“Sayings, Wise and Otherwise,” (also in the “The Sayings of Dr. Bushwhacker and Other Wise Men”) by Frederic S. Cozzens; American Book Exchange, New York; 1880; pp. 81-101.
“MY friend John Common of Roscommon Bay, middle inlet, third house on the left hand side going up, where there is good anchorage for a yacht of several tons burden, propounded the above question one day, after a yawning stretch over the briny bay in a brisk breeze, followed by the usual dead calm, when in sight of home.
“Does Queen Victoria speak English?”
“Surely, John Common of Roscommon, she speaks her own Queen’s English, and that is the purest language the Court of St. James has heard since the days of Edward the Confessor.”
John Common of Roscommon lazily puffed his cigar under the canvas canopy of the summer sail, knocked off the ashes with the tip of his little finger, drew a fresh whiff of inspiration from his little brown deity, and said, in a soft voice of rebuke: —
“I know very well that her Majesty is a pure, high-minded, pious, good woman; but my inquiry related not 82 to her morals, but to her language; to her vocabulary, if you will, which is the vocabulary of the realm; the court language, the language of polite society; — in fact, that arbitrary style of speaking which is commonly known as the Queen’s English, the mother tongue of British scholars, statesmen, and of the highly educated classes of that country; and that is what I meant. I have a theory of my own upon that subject,” he continued, “and I merely asked the question of you in order that I might have an opportunity to answer it myself.”
“A theory! a theory!” cried out several voices from the cabin of the yacht, where the clinking of ice had been heard for several minutes, and out came the party. John Littlejohn, and William Williamson, and Peter Peterson, and Sandy Sanderson, and several others. They arranged themselves on the seats under the shadow of the sail, cigars were handed around; it was a dead calm on the bay, and so John Common of Roscommon began: —
“I have never yet heard an Englishman speak, who pretended to use the Queen’s vernacular, without tracing in his language a vein of cockney running in it, like a gold thread through a velvet cloth. And this quite as plain and distinct among the highly educated, as among the rest of her Majesty’s subjects.
“I maintain that custom does not sanction the misuse of the eighth letter, or as Rare Ben Johnson quotes it, ‘the queen mother of consonants,’ although it may excuse it. Certainly, when we consider the matter fairly, we 83 must conclude that there is as much impropriety in substituting for the beautiful Greek female name ‘Helen’ the modern English name of ‘Ellen,’ as there would be in called ‘Emma’ ‘Hemma,’ which the Court of St. James will very speedily do, unless a stop is put to further innovation.
“In citing the name of ‘Helen,’ for so unquestionably the Hellenes pronounce it, I had a further object in view, and that was to follow up the stream of cockneyism to its classical fountain. The Greeks were probably the original cockneys — at least we can trace the spiritus asper and the spiritus lenis to them. There might have been still earlier cockneys, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that in the confusion of tongues at the destruction of the Tower of Babel, that the family of H’s might have first adopted the unsettled and wandering mode of life which they have led elsewhere, and are now leading in the English language; but so far as that is concerned, it is mere conjecture, and, therefore, very likely to mislead us in our course of inquiry after truth.”
Then he continued: —
“It is quite easy to follow the current down after striking the parent spring. In the time of Romulus and Remus no doubt the original Latin was a pure sonorous language, a little barbarous, to be sure, but stuck as full of H’s as the cloves in old-fashioned boiled ham (and a rich dish that would be now, with the present tax on spices); but as the Romans waxed opulent, gave up wars and patriotism, and 84 began to cultivate arts and lassitude, the introduction of schools prepared the way for the Greek accent; it became the rage to imitate the style of Athens, as well in its oratory as in its sculpture and in its architecture; and when Cicero spoke in the affected and voluptuous diction of Alcibiades, and Cæsar fell at the foot of a marble image, then the decadence of Empire began.
“The languages, of which the Latin was the primitive stem, such as the Italian, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French, easily adopted the accent of Rome when Rome was in its decay. These modern languages cast off their H’s, and to this day the French Academy, the Spanish Academy, the Universities of Padua and of Parma have never been able to recall them. In the language of a Spanish lexicographer, ‘H is not properly considered as a letter, but as a mere aspiration.’ The Spanish Academy has also banished the hard sound of the h in chimico, chimera, chamelote, etc., by writing instead quimico, quimera, camelote. So that the eighth letter is torn up root and branch, in the Kingdom of Isabella the Catholic, and the consequence is that they have a revolution in Spain every six years. In a short time Cuba will be on a detached service. It is significant that the natives of the Siempre Fiel pronounce ‘Habana’ with enough ejaculation of breath upon the first letter to blow a Spanish fleet from its anchorage.
“But to return to the Queen’s English. Before the Norman Conquest England had a language of its own — 85 not Saxon altogether, but English! that great, pithy, thoughtful, bold, full-fraughted, mother tongue, which even now constitutes the substance and strength of the highest powers of intellectual expression; not to be excelled in any language. I might almost say not to be matched by any foreign idiom.
“I am speaking now of the pure English, that is spoken only by educated people in New York city and its immediate vicinity.
“No person who wishes to obtain a lofty style can safely depart from the good old English idiom. It is to glowing eloquence and sparkling rhetoric, what a blacksmith’s bellows is to a forge.
“This language notwithstanding it was so splendidly celebrated by old Thomas Churchyard (Tempus Henry VII), had unfortunately been corrupted long before his time by the Normans. William Conqueror introduced a court cockney dialect, which had descended from the Greek cockneys to the Roman cockneys, from the Roman cockneys to every branch of the Latin family, and from the derivatory Norman French it spread through to Whitechapel and Threadneedle streets, through Windsor and Buckingham Palaces, and from thence to the hearts and homes of an imitative people. Thus it was that the family of H’s were banished from their own indigenous soil.
“That is the history of it, or chronicle, or what you will. All that I wish to say is, that we can trace the Greek taint down to the present time.86
“Now, then, for examples. There is old Geoffrey Chaucer (commonly known among the wooden spoons of Boston as Daniel Chaucer), he is full of defiled English. In the Nonnes’ Priest’s Tale, we have ‘habundant‘ for abundant;* and for hexameter he uses this outrageous substitute: —
For Dante’s ‘Ugolino’ he substitutes, ‘Hugelin.’‡ He even clips the French itself by striking an h off a French clock, and naming Horloge, ‘orloge,’§ and so through all his works. Can subserviency to the ruling powers farther go?
“But every innovation has its reaction. The common people of England, in those early days, seeing that their beloved H’s were being knocked off the household words, like the noses from the Elgin marbles, revenged themselves by clapping an H in front of every naked and exposed vowel. The consequence is that we have such words as ‘hedge’ for edge, ‘hall’ for all, ‘hogshead’ for oxhead, and the like. It would be too much of a task to cite all the corruptions of a similar nature in the language. The mere mention of these will suggest swarms of others, familiar to every reader of ordinary books, to say nothing of philologists.87
“Take the word ‘hedge’ for example. Originally it meant something. It meant an edge, a boundary of shrubs, indicating the limit of the field or of the estate. We have it yet in ‘box edgings,’ which are partitions of garden beds, and meaning the same thing precisely. Shakspeare says, ‘Upon the edge of yonder coppice,’ etc. (Loves Labor Lost, IV, I). Now it has lost its significance in becoming a h’edge.
“So with the word ‘hear.’ We speak of hearing an argument. That would be considered as proper Queen’s English, would it not? But suppose any one should say that he had been ‘h’eying’ a street fight? Would that not be a painful sound to ears polite? And yet both words are derived from their original substantives, the ear and the eye, and the verb to ‘hear’ is as plain a cockneyism as the verb to ‘heye,’ when we come to think of it. You say an ‘ear-witness’ as well as an ‘eye-witness,’ do you not? If anybody should say an ‘hear-witness,’ what would you think of that? And yet it is no greater an impropriety than ‘hear’ is in the mouths of polite people. No one can for a moment doubt that according to the mechanism of the language, ‘to ear’ a person is quite as proper a form of expression as ‘to eye a person,’ and that the H in ‘hear’ is an insupportable cockneyism. So with the superfluous ‘H’ in ‘hall.’ In old mansions in England, the main apartments, the great audience chamber, the dining-room, the vast conservatory where the noble guests sat above the salt, where the pilgrim 88 warmed his rain-drenched, threadbare garments by the fire; where the minstrel tuned his wretched harp, and every condition of life was represented, in this vast vaulted chamber, the ‘aula,’ the atrium, the all in all of the manorial and baronial residence, what right had an H to strike out the significance of the original word? There is no doubt in this case at all. For the ‘Manor All,’ the ‘Town All,’ and so on in all the grand old English words, must be replaced. If you have a little, narrow strait between your parlor and your side wall, call it an entry, if you will, but do not call it a h’all.
“So with the bird of wisdom the owl. Everybody has heard her note who has lived in the country. It is ‘how, how, how, how, howl!’ From this we get the name of this fowl of Minerva. The bird of night, in the newborn nakedness of early English, was undoubtedly the ‘Howl.’ We find it still in its diminutives, such as ‘Howlet.’
In the Scotch vocabularies Houlet is the word, not owl. And, by the way, none of these French cockneyisms appear in either the Scottish or Irish dialects. I believe their idiomatic languages to be purer than the modern English. Shakspeare does not have any allusion of cockneyism in his time, except when he shows his knowledge of the Greek language in his Athenian play, by putting into the mouth of Bottom the Weaver, ’Ercles for Hercules.¶89
“But it is needless to multiply examples. Some vacancy should be left in the mind of the listener, which he can fill up himself at leisure. Let me say here, however, that, save Chaucer, there are few writers of our earlier English who so Frenchify the mother tongue as he does. In Piers Ploughman¥ we have hem for them, and hire for their. In Robert of Gloster** we find ‘hit’ used for ‘it,’ as it is in the Lord’s Prayer of Richard the Hermit, and so it is used to this day by some of the English, even in writing. But generally this language of these old authors was pure, as indeed it was from the time of Chaucer to the Restoration. After King Charles II came in, we had the French affectation introduced, as lively as it was in the days of William the Conqueror.
“Now a few words more: there is the word ‘hatchet,’ the diminutive of axe, the original of which is eax, Saxon, (or ascia, Latin). It should of course be atchet. So we have hatchment, a corruption of the heraldric word ‘achievement,’ meaning an armorial escutcheon; then there is the word ability, which, in the dictionaries of a century old, is spelled properly, ‘hability,’ or able — ‘hable,’ from the French; arquebus, we say, instead of harquebus, and artichoke instead of hartichoke, and the like.
“Then, again, consider the number of words from which the H is omitted in pronunciation: ’onorable, ’umble, 90 ’umor, ’eir, ’ome, sweet ’ome, ’ow, ’onest, and the like. Then, again, such words as ’ostler for hostler (from host or hostel), ’arbor for harbor (a shelter), Oboe for haut bois, and so on, where the abuse is sanctioned by the dictionary makers.
“You will commonly find, too, that well-educated Englishmen (and women) say, ’oo, for who, ’andiron for hand’iron, ’ow for how, and ’anging for hanging. They deny it, of course, and will, if they think they are watched, pronounce these words properly, but they are sure to relapse as soon as they are left to themselves. If you were to ask Lord John Russell, who is esteemed to be as deep in erudition as he is in diplomacy, how to spell the letter H, he would no doubt, spell it a-i-t-c-h, when in truth, it should be h-a-i-t-c-h, with a strong aspiration of the first letter.”
* Tyrwhitt Ed. page 129.
† Ibid, 127.
‡ Ibid, 121.
§ Ibid, 128.
¶ Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene Second.
¥ “1362,” or Circa.
** Tempus Richard II, 1174. 1208.
“T O continue,” said John Common of Roscommon. “To leave this class of impediments of speech behind, and go further, we find many defects in modern English, derived from the same parentage. For example — there is no W in the French alphabet. If you were to ask a Frenchman to pronounce the name of the first President of the United States, he would say “Vashington,” or he might, by a strong mental effort, get as near to it as Guashington. Just as if you were to ask him the name of the second President, he would be obliged to reply, “Hadams,” and so forth. Now there is not one single word in the English language beginning with the letter V that is not derived from the French, the Spanish, the Italian, or some of the cognate branches of the Latin family of words. There is no V in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, none in the Mœso-Gothic, from which two tongues we derive our mother tongue, none in the earlier editions of English authors; take, for example, Grafton’s or Holingshed’s Chronicles, or any other work of that 92 period. Hence it is that we find such expressions in the modern British classics as: “Now, Shiny Villiam, give the gen’lem’n the ribbons,”* “vell vot of it,”† or “vot‘s the use of giving vay so long as you’re ’appy;” of which forms of expression numbers could be produced if one could give his mind, his time, and his attention to it. I do not mean to say that the substitution of the V for the W is common to the upper classes of Great Britain. Far from it; but I do mean to say that this innovation is creeping up, and will, by and by, beget a class of words foreign to the genius of the English tongue, just as the dropping of the H has produced such words as ostler and arbor.
In confirmation of this, let me state that a distinguished traveler and philosopher, Mr. George Gibbs, of Long Island, after a residence of a quarter of a century on the Northwest coast of this continent, has written a dictionary of the Chinook jargon, or Trade Language of Oregon, prepared for the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D. C.,‡ in which he shows conclusively that the Chinook, the Nootkan, the Yakama, the Cathlasco (which is a corrupted form of the Watlala or Upper Chinook), the Toquat (which he spells Tokwaht), and the Nittinak languages have been corrupted by the mis-pronunciation of the English of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The consequence is, that there is scarcely an H in its proper place 93 in any of the dialects of the Northwestern tribes of the Pacific, and W’s are substituted for V’s to such an extent, that in his dictionary not one word beginning with the latter consonant can be discovered. It is, however, a consolation to know that these are the most prominent innovations in those rich and beautiful occidental tongues. After complaining that the Spanish and French voyageurs have left traces of their languages in the earlier Chinook he says:
“It might have been expected, from the number of Sandwich Islanders introduced by the Hudson’s Bay Company, that the Kanaka element would have found its way into the language, but their utterance is so foreign to an Indian ear, that not a word has been adopted.”§
If this be so, we can imagine what a highly respectable tone prevails in the Kanaka society of Queen Emma.
But to return. The substitution of the French “V“ for the English “W” led to the retaliatory process, by which every free born Englishman makes all things hequal. Just in proportion to the cockneyism of the upper classes in the middle ages arose the defiant attitude of the cockneyism of the lower classes. The doubleyous began to crowd into the lower ten million vocabulary. “Weal pie” took the place of the other word: —
There was a stout battle between the starveling French V and the broad bottomed English W, and to this day it has continued. There is not a member of any English legation in any part of the world, at this present time, who dares to spell “Vaterloo” with a V. And this is in obedience to the dictates of the lower, and, I might almost say, the illiterate classes; for after all, a mob has a great deal to do with fixing the expression as well as the meaning of words.
Since I am so far committed to this subject, I must continue a little longer; but let me say here, that if I tax the old nation from which we are derived, with speaking a very impure language, let me at least have the credit of doing so in a friendly spirit. Let us with one hand soothe the American Lexicographical Eagle, while with the other we smooth the bristling mane of the British Polyglot.
In further confirmation of what I have already advanced, permit me to recall to every mind another phrase of the language of the realm, in order to prove that the queen speaks broken French. I do not mean to say that she does so intentionally, for surely no one can have a higher regard for that good lady than I have. In fact, we are both of an age; both born on the same day of the same month in the same year, perhaps in the same hour, if degrees of longitude could be computed with accuracy (of different parentage, I admit). What I mean to say is, that she speaks imperfect English, both of herself and 95 through her ministers, through her parliaments, through her lords and her lord mayors, through her ladies and her laundresses, through her British museum, and her Billingsgate market. After all this explanation, which might lead to a digression, let me return to the point that I intended to make when I said that the queen speaks broken French.
Nothing is more striking to an American when he first visits London than the constant misuse of the French “A” pronounced aw by the high school of cockneys. The lower classes of her majesty’s subjects use the plain old fashioned English “A” as an expletive, as well as an offset to the other (a fashion, by the way, derived from the Greeks, for their language is full of expletives), in this manner — I was “a-going”, or, I was “a-thinking,” or, I was “a-’oping,” or, I was “a-hironing,” and so on through the whole family of verbs. Now this misuse of the vowel is so common to the common people, that to hear it from the lips of any person is sufficient to suggest that his education has been quite imperfect. This being so, is it quite fair that we should acquit Lord Brobdignag of a similar charge, when we hear him read from a master of style, thus: “They say-aw that it was aw-Liston’s firm belief, that he-aw was aw-great and neglected tragic ac-taw. They say-aw that ev-aw-re one of us believes, in his heart, or would like-aw to have others believe, that he-aw is something which he is aw-not!”
It is very true, as Dr. Samuel Johnson says in his little 96 article on Orpiment, that “talk is elastic.” But even talk he mis-spells (for he means “talc,” a mineral), nevertheless we will accept the mistake as being truer than his definition in every way. Talk is elastic! but what shall be said of the petrifiers of the living words of our language? What shall we say, for example, of the abuses of Webster’s Dictionary? When an elastic language becomes a concretion of fossils — when its life has gone out, and lexicographers have left nothing of it but its organic remains — what should be done with them? To compel them to speak plain English would be impossible, for that they do not comprehend. What should be done with them? Surely the Cadmus teeth they sow should rise up and reap them.
I suppose, in time, that the good old English word “Beef-eater,” as applied to those broad-backed warders of the Tower of London, will degenerate into “Buffetier” (French), as now a revolution is being effected in a similar word — and “cur,” which some writers claim as a Hindoo word, Ischur.”¥ Blackstone (a famous law writer of the last century), has endeavored to elevate the tone of the British bar by changing the honest old name of “bum-bailey” in this wise: He says “that the special bailiffs are usually bound in a bond for the due execution of their office, and thence are called “bound-bailiffs,” 97 which the common people have corrupted into a much more homely appellation, burn-bailey!”**
I cannot here avoid expressing my regret that a very creditable weekly paper in the British bookseller’s interest in London should have its classical name corrupted into “a much more homely appellation.” I mention this the more cheerfully from the fact that it has always abused American authors, and, therefore, when I say that I regret it, you will understand that it is an act of generosity on my part. I allude to the Athenæum, which has never recovered from the punishment that Bulwer inflicted upon it when he called it the “Ass-i-neum,” a name by which it has been known to cultivated people in all parts of the world, from the days of Paul Clifford down to this time.
But these corruptions of the language we must frown down. Let us take a bold stand against other cockneyisms creeping into public use, such as “cab,” for cabriolet, “pants” for pantaloons, “canter” from the Canterbury pilgrimages at the good old-fashioned ambling pace, and the like; for, if we do not, the age of progress will make the word “gentleman” a dead language, and only its cockney substitute, the “gent,” will be known in dictionaries and newspapers.
A few more words and I shall wind up my squid.
There is a slang phrase of Parisian-French, which I 98 cannot recall at this moment, that expresses a peculiar way of shortening words, and running one into another, in use among the fashionable people of the continental metropolis, so that it is very difficult for a novice to understand their aristocratic argot.
This shrinkage, this corrugation, this wrinkling up of words, so that a good long sentence which should be sonorous and expressive, becomes as shriveled as a washer-woman’s thumb, is beautifully implanted in the modern English. Go to the House of Lords and hear the debate between Lord Brobdignag and the Marquis of Lilliput! Only by the skill of the practiced reporter can that tongued and grooved dialect be interpreted. I shall not give you a sentence by way of example, but only a few specimen bricks of this modern Babel.
It is well known that in the glorious old English tongue every word carries a meaning with it, a little history in its womb, such as those beautiful phrases “belly-timber,” as applied to food, and “bread-basket,” as applied to its receptacle. So the lord of thousands of broad acres in Merrie England —
was called the Earl of “Beau-champs,” from the Norman French, as in Scotland the name of Campbell is derived from an Italian origin meaning the same thing as Beau-champs, “Campo-bello.” Just as the constellation in the Southern hemisphere called “Charles’ Oak,” recalls the 99 history of that royal and ragged refugee, in Boscobell, so a vast number of words in English once represented ideas. They were words with poetry and history locked up within them, like files, in perpetual amber. The river “Alne” in Cumberland, the stream celebrated in many a border foray, has upon its banks the ancient town of Alnecester, and the “home of the Percy’s high-born race,” Alnwick Castle. Should you inquire for either place, there is not a man in England who would understand you. But just ask for Anster and Annick, and there is not a red-coated boot-brushing boy in the neighbourhood of Temple Bar that cannot tell you where to find the train that will carry you to the residence of the Lord’s of Northumberland. I remember once that I hired a post and pair to go down to Stratford-upon-Avon. A jaunty postilion in spotless, white dimity knee breeches, white top boots, silver-rimmed hatband, and a whole carillon of bell buttons on his jacket, touched his hat as I stepped into the “shay.” “Drive me round,” said I, “by the way of Charlecote Hall!” for I wished to see the place where Shakspeare was tried for deer-stealing. That was a puzzler. The friendly landlord of the “Warwick Arms,” the aged pensioner of the Bear and Ragged Staff; the obsequious waiter; the radical tailor, who made red riding coats for fox-hunting squires and d——d them in the bitterness of his sartorial soul; the small boy that always followed a stranger as the mite-fly follows a cheese; the parochial beadle with his bell; the blue eyes of the chambermaid, from an upper story 100 of the Warwick Arms; all, in dire suspense, in that dewy morning, waited to hear the reply of the post-boy. There was no reply. Presently an underhostler, who had been hovering around the horses like a spiritual gad-fly, whose wings were horse-brush and curry-comb, spoke out in a foggy voce: “P’raps the gemman means Chawcut?” Shade of Shakspeare! And chawcut it was, as everybody understood it there. So it is that in this puckered-up English, — Warwick, itself a splendidly significant name, becomes Waric. The Beauchamp Chapel is Beecham. Charlesbury has lost its ancient significance in Chawbree. Cholmondely is Chumlee. Berwick of old renown, “royal Berwick’s beach of sand,” is now Berric; Candlewick Street in London, is Cannick; Gloucester is Gloster, Smithfield is Smiffld, and Worcester — Wooster! So, too, that word dear to every domestic tie, “housewife,” is “hussif,” subtle is “suttle,” and High Holburn, I-oburn.
Can anybody doubt that the corruption of these good old expressive English words into bastard French is not undermining the Queen’s English?
And the mis-spelling of these and many other words will soon follow the mis-pronunciation, as, indeed, some do now — witness “Gloster!” I once hired an English hackman to take me from a once-celebrated hotel in New York to a once-celebrated Hudson river steamboat. It chanced that when he reached the wharf the boat was casting off, and the driver called out to me, “You ’ad better ’hurry up, sir, or she’ll be h’off, and you can pay me 101 the fare when you get ’ome agin.” So when I did get back again, and asked for my little account, he referred to his pocket remembrancer — “Mr. C., June 14th, 1842. m. o. to e. u..” “What does that mean?” “’Merican ’Otel to ’Endrick ’Udson, sir!”
“And what,” said little Tweedle, “are we to do. If we go to England, are we to fly in the face of every man there? are we to insist upon our own pronunciation, and endeavor to find out famous localities by naming them in the language used in the Saxon Heptarchy?”
“Certainly,” said John Common of Roscommon, “I would advise you to agitate this subject; to call things by their right names in that benighted kingdom; to inquire for places that nobody can tell you anything about, so that you can teach the ignorant natives what should be the names of their choicest, their dearest, their most cherished localities. You can do this thing, for you have a genius for disturbing the old herring-bone foundations of ancient edifices. And I will give you all the glory of being the pioneer, if you choose to take this matter of reform of the tongue upon your own shoulders. I may adopt it also. But I shall not trumpet forth my claims upon the world until I find that you have succeeded. I think I feel a fresh breeze creeping up. Haul away on the jib halyards! Let us see if we can’t work up the creek. The champagne has been in the cooler over there for five hours now and the meats only go to the brander upon signal. So haul up the dinner signal! Ah, here comes the breeze! Up sails, and now to dinner.”
* Pickwick Club, Ed. 1836, Vol. I, p. 95.
† The Golden Farmer, a play, in three acts; author unknown, 1835.
‡ Ed. 1863, 8vo. p. 44.
§ Gibbs’ Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, Ed. 1863, p. viii, (Preface).
¶ Thackeray’s Ballads, Ed. 1856, p. 121.
¥ Dictionary of Cant and Slang. London. Ed. 1860, p. 11.
** Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. 4to. Oxford, 1766. Book I., Chap. IX., p. 346.