Mencken

The American Language

by H.L. Mencken. Abridged Edition, edited by Raven J. McDavid Jr.
Knopf, 777 pp., $12.95

The American Language as I knew it in my callow days was the third edition, 1923, revised and enlarged. It ran to 500 pages, counting pp. i-x. There have since been a fourth edition, further revised and enlarged, and two supplementary volumes and some magazine pieces. What is now before us is an abridgment of all that, and an abridgment not uncalled for. For all its abridgment, the volume exceeds the 1923 enlarged edition by a factor of 2 1/3. (To verify, add xxv and 777 and, all over again, cxxiv in back, and then compare print and format.)

Along with his abridging, the editor has made corrections and, in brackets, judicious supplementations. Between author and editor the 1923 mistakes have dwindled.

Thus in 1923 (p. 164) Mencken reported R. G. White (fl. 1868-81) as deploring the American presidential and favoring presidental, “following the example of incidental, regimental, monumental, governmental, oriental, experimental, and so on.” Mencken failed to observe that four of these six are irrelevant, being built not on Latin participles in -ens but on -mentum. Also he failed to observe that presidential, paralleling referential, is impeccable as an adjective for presidency. Now the new abridged volume still mentions that there had been disapproval of presidential; it mentions it six times (as against twice in 1923, which helps explain why this is 2 1/3 times as long as the 1923 edition). But happily it skips the reasoning.

This may seem to you like sweeping the dirt under the rug. Similarly for the next case. Take p. 182 of 1923 on bust: “This…has come into a dignity that even grammarians will soon hesitate to question. Who in America, would dare to speak of bursting a broncho or of a trustburster?” Appreciation that bust means break would have prevented this remark. Now in the new abridged volume I still find no equating of bust to break. But the remark is gone.

I see it rather as editorial restraint, reluctance to meddle beyond necessity. My view is encouraged by some passages containing the technical term back-tormation. In 1923, p. 190, Mencken misapplied the term of prof, co ea, dorm, and the like. In this new abridged edition, the mistake persists (p 203) and even recurs (p. 213). Yet the editor knows better. In the course of one of his bracketed inserts (p 205) he uses the term himself and uses it right.

Many errors are gone. In the 1923 edition dead was called preterite (p. 285), you in How do you do? was called objective (p. 305), Rainier was called the greatest American peak south of Alaska (p. 357), the verb house-clean was listed among nouns used as verbs (p. 198), the open o sound in standard sauce was misidentified (p. 323), the British prounuciation et for ate was taken for distinctive American (pp. 275, 280, 284), and rench was said to be the invariable American for rinse (p. 281). These errors, hence no doubt also many others, have …

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