Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

Americanisms new and old

I'm turning, again, to H.L. Mencken's The American Language; it's so dense and packed with information that I find it hard to progress more than a few pages without starting to track down some of the source material to learn more (today's diversion: an 1841 edition of the Congressional Globe on Google Books, which offers "A glance at some of the characteristic coinages of the time").

My copy, a fourth edition reprinted in 1937 that I found at Argosy Books, was perhaps the best-spent $11 I've doled out in the past year. It's a great reminder that so-called corruptions of English, American or otherwise, have been fretted over for decades; for example, Mencken notes:

A great rage for extending the vocabulary by the use of suffixes seized upon the corn-fed etymologists, and they produced a formidable new vocabulary, in -ize, -ate, -ify, -acy, -ous and -ment. Such inventions as to concertize, to questionize, retiracy, savagerous, coatee (a sort of diminutive for coat) and citified appeared in the popular vocabulary and even got into more or less respectable usage.

Suddenly, systematize doesn't seem quite so egregious. But don't worry -- the BBC is still cataloging our linguistic sins; here's 50 irksome turns of phrase that grate across the pond. Maybe they can just make a list of things we are allowed to say?