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a framed portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge

May 12, 1850, Boston, Massachusetts
November 9, 1924, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Republican politician and a noted historian

Shakespeare’s Americanisms

Much has been written first and last about certain English words and phrases which are commonly called “Americanisms.” That they are so classified is due to our brethren of England, who seem to think that in this way they not only relieve themselves of all responsibility for the existence of these offending parts of speech, but that they also in some mysterious manner make them things apart and put them outside the pale of the English language. No one would be hard-hearted enough to grudge to our island kindred any comfort they may take in this mental operation, but that any one should cherish such a belief shows a curious ignorance, not merely as to many of the words in question, but as to the history and present standing of the language itself. To describe an English word or phrase as American or British or Australian or Indian or South African may be convenient if we wish to define that portion of the English speaking people among whom it originated or by whom it has been kept or revived from the usage of an earlier day. But it is worse than useless to do so if an attempt to exclude the word from English speech is thereby intended. It is no longer possible in any such fashion as this to set up arbitrary metes and bounds to the great language which has spread over the world with the march of the people who use it. The “Queen’s English” was a phrase correct enough in the days of Elizabeth or Anne, but it is an absurdity in those of Victoria. In the time of the last Tudor or the last Stuart every one whose native tongue was English could be properly set down as a subject of the English Queen. No such proposition is possible now. The English-speaking people who owe no allegiance to England’s Queen are to-day more numerous than those who do.

In the face of facts like these it is just as impossible to set limits to the language or to establish a proprietorship in it in any given place as it would be to fetter the growth of the people who speak it. This it is also which makes it out of the question to have any fixed standard of English in the narrow sense not uncommon in other languages. It is quite possible to have Tuscan Italian or Castilian Spanish or Parisian French as the standard of correctness, but no one ever heard of “London English” used in that sense. The reason is simple. These nations have ceased to spread and colonize. They are practically stationary. But English is the language of a conquering, colonizing race, which in the last three centuries has subdued and possessed ancient civilizations and virgin continents alike, and whose speech is now heard in the remotest corners of the earth.

It is not the least of the may glories of the English tongue that it has proved equal to the task which its predecessors have imposed on it. Like the race, it has shown itself capable of assimilating new elements without degeneration. It has met new conditions, adapted itself to them, and prevailed over them. It has proved itself flexible without weakness, and strong without rigidity. With all its vast spread it still remains unchanged in essence and in all its great qualities.

For such a language with such a history no standard of a province or a city can be fixed in order to make a narrow rule from which no appeal is possible. The usage of the best writers for the written, and of the best-educated and most highly trained men for the spoken word, without regard to where they may have been born or to where they live, is the only possible standard for English speech. Such a test may not be very sharply defined, but it is the only one practicable for a language which has done so much, and which is constantly growing and advancing. As a rule of conduct in writing or speaking it is true that this kind of standard may be in unessential points a little vague. But this defect, if it be one, is outweighed a thousand times by the fact that the language is thus freed from the stiffness and narrowness which denote that the race had ceased to march, and that expansion for people and speech alike is at an end.

Yet the changes made during this worldwide extension, with all the infinite variety of new conditions which accompanied it, are, after all, more apparent than real. That they should be so few and at the same time so all-sufficient for every fresh need that has arisen demonstrates better than anything else the marvelous strength and richness inherent in the English language. In some cases new words have been invented or added to express new facts or new things, and these are both valuable and necessary. In other cases old words, both in the mother-country and elsewhere, have, in the processes of time and of altered conditions, been changed in meaning and usage, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In still other instances old words and old meanings have lived on or been revived by one branch of the race, when given up or modified elsewhere.

It is this last fact which makes it so futile to try to read out of the language and its literature words and phrases merely because they are not used in the island whence people and speech started on their career of conquest. It does not in the least follow, because a word is not used to-day in England, that it is either new or bad. It may be both, as is the case with many others which have never travelled outside their mother-country, and with many others which have never been heard in the parent-land. On the other hand, it may equally well be neither. The mere fact that a word exists in one place and not in another, of itself proves nothing. That those of the English-speaking people who have remained in Great Britain should condemn as pestilent innovations words which they do not use themselves is very unnatural, but quite unscientific. It is the same attitude as that of the Tory reviewer who condemns some of James Russell Lowell’s letters as “provincial.” They are different in tone and thought from that to which he is accustomed, and hence he asserts that they must be bad. The real trouble is merely that the letters are American and not English, continental and not insular. They are not in the language or the spirit of the critic’s own parish, that is all. They jar on his habits of thought because they differ from his standard, and so he sets them down as provincial, failing hopelessly to see that mere difference proves nothing either way as to merits or defects. So a word used in the United States and not in England may be good or bad, but the mere fact that it is in use in one place and not the other has no bearing as to either its goodness or the reverse. Its virtues or its defects must be determined on grounds more relative than this.

The best proof of the propositions just advanced can be found by examining some of the words which exist here and not in Great Britain, or which are used here with a meaning differing from that of the British usage. It is well to remember at the outset that the English speech was planted in this country by English emigrants, who settled Virginia and New England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. To Virginia came many educated men, who became the planters, land-owners, and leaders of the infant State, and although they did little for nearly a century in behalf of general education, the sons of the governing class were either taught at home by English tutors or sent across the water to English colleges. In New England the average education among the first settlers was high, and they showed their love of learning by their immediate foundation of a college and of a public-school system. The Puritan leaders and their powerful clergy were, as a rule, college-bred men, with all the traditions of Oxford and Cambridge fresh in their minds and dear to their hearts. They would have been the last men to corrupt or abuse the mother-tongue, which they cherished more than ever in the new and distant land. The language which these people brought with them to Virginia and Massachusetts, moreover, was, as Mr. Lowell has remarked, the language of Shakespeare, who lived and wrote and died just at the period when these countrymen of his were taking their way to the New World. In view of these latter-day criticisms it might seem as if these emigrants should have brought some other English with them than that of Shakespeare’s England, but luckily or unluckily that was the only mode of speech they had. It followed very naturally that some of the words thus brought over the water, and then common to the English on both sides of the Atlantic, survived only in the New World, to which they were transplanted. This is not remarkable, but it is passing strange that words not only used in Shakespeare’s time, but used by Shakespeare himself, should have lived to be disdainfully called “Americanisms” by people now living in Shakespeare’s own country. It is well, therefore, to look at a few of these words occasionally, if only to refresh our memories. No single example, perhaps, is new, but when we bring several into a little group they make a picturesque illustration of the futility of undertaking to shut out a word from good society because it is used in one place where English-speaking people dwell and not in another.

What Mr. Bartlett in his dictionary of Americanisms calls justly one of “the most marked peculiarities of American speech” is the constant use of the word “well” as an interjection, especially at the beginning of sentences. Mr. Bartlett also says, “Englishmen have told me that they could always detect an American by this use of the word.” Here perhaps is a clew to the true nationality of the Danish soldiers with Italian names and idiomatic English speech who also appear in the first scene of Hamlet:

Bernardo. Have you had quiet guard?
Francisco. Not a mouse stirring.
Bernardo. Well, good-night.

This is as excellent and precise an example of the every-day American use of the word “well” as could possibly be found. The fact is that the use of “well” as an interjection is so common in Shakespeare that Mrs. Clarke omits the word used in that capacity from her concordance, and explains its omission on the ground of its constant repetition, like “come,” “look,” “marry,” and so on. Thus has it come to pass that an American betrays his nationality to an Englishman because he uses the word “well” interjectionally, as Shakespeare used it. I have seen more than once patronizing criticisms of this peculiarity of American speech, but have never suffered at the sight, because I have always been able to take to myself the consolation of Lord Byron, that it is

“Better to err with Pope than shine with Pye.”

Our English brethren, again, use the word “ill” in speaking of a person “afflicted with disease” —to take Johnson’s definition of the word “sick.” They restrict the word “sick” to “nausea,” and regard our employment of it, as applicable to any kind of disease, or to a person out of health from any cause, as an “Americanism.” And yet this “Americanism” is Elizabethan and Shakespearean. For example, in Midsummer-Night’s Dream (Act I., Scene I.), Helena says, “Sickness is catching,” which is not the chief characteristic of the ailment to which modern English usage confines the word. In Cymbeline, again (Act V., Scene IV.), we find the phrase, “one that’s sick o’ the gout.” Examples might be multiplied, for Shakespeare rarely used the word “ill,” but constantly the word “sick” in the general sense. In the Bible the use of “sick” is, I believe, unbroken. The marriage service says, “in sickness and in health,” and Johnson’s definition, as Mr. Bartlett points out, conforms to the usage of Chaucer, Milton, Dryden, and Cowper. Even the Englishman who starts with surprise at our general application of “sick” and “sickness,” and who is nothing if not logical, would not think of describing an officer of the army as absent on “ill-leave” or as placed upon the “ill-list.” The English restriction of the use of these two words is, in truth, wholly unwarranted, and should be given up in favor of the better and older American usage, which is that of all the highest standards of English literature.

The conditions of traveling have changed so much during this century, and all the methods of travel are so new, that most of the words connected with it are of necessity new also, either in form or application. In some cases the same phrases have come in both England and the United States. In others different words have been chosen by the two nations to express the same thing, and, so far as merit goes, there is little to choose between them. But there are a few words in this department which are as old as travelling itself, and which were as necessary in the days of the galley and the pack-horse as they are in those of the steamship and the railroad. One of them is the comprehensive term for the things which travellers carry with them. Englishmen commonly use the word “luggage”; we Americans use the word “baggage.” In this we agree with Touchstone, who, using, a phrase which has become part of our daily speech, says (Act III., Scene II.), “though not with bag and baggage, yet with scrip and scrippage.” Leontes also, in the Winter’s Tale (Act I., Scene II.), uses the same phrase as Touchstone. It may be argued that both allusions are drawn from military language, in which “baggage” is always used. But this will not avail, for “luggage” occurs twice at least in Shakespeare referring solely to the effects of an army. In Henry V. (Act V., Scene IV.) we find “the luggage of our camp”; and Fluellen says, in the same play (Act IV., Scene VII.), “Kill the poys and the luggage!” Shakespeare used both words indifferently in the same sense, and the “Americanism” was as familiar to him as the “Briticism.”

In this same connection it may be added that the word “trunk,” which we use where the English say “box,” is, like “baggage,” Shakespearian. It occurs in Lear (Act II., Scene II.), where Kent calls Oswald a “one-trunk-inheriting slave.” Johnson interpreted this to mean “trunk-hose,” which makes no sense. Steevens said “trunk” here meant “coffer,” and that all his property was in one “coffer” or “trunk.” This seems to have been the accepted version ever since, as it is certainly the obvious and sensible one.

Almost always the preservation or revival of a Shakespearian word is something deserving profound gratitude, but the great master of English gives some authority for one thoroughly distasteful phrase. This is the use of the word “stage” as a verb in the sense of to put upon the stage, a habit which has become of late sadly common. So the Duke, in the first scene of Measure for Measure, says,

        “I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes.”

Again, in Antony and Cleopatra (Act III., Scene XI.), “be stag’d to the show, against a sworder.” And again, later in the same play (Act V., Scene II.), Cleopatra says,

        “the quick comedians
Extemp’rally will stage us.”

It is true that these examples all refer to persons and not to “staging plays,” as the phrase runs to-day, but the use of the word, especially in the last case, seems identically the same.

Among characteristic American words none is more so than “to guess,” in the sense of “to think.” The word is old and good, but the significance that we give it is charged against us as an innovation of our own, and wholly without warrant. One sees it continually in English comic papers and in books also put into the mouths of Americans as a discreditable but unmistakable badge of nationality. Shakespeare uses the word constantly, generally in the stricter and narrower sense where it implies conjecture. Yet he also uses it in the broader American sense of thinking. For example in Measure for Measure (Act IV., Scene IV.), Angelo says, “And why meet him at the gates, and redeliver our authorities there?” To which Escalus replied, in a most emphatically American fashion, “I guess not.” There is no questioning, no conjecture here. It is simply our common American form of “I think not.” Again, in the Winter’s Tale (Act IV., Scene III.), Camillo says, “Which, I do guess, you do not purpose to him.” This is the same use of the word in the sense of to think, and other instances might be added. In view of this it seems not a little curious that a bit of Shakespeare’s English in the use of an excellent Saxon word should be selected above all others by Englishmen of the nineteenth century to brand an American, not merely with his nationality, but with the misuse of his mother-tongue. Be it said also in passing that “guess” is a far better word than “fancy,” which the British are fond of putting to a similar service.

Leaving now legitimate words, and turning to the children of the street and the market-place, we find some curious examples, not only of American slang, but of slang which is regarded as extremely fresh and modern. Mr. Brander Matthews, in his most interesting article on that subject, has already pointed out that a “deck of cards” is Shakespearian. In Henry VI. (Third Part, Act V., Scene I.) Gloucester says,

“But while he thought to steal the single ten,
The king was slyly fingered from the deck.”

Mr. Matthews has also cited a still more remarkable example of recent slang from the Sonnets, of all places in the exact colloquial sense of to-day. It occurs in the 144th Sonnet,

“Yet shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.”

“Square,” in the sense of fair or honest, and the verb “to be square,” in the sense of to be fair or honest, are thought modern, and are now so constantly used that they have wellnigh passes beyond the boundaries of slang. If they do so, it is but a return to their old place, for Shakespeare has this use of the word, and in serious passages. In Timon of Athens (Act V., Scene V.) the First Senator says,

        “All have not offended;
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges.”

In Antony and Cleopatra (Act II., Scene II.) Mecænas says, “She’s a most triumphant lady, if report be square to her.”

“In the soup,” to express defeat and disaster, is apparently very recent, and yet it is singularly like the language of Pompey in Measure for Measure (Act III., Scene II.), when he says, “Troth, sir, she hath eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub.”

Even more recent than “in the soup” is the use of the word “stuffed,” to denote contemptuously what may be most nearly described as large and ineffective pretentiousness. But in Much Ado about Nothing (Act I., Scene I.) the Messenger says, “A lord to a lord, a man to a man; stuffed with all honorable virtues.” To which Beatrice replies, “It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing, —Well, we are all mortal.” Here Beatrice uses the phrase “stuffed man” in contempt, catching up the word of the messenger.

“Flapjack,” perhaps, is hardly to be called slang, but it is certainly an American phrase for a griddle-cake. We must have brought it with us, however, from Shakespeare’s England, for there it is in Pericles (Act II., Scene I.), where the Grecian—very Grecian—fisherman says, “Come, thou shalt go home, and we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for fasting days, and moreo’er puddings and flapjacks; and thou shalt be welcome.”

I will close this little collection of Shakespeare’s Americanisms with a word that is not slang, but the use of which in this country shows the tenacity with which our people have held to the Elizabethan phrases that their ancestors brought with them. In As You Like It (Act I., Scene I.), Charles the Wrestler says, “They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” “Fleet,” as a verb in this sense of “to pass” or “to move,” may yet survive in some parts of England, but it has certainly disappeared from the literature and the ordinary speech of both England and the United States. It is still in use, however, in this exact Shakespearian sense in the daily speech of people on the island of Nantucket, in the State of Massachusetts. I have heard it there frequently, and it is owing no doubt to the isolation of the inhabitants that it still lingers, as it does, as an echo of the Elizabethan days, among American fishermen in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

In tracing a few Americanisms, as they are called, to the land whence they emigrated so many years ago, I have not gone beyond the greatest master of the language. A little wider range, with excursions into other fields, would furnish us with pedigrees almost as good, if not quite so lofty, for many other words and phrases which are set down by the British guardians of our language as “Americanisms,” generally with some adjective of an uncomplimentary character. But such further collection would be merely cumulative. These few examples from Shakespeare are quite sufficient to show that because a word is used by one branch of the English-speaking people and not by another, it does not therefore follow that the word in question is not both good and ancient. They prove also that words which some persons frown upon and condemn, merely because their own parish does not use them, may have served well the greatest men who ever wrote or spoke the language, and that they have a place and a title which the criticisms upon them can never hope to claim.

It is a little lesson which is worth taking to heart, for the English speech is too great an inheritance to be trifled with or wrangled over. It is much better for all who speak it to give their best strength to defending it and keeping it pure and vigorous, so that it may go on spreading and conquering, as in the centuries which have already closed. The true doctrine, which may well be taken home to our hearts on both sides of the water, has never been better put than in Lord Houghton’s fine lines:

“Beyond the vague Atlantic deep,
Far as the farthest prairies sweep,
Where forest glooms the nerve appall,
Where burns the radiant Western fall,
One duty lies on old and young—
With filial piety to guard,
As on its greenest native sward,
The glory of the English tongue.

“That ample speech! That subtle speech!
Apt for the need of all and each:
Strong to endure, yet prompt to bend
Wherever human feelings tend.
Preserve its force; expand its powers;
And through he maze of civic life,
In Letters, Commerce, even in Strife,
Forget not it is yours and ours.”