There's a Word for It: The Explosion of the American Language Since 1900

There's a Word for It: The Explosion of the American Language Since 1900

by Sol Steinmetz

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Word geeks (1984), rejoice! Crack open these covers and immerse yourself in a mind-expanding (1963) compendium of the new words (or new meanings of words) that have sprung from American life to ignite the most vital, inventive, fruitful, and A-OK (1961) lexicographical Big Bang (1950) since the first no-brow (1922) Neanderthal grunted meaningfully.

From the


Word geeks (1984), rejoice! Crack open these covers and immerse yourself in a mind-expanding (1963) compendium of the new words (or new meanings of words) that have sprung from American life to ignite the most vital, inventive, fruitful, and A-OK (1961) lexicographical Big Bang (1950) since the first no-brow (1922) Neanderthal grunted meaningfully.

From the turn of the twentieth century to today, our language has grown from around 90,000 new words to some 500,000—at least, that’s today’s best guesstimate (1936). What accounts for this quantum leap (1924)? In There’s a Word for It, language expert Sol Steinmetz takes us on a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (1949) joyride (1908) through our nation’s cultural history, as seen through the neato (1951) words and terms we’ve invented to describe it all. From the quaintly genteel days of the 1900s (when we first heard words such as nickelodeon, escalator, and, believe it or not, Ms.) through the Roaring Twenties (the time of flappers, jalopies, and bootleg booze) to the postwar ’50s (the years of rock ’n’ roll, beatniks, and blast-offs) and into the new millennium (with its blogs, Google, and Obamamania), this feast for word lovers is a boffo (1934) celebration of linguistic esoterica (1929).

In chapters organized by decade, each with a lively and informative narrative of the life and language of the time, along with year-by-year lists of words that were making their first appearance, There’s a Word for It reveals how the American culture contributed to the evolution and expansion of the English language and vice versa. Clearly, it’s must-reading (1940). And not to disparage any of the umpteen (1918) other language books on the shelf—though they have their share of hokum (1917) and gobbledygook (1944)—but this one truly is the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas (1920s).

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Decade-by-decade snapshots from prolific lexicographer Steinmetz explain amazing American English-language vocabulary growth since 1900. Words with staying power are emphasized, not those that eventually faded, which Rosemarie Ostler presented in another decade book, Dewdroppers, Waldos and Slackers (Oxford Univ., 2003). The Oxford English Dictionary and newspaper quotes are dominant tools. In most chapters Steinmetz provides a general historical synopsis, followed by definitions of select words, and then a year-by-year listing of new terms. The insights would be more prominent, however, if the chronological structure were topical instead, as in Paul Dickson's 2006 Slang! The Topical Dictionary of Americanisms (3d ed.). For example, the 1901 word exurban is connected with the words exurbia and exurbs, coined in the 1950s, in the definition of exurban, not with the later words. Also, more talk about Generation X is in the 1950s chapter, which reflects postwar uncertainty, than in the 1980s and 1990s chapters, when the group on whom the name settled came of age. VERDICT Reliable, thorough, and amusing, this is recommended for general readers, despite some limitations.—Marianne Orme, Wheaton, IL

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Chapter 1

The Dawn of the Twentieth Century:


Life during the first decade of the 1900s was closer to the past than to the future. The great advances of the twentieth century were still to come. Consider these facts: the life span of an average American was about forty-seven years (nowadays it is seventy-eight). The weekly wages of an average worker in 1900 was about $10, and to earn that he had to work ten hours a day for six days of the week. Child labor was rampant. The city poor, many of them recent immigrants, lived in filth and were riddled with disease. Among city dwellers, food was scarce and sanitation almost nonexistent.

And yet people looked back at an even bleaker past and thought that things were looking up. After all, there were new inventions like the telephone and the automobile. Never mind that having a telephone in a house was a rare luxury or that cars were slow, loud, smelly, and too fast (speed limits of twenty miles an hour were considered dangerous). It was progress. To the millions of immigrants huddled in masses in the big cities, America was the new promised land, the golden land of the future.

The term melting pot became a common metaphor for the process of assimilating the new immigrants in the United States into one great American culture. The term was popularized by the 1908 play The Melting Pot, by the English-born writer Israel Zangwill. In the play, which is set in New York City, the immigrant protagonist, David Quixano, declares: "Understand that America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians--into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American." When the play opened in Washington, D.C., in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt leaned over the edge of his box and shouted, "That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that's a great play!"

President Roosevelt, who was popularly known as "Teddy," also added a new word to the language, though not intentionally. During a hunting trip to Mississippi in 1902, Roosevelt's aides caught a black bear, tied it to a tree, and asked the president to shoot it. Roosevelt refused. The incident was depicted in a cartoon that showed a small and cute little bear being saved by the president. An enterprising businessman, inspired by the cartoon, created a toy in the form of a little stuffed bear cub and called it "Teddy's bear." Since then Teddy bears have found their way into toy stores everywhere to the delight of little children.

Entertainment for children was limited mostly to toys and games in the early 1900s. As Dan Rather writes in Our Times: America at the Birth of the Twentieth Century (1996), "In his newspapers of January 1, 1900, the American found no such word as 'radio,' for that was yet twenty years from coming; nor 'movie,' for that, too, was mainly in the future." The nickelodeon, a movie theater with an admission fee of one nickel, was all the rage because it was so affordable an entertainment. "There is no town of any size in the United States which does not contain at least one nickelodeon," reported the October 1908 issue of the World To-day.

The decade's newest and most surprising invention was the Escalator, or "moveable stairway." The word Escalator, which first appeared in 1900, was coined by adding the ending -ator (in elevator) to the French-origin word escalade (ultimately from Medieval Latin scalare "to scale"). After its inventor sold the rights to the Escalator to the Otis Elevator Company, Otis failed to maintain the word's status as a capitalized trade name, and in 1950 the U.S. Patent Office ruled that the lowercase word escalator had passed into public domain. Most people think that escalator was formed from the verb escalate, but the opposite is true. The verb escalate appeared in 1922 and meant "to climb on an escalator." Escalate was a back-formation from escalator, and it wasn't until about 1960 that it took on the meaning "to increase by degrees," as in Prices are escalating. In turn, the noun escalation was derived in 1938 from the verb.

Borrowing words from foreign languages was considered ultramodern and sophisticated at the century's turn. French especially was regarded as the language of elegance par excellence; among the newest French loans were arriviste (1901), a pushy or ambitious person, an upstart, literally "one eager to arrive," first recorded in a letter by Gabrille Gissing, wife of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing; voyeur (1900), one who derives pleasure from secretly observing others, a Peeping Tom, first found in an English translation of a French work on the sexual instinct; deja vu (1903), the illusion of having experienced a present situation in the past, literally "already seen"; cri de coeur (1905), an anguished cry of distress, literally "a cry of (the) heart"; haute couture (1908), high fashion, literally "high dressmaking"; the interjection touche (1904), an exclamation used to indicate a hit in fencing, literally, "touched," which by 1907 was used figuratively to acknowledge a valid point or rejoinder made by someone.

It wasn't a coincidence that the French loanwords garage and limousine came in to English at the same time, in 1902. Carmakers, eager to make the automobile a status symbol, went to France to polish their terminology. There were no one- or two-car garages in 1902. The word garage referred to a building in which many cars were stored when not in use, something like today's parking garage. The word was considered foreign enough to put between single quotes or italicized in periodicals, as in the January 11, 1902, issue of the London Daily Mail: "The new 'garage' founded by Mr. Harrington Moore, hon. secretary of the Automobile Club . . . has accommodation for eighty cars." The French word was derived from the verb garer ("to shelter"). While the British, bowing to old tradition, promptly Anglicized the word, pronouncing it GAR ij, the more style-conscious Americans made a point of pronouncing it ge RAZH in as close an approximation to the French pronunciation as they could. The early limousine was a large luxurious car with an enclosed compartment for the passengers and a separate compartment for the driver, originally without a roof. It was named after the French word for a protective cloak used by drivers when the car had no roof, and ultimately from Limousin, a region in central France (capital, Limoges). By the mid-1920s, these cars were so popular that they were familiarly referred to as limos.

German was another popular source of borrowings, especially of a literary type. The term Getterdammerung, literally "Twilight of the gods," title of the last of Richard Wagner's four operas in The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, was adopted in English in 1909 in the figurative sense of "total destruction or downfall, as in a great final battle." The term was used to describe some of the devastating battles in World Wars I and II. Two other early German loans that are still widely used are Sprachgefuhl (1902), an instinctive feeling for language, first recorded in Greenough and Kittredge's Worlds and Their Ways (1902), literally "speech-feeling," and Ubermensch (1902), a superman, popularized by George Bernard Shaw, as in the preface to his play Major Barbara (1907), where he writes: "It is assumed on the strength of the single word Superman (Ubermensch), borrowed by me from Nietszche, that I look for the salvation of society to the despotism of a single Napoleonic Superman."

Another notable term of the decade coined by George Bernard Shaw was Bardolatry. G.B.S. coined it in 1901 in the preface to his iconoclastic Three Plays for Puritans (including The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Captain Brassbound's Conversion). Shaw made up Bardolatry, meaning worship or adoration of Shakespeare, by blending Bard (of Avon), a popular epithet for Shakespeare, with (id)olatry. The coinage was intended to disparage the attitude of nineteenth-century Romantic critics like Thomas de Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, who not merely admired Shakespeare's works but could find no fault in them--in short, they worshipped the Bard. Here's what Shaw wrote in the preface: "It was the age of gross ignorance of Shakespear [his spelling] and incapacity for his works that produced the indiscriminate eulogies with which we are familiar. . . . So much for Bardolatry!" In his subsequent writings, Shaw coined Bardolater for a worshipper of Shakespeare, and Bardolatrous, meaning "characterized by Bardolatry," as in this 1914 passage: ". . . the familiar plea of the Bardolatrous ignoramus, that Shakespear's coarseness was part of the manners of his time."

The longest word in English happened to turn up in 1900. It was formed by gluing suffixes or prefixes to base words. By this process, British politicians concocted the word antidisestablishmentarianism, meaning, seriously, "opposition to those who oppose the establishment of a state religion." This sesquipedalian monster was created by adding the simple prefix anti- to the term disestablishmentarianism, itself a mouthful, that was cooked up in the 1880s by adding the prefix dis- and the suffixes -arian and -ism to the word establishment. The creation of this 1900 Frankenword was enough to prevent coiners from such agglutinations for the next hundred years.

Among the words that made news early in the decade was the verb hospitalize ("to put in a hospital"). The word first appeared in print in 1901, though no doubt it had been widely used in common parlance for years. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) points out that the word was "frequently commented on as an unhappy formation," which accounts for its absence in the press before 1901. Opposition to this verb was in line with criticism of such verbs as finalize, deputize, jeopardize, theorize, and prioritize, which in the nineteenth century were condemned by critics as "pretentious and unnecessary jargon." Another common term first recorded in 1901 is grass roots. It appeared in Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim (about an Irish orphan growing up in India), where it means "the basis, source, or origin of something," as in the grass roots of evil. The extended meaning "ordinary citizens, as opposed to the leaders or elite parts of society" shows up first in 1912, in McClure's Magazine: "From the Roosevelt standpoint, . . . it was a campaign from the 'grass roots up'."

The coinage and spread of the title of respect Ms. (a blend of Miss and Mrs.) as the equivalent of the maritally neutral Mr. is usually attributed to the feminist movement of the 1970s. However, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of Ms. to 1901, when a writer in the Humeston, Iowa, newspaper New Era reported in the December 4 issue that "As a word to be used in place of 'Miss' or 'Mrs.', when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the person addressed, the Springfield Republican [a newspaper of Springfield, Mass.] suggests a word of which 'Ms.' is the abbreviation, with a pronunciation something like 'Mizz'." The next time the word is mentioned was in 1949, in the linguist Mario Pei's book The Story of Language, where he credits feminists with the word's coinage. The fact is that Ms. is a much older word than we've been led to believe, preceding its use by women's lib by seventy years.

The word bunk, meaning "empty talk, nonsense, humbug," was introduced to the public in 1900 by the writer and journalist George Ade in his book More Fables. The automobile magnate Henry Ford, known for his acerbic tongue, used it in a sardonic article he published in 1916 in the Chicago Tribune: "History," wrote Ford, "is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." Bunk was a clipped form of the earlier bunkum, buncombe, after Buncombe County, North Carolina, whose representative in Congress made long, dull speeches to satisfy his constituents. Bunk was one of many clippings that were popularized at the turn of the century by newspaper and magazine writers (who were always in a hurry), among them dorm (dormitory), gas (gasoline), hon (honey), coke (cocaine), Coke (Coca-Cola), steno (stenographer), plane (airplane), and El (elevated train).

News reporters of the time began to take other liberties with words, as by forming blends like smog (1905, a blend of smoke and fog), dramedy (1905, a blend of drama and comedy), and spork (1909, a blend of spoon and fork), and unusual compounds like pussyfoot (1903, to move stealthily like a cat) and muckraker (1906, one who exposes corruption or scandal). The term muckraker was formed in allusion to the man in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress who "can look no way but downward" as he rakes muck with his tool, and it was applied to writers of reform-minded articles about prison conditions, political corruption, child labor and so on. Two famous muckrakers were Lincoln Steffens, whose book The Shame of the Cities (1904) exposed urban political corruption, and Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle (1906) revealed deplorable conditions in the meat-packing industry.

Another early innovation was the pronounceable abbreviation POTUS (1903, President of the United States). According to William Safire (in Safire's Political Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2008), the POTUS (often spelled Potus) was married to the FLOTUS or Flotus, the First Lady of the United States. In later years these shorthand names inspired others: Vpotus (for the vice president, pronounce VEE-po-tus), Slotus (for the VP's wife, the Second Lady of the United States), and Scotus (for the Supreme Court of the United States).

Among other common words that made their debut early in the decade were:

Achilles' tendon [1900]. The tendon of the heel. It was so called from the mythological story that as a baby, Achilles was dipped by his mother in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but because she held him by the heel, it was not dipped and therefore remained vulnerable. When we want to refer to someone's weak point, we say that it's his or her Achilles' heel.

ballyhoo [1901]. Extravagant advertising. Originally, a barker's spiel. According to the OED, the word was perhaps clipped from Irish English ballyhooly, used instead of "hell" to suggest chaos, confusion, and so on, from the name Ballyhooly, a village in County Cork, Ireland, "notorious for faction fighting." The verb ballyhoo, "to advertise extravagantly," appeared in 1911.

electrify [1900]. To supply (a factory, railroad, region, etc.) with electric power. The word was actually coined by Benjamin Franklin in 1727 in the sense of "to apply electric current to (a person)."

exurban [1901]. Belonging to a region beyond the suburbs. This word preceded by half a century the coinage of exurbia and exurbs, "the region beyond the suburbs inhabited by the well-to-do," both coined in the 1950s by A. C. Spectorsky and popularized in his book The Exurbanites.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

SOL STEINMETZ, a well-known lexicographer, has published more than thirty-five dictionaries and reference books, including the recent Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. He lives in New Rochelle, New York.

From the Hardcover edition.

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