Meathenge

     
 

New World has Own, Strange Colloquialisms
2002-01-05 21:23:03


Life Before Unix
 
Sid gets 10 points for accuracy and 10 for style. But I bet the French judge only gives her 8.
-- Lenny from Canadia

 

This fascinating article from the 1883 Chambers's Encyclopedia provides a snapshot of late nineteenth-century British fascination with things American.

Look for the zany British condescension we know and love, but also for shades of real admiration. What's really wonderful is how much of this is still true, although perhaps not in the same way that the author intended. "...the use of slang is excessive in America, especially in the Western States" probably long predates common phrases such as "Dude, you're totally harshing my buzz with your freaky giblet machine dancing on my scrote." Instead the "excessive" slang referred to was likely more along the lines of a businessman occasionally referring to legal tender as "greenbacks" or some such.

Copyright on this material has of course long since expired, and information like this would be lost forever if not for the painstaking research of Pigdog Journal's fine team of historical archivists. Or is it archival historians? Either way it's a pretty damn funny read, so just read it and shut up, OK?

AMERICANISMS are words and phrases current in the United States of America, and not current in England. These peculiarities are much more prominent in conversation than in writing; indeed, in the American writers that are usually considered classical, it is difficult to detect anything of the kind. The number of absolutely new words introduced into the English language in America is remarkably small. As an instance may be mentioned caucus, for a secret political assembly. This is a corruption of calk-house, a calker's shed in Boston, where the patriots before the revolution had usually held their meetings. The term Yankee (an Indian corruption of the French Anglais) is another. The great body of A. consist in giving an unusual sense to existing words: as clever, in the sense of amiable, and smart for clever; wagon for a very light kind of carriage; book-store for a bookseller's shop; wilted for withered; creek for a small river, instead of a small arm of the sea.

The several divisions of the Union have their characteristic peculiarities. Thus, in the New England States—Yankeeland proper—ugly is used for ill-natured; friends for relations (so used also in Scotland); and guess for a great variety of things—to think, presume, suppose, &c. This use of guess is confined to New England; the inhabitants of New York and of the Middle States generally employ expect the same way; while those of the Southern States reckon; and those of the Western States calculate. Several words current in the Middle States are of Dutch origin, as loafer for a vagabond, from the Dutch loopen, to run; and boss for a head workman or employer. The Southern States have fewer peculiarities than any of the other divisions. In the Western States, again, there is hardly any recognized standard of speech, and in some districts 'it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that every prominent person has his own private vocabulary.' The verb to fix is made to do duty for expressing every conceivable kind of action. The vague use of this word is common all over the Union, but in the West the abuse is carried out to the extreme. Help, in the sense of servant, is common to the West and to New England, but is nearly unknown in the Middle States. The well-known phrase go a-head is a coinage of the West; it is sufficiently expressive of the leading characteristic of the American people. Posted-up in a subject, for 'well-informed,' is one of a class of metaphors indicative of the prominence of mercantile pursuits.

The tendency to the use of slang is excessive in America, especially in the Western States. 'Every state, every city has its own flash vocabulary; but it is in the political world that this tendency to cant phrases most develops itself Every new party, every new modification of an old party, is bound to have at least one new name, either assumed by itself or attached to it by its opponents.'

A variety of causes have been enumerated to account for the existance of those derivations from standard English, such as, the influence of the Indian languages; the various tongues spoken by settlers from Europe; the original provincial peculiarities of portions of the English settlers, &c. For instance, Dr M. Shele de Vere, whose work, The English of the New World (1873), is the best on the subject, states that the largest number of so-called Americanisms are good old English words which have become obsolete or provincial in the mother-country. But even supposing the language of the United States were at this moment in every respect identical with that of England, and to be henceforth unaffected by the importation of foreign elements, the complete identity could not be expected to continue long. Not only do new circumstances and wants make new terms necessary, and modify the application of old, but those changes of structure which constitute the organic growth of every living tongue, are evolved more or less rapidly according to the industrial and political activity if those that speak it. To complain, then, that the English language in America, or in any of the British Colonies, should exhibit deviations from the standard of the mother-country is as unreasonable as to complain that an animal should exhibit changes in its coat when removed from one climate to another. Though it is certainly desirable that the language of the various sections of the Anglo-Saxon race should be substantially one, yet the general adoption of a new term or mode of expression by a great community may be presumed to have a cause deeper than any that may be controlled by criticism.

As the Americans of Anglo-Saxon origins do not exceed one-third of the whole population of the United States, it seems wonderful that the English language should have held its ground so well—that it should not have been completely corrupted, or even in some places extruded by other tongues. Yet there is apparantly no danger of this. The original Dutch of New York has disappeared, with the exception of a few stray words; and although French is still spoken in one-half of the city of New Orleans, it has been preserved at the expense of the speakers isolating themselves and losing their due influence. The proximity of the German-speaking population that still holds out in Pennsylvania, &c., has no sensible effect on the language of their English-speaking neighbours; while, on the other hand, the influence of the English is reducing the language of the Germans to a corrupt patois, swarming with English words. —See The English Language in America, in the Cambridge Essays for 1855; Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1858).

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

paco@pigdog.org


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