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Bill Bryson – Made in America

October 15, 2008

125. Made in America by Bill Bryson (1994)

Length: 479 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 10 October 2008
Finished: 15 October 2008

The U. S. of A
has its own unique language.
Learn about it here!

Summary: Made in America is part linguistic and etymological study of American English, part people’s history of the United States, part trivia compendium, and entirely fully of Bryson’s dry wit and ex-pat sensibilities. Approximately the first half of the chapters go chronologically, taking a myth-busting look at American history from the first colonists through the industrial revolution, and documenting when (and occasionally how) various Americanisms entered the lexicon. The second half of the book is broken up by topic: eating, shopping, cars, planes, politics, movies, sports, etc., and investigates what each topic has contributed to our linguistic and cultural history.

Review: For trivia buffs, this book has got to be a goldmine. Among the many many things that I learned were that “ye”, when it was used as a “the” (vs. as “you”), was simply a lexigraphical shorthand and was still pronounced as “the” – so I’ve been mispronouncing my Ye Grande Olde TBR(e) Challenge all along. Also, Squanto (of the first Thanksgiving) had actually been to England and spoke English quite well; “E Pluribus Unum” was originally taken from a salad recipe; “panties” used to refer to men’s underwear, and didn’t refer to women’s underwear until the early 1900s; and “pass the buck” has nothing to do with money, but refers instead to a buckhorn knife used to keep track of the dealer in poker. Pretty much every subject imaginable has at least one similar anecdote.

However, in my case, this book suffered a bit from a case of mistaken expectations. I don’t know where I got the idea that it was focused primarily on linguistics and etymology; the back cover of my copy states “a fast, exhilarating ride along the Route 66 of American language and popular culture,” but somehow my brain never processed that last clause. I was expecting a lot more linguistics and not quite so much history – not that the history was uninteresting, but the language aspect often seemed incidental to the historical trivia. Similarly, instead of more detailed etymologies, Bryson frequently gives us lists of words and terms that emerged during a particular period, without much (if any) details or background.

Finally, this book was not quite as funny as I was expecting. The only other Bryson I’ve read is A Walk in the Woods (although I just read a copy of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid from Chartroose over at Bloody Hell, it’s a Book Barrage!). Anyways, A Walk in the Woods was choke-on-your-pancakes funny, but Made in America, while still dryly witty, is more scholarly, and only made me laugh out loud a few times. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: An interesting and exceptionally painless way to be exposed to a wide scope of American history, but it’s history through the lens of language, not a linguistic study in its own rights. Not a bad read by any means, but not something that left me raving, either.

Also, while we’re on the topic of linguistic trivia, and since I mentioned pancakes… one of my favorite neologisms in Spanish is the word for pancakes – “panqueques” (pan-kay-kays). (I don’t know how widespread this is across Latin America, but it’s prevalent in Costa Rica.) However, literally translated, “panqueques” becomes “bread-what-whats,” which is the best name for a breakfast food ever. “Yes, I’d like a short stack of bread-what-whats with a side of bacon, please.” Hee.

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First Line: In the 1940s, a British traveller to Anholt, a small island fifty miles out in the Kattegat straight between Denmark and Sweden, noticed that the island children sang a piece of doggerel that was clearly nonsense to them.

Vocab:

  • p. 81: “Throghout the long colonial period, the British had allowed very little British specie to circulate in the colonies.” – coined money; coin.
    .
  • p. 84: “Sound as a dollar, bett your bottom dollar, strike it rich, penny-ante and spondulicks or spondulix (a term of wholly mysterious origin) all date from the 1850s.” – money; cash.
    .
  • p. 162: “Never mind that their ships were never intended for passengers, that a crossing could take up to three months with the human freight crowded into fetid holds that were breeding grounds for diseases like trachoma and malignant typhus, which in the nineteenth century was so closely associated with Atlantic crossings that it was called ship fever.” – a chronic, contagious infection of the conjunctiva and cornea, characterized by the formation of granulations and scarring and caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis.
    .
  • p. 232: “He prowled the streets looking for malingering municipal workers, whom he would instantly dismiss, and personally supervised (with a certain presumed keenness) the censoring of movies at the local bijou.” – the dictionary definitions are all along the lines of “A small, exquisitely wrought trinket.”, but it’s clear that it means movie theater.
    .
  • p. 242: “The more sinister side of Prohibition also gave new meaning to such words as gangster (originally in the nineteenth century it denoted membership of political gangs, not criminal ones), moll (an old English term for a girl, which was given an unexpected boost as the word for a gangster’s distaff sidekick), and racket, another English word dating back to 1812 in the sense of shady doings, but which had died out there and was resurrected in America in 1927.” – noting, pertaining to, characteristic of, or suitable for a woman; female.
    .
  • p. 346: “In 1855, the Whigs emerged from this internecine squabbling as Republicans, and thus they have remained.” – of or pertaining to conflict or struggle within a group.
    .
8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2008 6:29 pm

    Now I need to read A Walk in the Woods.

    I loved Notes from a Small Island. It’s been so long though and it was before I kept notes on my reads so I don’t remember *how* funny it was, just that I really liked it.

  2. October 16, 2008 1:11 pm

    Sounds interesting, anyway. Maybe one to be taken with a grain of salt. Did he do In a Sunburned Country or am I thinking of someone else??

  3. October 16, 2008 1:35 pm

    Shana – Maybe it’s the difference between when he’s writing more personal anecdotes (like A Walk in the Woods and most of his other books) vs. when he’s writing more scholarly/academic/factual stuff (like Made in America)?

    Trish – Yup, that’s him.

  4. October 17, 2008 4:39 pm

    I didn’t know this book existed! I love the sound of it, although I would be disappointed too that there wasn’t more about linguistics. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

    I have his The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way on my list, but who knows when I’ll actually get to it.

  5. October 21, 2008 11:10 am

    This is one I haven’t read. It sounds kind of good, although I think I prefer travelogues to histor, so maybe I’ll just stick with those. Pancakes should still be called pankaykays. It’s much cuter!

  6. October 21, 2008 11:20 am

    Nymeth – I think my brain got Mother Tongue and Made in America mixed up, so I was expecting another straight-up linguistics book. If you go into it expecting American history by way of linguistics, though, it’s probably a lot better.

    chartroose – Having read one of each, I think I prefer the travelogues as well.

  7. John Endicott permalink
    November 3, 2008 5:37 am

    This is one hell of an interesting book. Being the senior generation now, I never realised how much we take for granted in our speech.
    I have become a Bryson fan since listening to him read, ‘A walk in the woods’, and have read nearly all his books, and my ribs ache when I hear him taking the ‘mickey’ out of us Brits!
    John

  8. November 3, 2008 10:43 am

    John – I don’t think it’s just a “senior generation” thing – I’ll often have moments when I stop to think about what I just said and realize that a) when taken literally, it makes no sense, and b) I have no idea why it means what it does.

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