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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/518

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

world great fortunes are sometimes very suddenly made and names before obscure spring into world-wide notoriety, so, in the realm of language, a word of very uncertain ancestry and no social repute may assert its right to recognition and take its place among the best.

It does not follow from this that it can ever be a matter of indifference what words we use or what tricks we play with language, any more than it can be a matter of indifference what personal habits we adopt. Language is the clothing of our thoughts, and as such it may exhibit the same qualities which attach to the clothing of our bodies. It may be marked by neatness and propriety, or by slovenliness and want of taste. Some men are overdressed, and some affect over-fine language. Some go after the latest novelties in the tailoring world, and some after the latest slang, asserting thereby their resolution to be up to date. It is needless to draw the parallel further, but it is evident that there is wide scope in the choice of language for the exhibition of personal preference and personal character. We think it safe to say that the interests of a language, considered as an instrument of thought, will be best promoted by those who pay due respect to its established forms, and only countenance such neologisms as make good their claim to acceptance by supplying a real want. Mr. Archer, in the article we have referred to, states, and we do not doubt with truth, that the English language has been greatly enriched and strengthened by the fact that it has been spoken and written by millions of people on this side of the Atlantic, leading an intense and vigorous life of their own, under conditions very different in many respects from those prevailing in the mother country. The language moves with a freer step, beats with a stronger pulse, and assumes a more imperial bearing from the fact that it expresses the activity and sums up the life of the foremost communities of the human race in both hemispheres.

A great classical scholar not long ago wrote a letter to an English weekly newspaper expressing a very contemptuous estimate of the French language, as being only a degraded form of Latin. He thought it a great disgrace to the language that it had no better word for "much" than beaucoup, which, as he learnedly explained, came from two Latin words meaning "fine" and "blow." The most cursory examination of any language will show that it abounds in just such verbal devices. We do not in English put the words "great" and "stroke" together, but, using them separately, we say "a great stroke" of luck and of many other things when there is no question of "striking" at all. In the same way we would say "a great hit," when there is no question of hitting, except by remote analogy. Languages grow rich and flexible precisely by the adoption of such convenient combinations. What they may originally have meant becomes a matter of little moment when once they have become thoroughly accepted and thoroughly expressive. After they have become welded together, as sometimes happens, in one word, it is an advantage rather than otherwise if the separate meanings of their constituent parts become lost to all except the professional etymologist. As long as the separate parts retain their separate meaning some sense of incongruity will sometimes arise in connection with the use of the term. Thus to say "a handful of corn" is all right, but one might feel that it was not all right to say "a mere handful of men." Yet it would be futile to criticise the expression which has become idiomatic Eng-