Made in America:
An Informal History of the English Language in the United States,
by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Martin Kich
The key word in Bryson's subtitle is "informal." He sets this tone very early on when he pauses to provide a somewhat extended, if ultimately inconclusive, aside on the origins of the phrase "Eenie, meenie, minie, mo."
Even a fairly brief academic study of this subject, such as Albert H. Marckwardt and J.L. Dillard's American English, reads rather dryly, being a compilation of selective illustrations of the peculiarities of American English as they might be defined within traditional linguistic categories such as persistent archaisms, word borrowings, compounds, coinages, and blends. Compared to fuller academic treatments, such as Thomas Pyles' Words and Ways of American English, Marckwardt and Dillard's book is less exhaustively detailed, but not appreciably more lively.
On the other hand, although H.L. Mencken's groundbreaking effort, The American Language, is certainly lively in the author's characteristic, idiosyncratic manner, it has two significant limitations for the contemporary reader: first, it is a half-century out-of-date; second, it is full of exhaustive lists that more provide a slew of curiosities than truly interesting reading for the casual student of American English.
In a sense, Mencken has freed Bryson from the impulse to be thorough, even at the expense of being entertaining. And Bryson certainly makes the most of his opportunities to be entertaining. He is most interested in conveying the incredible vitality of our brand of English. In a sense he reverses the usual emphasis: instead of focusing on the words themselves and acknowledging, almost in passing, the historical circumstances that have shaped their forms and meanings, Bryson stresses how the spirit of each age has been reflected in its contributions to our language. In the later chapters, in fact, he might even be accused of sometimes losing sight of his linguistic subject in his great enthusiasm for all kinds of anecdotes.
A recurring story in the book involves what we have called ourselves and our nation. While every schoolchild learns that America was named spuriously for Amerigo Vespucci, few may know that it was forty years before the name on the map, "America," achieved any widespread usage, and then it was used primarily to refer to South America.
Indeed, for about two centuries in North America, the term "Americans" was used primarily to refer to Native Americans. It was not until the War of Jenkins Ear in the mid 18th century that the English began with any frequency to use "Americans" to refer to the people of the colonies along the North American seaboard.
The first recorded reference to the "United States of America" occurs in Thomas Paine's inflammatory pamphlet Common Sense. Between the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and 1778, the rebellious colonists referred to themselves variously as the "United States of North America" and the "United Colonies of North America."
Interestingly, as States' Rightists have often pointed out, the U.S. Constitution typically treats the "United States" as a plural form--as in "the United States are . . ."--not as a collective noun to be regarded as a singular.
Indeed, because "United States" seemed to some to require the adjectival form "United Statesian," the Founding Fathers considered all sorts of alternatives for the nation's name, including "Columbia," "Appalachia," "Alleghenia," "Freedonia," and the "United States of Columbia." The "United States of America" was chosen over the other names basically because they were unable to reach a consensus on any of the other suggestions, each of which may have had initially a good deal more support than the final choice.
Then during the Civil War, a major change occurred in the way Americans referred to their country. Before the Civil War, the term "Union" was used more commonly than the word "nation." But, because the war was fought largely to assert the Federal hegemony over the individual states, it is not surprising that "Union," with its suggestion of voluntary participation, quickly became something of an archaism.
Bryson's book is an extremely readable compendium of all sorts of information about America and American English. In discussing the surprising frequency with which the names of American places have been changed, Bryson notes that Scranton, Pennsylvania (my hometown, so named for a family that was first very prominent the regional coal industry and then in state politics) went through eight name changes in the first few decades of its history. I had been aware of the early name "Slocum Hollow," but Scrantonians seem to have banished from their collective memories the place's initial name, "Skunk's Misery."