by Rosemarie Ostler
It only takes a quick surf around the internet to see that Americans are fascinated by their own language use. Countless blogs offer grammar and usage advice, or simply complain about the falling off of standards. At the other end of the spectrum, dozens of websites celebrate the latest slang and buzzwords. Whether you worry that people use too many texting abbreviations—LOL—or want help with your own usage, or just want to read about this year’s Words of the Year, there’s a blog post for you.
When it comes to language use, Americans have always had a split personality. From the earliest days of the new republic, ambitious citizens were committed to proper grammar—the ability to write and speak elegantly was a necessary first step toward social and economic advancement. Grammar primers enjoyed brisk sales, with nearly two dozen titles in circulation by the 1780s.
A solid commitment to good grammar and usage, however, didn’t keep Americans from appreciating the flip side of American English—the slang, folk speech, and new word creations that give the language its unique flavor. Collections of “Americanisms”—words that Americans invented or drastically changed—began appearing in print almost as long ago as American grammar manuals. They show that while early Americans were carefully memorizing grammar rules, their everyday speech popped with dozens of newly coined words and expressions. Princeton president John Witherspoon, who introduced the word “Americanisms,” also provided some of the earliest examples in a 1781 newspaper essay. Witherspoon claimed that you could tell Americans from the British because they said mad for angry and notify for inform, and they identified individuals with certain, as in a certain Thomas Benson. When making political speeches, they addressed their fellow countrymen.
Different regions had their own special words too. Southerners used tote instead of carry, and New Englanders said improve when they meant put to use. Those in the middle states said once in a while to mean sometimes.
Witherspoon was just skimming the surface of the new country’s word hoard. Americans were especially strong on new verbs. Early creations include boost, narrate, donate, resurrect, and belittle, as well as the now sadly defunct happify (get happy), quiddle (keep busy), and absquatulate (leave quickly), to name just a few.
American English was also rich with colorful expressions. Tall-talking backwoods folks like the legendary Davy Crockett contributed such picturesque idioms as kick the bucket, see how the cat jumps, go the whole hog, and bark up the wrong tree. Other expressions grew out of the frontier environment—pull up stakes, play possum, blaze a trail.
Davy Crockett at the fall of the Alamo. Image in the public domain via Wikimedia .
Naturally, the sticklers for correct British English disapproved of these unorthodox additions to the vocabulary. The traditional grammar books found in every nineteenth-century classroom often included lists of “low, coarse” expressions to be avoided. One grammarian cautions against slang like topsy-turvy and hurly-burly, while another tells students to avoid provincial words like tote. Instead, children spent hours learning correct verb forms—I shall go, thou wilt go—and proper sentence structure—To whom did you speak?
Americans continued to adopt new words and phrases in spite of the grammar books. The first major collection, John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, contains hundreds of slang words, regionalisms, and popular figures of speech. His book opens a window on a nation of enthusiastic word wranglers whose language reflected their lives.
Bartlett netted colorful words and phrases from all facets of American culture. Politics, then as now, was a promising resource. Bartlett collected stump speaker, caucus, lobby, gerrymander, on the fence, and lame duck, among other terms, plus descriptively named political parties like Old Hunkers (conservative), Barnburners (radical), and Loco-Focos (way out there).
The expanding western frontier was also an ongoing source of new language. Flash in the pan, bushwhacker, blizzard, make tracks, mosey along, rope in, and take a licking are some of the words and phrases included in Bartlett’s book. Except for defunct political parties, these terms are with us still, even though the world that gave rise to them has disappeared.
Americans today continue to examine their language use from all angles. Style guides—today’s version of grammar books—still stand as bastions of proper speech. At the same time, new slang and jargon appear frequently both on the internet and in print. Just as yesterday’s word collections reveal America’s linguistic history for us, the folk language that we’re collecting now will give future historians a peek into the cultural and linguistic variety of the early twenty-first century.
ROSEMARIE OSTLER,, a linguist and former librarian, enjoys delving into the rich record of American usage and word invention. Her books about slang and word origins explore the colorful turns of phrase in America’s past lexicon. Ostler’s articles have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Whole Earth, Christian Science Monitor, Verbatim, Writer’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.com among others. Rosemarie lives in Eugene, Oregon.