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How English became American . . .

25.02.2010 (19.11.2014)

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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Back in the dim and distant past (before our local bookshop closed) when I was working my way through the different Bill Bryson books, I bought Made In America, purely because I hadn't read it. It's not like usual travel-writing books, but - in this case - different is no bad thing. Made In America could be summed up as an exploration of how the English language evolved after it reached America. When you think about it, it's over four hundred years since the Pilgrim Fathers got there; it would be unreasonable to expect American English not to have developed in its own way, and it's changed quite a bit.

Although Bryson looks at lots of different aspects to past and present American life, this time words are the backbone as he looks into 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 - and Bryson's approach seems perfectly logical. He begins from the seventeenth century, when the Pilgrim Fathers arrived and works forwards. As I often find he does, Bill Bryson makes the historical side quite easy to follow - I imagine most people would at least be aware of the Mayflower sailing, 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 he's got a point 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 no one thought to bring any cattle or farming implements. Bryson comments, "they packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip" - I just think it's a miracle that any of them survived, although Bryson points out that this lack of preparation did kill off around half of the group within the first four months.) Amid all of this, explanations of words as they were interpreted then are dotted around - "farmer" didn't 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 much help when it came to feeding people either!

In this kind of style, he moves forward through time, from the Declaration of Independence, through to the nineteenth-century when (for instance) the Irish potato famine led huge numbers of Irish people to sail for America. I thought this section was particularly interesting because Bryson shows that this mass movement of people obviously impacted language in the United States in the same ways that it affected the balance of what nationalities made up the population of the country. Even topics like shopping and technology are considered - it wouldn't have occurred me to study something as everyday as shopping when writing a book about language but it is surprising what can change speech. (I never realised 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 something covered in icing!)

Obviously, where language changes, there are 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 a pair of oversized trousers worn under a skirt), 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 flowery metaphors and complimented your child's interest, you could produce an answer that didn't make anything any clearer to them, and one Harry G. Selfridge who founded that famous department store and, before that, introduced what we'd think of as "normal" shopping i.e. having things on counters so you could touch them (or shoplift them . . . Bryson notes that the word had been around since 1680!), counting down the shopping days until Christmas and creating gift certificates (today, it is hard to imagine shopping being any other way) before his wife died and he turned hedonistic, squandered all of his money (and some of the business capital, to the tune of $8 million!) and essentially died in poverty. Interpretation of language actually provides another funny bit when Bryson discusses the Sears catalogue; a necessity for many rural Americans in the early twentieth century as it was effectively a mail-order catalogue, I thought it was funny that it retained a loyal customer base even after such sneaky tactics as offering "a luxuriously upholstered sofa and two matching chairs for just ninety-five cents". (Customers got exactly that . . . but Sears hadn't mentioned that it was dolls-house furniture.)

One great thing about this book is that it continues right up to the later twentieth century, when the computer age had been established (it seems that it's thirty years since that troubling phrase "computer virus" was coined), changes towards sexual equality have led to people getting paranoid about words that might offend (as Bryson remarks, there is nothing sexist about words like "manual" if people research the the origins of the word; it's from the Latin word related to work done with the hands), and social changes have led once-acceptable vocabulary to fall out of favour if it is deemed racist, patronising to people with learning difficulties and so on. In fact, the one thing 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? (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.)

One thing I particularly like is he care Bill Bryson has taken to give a date alongside most of the "new words" mentioned, and that he introduces collections of words in appropriate places. When talking about rugby being played in America, a brief collection of terms from the English game that were kept by American players is summarised in one sentence. When he talks about Thomas Bowdler euphemising words to reflect the delicate nineteenth century approach to anatomy, he lists the terms that replaced others,

I think there could be two audiences for this particular book - fans of Bryson's other work who want to see him explore a new topic and anybody with an interest in language and its evolution.

I paid £7.99 for my paperback version several, but that was a couple of years ago. Amazon have currently got it listed at £7.19, as have Waterstones.

[This is an edited version of a 2010 review.]
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Comments about this review »

sirodar 26.05.2015 19:57

Great review :-)

wazza115 15.12.2014 07:50


spanielize 26.11.2014 13:10

E from me x

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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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