Language, like a wild child, refuses to stand still. Change is its nature, its lifeblood, its motor force. Change is especially the rule in American English. In The American Language, H.L. Mencken assigns this to the American’s “impatient disregard of rule and precedent” and “his bold and somewhat grotesque imagination, his contempt for dignified authority, his lack of aesthetic sensitiveness, his extravagant humor.” Negative though all these qualities sound, in combination they have made for what may well be the world’s liveliest language. Mencken viewed American English, with all its inventions, its colorfulness, yes, even its vulgarity, as the music accompanying the great American circus.

In his introduction to The People’s Tongue, his impressively rich anthology about the formation of American English, Ilan Stavans notes that “this anthology shows the extent to which the nation’s tongue is restless.” Stavans includes a ten-page excerpt from Mencken’s The American Language along with lengthy essays by Dwight Macdonald on the publication of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (1961), Susan Sontag on translation, and David Foster Wallace on the wars over language usage in America. Seventy other items—poems, bits from stand-up comedy routines and television shows, the Gettysburg Address,

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