The Weekly Machen

As both a literary stylist and a man who understood the argot of the hurried journalist, Arthur Machen was ideally suited to comment on this controversy. One detects Machen’s friendly jabs at Evening News colleagues while entering on the opposing side of the debate with his acquaintance George Moore. Moore (1852-1933) is considered by some to be the first great Irish novelist of the “naturalist” school. With respect, Machen mentions war correspondent George Warrington Steevens (1869-1900) who died of typhoid while covering the Second Boer War. “Hoolan” and “Doolan” are more obscure, and perhaps are used merely to generalize writers of unwarranted verbosity.

It may be worth mentioning that affliction to a native language occurs both ways. No doubt there were many francophone grimaces to hearing British troops referring to the Belgian city of Ypres as “Wipers.”

And finally, we may take solace in that neither Machen nor Moore had to endure our fell days in which the English tongue is routinely abused in text messages, on social media and by current “novelists” who write books as if vomiting an extended Twitter feed.

The English Language:
Is It Being Vulgarised by the War?
Arthur Machen
August 17, 1916

George_Moore_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19028Is Mr. George Moore right in his gloomy prophecy as to the future of the English language? Interviewed in the Fortnightly, he declares that if English is to have any future—“which I doubt”—it will be in America. “You are still inventing a language while we have stopped; we take what additions foreigners and our savage subjects supply us, but that is all.”

Now by the English language Mr. Moore means, of course, English as a medium of literature. He does not doubt as to the survival of the tongue as a tongue; he thinks that it has been, and is being, so horribly and hopelessly vulgarised that it will cease to be possible as “material” for the artist. It is, he would say, as if the sculptor saw with horror a strange corruption working in his stock of marble; the pure and shining whiteness which awaited his mastery becoming stained and blotched and hideous; patches and pools of bilious green, of dingy yellow, of dismal grey swelling and spreading, nodules and incrustations the smoothness of the surface. From such a marble no image of beauty could be chiselled; and so, Mr. Moore would say, English is being corrupted into pidgin-English—that is, into a medium which no artist will be able to use.

I do not believe that this horrid fate will come upon our English tongue. I agree with Mr. Moore in thinking that our habit of sprinkling our sentences with scraps of unnecessary French is very silly, and ugly too. Why do war correspondents write “tir de barrage” when they mean “barrier fire”? Why don’t they say “machine guns” instead of “mitrailleuses”? I don’t know; and to tell the truth I don’t much care; because I think the matter is of small consequence. In six months after the war these terms will be laid aside and utterly forgotten. Even now they merely afflict the newspaper page; literature has not caught infection of them. And sixty or seventy years ago the eruption of French was much more serious than it is now. The novel about the Lady Flabella that Kate Nickleby had to read to Mrs. Whittitterly had almost as many French words as English in it; and even Charlotte Brontë, writing of Brussels, speaks of a “tartine” and a “bougie” instead of a slice of bread-and-butter and a candle.

Then, again, if English were become altogether so abominable, one would expect to find evident symptoms of the disease in the floating English of the newspaper. English which from the nature of the case has to be written in a hurry and with a sense on the part of the writer that, whatever he does, he must so write that two or three million average people will understand what he means. That is, the journalist must set down his facts and his thoughts in popular English, not in Mandarin English; in the dialect of the street, not in the classic prose of the library. So it seems to me that if English were gone, or fast going, to the dogs, we should find the most violent and unmistakable evidences of decay in the daily paper. There are divers naughtinesses, I confess. “Marathon” is not Greek (or English) for a race, nor does “carnival” mean a great deal of something, as it is made to mean in the phrases carnival of blood, carnival of fire. And I wish that we had not read that the Bavarians where “literally” mown down, since we are well aware that neither the scythe nor the mowing-machine is used in warfare. And why should we be told that the Saxons were “decimated,” when the writer really means that they were “nonagesimated”? Decimation signifies that one man in every ten has been killed, a loss, that is, of 10 per cent. But the newspaper column is made to mean that 90 per cent. have been slaughtered; and it shouldn’t be made to mean anything of the kind.

220px-GeorgeWarringtonsteevensThese, I say, are naughtinesses which are to be deplored and to be ended; but when due reckoning is made of them, it remains that the newspaper of this page is much better than the newspaper of thirty, fifty, or seventy years ago. There was Warrington, no doubt, with his sense, satire, and scholarship; but Hoolan and Doolan wrote ten columns for Warrington’s one, and they called a funeral “obsequies,” and to them the church was ever “the sacred edifice.” The expectations and elephantine gambollings with the language which made the journalistic fortune of Sala would not be tolerated in any London paper of to-day. And I doubt whether any newspaper of, say, 1840, could show as fine a piece of work as that little sketch of the decaying gentry of Ireland which Mr. George Moore contributed to The Evening News a few weeks ago.

So the evidence of the newspapers is, on the whole, distinctly cheering, and, so far as the mere language is concerned, I see nothing that should depress one in the world of books. I should say that the popular novel of 1916 is written in as good English as the popular novel of 1816; and if I am told that “Waverley” had just been published at that date, I would say that Sir Walter, great man as he was, was very far from handling English prose as if he loved it. And the popular magazine story of the early nineteenth century was certainly not written with any great sense of the beauties of the language; some of the “Sketches of Boz” give one a pretty good notion of the style, or want of style, that was found acceptable in the eighteen-thirties.

So, taking the English language as we find it in books, magazines, and newspapers, I really think that Mr. George Moore’s despair for its future is ill-founded. The craftsmen, I allow, are mostly indifferent, as they always have been; so far as I can see, the matter in which they work is still sound and good; the marble is still white and pure and untainted by decay. There was once a period in which one might have hesitated, and hesitated justly, as to the future of our tongue, and that was in the years that came between the death of Dr. Johnson and the first work of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Pope and Johnson between them had stifled the live body of the English tongue in periwigs and court suits and all manner of artificial and cumbrous trappings. The English of literature had become a different speech from the English of ordinary life; the gulf between the two is apparent if one turns from the Johnson of the “Rambler” to the Johnson who speaks so vigorously and simply in “Boswell.” The literary English was intolerably pompous and windy; it went itself admirably to the device of saying very little under the appearance of saying a great deal. It was Latinised to the verge of absurdity; it seemed not so much as if the old tree of our speech had grown broad and high and spread its branches wider, but rather as if some quite foreign scion had been grafted on the old stock and was producing flowers and fruits wholly strange to the tree’s veritable roots and genuine juices.

Then, indeed, the prospects of the English tongue might have been esteemed dark enough; and yet within twenty years we had “The Ancient Mariner.”

The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The English Language

  1. Late Augustan rhetoric “was Latinised to the verge of absurdity”…

    I believe Machen relished Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century man of literature whose diction is Latinate enough!


    1. That is an interesting point – or question. Among my early (or early-ish) ‘extracurricular’ delights (after Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells, Verne, and Stevenson – and some sort of Cervantes abridgement or retelling) were Pope and Johnson, but also Swift and Gay – and Boswell and Goldsmith (I’m not sure when Browne came in: maybe even via Johnson!). And, as (unlike, say, Lewis) a plodding Latin student, I really liked Cicero when we got to him (however slow and laborious the ‘decoding’ was). Later I enjoyed reading Morris W. Croll on the non-Ciceronian Latin influences on Seventeenth-century writers like Browne – and Burton. Maybe something like that would help explain the sorts of Latinity that did – and did not – appeal to Machen.


  2. Some quick online ‘homework’ found George Augustus Henry Fairfield Sala (November 1828 – 8 December 1895), whom (according to his Wikipedia article) Dickens sent as a special correspondent to Russia in 1856, after which (in 1860) “he began writing ‘Echoes of the Week’ for the Illustrated London News, and continued to do so till 1886, when they were continued in a syndicate of weekly newspapers almost to his death. […] Meanwhile, he had become in 1857 a contributor to The Daily Telegraph, and it was in this capacity that he did his most characteristic work, whether as a foreign correspondent in all parts of the world, or as a writer of ‘leaders’ or special articles.” That covers a lot of Machen’s “thirty, fifty, or seventy years ago.” I have no sense of him, or the “expectations and elephantine gambollings with the language which made [his] journalistic fortune”, but lots of his books seem to be scanned in the Internet Archive, to afford acquaintance with his style…


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