921 produced a simplified version of the Declaration and of the Constitution (AL3, 398), and he was sufficiently pleased with his own performance that he added in this edition a similar “translation” of the “Gettysburg Address” in the same fantastic style:  “Eighty-seven years ago them old-timers that you heard about in school signed the Declaration of Independence, and put the kibosh on the English king, George III” (AL3, 402-03).