Mr. Ade believes that the citizen of the United States feels most lonesome when in London, England. It is the difference in the language that makes him feel so absolutely friendless and alone
IT may be set down as a safe proposition that every man is a bewildered maverick when he wanders out of his own little bailiwick. Did you ever see a stock broker on a stock farm, or a cow puncher at the Waldorf?
A man may be a duck in his private puddle, but when he strikes deep in strange waters he forgets how to swim.
Take some captain of industry who resides in a large city of the Middle West. At home he is unquestionably it. Everyone knows the size of his bank account, and when he rides to business in the morning the conductor holds the car for him. His fellowpasengers are delighted to get a favoring nod from him. When he sails into the new office building the lift captain gives him a cheery but deferential “good morning.” In his private office he sits at a $500 roll-top desk surrounded by push buttons, and when he gives the word someone is expected to hop. At noon he goes to his club for luncheon. The head waiter hastens to relieve him of his hat, and then leads him to the most desirable table and hovers over him even as a mother hen broods over her first chick.
This distinguished citizen, director of the First National Bank, member of the Advisory Comittee of the Y.M.C.A., president of the Saturday Night Poker Club, head of the Commercial Club and founder of the Wilson County Trotting Association, is a whale when he is seated on his private throne in the corn belt. He rides the whirlwind and commands the storm. The local paper speaks of him in bated capital letters, and he would be more or less than human if he failed to believe that he was a very large gun.
Take this same business Behemoth and set him down in Paris or Rome or Naples. With a red guide-book clutched helplessly in his left hand and his right hand free so that he can dig up the currency of the realm every thirty seconds, he sets forth to become acquainted with mediaeval architecture and the work of the old masters. The guides and cabmen bully him. Newsboys and beggars pester him with impunity. When he enters a shop the polite brigand behind the showcase charges him two prices and gives him bad money for change.
Why? Because he is in a strange man’s town, stripped of his local importance and battling with a foreign language. The man who cannot talk bank immediately becomes a weaklng.
What is the chief terror to travel? It is the lonesomeness of feeling that one cannot adapt himself to the unfamiliar background, and therefore is sure to atract more or less attention as a curio. And in what city does this feeling of lonesomeness become most overwhelming? In London.
The American must go to England in order to learn for a dead certainty that he does not speak the English language. On the Continent, if he kicks on the charges and carries a
great deal of hand luggage, and his clothes do not hit him any too well, lie may be mistaken for an Englishman. This great joy never awaits him in London.
I do not wish to talk about myself, yet I can say in truthfulness that I have been working for years to enrich the English language. Most of the time I have been years ahead of the dictionaries. I have been so far ahead of the dictionaries that sometimes I fear they will never catch up. It has been my privilege to use words that are unknown to Lindley Murray. Andrew Lang once started to read my works and then sank with a bubbling cry and did not come up for three days.
It seems that in my efforts to enrich the English language I made it too rich, and the result was mental gastritis. In one of my fables, written in pure and undeffled Chicago, reference was made to that kind of a table d’hote restaurant which serves an Italian dinner for sixty cents. This restaurant was called a“spaghetti joint.” Mr. Lang declared that the appellation was altogether preposterous, as it is a well known fact that spaghetti has no joints, being invertebrate and quite devoid of osseous tissue, the same as a caterpillar. Also he though that “cinch” was merely a misspelling of “sink,” something to do with a kitchen. Now, if an American, reeking with the sweet vernacular of his native land, cannot make himself understood by one who is familiar with all the ins and outs of our language, what chance has he with the ordinary Londoner, who acquires his vocabulary from reading the advertisements carried by sandwichmen ?
This pitiful fact comes home to every American when he arrives in London—there are two languages, the English and the American. One is correct; the other is incorrect. One is a pure and limpid stream; the other is a stagnant pool, swarming with bacilli. In front of a shop in Paris is a sign, “English spoken— American understood.” This sign is just as misleading as every other sign in Paris. If our English cannot be understood right here in England what chance have we amongst strangers ?
One of the blessed advantages of coming here to England is that every American, no matter how old he may be or how often he has assisted at the massacre of the mother tongue, may begin to get a correct idea of the genuine English speech. A few Americans—say, fifty or more—in Boston and several in New York, are said to speak English in spots. By patient endeavor they have mastered the sound of “a” as in “father,” bu they continue to call a clerk a clerk, instead of a “dark,” and they never have gained the courage to say “leftenant.” They wander out the suburbs of the English language, nibbling at the edges, as it were. Anyone living west of Pittsburg is still lost in the desert.
It is only when the pilgrim comes right here to the fountain-head of the Chaucerian language that he can drink deep and revive his parched intellect. For three days I have been camping here at the headwaters of English. Although this is my fourth visit to London and I have taken a thorough course at the music halls and conversed with some of the most prominent shop-keepers on or in the Strand, to say nothing of having chatted almost in a spirit of democratic equality with some of the most representative waiters, I still feel as if I were a little child playing by the seashore while the great ocean of British idioms lies undiscovered before me.
Yesterday, however, I had the rare and almost delirious pleasure of meeting an upper-class Englishman. He has family, social position, wealth, several capital letters trailing after his name (which is long enough without an appendix), an ancestry, a glorious past, and possibly a future. Usually an American has to wait in London eight or ten years before he meets an Englishman who is not trying to sell him dress shirts or something to put on his hair. In two short days— practically at one bound—I had
realized the full ambition of my countrymen.
Before being presented to the heavy swell I was taken into the chamber of meditation by the American who was to accompany me on this fight to glory. He prepared me for the ceremony by whispering to me that the chap we were about to meet went everywhere and saw everybody; that he was a Varsity man, and had shot big game and had a place up country, and had to hire a man by the year just to remember the napies of his clubs.
May I confess that I was immensely flattered to know that I could meet this important person? When v;c are at long range we throw bricks at the aristocracy and landed gentry, but when we come close to them we tremble violently and are much pleased if they differentiate us from the furniture of the room.
Why not tell the truth for once? I was pleased and overheated with bliss to know that this social lion was quite willing to sit alongside of me and breathe the adjacent atmosphere.
Also I was perturbed and stage frightened because I knew that I spoke nothing but the American language, and that probably I usedmy nose instead of my vocal chords in giving expression to such thoughts as might escape from me. Furthermore, I was afraid that during our conversation I might accidently lapse into slang, an^J I knew that in Great Britain slang is abhorred above every other earthly thing except goods of German manufacture. So I resolved to be on my guard and try to come as near to English speech as it is possible for anyone to come after has has walked up and down State Street for ten years.
My real and ulterior motive in welcoming this interview with a registered Englishman was to get, free of charge, an allopathic dose of twenty-four carat English. I wanted to bask in the bright light of an intellect that had no flaws in it, and absorb some of the infallibility that is so prevalent in these parts.
We met. I steadied myself and said: “Fm glad to know you—that is, I am extremely pleased to have the honor of making your acquaintance.”
He looked at me with a kindly light in his steel blue eye, and after a short period of deliberation spoke as follows : “Thanks.”
“The international developments of recent years have been such as should properly engender a feeling of the warmest brotherhood between all branches of the Anglo-Saxon race,” I said. “I don’t thjnk that any fair-minded American has it in for Great Britain—that is, it seems to me that all former resentment growing out of early conflicts between the two countries has given way to a spirit of tolerant understanding. Do you not agree with me?”
He hesitated for a moment, as if not desiring to commit himself by a hasty or impassioned reply, and then delivered himself as follows : “Quite.”
“It seems to me,” I said, following the same line of thought, “that fairminded people on both sides of the water are getting sore—that is, losing patience with the agitators who preach the old doctrine that our attitude towards Great Britain is necessarily one of enmity. We cannot forget that when the European powers attempted to concert their influence against the United States at the outset of the late war with Spain you bluffed them out—that is, you induced them to relinquish their unfriendly intentions. Every thoughful man in American is on to this fact —that is, he understands how important was the service you rendered us—and he is correspondingly grateful. The American people and the English people speak the same language theoretically. Our interests are practically identical in all parts of the world—that is, we are trying to do everybody, and so are you. What I want to convey is that neither nation can properly work out its destiny except by co-operating with the other. Therefore any policy looking towards a severance of friendly relations is unworthy of consideration.”
“Rot!” said he.
“Just at present all Americans are
profoundly grateful to the British public for its generous recognition of the sterling qualities of our beloved executive,” I continued. “Over in the States we think that ‘Teddy’ is the goods—that is, the people of all sections have unbounded faith in him. We think he is on the level—that is, that his dominant policies are guided by the spirit of integrity. As a fairminded Briton, who is keeping in touch with the affairs of the world, may I ask you your candid opinion of President Roosevelt?”
After a brief pause he spoke as follows: “Ripping!”
“The impulse of friendliness on the part of the English people seems to be more evident year by year,” I continued. “It is now possible for Americans to get into nearly all the London hotels. You show your faith in our monetary system by accepting all of the collateral we can bring over. No identification is necessary. Formerly the visiting American was asked to give references before he was separated from his income—that is, before one of your business institutions would enter into negotiations with him. Nowadays you see behind the chin whisker the beautiful trademark of consanguinity. You ^say, ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ and you accept a five-dollar bill just the same as if it were an English sovereign worth four dollars and eighty-six cents.”
“Jolly glad to get it,” said he.
“Both countries have adopted the gospel of reciprocity,” I said, warmed
by this sudden burst of enthusiasm. “We send shiploads of tourists over here. You send shiploads of English actors to New York. The tourists go home as soon as they are broke— that is, as soon as their funds are exhausted. The English actors come home as soon as they are independently rich. Everybody is satisfied with the arrangement and the international bonds are further strengthened. Of course, some of the English actors blow up—that is, fail to meet with any great measure of financial success—when they get out as far as Omaha ; but while they are mystifying the American public some of our tourists are going round London mystifying the British public. Doubtless you have seen some of these tourists.”
The distinguished person nodded his head in grave acquiescence, and then said, with some feeling: “Bounders !”
“In spite of these breaches of international faith, the situation, taken as a whole, is one promising an indefinite continuation of cordial friendship between the powers,” I said; “I am glad that such is the case ; aren’t you?”
“Awfully,” he replied.
Then we parted.
It is really worth a long sea voyage to be permitted to get the English language at first hand, to revel in its unexpected sublimities and gaze down new and awe-inspiring vistas of rhetorical splendor.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.