Like “A Dictionary of Americanisms,” Stuart Berg Flexner’s 1976 “I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases” is also out of print. Just over 500 pages long, it also approaches Americanisms through history, using lots of photographs and pictures to illustrate the time periods in which certain words were coined. Running from “Abolition” to “yes and no,” Flexner’s opus could serve as a standalone history text.
From their sizes alone, these two tomes demonstrate the bountiful contributions of Americans to the English language, a circus of words and expressions as entertaining in their own way as Barnum & Bailey's acrobats, clowns, and jugglers.
So Many Words, So Little TimeIn his Preface, Flexner writes: “I ask the reader to be patient if he doesn’t find everything he would like in this volume. All books are slim compared to the vast bulk of the American language and it would be impossible to treat everything of importance and interest in one volume, or one lifetime.” Flexner then goes on to tell us that he hasn’t included terms from such fields as sports, entertainment, specific professions, or the Space Age.
Our Mother Tongue Adopts One and AllMore than any other country, America is a mélange of cultures and peoples, and from that rich stew, words from all over the world bubble up and become a part of our language.
The Irish, for instance, likely gave us “shenanigan,” from the Gaelic for “I play the fox,” meaning a trickster. From the Jews come such words as “mensch” (a manly man) and “schlemiel” (a foolish, unlucky, clumsy person). Germans brought us words like “bummer,” from “bummler,” meaning loafer. The word "bummer" referred to Gen. Sherman’s troops in the Civil War who confiscated food and property from homes in Georgia. It evolved into the terms "bum" and "beach bum," and today can indicate frustration, as in “I have to retake the exam. What a bummer!” The names of foodstuffs like “ravioli” (little turnips), “vermicelli” (little worms), and “spaghetti” (little strings) were carried here from Italy.
Because of our proximity to Mexico and points south, Spanish in particular has played a large role in contributing to our Americanisms. Bronco, hombre, corral, rodeo, siesta, loco, pronto: These and other words from South of the Border have been a part of our language since the mid-19th century. If you slap a mosquito while eating a bonanza of burritos on the patio, every noun in that clause derives from Spanish.
Search online for English words rooted in countries like China, Japan, India, France, or Russia, and you’ll just scratch the surface of this heritage of words.
Plastered, Petrified, Potted
“Drunk,” Flexner tells us, “has more synonyms than any other word. Benjamin Franklin was the first American to publish a list of them, ending up with 228 terms in 1737.” Some of Franklin’s terms, like “buzzed” or “stewed to the gills,” remain in circulation while others—“pigeon-eyed,” “has his flag out,” or “fuzzled”—have passed on, however poetic to the ear.
After a glass or two of wine, we “have a glow on.” Another couple of glasses, and we’re "tipsy.” A couple of bottles, and we’re “smashed,” “stoned,” “hammered,” or “soused.”
During the Prohibition era, bootlegging became a $2 billion industry employing over half a million people engaged in some aspect of that illegal trade, and our language reflected that involvement. "Bathtub gin," "bootlegger," "rumrunner," "speakeasy," "trigger men," and "one-way ride" are just a few of the terms familiar to all in the age of flappers and the Charleston.
As they explain to readers, “There are phrases and sayings used in the business world as shorthand every day, and it’s helpful to know and understand them to communicate better.” “The ball is in their court” comes from tennis, “Hail Mary” is a desperation pass in football, and if you “go to bat” for someone, you’re using a baseball term to indicate your support. “Off base,” “take one for the team,” and “par for the course” are just a few other terms the writers explain to the nonsporting crew.
Even a sport like boxing, which has become less popular among Americans in the last few decades, has left its mark on the way we speak and write. “Low blow,” “lightweight,” “keep your hands up,” “the old one-two,” “punch-drunk,” and “saved by the bell” are only a few bits of this sport’s jargon still in common usage.
Edification, Escape, and Entertainment
A man I know in Tennessee, a reader of The Epoch Times, takes great pleasure in examining the vagaries of English. Others I’ve met enjoy leafing through books like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s “The Best Words” or Bill Bryson’s “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words,” or taking some smiles away from Peter Bowler’s “The Superior Person’s Book of Words,” which includes words, definitions, and examples like “Limaceous: Sluglike, having to do with slugs. Keep your hands to yourself, you limaceous endomorph!”
If language is at the heart of culture—and words and their meanings are, of course, at the heart of language—then engaging with our language and learning a bit about it means learning more about our culture. Collections like those of Flexner and Mathews conclusively demonstrate this connection.
But there’s another reason to mess about with words.
In the first lines of “Moby Dick,” the narrator Ishmael tells us, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Right now, we live in a raucous, chaotic age that daily throws at us plenty of reasons to go "grim about the mouth." If you want to take a breather from this bad news, then pick up a book at the library or open up your computer or phone, sink into a sofa or chair, and search out words, their derivations, and their usage.
It's easy, it’s fun, and it’s good for the culture and for the soul.