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How English became American . . .


Something different to his usual travel books, very easy to read

might appeal most to those interested in language (but not necessarily)

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Quite a while ago (back in those dim and distant days long before our local bookshop closed) when I was working my way through the different Bill Bryson books, I picked Made In America up and bought it. At the time, I chose it purely because it was one of the Bryson books I hadn't read and I didn't realise how it would differ from his usual travel-writing books. But in this case, I don't think difference is particularly a bad thing because he has selected a very intriguing topic to write about - language. (Or, more precisely, how the English language evolved once it was taken to America. And, if I think about it, since it's getting on for four centuries since the Pilgrim Fathers got there that's quite a long time for one language to evolve in its own direction!)

Made In America is not his "usual" approach to writing, mainly because it takes language as a kind of central theme rather than travel - although Bryson looks at lots of different aspects to past and present American life, this time words are the backbone in the sense that he is considering where they originated, how they originated and how they sometimes evolved to mean one thing in British English and a slightly different thing in American English. (I was actually surprised to learn that in the 1780s, "avenue" already described a type of street in America when at the same time in England, the same word was a descriptive term for a line of trees.)

Writing a book about language must be quite a task - I am not sure I could do it, I don't even think I would know where to start - and so the way that Bryson has tackled it (which seems perfectly logical to me) is to begin from the seventeenth century, when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in America and work forwards. As I often find he does, Bill Bryson makes the historical side quite easy to follow - I imagine most people would at least know something about the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on it, but what I really like is the way he picks out aspects of the voyage and the early settlement that seem utterly baffling, at least to me. (I think I agree with him that certain of these travellers got their priorities totally wrong - one man took the trouble to pack 126 pairs of shoes, whilst a printer, some tailors and a silk worker were on board as well, yet it never occurred to anyone to bring any cattle or farming implements to work the land with. Bryson comments, "they packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip" - I just think it's a miracle that they didn't all starve to death, although Bryson points out that this lack of preparation did kill off around half of the group within the first four months.) And into all this, explanations of words as they were interpreted then are dotted around - it seems that "farmer" didn't actually mean "working on the land raising animals and cultivating crops" as it might now, it meant "man who owns the land that other people cultivate and raise animals on", which explains why the "farmers" on the Mayflower weren't a great deal of use when it came to feeding people either!

In this kind of style, he then goes on to consider various other stages of American history - from the time when it declared independence through to the nineteenth-century when (for instance) the Irish potato famine had led huge numbers of Irish people (with various numbers of immigrants coming from other countries for whatever other reasons) to sail for America. I thought this section was particularly interesting because Bryson shows that this mass movement of people obviously had effects on the language spoken in the United States in the same ways that it affected the balance of what nationalities made up the population of the country. Even such issues as shopping and technology each get a chapter devoted to them - I don't think it would occur to me to look at something as simple as shopping when writing a book about language but it is surprising what can change speech. (I never realised, for instance, that people like Clarence Birdseye - for there was such a man! - originally wanted to call frozen food "frosted food" because they thought the phrase "frozen" suggested food damaged by freezer burns, but in the end customers were just as confused by "frosted" because they weren't sure whether it meant frozen or a piece of food covered in icing!)

Obviously, where language changes, there are going to be people making the changes so Made In America contains its fair share of personalities where they are relevent and some of these are quite startling. Amongst others, Bryson considers Amelia Bloomer (she who popularised the trousers - not, as you might imagine, long knickers but just a pair of oversized trousers worn under a skirt, going by the first definition of the word), a rather prudish man called Sylvanus Stall who wrote a late Victorian book to help parents explain the "facts of life" to their curious offspring using the bizarre approach that, if you dressed the subject up in lots of flowery language and complimented your child on their interest, you could produce an answer that didn't explain a thing to them, and one Harry G. Selfridge who founded that famous department store and, before that, introduced what to us would be a "normal" way to shop ie. having things on counters so you could touch them (or shoplift them . . . Bryson adds during this section that the word had been around since 1680!), counting down the shopping days left until Christmas and creating gift certficates (thinking about it, it is hard to imagine shopping being any different to that these days - but obviously it was) before his wife died and he turned a bit hedonistic, squandered all of his money (and some of that belonging to his business, to the total of $8 million!) and essentially died in poverty in London. Interpretation of language actually provides another funny bit when he talks about how the Sears catalogue was relied upon by so many rural Americans in the early twentieth century for what was effectively a mail-order catalogue, to the point where it still had a loyal customer base even when it tried such sneaky advertising tactics as offering "a luxuriously upholstered sofa and two matching chairs for just ninety-five cents". (And customers did get just that . . . except that Sears didn't mention that it was dolls-house furniture.)

What is also great about this book is that it doesn't just stop somewhere approximately close to the present day, but instead goes right up to the later twentieth century - a time when the computer age had been established (it seems that it's twenty-six years since that troubling phrase "computer virus" was coined), changes towards sexual equality have led to people possibly getting paranoid about words that might offend (as Bryson remarks, there is nothing sexist about words like "manual" if people take the time to look for the origins of the word - "manual", for instance, is from the Latin word related to work done with the hands), and social changes have meant that vocabulary that was once acceptable have fallen out of favour as society decides that some terms are racist, others are patronising to people with learning difficulties and so on. In fact, the one thing that this book does make me think is, how do you decide when you are writing about language in the modern age? Maybe it doesn't ever stop changing? (And on that note, I suppose you could argue that Bryson's done really well to pack 400 years of verbal history into just over 400 pages. It seems to me like a subject that could make a book endless.)

I said earlier that Made In America was not the typical Bill Bryson book - it does contain a lot of his opinions and thoughts on things, but in a more casual, "passing remark" sort of way than his other books. (In effect, I suppose it's the opposite of something like Notes From A Big Country, which was a collection of columns he put together for the Mail on Sunday - chiefly because they wanted him to, if I recall from his prologue in that book!) One thing I do like about this one is the care he has taken to give a date alongside most of the "new words" he mentions, and that he introduces collections of words in the right places. (For instance, when talking about rugby being played in America, a brief collection of example words from the English game that were kept by American players is presented within one sentence. When he talks about Thomas Bowdler euphemising words to reflect the overly delicate nineteenth century approach to bodies and anatomical descriptions, he gives a list of what terms were used to replace others.) So I think that there might be two audiences for this particular book - one might be fans of Bryson's other work who want to see him explore a completely different topic and I suspect that anybody who could be interested in the history of language, the way it changes and the reasons for those changes would also find Made In America fascinating, too.

I paid £7.99 for my paperback version, but that was a couple of years ago. Amazon have currently got it listed at £6.56 and Waterstones' website says it's £8.99 there.
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Comments about this review »

rojm 03.03.2010 22:50

I have run out of E's - sorry

hillhead 27.02.2010 00:40

Great info thanks.

kevin121 26.02.2010 20:00

One I think I would enjoy. Rachael.

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Travel writer Bill Bryson looks at the language of America and explains the history behind it, including the origin...

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Type Non-Fiction
Genre Language & Linguistics
Title Made in America


Listed on Ciao since 27/02/2001

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  2. cornishchic
  3. newby2

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