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America in So Many Words presents a unique and fascinating historical view of this country's language. It chronicles, year by year, the contributions we have made to the vocabulary of English and the words we have embraced as the nation has evolved. From canoe (1555), and corn (1608), to newbie (1993), and Ebonics (1997), a prominent word for nearly every year in the history of our nation is analyzed and discussed in its historical context. The result is an engaging survey of American linguistic culture through the centuries. The authors - both lifelong students of American English - bring a great depth of understanding to the words that have made the nation and the language what they are today.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.36(w) x 8.59(h) x 1.05(d)|
About the Author
David K. Barnhart is the editor and publisher of The Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly magazine that reports new developments in the English Language, and the author of Neo-Words: A Dictionary of the Newest and Most Unusual Words of Our Times. He currently resides in Garrison, New York.
Read an Excerpt
THE ENGLISH IN AMERICA: 1497-1750
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 (1555).
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 English.
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 groundhog (1742).
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 forty paddlers.
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."
1602 Indian 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 ancestry.
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 destroy us."
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."
1610 opossum 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.
1611 tomahawk Two different lists of Algonquian Indian 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 his 1612 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 and chopping.
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 chowder.
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 coast.
"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 overcome."
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 owners.
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.
1621 Thanksgiving 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.
Table of Contents
|Introduction: Representative Words||v|
|Note on Sources||x|
|America in So Many Words|
|The English in America: 1497-1750||1|
|These United States: 1751-1800||60|
|Mammoth Enterprise: 1801-1865||102|
|End of the Frontier: 1866-1900||163|
|Modern Times: 1901-1944||198|
|Nearing the Millennium: 1945-1998||241|