27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 26


By, ALAN BRIEN On the authority of H. L. Mencken, he claimed that this fact demolished the linguistic snobs who prefer to believe that 'most American- isms are good old English expressions that can be traced back to Chaucer and even. the Vener- able Bede.'

• As far as the first semicolon, I can admit his evidence—though 'bingo' is hardly a coin- age which demonstrates the genius of any language. The English equivalent is 'lotto' (first used in 1778) and 'bingo' itself is a fairly recent American variant of the earlier, and once wide- spread, 'keno' or 'beano.'

After the semicolon, too, it still comes as a surprise to realise that such familiar" natives as 'belittle' and 'lengthy' are immigrants. But I am not sure that the rest of the sentence will quite bear- the weight put upon it. `Jeopardise' can be traced as far back as 1646 in English writings. Even if it disappeared here in the ,eighteenth century and was revived in America in the nineteenth, this surely tends to strengthen the theory that much modern American is but older English refurbished rather than to explode St. 'Progress' as a verb was indeed first used by George Washington after a century of disuse, but it retained exactly the same meaning as it had, for instance, in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist:

Nor can this remote matter, sodainely, Progresse so from extreme, unto extreme,

As to grow gold, and leap ore all the tpeanes.

The Oxford English Dictionary see,ms to back up Mencken on 'advocate.' It quotes Benjamin Franklin in 1789 writing to Noah Webster (of Webster's Dictionary):

During my late absence in France, I find that several new words have been introduced into our Parliamentary language. For example, I find a verb from the substantive 'advocate'; the gentleman who advocates or has advocated that motion. . . . If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations you will use your authority in reprobating them.

But twenty years before that letter, Edmund Burke had used 'advocate' in the sense of `to raise one's voice in favour of.' And I cannot see that John Milton's meaning (in Animadver- sions upon 'The Remonstrant's Defence Against Smectymnitus,' 1641) is very different when he writes: 'It had been advocated and moved for by some honourable and learned gentlemen of the house.'

'Standpoint' in the sense of `mental point of view' is, perhaps, of more debatable origin. The OED cites Sir George Lewis, an expert of English local dialects, in a letter of ' 1836. Herbert Spencer is another source in 1858. I do not know what the evidence is for earlier occurrences in American literature, but 'stand- point' does not seem to have been regarded as a barbarism or neologism among educated English writers in the nineteenth century.

Mr. Tynan, batting for the late Mr. Mencken, has missed hitting only three or four of his fifteen balls. He realises that chauvinism is as unhealthy in linguistics as in politics. A con- tinuous process of osmosis is bound to take place between cultures whose skins touch at so many points. If miscegenation were to be de- clared illegal among languages, and a lexico- graphical Henry Brooke appointed to deport stowaways, English would still be Anglo-Saxon and as impenetrable to its neighbours as Finnish. What cannot be imported and domesticated, ex- cept under an armed occupation over centuries, is the rhythm and beat of a national syntax— witness any English actor trying to deliver an American wisecrack and detonating the joke before it is primed.

Vocabulary, however, demands a free trade and defies all tariffs and embargoes. Words follow not the flag, or even the salesman, but the cinema film, the television series and the best-seller. The ones which should be rejected are those coined out of the illiteracy of the first counterfeiter like President Harding's invention of 'normalcy'—though this could now be justi- fied on the grounds that it signifies a feverish and fake brand of normality in a nation's be- haviour. The Germanic tendency, widespread in the United States, towards constructing com- pound or extended words to replace simple phrases (e.g. 'hospitalisation') should be resisted, as should hypocritical euphemisms masquerading as technical terms (e.g. 'under,priVileged' for 'poor).

The suffix 'wise' is, fortunately, going out of fashion. It probably originated in contempor- ary usage as a ,useful shorthand device among immigrant businessmen whose grasp of their new language was rather shaky. (I first heard it from the lips of Mr. Aristotle Onassis in 1954 when he told me that profits were low 'local' coastal-shipping-wise.') This• adverbial form, now so typically American, is rooted in Anglo- Saxon and is still retained in such ancient terms as 'slantwise,' likewise,"otherwise,' etc. I don't know about the Venerable Bede but (pace Mr. Tynan) it is common in Chaucer—for example, in The Knight's Tale:

The nyghtes longe Encressen double wise the peynes stronge.

We should be grateful rather than resentful when the Americans disinter and bring back to life words and phrases we have prematurely buried. The test is not 'where does it come from?' but 'who needs it?' Race laws are as difficult to enforce in speech and writing as io marrying and working. Too many magistrates in the dictionary courts forget that English itself is not a pure breed. Anyone who has served io the forces will remember the amazement created when the gaping primate from the farm mel the chirpy sparrow from the city and found they could not understand each other. I recall in my RAF hut a country boy who gave his civilia occupation as `tod-scufter.' His explanation tha he scufted tods was hardly helpful until he mimed walking behind a manure cart, kickin each spadeful with his large boots into tit furrows. 'Tod' was his local word for 'turd, and `seufe a variant of 'scuff,' which the Oa defines in one meaning as 'to walk through (dew, dust, snow, etc.) so as to brush it aside or throt it up.'