Monday, April 12, 2010

Mencken and the history of 'hick'

Yesterday's Word column mentioned a dispute over whether the word hick was American or British in origin, a squabble summarized in a footnote from H.L. Mencken's "The American Language" (1921 edition). Mencken reported that hick was shown to be "actually perfectly sound English [that] could be found in Steele’s comedy, 'The Funeral'" [1702].

So far, so good. But the footnote continued: "Two weeks later, a Norwegian philologist, S. N. Baral, followed with a letter showing that hick was connected with the Anglo-Saxon haeg, indicating a menial or lout, and that it had cognates in all the ancient Teutonic languages, and even in Sanskrit!"

Well, maybe not. The OED says hick is "A familiar by-form of the personal name Richard." It is indeed British in origin; the earliest cite is dated 1565, and in a pre-1700 dictionary hick is defined as "any Person of whom any Prey can be made ...; also a silly Country Fellow."

By the 1936 edition of "The American Language," the footnote had disappeared. But Mencken's chapter on British imports (available here) is well worth revisiting, if only to see how little the discussion has evolved in 90 years. Said Mencken:
We have seen how, even so early as Webster’s time, the intransigent Loyalists of what Schele de Vere calls “Boston and the Boston dependencies” imitated the latest English fashions in pronunciation, and how this imitation continues to our own day. New York is but little behind. ... The small stores in the vicinity of Fifth avenue, for some years past, have all been turning themselves into shops.

But Mencken endorsed the expansive views of Professor G. H. Gerould, quoting him at length in defense of language borrowing:
Why ... 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?
The only excuse, said Gerould, is a thin-blooded "logophobia," a fear of which he heartily disapproved:
Let him who says naturally a pail of water say so still, and him to whom a bucket is more familiar rejoice in his locution. Let my English friend call for his jug, while I demand my pitcher; for he will -- if he be not afflicted with logophobia -- enjoy what seems to him the fine archaic flavor of my word.
I'll drink to that -- from either pitcher or jug.


empty said...

I'll drink to it from a pail, or bucket.

Anonymous said...

From the Word column: "And surely sell-by date is sleeker and more precise than expiration date."

Relatively speaking, perhaps. But to any Australian, both options look silly.

The term "sell-by date" implies that the information is intended for marketters, and that it doesn't matter if a product goes bad after the consumer has bought it, so long as the marketter gets paid.

The Australian-preferred term "use-by date" rightly directs the information at its proper audience - consumers. It's not the date by which the product should be sold, but the date by which it should be consumed.

It would be silly to adapt the British option when a better option is available.

Terry said...

"Use by" dates inevitably err on the side of over-caution. "Sell-by" date places as much responsibility on the seller as is necessary: after that it's caveat emptor how long they want to keep the item.

John Cowan said...

I don't want to know someone's estimate of when I need to use something by: once I've bought it, I can see for myself if it's gone bad. I want to be as sure as possible that (provided the supply chain has maintained correct temperature and other conditions) the product is still fit to buy.