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Splendiferous Speech: How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English

Splendiferous Speech: How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English

by Rosemarie Ostler


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What does it mean to talk like an American? According to John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, it means indulging in outlandish slang—splendiferous, scrumptious, higgeldy piggedly—and free-and-easy word creation—demoralize, lengthy, gerrymander. American English is more than just vocabulary, though. It’s a picturesque way of talking that includes expressions like go the whole hog, and the wild boasts of frontiersman Davy Crockett, who claimed to be “half horse, half alligator, and a touch of the airthquake.” Splendiferous Speech explores the main sources of the American vernacular—the expanding western frontier, the bumptious world of politics, and the sensation-filled pages of popular nineteenth-century newspapers. It’s a process that started with the earliest English colonists (first word adoption—the Algonquian raccoon) and is still going strong today. Author Rosemarie Ostler takes readers along on the journey as Americans learn to declare linguistic independence and embrace their own brand of speech. For anyone who wonders how we got from the English of King James to the slang of the Internet, it’s an exhilarating ride.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780912777054
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Rosemarie Ostler holds a PhD in Linguistics and has been interviewed on numerous radio programs including NPR’s Tell Me More and The Bob Edwards Show. She is the author of four books about American English: Founding Grammars, a finalist for the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Nonfiction; Slinging Mud; Let’s Talk Turkey; and Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers. Ostler has written for The Saturday Evening Post, Christian Science Monitor, Writer’s Digest, and other magazines.

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One English Becomes Two

English colonists started building the road to Bartlett's dictionary almost as soon as they landed on American shores. The first Americanisms were contributed by John Smith, a leading founder of the Jamestown, Virginia, colony. Smith sailed into Chesapeake Bay with 104 fellow settlers on April 26, 1607, and started recording new words right away.

In 1608 he sent home a letter describing his first meeting with the great Algonquian chief Wahunsonacock, also known as Powhatan. The story features an early version of one of the first naturalized American English words. Smith tells how two native guides ushered him into a large gathering around a fire, where he found the chief lying "uppon a Bedstead a foote high, upon tenne or twelve mattes, richly hung with manie Chaynes of great Pearles about his necke, and covered with a great Covering of Rahaughcums."

It's doubtful that Smith intended to create a new English word. He was careful to underline Rahaughcums (italicized in the published version) to show that it was foreign. He simply wanted to describe the scene, and since no English word existed for the cloak of ring-tailed raccoon pelts that Powhatan wore, Smith borrowed the Algonquian one. Over time, he borrowed several more words from the same source. They made it into the permanent vocabulary because English needed them, and eventually they made it into Bartlett's dictionary.

Smith took several stabs at trying to represent the pronunciation of Rahaughcum. In the same letter, he writes, "The Empereur Powhatan, each weeke once or twice, sent me many presents of Deare, bread, Raugroughcuns." Several years later, describing Virginia wildlife, he says, "There is a beast they call Aroughcun, much like a badger, but useth to live on trees, as squirrels doe." By the time he wrote again about his first meeting with Powhatan in the 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, he had whittled the spelling down to the more English-looking Rarowcun. By 1672, others had standardized the word as raccoon.

The earliest American words are all borrowed from Algonquian, a large language family that in the seventeenth century included dozens of member languages. It was spoken all along the East Coast as far north as Canada. Unfortunately, Algonquian languages aren't an easy fit for English. Meanings that English speakers express with several separate words come together in one word in Algonquian. Powhatan, for example, means "falls on a rapid stream," a reference to the James River falls, part of Powhatan's territory.

To make matters more complicated, English spelling was pretty much do-it-yourself in the seventeenth century. No overall standard existed, and writers often spelled a word more than one way. That would have been even truer for words from other languages. The evolution of raccoon set the pattern for other adoptive Algonquian words. The English tried out several spellings, while also chopping off a syllable or two to get a word that looked more English.

These early linguistic innovations almost certainly passed unnoticed by the colonists. Their goals when they arrived in North America were economic, not cultural, and it would hardly have occurred to them that their actions would have a permanent impact on the English language. The British government's aim was to establish an outpost in North America. The French and Spanish had taken possession of American territories decades earlier, and James I thought it was time that England staked its own claim in the "new world."

The expedition's sponsor, the Virginia Company of London, was interested in the commercial possibilities of the new territory. The company instructed the men of Jamestown to travel as far as they could up any navigable rivers in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, the fabled quick route to the Pacific Ocean and the Orient. The colonists were also told to bring pickaxes to any likely-looking hilly areas and dig for gold. The Spanish were enriching themselves with gold and silver from Mexico and South America, and the English hoped for the same success on the East Coast. Rumors of "golden cities" had been circulating for years.

The Jamestown colonists would be frustrated in many of their aims. They traveled about sixty miles up the James River, only to discover a fall line that made the James and the area's other rivers impassable. That ended their hopes of finding a quick route to the Pacific. Then, after wasting many months mining iron pyrite ore — known as "fool's gold" to the initiated — they were forced to abandon their dream of quick riches. The London investors didn't see a return on their money until decades later, when the colony started growing tobacco for sale. Smith and his companions did, however, succeed in establishing England's first permanent North American colony.

Although the Virginia Territory stretched from what is now New England to the Carolinas, the colonists chose to settle in the tidewater area of the Chesapeake because earlier explorers recommended it. The weather was mild for much of the year and the soil was fertile. Several large rivers emptied into the bay. Smith would later declare that "heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation."

Still, it was alien territory. Unlike the heavily cultivated countryside of England, the land here looked wild and overgrown. Dense hardwood forest grew almost down to the beach. The bay, which was thirty miles across at its widest point, was dotted with large and small islands, some wooded, others covered with grass. Unfamiliar animals populated the woods. The land surrounding the river mouths was marshy. Even though the men had just spent four months crowded onto three small ships, they must have felt some trepidation at their first sight of their new home.

Their misgivings could only have increased when the next day's scouting party was greeted with a volley of arrows. Seventeenth-century North America might have looked wild to English eyes, but it wasn't untenanted. At least two dozen Native American tribes, probably between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand people, lived in a scattering of small villages around the Chesapeake area. These included Powhatan's people, called the Powhatan. They lived by harvesting the bay's plentiful fish and shellfish, as well as hunting and gathering wild plants. They also grew corn, beans, pumpkins, tobacco, and a few other crops.

The Jamestown colonists needed to get on good terms with the Powhatan. They were ill equipped to survive on their own. About half were upper-class gentlemen who had never done manual labor and considered themselves above it. Some of the rest were workers with practical skills, such as carpenters and bricklayers, but even they weren't prepared to build a self-sustaining community from scratch.

Luckily for the English, tribal leaders saw advantages in trading corn and venison for copper, hatchets, knives, and other English products. Although violence continued to break out at intervals, and worsened once the Indians realized that the English were planning to stay permanently, there were many periods of truce over the next several years. As a leader of the colony, Captain Smith made frequent trips to Indian villages to negotiate for corn and other food and to try to establish friendly relations.

A former soldier, the twenty-seven-year-old Smith had adventured all across Europe before joining the Jamestown expedition. Although he stayed in the colony for only two years before returning to England, he was an interested and alert observer of the land and native cultures. He was also eager to share his exploits with those back home. He wrote about everything he saw and did.

He described the region's flora and fauna, borrowing an Algonquian word whenever he couldn't find an English one. "The Opassom," he writes, "hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignesse of a Cat." The word opassom, like raccoon, went through a few iterations, sometimes being spelled apossoun, with possum finally emerging in 1670. He also notes an exotic fruit tree: "The Putchamin is first green, then yellow, and red. ... When it is ripe it is as delicious as an Apricock." Other writers called this fruit a Pishamin or a Pessemmin, before finally settling on persimmon.

Besides slipping Algonquian words into his narratives, Smith collected them in lists. Most of these words didn't make it into the English vocabulary. Two that did are tomahawk and moccasin. Smith was also the first to note certain northeastern Algonquian words. His 1614 visit to New England yielded hominy, muskrat, and moose ("a beast bigger than a Stagge").

Smith also recorded many details of native life. One of these is the probable origin of an early political term. The Chickahominy people, Smith says, "are governed by the Priests and their Assistants, or their Elders, called Cawcawwassoughes."

Years later, an Americanized version of the word with simplified spelling appeared in the May 5, 1760, Boston Gazette. Noting a new political trend, the newspaper describes a dozen or so men who have "been known to combine together, and are called by the Name of the New and Grand Corcas." By this time, the meaning had evolved from a tribal elder to a group of likeminded individuals (like party elders) who met to discuss policy. By the 1780s, the word was being spelled caucus and had acquired its modern political meaning. Like so many American nouns, it had also spawned a verb — to caucus.

Caucus was one of the first of several native words that the English appropriated for political purposes. Eighteenth-century men's clubs had a habit of borrowing Native American terminology to name their organizations or officers. New York's notorious political organization Tammany Hall owed its name to Chief Tamanend, a seventeenth-century Delaware chief in what is now Pennsylvania.

An intriguing aspect of Smith's narratives is the amount of conversation he records between the English and the Algonquians. Describing his first meeting with Powhatan, he recounts how the chief welcomed him with "good wordes" and assurances of friendship. Before negotiations started, they exchanged stories. Powhatan asked why the English had landed at the Chesapeake, and Smith told him a tale of being forced into the bay by extreme weather. The chief in turn related what he knew of the land and people on the other side of the James River's fall line.

With these preliminaries out of the way, they struck a deal: "Hee promised to give me Corne, Venison, or what I wanted to feede us; Hatchets and Copper wee should make him, and none should disturbe us." This initial trade negotiation was only the first of many extended discussions that the two men shared during Smith's time in Virginia. Smith's retelling of these meetings often includes Powhatan speaking improbably fluent seventeenth-century English. "Your kind visitation doth much content me," Smith quotes him as saying on one occasion.

Was the chief really speaking English? Was the captain speaking Algonquian and translating Powhatan's remarks? Or, in reality, were they both frantically gesticulating? It could have been a little of all three. Smith no doubt embellished the dialogues to some extent. He also must have spoken some Algonquian. By the time he met Powhatan, he had been bartering with various tribes for several months and had plenty of opportunity to pick up a few words.

At some point, he learned enough to interpret for the others. One of the men who accompanied Smith on a February 1608 visit to Powhatan describes "the great kinge and our captain" renewing their acquaintance with "many pretty discourses." He then quotes a Powhatan speech in ordinary English and follows it with the remark, "Captain Smith being our interpreter ... told us his [Powhatan's] intent was but to cheat us." The way this incident is presented suggests that Powhatan's "English" speeches were either translations or paraphrases.

It's likely that the chief also knew a little English. The Jamestown settlers weren't the first Englishmen he'd ever met. English speakers had been making landfall along the North American coast for nearly a century before Smith and his companions arrived. These earlier visitors also traded with the Indians. Some language exchange would have been all but inevitable.

Or maybe Powhatan learned English from an Algonquian speaker who had been in England. For decades, English explorers routinely captured two or three Indians and brought them back to London. After the Indians learned English, they would be taken back to America to act as interpreters for later expeditions.

Several Powhatan made the voyage east, including three men who caused a sensation in 1603 by paddling their canoe up the Thames River. No one knows what happened to these three — no Algonquians were on the ships that sailed for Jamestown. However, one or more of them could have returned to Virginia on an unrecorded sailing.

Many early encounters between the English and the Algonquians obviously relied on gestures. In a 1607 report, Gabriel Archer, a member of Smith's exploring party, tells of flagging down some natives who were passing in a canoe. The Indians realized that the English were asking for directions, and one obliged by drawing a map of the river, first in the dirt with his foot, then with a pen and paper provided by Archer. This incident was probably more typical of interactions between the two groups than the long conversations detailed by Smith. It seems clear, though, that words were being traded along with goods.

* * *

The second permanent English colony benefited even more from English-speaking natives. In most ways, the men and women who founded the Plymouth Colony in 1620 were the antithesis of the Jamestown men. They were not adventurers in search of quick riches but religious dissenters who came to America for a chance to practice their faith without interference from the English government. They were industrious people, many with families, better organized and more focused than their Jamestown compatriots. The settlers that we know as the Pilgrims were like the Jamestown settlers in one important way though — they were poorly prepared for survival in America.

Although the colonists who set sail on the Mayflower in September 1620 have come down in history as the Pilgrims, they never called themselves that. The word appears only once in Of Plimoth Plantation, governor William Bradford's record of the colony. Describing the group's departure from the Netherlands, where they had settled a decade earlier, he alludes to a passage in the New Testament Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews. He writes, "So they lefte that goodly and pleasant citie, which had been ther resting place near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens." (Like all seventeenth-century writers, Bradford had his own individual spelling style.)

The word pilgrim had, of course, been around for centuries. It could mean someone who traveled to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion or, as Bradford meant it, a person for whom the world was merely a temporary stopping place on the way to heaven. Except for quotations or paraphrases of Bradford's original sentence, the word wouldn't be used as a reference to the Plymouth colonists until about two hundred years later.

The term Pilgrim Fathers is first recorded in a speech given by the New England statesman Daniel Webster. Speaking at a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the Mayflower landing on December 22, 1820, he talked of coming together to pay homage to "our Pilgrim Fathers." Webster must have liked the phrase because he used it again in later speeches.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Pilgrim with a capital P was the common name for the Plymouth settlers. Around the same time, the word without an initial capital picked up a new meaning. It started being applied to greenhorns on the western frontier. John Wayne later made this usage famous in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and other movies, but it was probably not that common when Bartlett wrote his book. He doesn't include it in any edition, although a few entries mention capital-P Pilgrims.


Excerpted from "Splendiferous Speech"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Rosemarie Ostler.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Prologue: American Talk,
1 One English Becomes Two,
2 The Two Englishes Part Ways,
3 An American Tongue,
4 Words from the West,
5 Slang-Whanging in Congress,
6 American Words in the News,
7 American English Takes Its Station,
8 A Collection of Words "Peculiar to the United States",
9 The Words Keep Coming,
Epilogue: The American Way with Words,
Select Bibliography,

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