H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
chauvinistic delicacy. It is evident that any American language which might be evolved by the sedulous fostering on our part of native idioms would still retain a good deal of the original English language. Why, then, should we shut ourselves off from the good things in words that have been invented or popularized in Great Britain since the Pilgrims sailed? And why, on the other hand, should the Englishman disdain the ingenious locutions that have come to light on this side the Atlantic?
A correspondent makes the suggestion that such exchanges, if they were more numerous, would greatly enrich each languages stock of fine distinctions. A loan-word, he says, does not usually completely displace the corresponding native word, but simply puts a new distinction beside it. Unquestionably, this often happens. Consider, for example, the case of shop. As it is now used in the American cities it affords a convenient means of distinguishing between a large store offering various lines of merchandise and a small establishment specializing in one line. The old-fashioned country store remains a store and so does the department-store. To call either a shop would seem absurd. Shop is applied exclusively to smaller establishments, and almost always in combination with some word designating the sort of stock they carry. Shop, indeed, has always been good American, though its current application is borrowed from England. We have used shop-worn, shoplifter, shopping, pawn-shop, shopper, shop-girl and to shop for years. In the same way the word penny continues to flourish among us, despite the fact that there has been no American coin of that name for more than 125 years. We have nickel-in-the-slot machines, but when they take a cent we call them penny-in-the-slot machines. We have penny-arcades and penny-whistles. We do not play cent-ante, but penny-ante. We still turn an honest penny and say a penny for your thoughts. The pound and the shilling became extinct legally a century ago,25 but the penny still binds us to the mother-tongue. But an American knows nothing of pence. To him two pennies are always pennies.
Exchanges in spelling, some of them very important, are discussed in Chapter VIII.
Note 25. A correspondent assures me, however, that the York shilling, worth 12½ cents, survived in New York City until 1865. [back]