Read an Excerpt
The story of the English language in North America begins
almost exactly five hundred years ago, on July 24,
1497. At about 5 A.M. that midsummer day, Captain
John Cabot, along with some of the
eighteen-member crew of his ship Mathew, set foot
on the eastern coast of what we now call Canada
and spoke the first words of English ever heard on
this side of the Atlantic.
Modern historians do not know where Cabot landed that
first time. Most likely it was present-day Newfoundland;
Cabot's own happy notion was that they had reached Asia.
For our story, his mistake doesn't matter. What does matter
is that they had come from the port of Bristol in England and
thus spoke English. (Cabot himself was Italian, but like
Columbus he had taken up residence in another country to
further his maritime projects.)
As it happens, the voyage of the Mathew had no
influence whatsoever on the later development of
American English. Cabot and his men saw signs of human
habitation: traps, fish nets, and a painted stick. But they met nobody,
so they did not learn any native words to import into English. Nor did
they stay to start an English-speaking settlement. They soon
got back on board their ship, looked at a few more islands
from a safe distance, and then returned in high spirits to
Bristol on August 6, confident that they had found a short
way to Asia.
That set the pattern for the next century. The English
found North America a nice place to visit, but they didn't
want to live there.
Later English explorers did meet some of the native
peoples of the Atlantic seaboard. They began the process of
enriching the English language with local names for the
strange flora and fauna of the continent. Translations of tales
by travelers from other nations also brought American words
into English, including the first word we list in this book, canoe
But the real impetus for adding American stock to the
English language came when the English finally decided to
put down roots in North America. It was in territory that, at
the suggestion of Sir Walter Raleigh, they called Virginia in
1585 by gracious permission of their "virgin queen" Elizabeth
I. Raleigh sponsored the first of their attempts, a colony on
Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina
in 1585. Those English settlers gave up in 1586, then returned
to Roanoke in 1587, only to vanish mysteriously before the
next English ship could visit in 1590. They left behind as a
message to the visitors only the letters "CROATOAN,"
neatly carved on a tree. The word was borrowed from
American Indian speakers in the vicinity and referred to an
island some fifty miles to the south. Croatoan is thus the first
word known to be recorded by the English on the North
American continent, and the first forwarding address.
Unfortunately, by the time English explorers went looking for
the ex-Roanoke colonists some thirty years later, the
forwarding notice had expired.
In the early 1600s, the English language finally came to
North America for good. The first successful Virginia colony,
made famous by Captain John Smith's accounts, began at
what the English called Jamestown (after King James I) on
May 14, 1607. By accident, a second English-speaking colony
began far to the north of Virginia in December 1620. The Mayflower
set out for Virginia but landed on Cape Cod instead. (No
one knows for certain why their destination changed.) The
ship's passengers found a suitable harbor north of the Cape
and established the Plymouth Plantation there, soon to be
joined by others in what was called New England (1616), the
land of the Massachusetts and other tribes.
At the time of these visits and settlements, the
inhabitants of what is today the United States were speaking
other languages. In fact, they were speaking hundreds of
different languages, all as sophisticated as the languages of
Europe, and most with more complicated grammar than
Along the Atlantic coast, the English first encountered
languages of the Algonquian family, including Delaware in
the south and Massachusett, Narragansett, Abenaki, and
Penobscot in the north. As they variously aided, traded, and
debated with the English newcomers, speakers of Algonquian
languages gave us skunk (1588), muskrat (1607), raccoon
(1609), opossum (1610), and moose (1613) on land, and in the
water terrapin (1613) and quahog (1643), a clam; chinquapin
(1612), a kind of chestnut, and hickory (1670); puccoon
(1612), a plant producing red dye, and atamasco (1629), a
lily; persimmon (1612), tuckahoe (1612), an edible root, and
cushaw (1698), a kind of squash; hominy (1629),pone (1634),
and samp (1643), cornmeal mush; kinnikinnick (1729), a
mixture of leaves for smoking, moccasins (1612), tomahawk
(1611), pocosin (1634), or "dismal swamp," squaw
(1634), papoose (1634), wigwam (1628), wampumpeag
(1627), powwow (1624), and netop (1643), a friend.
Sometimes, rather than borrowing from the Indians, the
newcomers made use of familiar English words to name the
unfamiliar. For example, in America they created new
meanings for turkey (1607), corn (1608), clapboard (1632),
and bluff (1666). They created new combinations of old
English words in bluefish (1623), johnnycake (1739), and
And the English colonists also borrowed from other Old
World languages, as speakers of those languages
intermingled with the English in the new. From Spanish, for
example, the settlers got tamale (1691) as well as words like
canoe and barbecue (1733) that ultimately came from Indian languages;
from Dutch, boss (1649) and cookie (1703); and from
Bantu languages of West Africa, tote (1677).
After the initial burst of new names in the early 1600s,
over the next century the American colonies contributed at a
relatively slow rate to the development of the English
language. The colonies were, after all, lightly populated, and
they were greatly dependent on England not just for
manufactured goods but for matters of culture and learning.
Significant contributions to American English as we know it
now were relatively rare.
Only as the eighteenth century developed would we
begin thinking of ourselves and our language as distinctively
American. But already we were developing our own
concepts and practices, and words to name them: frontier
(1676),public school (1636), and alumnus (1696), alma
mater, (1696) and classmate (1713). We experienced
religious awakenings (1736). We invented schooners
(1716), sold goods at stores (1721), and began to build
covered wagons (1745). And we were the first to have
speeches and books that were lengthy (1689).
Long before any English-speaking person paddled one in
American waters, canoe was an English word for an
American Indian invention. If by "discover" we mean "tell the
Europeans," then Columbus discovered the canoe while he
was busy discovering America. He observed natives of
the West Indies traveling across the water in boats made of
a single large tree hollowed out with a sharp stone, and
propelled with paddles. Columbus called the vessel by the
name the Cariban Indians of Haiti gave it: canoa. The author
of a 1555 book that explained the canoa for English readers
said it is "very longe and narowe," with room for as many as
In 1608, shortly after the founding of the first English
colony in Virginia, Captain John Smith reported that the
settlers were following the Indian example and getting
around in "canowes." So it happened also on later frontiers as European
settlers pressed westward. These canoes were not all of the
hollow-log variety, which was especially suited for
uninterrupted travel on the water. Within the North American
continent, where frequent portages were necessary between
rivers and lakes, the lightweight birch-bark canoe was
preferred. And to navigate the birchless plains farther west,
canoes were made of buffalo hide.
In recent times, Americans have tinkered with the
materials of canoes, making them of wood, fiberglass, plastic,
and aluminum. Especially with these new materials, there still
is no other human-powered vessel so portable, maneuverable,
speedy, and sturdy for travel in shallow and narrow waters.
In all likelihood, there are far more canoes plying American
waters today than there ever were before Columbus landed.
Thomas Hariot went as scientific observer with the English
expedition that established the short-lived Roanoke colony.
His Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of
Virginia, published in 1588, includes the first list of
Algonquian Indian words translated into English. Most of his
translations didn't make it into the English vocabulary, but we
can recognize the beginnings of modern skunk in
Saquenuckot. He describes it as one of "two kindes of small
beastes greater than conies
[rabbits] which are very good meat." Hariot does not mention
the distinctive defensive odor of the skunk, perhaps because
his book was intended to advertise the advantages of life in
Virginia. A book of 1634 about New England was more
candid, naming "Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes" among "the
beasts of offence."
Columbus started it. When he found land after sailing
westward across the Atlantic, he thought he had
succeeded in his "Enterprise of the Indies," arriving at the
distant part of the
world that included Japan, China, and India. So naturally he
called the inhabitants indios, or in English, Indians.
Who was to say any different? It took quite a while before
Europeans could think the unthinkable, that an enormous
continent stood between them and the Indies. Meanwhile Indian
became established as the name for the people of the continent.
A century later, it was established among English explorers
too. We find an example as early as 1602, when speakers of English
set foot for the first time on what would later be known as NEW
ENGLAND (1616). In the summer of that year, a ship with two dozen
"gentlemen" and eight crew members visited and named Cape Cod
and Martha's Vineyard and settled briefly on another island before
returning to England with a precious cargo of sassafrass. In their
report, published that fall, they follow the lead of Columbus in
referring to the native inhabitants as Indians, as for example, "We
saw manie Indians, which are tall big boned men."
But by then Columbus's geographical mistake had been
recognized and corrected. The land was known as America, not
India. Why were the inhabitants still called Indians?
Perhaps because it was still the best available choice. While
Indian was a mistake, it was respectful, almost worshipful, to the
Europeans who imagined the exotic Indies. A name could be
chosen from the hundreds of original languages spoken on this
continent, but to choose a word from one Indian language would
be to exclude the others. And American would not do because it
was used for everyone born on this continent, regardless of
Of course Native American has gained a large following in
recent years, but it has the same problem as American: a literal
meaning that can apply to everyone born here. And First Nations,
a term now widely used in Canada, gives no sense of place. Despite
periodic objections from those who prefer Native American, both
Indian and American Indian remain accepted and popular,
especially in view of their continued use by Indians themselves.
This is one mistake that seems to have been inspired.
Whoever named the bird turkey--a word that English speakers
began mentioning as long ago as 1541--made a big mistake.
Although that bird came from Guinea in Africa, the English
apparently first imported it from Turkish merchants. So, naturally,
they called it a turkey. When English speakers established their first
colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they thought they saw
turkeys there too. "We found an Ilet, on which were many Turkeys,"
wrote one. These birds were not from Turkey and were not related
to the guinea fowl of Africa. But turkeys they were called, and
turkeys they remain.
Much of what we know about the Jamestown colony was
written by Captain John Smith, whose efforts preserved the colony
from collapse and who in turn was preserved by the Indian
"princess" Pocahontas. Smith's accounts of the colony frequently
mention turkeys as food, gifts, and objects of trade. In 1607, Smith
writes, to celebrate the first peace after the first armed clash, the
Indians brought "Venison, Turkies, wild foule, bread, and what they
had, singing and dauncing in signe of friendship till they departed."
Elsewhere Smith noted that the Indians made warm and beautiful
cloaks from turkey feathers. Further north, as the Plymouth colony
neared the end of its first year in 1621, Governor William Bradford
likewise observed "great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke
many." Undoubtedly turkeys were among the "fowl" served at the
first THANKSGIVING (1621) dinner.
Despite those significant beginnings and Ben Franklin's
lobbying, the turkey lost to the bald eagle in the contest for
American bird. And it is a loser in modern American slang, too.
Since the 1920s, turkey has been a term for a play or movie that is a
failure, and since the 1950s for a person who is incompetent. But
though the turkey never succeeded in becoming the American
symbol, it did become the American feast. Thanksgiving is Turkey
Day, and the turkey has gobbled its way into our language more
than any other bird. Though we never "talk eagle," we talk turkey
when we speak frankly. Cold turkey also means plain talk and can
refer to the shock effect of "quitting cold" from an addiction.
To English speakers at the time of the first colonies, corn meant
grain--the staff of life. The main grain was known simply as corn;
all lesser grains had particular names. So in England, where wheat
was chiefly cultivated, corn meant wheat; in Scotland and Ireland,
corn meant oats. Crossing over to America, English adventurers
found a different staff of life cultivated by the Indians. The native
American grain, with big juicy kernels in rows around a central
core, immediately became the essential crop of the new settlers as
well, so it preempted the designation corn. Even today, though the
United States grows vast quantities of wheat, oats, sorghum,
barley, and rice, corn remains in first place as the chief grain crop
of North America.
To distinguish our corn from the European grains, and in
recognition of those who first cultivated it, the English later called
this grand new grain by the fuller name Indian corn. That term is
attested in a London document of 1617. Meanwhile, the only way
wheat could be called corn in America was in the designation
English corn, used in the Plymouth colony of New England as
early as 1629.
But from the start, the native American grain was dominant
enough that corn alone would do for it. In 1608, telling of the
difficulties of the first permanent English colony in the summer of
1607, Captain John Smith wrote, "Shortly after, it pleased God (in
our extremity) to move the Indians to bring us Corne, ere it was half
ripe, to refresh us, when we rather expected when they would
In December 1607, Captain John Smith was brought before
Powhatan, the "emperor" of the Indians, who was lying on a high
bed "covered with a great Covering of the Rahaughcums." Smith
reported this in his True Relation of the Jamestown
colony, published in 1608. Later in the True Relation he mentions
Powhatan sending him "many presents of Deare, bread,
Raugroughcuns." We enter this Algonquian Indian word for
1609, a year after Smith's publication, because unlike CORN (1608) it
must have taken a little while for the English language to digest.
Not until Smith's Map of Virginia, published in 1612, does he
offer a description of the creature we now know as the raccoon:
"There is a beast they call Aroughcun, much like a badger but
useth to live on trees as Squirrels doe."
In 1610, to encourage their supporters back home, members of the
Virginia Company caused to be printed in London a pamphlet called
A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colony in Virginia. This
gives the first mention in print of creatures they called
"Apossouns, in shape like to pigges." Like RACCOON (1609),
opossum is a borrowing from an Algonquian Indian language.
Two different lists of
words compiled in 1612
include tomahawk, so
we can safely assume it
was in the vocabulary
of the Jamestown
colonists by 1611. One
list, by William
Strachey, gives it as "a
hatchet, tacca hacan,
tamahaac." In a
glossary attached to
Map of Virginia, Captain John Smith hacked it as "Tomahacks
Axes. Tockahacks. Pickaxes."
Smith's earlier True Relation of 1608 gave the first
English explanation of the function of this implement. He did
not use the word tomahawk, but he wrote about Indians
having "Swords like Pollaxes." And indeed the tomahawk was the
Indian equivalent of both sword and ax, being the chief
weapon in hand-to-hand combat as well as a tool for digging
Another miracle of North American nature: a fish that looks
like a cat! In a list of two dozen "fish we were best
acquainted with" accompanying A Map of Virginia, published
in 1612, Captain John Smith includes "Catfish." He gives no
further explanation, perhaps assuming that his newly formed
word is description enough.
This creature first came to the notice of the English in a
book written in 1613 about a voyage to what would be called
NEW ENGLAND (1616): "Captaine Thomas Hanham sayled to
the Riuer of Sagadahoc 1606. He relateth of their beasts . . . redde
Deare, and a beast bigger, called the Mus." The name
comes from the Eastern Abenaki Indian language and means
"he trims or cuts off," referring to the way the moose eats bark and
twigs off trees.
In his 1616 Description of New England, Captain John
Smith was sufficiently impressed to list first among
animals there, "Moos, a beast bigger then a Stagge."
As early as 1614, the name Manhattes appears on an
English map, naming the Indian tribe that lived on the island where
New York City now has its center. In 1626 the Dutch came
and gave the Manhattes twenty-four dollars in goods to
vacate the land. The Indians left, but their name stayed to
designate the island. Less than forty years later the English
took over without paying the Dutch a cent.
In the late nineteenth century, new meaning was distilled
from the old word with the invention of the Manhattan
cocktail, made of sweet vermouth, whiskey, and bitters. In
the early twentieth century it became additional food for
thought as the name of tomato-based Manhattan clam
In his Description of New England, written after a voyage
there in 1614 and published in 1616, Captain John Smith
catalogs the abundance of herbs, woods, birds, fishes, and
beasts in that yet uncolonized land. The fishes are "Whales,
Grampus, Porkpisces [porpoises], Turbut, Sturgion, Cod,
Hake, Haddock, Cole [pollock], Cusk, or small Ling, Shark,
Mackerell, Herring, Mullet, Base, Pinacks, Cunners, Pearch,
Eels, Crabs, Lobsters, Muskles, Wilkes [whelks], Oysters,
and diverse others etc." Most of these were familiar to the
English, but the cunner is distinctive to the New England
"In the harbors we frequented," Smith adds, "a little boye
might take of Cunners, and Pinacks, and such delicate fish,
at the ships sterne, more then sixe or tenne can eate in a
daie; but with a casting-net, thousands when wee pleased."
Today among other names it is also called bait-stealer
because the small perchlike fish eats bait intended for others.
1616 New England
In the year Shakespeare died, New England was born. This
was in fact four years before any English speakers
permanently settled in that northern location. But in 1616 it
was already the subject of the book A Description of New England, by that
busy explorer and promoter Captain John Smith, who had
visited the land two years before.
According to Smith, New England owes its name to Sir Francis
Drake. Not that Drake ever saw or talked about New England, but
in sailing around the world he stopped in 1579 at a place on the
Pacific coast of North America and claimed it as Nova Albion, the
Latin for "New England." Following Drake's lead, Smith designated
the region at a similar latitude on the Atlantic coast by the same
name, translated into plain English.
The very words New England show the direction of Smith's
thinking. This was to be an extension of Old England, not a new
kind of community. The map in his book gives only English names
for the places of New England, and he provides an accompanying
list showing thirty American Indian names replaced by English
ones: Accomack by Plimouth, Massachusets River by Charles
River, Kinebeck by Edenborough, to list a few. Some of those
changes succeeded. But what eventually happened after the
Plymouth colonists landed four years later has turned out
differently than Smith had imagined, for Indian names as well as
English ones still cover the New England landscape.
1617 mother country
To find a representative American word for the year 1617, when
the struggling Jamestown colony was the only English-speaking
habitation in North America, we need to travel to Leyden,
Holland. There the religious separatists who had left England in
1607 were making plans for the voyage that would establish the
Plymouth colony in New England three years later. Two of them,
John Robinson and William Brewster, wrote in a letter of
December 1617, "We are well weaned from the delicate milke of our
mother countrie, and enured to the difficulties of a strange and
hard land, which yet in a great parse we have by patience
England was, of course, the mother of all countries for the
English-speaking colonists, and these Americans-to-be were the
first to call England the mother country. And the history
of the next two centuries would show that the colonists'
relationship with the mother country was as touch-and-go as that
between any human mother and child.
Something like punk has been smoldering in American English for
hundreds of years, undergoing drastic changes of meaning from
century to century. It began as a bizarre kind of overcooked corn,
explained in a 1618 account of certain Indians in Virginia: "Some of
them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burne the coare of the eare to
powder, which they call pungnough, mingling that in their meale,
but yt never tasted well in bread or broath." Around that time, also,
punk was a word for "ashes" in the Delaware Indian language.
A couple of centuries later, punk had become a word for the
slow-burning sticks used in kindling fireworks. By 1889 it was a
slang term for a cigarette, and by the end of the century punk had a
sense "worthless" as in a story by George Ade: "And this crowd
up there was purty-y-y punk."
Today's first meaning of punk, a small-time hoodlum,
developed in the period between the World Wars. And in the late
1970s punk came to designate bizarre clothing and body
decorations associated with loud and aggressive rock music. To
the general public, it still has an unpleasant taste.
In its earliest sense, planter meant a person who helped "plant" or
found a colony, often called a plantation. Thus, the founders of
Plymouth Plantation called themselves "adventurers and planters"
in a document drawn up on the eve of their departure for New
England in 1620.
But by then the modern meaning of planter had already
begun to develop in Virginia. Ten years of precarious existence
seem to have taught the English adventurers there one lesson:
The way to get rich was tobacco. It was the one export
crop that earned big money, and those who were planters of
this crop began to become a wealthy elite. In 1619 the
Virginia House of Burgesses used planters in this sense:
"Provided first that the Cape Marchant do accept of the
Tobacco of all and everie the Planters here in Virginia."
As they sold more tobacco and bought more land, these
planters needed more laborers, so they imported African
slaves in ever-increasing numbers. Planter thus became the
name for an owner of a large estate worked by slave labor.
At first it referred to tobacco growers in Virginia and
Maryland, but by the end of the seventeenth century it was
applied to owners of PLANTATIONS (1645) in general, regardless
of the crop, and anywhere in the South--in fact anywhere in
the tropical and subtropical English-speaking world.
There was another more modest early meaning for
planter: any individual farmer, regardless of size or type of
holdings. An article in the South Carolina Gazette of 1732
refers to "the poorer sort of Planters." But they were
overshadowed, in terminology as well as trade, by wealthy
In the nineteenth century, as human labor began to be
replaced by mechanical, planter was the name given to a
device for planting seeds.
Although labor-intensive plantations of the old sort are
long gone, people still evoke the fortunate lifestyle of the
plantation owner when they make planter's punch, a
rum-based cocktail that is a twentieth-century invention.
The English speakers who came to North America intended
to be seated. Scouting the land five months before the first
colonists arrived in New England, a certain Mr. Dermer
wrote in June 1620 regarding Plymouth, "I would that the first
plantation might hear be seated, if ther come to the number
of 50. persons, or upward." In the next century, George
Washington continued this use of the verb seat: "It would give me pleasure
to see these lands seated by particular societies," he wrote
in 1784. But by the nineteenth century, seat was unseated
and Americans would settle instead.
The religious duty, and pleasure, of thanksgiving to God was
well established in England before any English speakers
came to America, but it was the American colonials who
made a feast of it. After the successful harvest of 1621 in the
first year of pious Plymouth colony, Governor William
Bradford called for a celebration. But rather than spending
the day in prayer, the colonists set the pattern for future
American Thanksgivings by inviting the neighbors to a big
family dinner, with roast fowl as the main dish. It is described
in a book published the next year:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure
men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall
manner reioice together, after we had gathered the fruit
of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much
fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company
almost a weeke, at which time amongst other
Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the
Indians coming amongst vs, and amongst the rest their
greatest King Massasoit, with some nintie men, whom
for three days we entertained and feasted and they
went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to
the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and
upon the Captaine, and others.
Two years later, after another abundant harvest,
Governor Bradford again "set apart a day of thanksgiving." It
was quite some time, however, before we Americans got the
idea of doing it every year. The early Thanksgivings were
special events, commemorating triumph over adversity.
George Washington called for the first national Thanksgiving
Day on November 26, 1789, after the independence of the
United States was assured. But it took the Civil War to put
Thanksgiving on the calendar for good, beginning with
President Lincoln proclamation in 1863 of a Thanksgiving Day
at the end of November.