Rebellion Against Latin and Greek

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia:

“I have claimed all monosyllables with Anglo-Saxon coloring as our own, and so we have to look to the polysyllabic constituents of our speech for the Latin and Greek contributions to our thesaurus, and as the language does not belong to the scholar, but to the people, it would be a curious question how far the people feel these foreign elements of our composite speech. The man, for instance, who knows no Latin falls instinctively into the Latin strain of English when he essays the grand style. Johnsonese, as it is called, is by no means an extinct lingo, and the example of one of the most robust statesmen our times have known has left on record astounding proof of the fact that the pomp of our English Latin is not inconsistent with vigor. We choose the tallest man for a drum major, and the strongest man is chosen to flaunt the banner in the procession. From one of Mr. Cleveland’s latest compositions I cull the following delightful phrases — actuarial mystery, managerial calculation, senseless resentment, predatory acquisitiveness, demagogic appeal. We may smile, but there is a man behind these words, and those who want honest Anglo-Saxon would be puzzled to find an Anglo-Saxon substitute for ‘innocuous desuetude.’ I am deviating into Latin, it is true, but the Greek words that are imbedded in our language come largely through the Latin, and in technical language, in which Greek makes itself chiefly felt, Latin and Greek have a common cause, and alike roused rebellion on the part of Anglo-Saxon purists, who some decennia ago talked of the ‘unthoroughfaresomeness of stuff,’ instead of ‘impermeability of matter,’ and when ‘stuff’ turned out to be French, substituted for stuff ‘anwork,’ or ‘antimber.’ These are they who would revive ‘Againbite of Inwit’ for ‘remorse of conscience.’ In a book published thirty years ago. The Past, Present and Future of England’s Language, Mr. William Marshall proposed ‘farwrit’ for ‘telegram,’ ‘ligwrit’ for ‘photograph,’ ‘outstandingness’ for ‘person,’ and a lot of ‘wan’s’ besides the obsolete ‘wanhope,’ which is pretty enough. In Germany the rebellion against Greek and Latin and other foreign vocables has led to some absurd results. The German purists of my boyhood were often forced to write the “foreign” word in brackets after the “native” word to explain what the native word meant; and the war against French has been renewed of late years to the confusion of those who learned German half a century ago. The technical Greek terms that have been incorporated into German have to be used in order to explain the new-fangled German terms, and though in modern English the linguistic conscience is often offended by the dreadful compounds that are manufactured after German patterns, when it comes to technical terms, we surrender to the Greek, and one of the side-functions of the Greek professor is to lick into shape the cubs of scientific vocabulary. The old cockney joke of the manufacturer of blacking, ‘We keeps a poet,’ has its modern parallel in ‘We keeps a Grecian.'”

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2 responses

    • I figured that you would! You may also remember this old one,
      “The Germans in Greek
      are sadly to seek –
      all but for Herman,
      and Herman’s a German!”

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