‘Made In America: an informal history of the english language in the united states,’ Bill Bryson
I have just returned from a fantastic seven-week stay in the United States which, much to my surprise and the surprise of people who know the place, was spent not in San Francisco, Las Vegas or Manhattan, but in Buffalo, NY. The joys of the people, pool tables and pubs staying open until (at least) 4am are a matter for another, less literary blog, but upon arrival in the Home of the Chicken Wing™ I decided to brush up on my American history.
I had a vague recollection of having read a fantastic Bryson book on American history, and spent several unproductive minutes convincing the worker at the local bookshop that I hadn’t imagined it, despite his computer telling him that no such book existed.
It turns out I owed the harassed worker at the local bookshop on apology: it was in fact a Bryson book on the English language in America I was after. Showing his breadth of knowledge and research, the book just happens to contain more historical tales than linguistics, using the stories of the United States over the past five centuries to present the new words and phrases which each era ushered in.
It was a delight to read: hundreds of pages of myth-busting, (the Pilgrims, it turns out, enjoyed a good drink and a gamble; the naval officer who famously declared: “Don’t give up the ship!” gave up the ship, etc), and word-origin trivia, and if you know be by now, you know there is little in the world I enjoy more.
Here were some of the highlights, starting with a sample paragraph which encapsulates not only most countries’ views on immigration, but also the subtle humour which makes BB one of my favourite writers, and favourite guide to various countries:
“If one attitude can be said to characterize America’s regard for immigration over the past two hundred years it is the belief that while immigration was unquestionably a wise and prescient thing in the case of one’s parents or grandparents, it really ought to stop now…”
On the difficulty in getting locals to help you name places:
“(Previously Virginia had been called ‘Windgancton,’ meaning ‘what gay clothes you wear’ – apparently what the locals had replied when an early reconnoitering party had asked the place’s name…)”
Maybe the most astonishing fact I learned from the entire book:
“Congress quite extraordinarily found time to debate the business of a motto for the new nation. (Their choice, ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ ‘One from Many,’ was taken from, of all places, a recipe for salad in an early poem by Virgil…)”
“The first ballpoint pen was patented as a ‘non-leaking, high altitude writing stick’…”
A place name to rival Wales’s famous Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch:
“The people of Webster, Massachusetts (especially those who sell postcards), continue to take pride in the local body of water named on a signboard as ‘Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg,’ which is said to be Nipmuck for ‘You fish on that side, I’ll fish on this side, and no one will fish in the middle’…”
Ridiculous fact for all my Joisey friends:
“New Jersey was briefly called Albania…”
On nicknames and slogans, (something which fascinated me in my time in the US once I became addicted to collecting the State quarters):
On the myth of the Wild West:
“[Cowboys] were outnumbered by farmers by about a thousand to one. Even at their peak there were fewer than ten thousand working cowboys, at least a quarter of them black or Mexican…”
“Altogether, as Howard Zinn notes, the United States made four hundred treaties with the Indians and broke every one of them…”
On bizarre trading practices:
“By mid century [1800’s], Boston alone was shipping out 150,000 tons of ice a year, some of it going as far as India and China…”
On the definition of ‘first world’:
“Today, Americans spend $25 billion a year, more than the gross national products of some fair-sized countries, just on the electricity to run their air-conditioners…”
On changing morals:
“(Benjamin Franklin has the distinction of having run the first magazine ad, seeking the whereabouts of a runaway slave, in 1741…)”
“Today the car has become such an integral part of American life that the maximum distance the average American is prepared to walk without getting into a car is just six hundred feet…”
Finally, here is a random selection of trivia drawn from this gem of a book:
-poppycock comes from the dutch for ‘soft shit,’ ‘pappekak.’
-nit wit comes from the Dutch ‘I don’t know,’ ‘ik niet wiet.’
-spaghetti and meatballs, chop suey and chow mein are all American inventions.
-Kirk Douglas’s real name is Issur Danielovitch Demsky
-Walter Matthau’s real name is the unpronounceable Walter Mattaschanskayasky
-AIDS had originally been called GRID, “…for gay-related immune deficiency.”
“Cranberries were at first also called…’bounceberries,’ because you bounced them to see if they were fresh…”