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Americanisms, English in America

Updated on March 22, 2012


John Witherspoon was a Scottish minister who immigrated to America in 1768. He became president of the college of New Jersey, now Princeton, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the American colonists and was the only clergyman to sign the declaration of independence. His place in linguistic history is assured as the first person to use the term Americanism, in his essay on English in America titled; “Americanism, a way of speaking peculiar to this country.” written in 1781.

Not only did the colonists declare themselves sovereign and separate from England, the academics began to realize that the English language was changing and its use was evolving in a different way on the American continent than was to be found in England.

Dr. Samuel Johnson

English in England

The English language, as far as England was concerned was standardized in spelling and to some extent definitions by Dr. Samuel Johnson. (1709-1784) in 1755 he published A Dictionary of the English Language. In his preface he sets out his “Aims and Procedures” Where he states “The chief intent is to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom” The definitions he used raised some eyebrows at the time and is a source of some amusement today. A couple of examples;

Excise:  A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

His politics were definitely conservative as demonstrated by his definitions of the two main political parties of his day.

Tory: One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the State, and the Apostolical hierarchy of the Church of England, opposed to a Whig.

Whig: The name of a faction.

Nevertheless Dr. Johnson succeeded in standardizing the use and spelling of English, at least in literary and academic circles.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster and American words

Noah Webster (1758-1843) was born in West Hartford, Connecticut. Educated at Yale, he fought briefly in the war of Independence. He was an educator and he helped found a number of academic institutions, most notably AmherstCollege in Massachusetts. He began his work on a uniquely American Dictionary in 1800. It took him 25 years to complete and was not finally published until 1828 when he was 70. In 1854 a letter was sent to the publishers from the Superintendent of Common Schools in the State of Maine;

“Nationality of language is a stronger bond of union than constitutional compromises or commercial affiliations. Your dictionaries afford every facility for a national standard.”

So Webster’s American Dictionary set the standard for American English. Webster was a proponent of economy in spelling and also of consistency. So Aluminium became Aluminum and led to a difference in pronunciation on both continents. For consistency he argued that you cannot write labour and then write laboring. So the “u” got dropped in that word and in any others where it appeared to be superfluous.

In 1909 playwright Israel Zengwili had a very successful play called “The Melting Pot’ This soon became a part of the American lexicon and is widely used today. It is especially useful in describing American English because of the large number of words of foreign origin that have since become an accepted part of American English, as well as words that came into use reflecting the western expansion of the population. Words like;

Bronco, doggie, Rustler, Maverick, Roundup, Delicatessen, Kindergarten, Spiel.

Other words of Native American origin entered the language, not always because they were Native words, sometimes it was because that is how the Europeans expected the “Indians” to speak;

Tomahawk, powwow, wigwam, papoose, How (As in a greeting) paleface, heapbig, warpath, warpaint.

Josh Billings

So who knocked up the knocker upper man?

American, as it is spoken

Some authors like Artemis Ward achieved humor and satire by writing in, not only the vernacular of the common folk but spelled it that way also, Though perhaps the most famous of this genre was Josh Billings.

Josh Billings was the pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885)He wrote using a rustic form of spelling where he tried to imitate the speech of American English. He became a national figure in the years after the civil war for his down to Earth philosophizing. Abraham Lincoln would frequently quote him to Congress. Some examples of his American “Frontier wisdom” are;

“Chastity iz like an isikel, if it onse melts that’s the last ov it.”

“It iz tru that welth won’t maik a man vartuos, but I notis thare ain’t ennyboddy who wants tew be poor jist for the purpiss ov being good.”

“Akordin tu skriptur thar will be just about as many kammills in heavin as rich men.”

It was inevitable with all the varied influences on American English that it would develop separately from English as spoken anywhere else. This causes misunderstandings that are usually hilarious. Everyone from the British Isles has heard the song “Molly Malone” though the song refers to “Cockles” as a sea food, try mentioning to an American that Cockles grow wild on the beach, or if you are or have been a Rugby player, try mentioning to an American that you were the team Hooker.

Examples abound; a friend of mine, who is an executive with an advertising company, once met an Australian businessman at Los Angeles airport. The man was travelling with his wife and my friend, whose name is Randall, innocently stuck out his hand to the wife and said, “Hi! I’m Randy” not realizing that outside America, randy means horny. The businessman replied “Well good for you.” A commentator, on a previous article about English swear words mentioned how, in an English pub, someone had said “Can I bum a fag” word to the international traveler, never mix slang terms from two countries. On my very first visit to the United States I was taken to a baseball game. I observed a young man collecting balls from around the bullpen, I asked my companion what he was doing, and she replied that he was shagging the balls. I nearly choked on my Dodger Dog. Recovering my composure I remarked that a good shagger is hard to find. Those around me agreed with this observation.

A few more;

What Americans call an apartment, Brits call a flat. What Americans call a flat, Brits call a puncture. In America a fanny is your backside, Americans should avoid using this term in the UK. Especially do not refer to the pouch that is carried around the waist as a fanny pack. In the UK fanny is the slang word for vagina. Americans fill their cars with Gasoline not Petroleum, the front of a car is the Hood, not the Bonnet and the rear is the Trunk not the Boot. In America the toilet is called the bathroom or the restroom even though your intent is neither to bathe nor rest.

The best efforts of corporations, politicians, Movies and television are doing what they can to standardize English but it is extremely doubtful they will succeed. There is a distinction between linguistic scholarship and language reality. It was eloquently expressed by the American poet Walt Whitman, in an essay he wrote on American slang in 1885;

“Language, be it remembered, is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the past as well as the present, and is the grandest triumph of human intellect.”



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    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      James; Thank you so much for reading my Hub. If I give you half the pleasure that you give me from your historical hubs I will feel accomplished indeed.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      I never knew Webster founded Amherst. Very interesting. I am a big fan of Dr. Johnson. I very much enjoyed this Hub. Thank you for this pleasure.

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Petra; perhaps not as strong as you may think. I do want to thank you for taking the time and traouble to read and comment on my Hub. I definitely agree that English is challenging. Only a little over a week ago, while telling an old Welsh legend to an audience, i discovered that there is no English word for "Blerwm" So I'm still learning.

      I a looking forward to reading your Hub.

      Best Wishes......Ianto

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 

      8 years ago from Los Angeles

      While we may have strong disagreements on the forum about how age affects the learning process of a foreign language, I can see that you are fascinated by linguistics. I believe you may find my hub about the challenges of English interesting if you could relate to the perplexity of a foreigner trying to make sense of it. Adding to that the various forms of American and Australian English, the nightmare becomes endless.

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Thanks for stopping by Shadesbreath. That name "Wang" for a computer had me laughing. Can you imagine the forum posts? they would go from "My Wang is great" "Good results from my Wang" to "How do I fix my Wang" and "My Wang doesn't work for me anymore." The 80's were the days of the floppy disk and to combine a Wang with a floppy disk.... Nah! I'd better not even go there.

    • Shadesbreath profile image


      8 years ago from California

      What a fun read. You write so fluidly that the act of reading just vanishes and there is nothing but ideas unravelling. This was a joy. That song in the video is kind of melancholy though :( This sort of reminds me of a bit the comedian Gallagher used to do about spelling and what not too, the sort of thing a language geek like me enjoys. It is fun to watch cultures crash with words and even just the sounds of words. Back in the 80's there was a Japanese computer company that tried to start selling stuff in the U.S. with the unfortunate name Wang. I'm sure they were perfectly excellent computers, but they never stood a chance.

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Sorry, haven't got a clue. Not yet anyway.

    • days leaper profile image

      days leaper 

      8 years ago from england

      OK> Thanks again.

      PS. Can you shed any light on why the writing of the date got swapped round? ie. (UK: 16 August 2010) compared to (US: August 16 2010 ...This makes the space extremely necessary!)

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      If I wrote about slaughtering Apache the missus would slaughter me. That would be Ianto's last stand.

      I enjoy writing History Hubs I'm glad you enjoyed it too. Best Wishes.................Ianto

    • days leaper profile image

      days leaper 

      8 years ago from england

      Nice to know it wasn't all about slaughtering Apache. Honestly, TV. teaches nothing! Thanks, again!

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Ey oop D.A.L. aye tha's got the right of it. I spent a little time in Yorkshire and I once had a Lady friend from Chester-le-street, the heart of Geordie land. There's nothing like making a romantic suggestion and receiving the reply "Why aye yuh bwgger"

      Thank you for the comments I assure you the pleasure is mine. Ah'll see thee.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      8 years ago from Oakley, CA

      ianto--ah, yes... "Jamaica Farewell" the first thing I learned to play back when I took guitar lessons for a while. ;-)

    • D.A.L. profile image


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      ianto, you have started your second year with another excellent hub which was a pleasure to read. Our American cousins would have trouble with English local ascents especially those from Lancashire , Yorkshire,and the Goerdies. Where all the English words are spoken and written differently. Best wishes.

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Thank yu DzymsLizzy: Yes I find myself very much in agreement over the misuse of certain words. Remember that great Harry Belafonte song "Jamaica" It begins;

      "Down the way where the nights are gay"

      Would that have been a hit today? though new words come along and old words can change their meaning I dislike hearing "Good" words turned bad.

      Thank you again for your comments I hope to continue to inform and entertain.

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Drbj; Thank you very much for those kind words. Though i am interested in language and it's formation, English is my second language. I had very little knowledge of it until I was 11 years old. When I went to secondary school and mixed with English speaking kids.

      Best Wishes.........ianto

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello Triciajean; Thank you for reading and commenting. I've always agreed with Walt on how language develops.

      You don't need to look up the meanings of "Shagging" there have been enough hints in the comment section. :)

    • iantoPF profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Freeman 

      8 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Scarytaff; The first to comment on this Hub. Thank you, Diolch yn fawr iawn. Your support is greatly appreciated.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      8 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yet another informative and amusing article. Well done!

      (Note to triciajean--look up 'shagging' as in the movie, "The Spy Who Shagged Me" ;-) LOL )

      The language indeed moves, flows and evolves. Most of the time, I "go with the flow." I only balk when perfectly good, decent words get adopted for new uses. "Gay" comes to mind. I have absolutely no problem with 'gay' people--what I do have a problem with is the ruination of that word for the rest of us; best not get caught saying you 'feel gay' these days. It used to mean happy-go-lucky; lighthearted; free-spirited. That usage has been taken from us.

      Likewise, the original (British English) use of 'faggot' means a small bundle of sticks, usually for use in kindling a fire...shortened to 'fag' as slang for a cigarette.

      British ladies do not get a run in their stockings; they get a 'ladder in their hose.' Imagine an American English cartoon now, of someone trying to figure out how to stuff a ladder into a garden hose. Hilarious misunderstandings, indeed!

      I foresee even greater changes, "courtesy" of the internet and text messaging in which extreme brevity is required. The most common is the use of "prolly" or "probly" as substitutes for "probably."

      I thoroughly enjoyed this hub. Thanks for a great read!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      This was a pleasure to read, ianto, thank you. Your attraction to English and skill at research is most evident.

      Note to tj above: "shagging" is what "randy" people would like to do more of. :)

    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 

      8 years ago from Bantam, CT

      Another informative and amusing hub. And now I have to go and look up "shagging." I particularly enjoyed the quote from Walt Whitman. I teach my students and workshops participants that spoken language is primary, with written language always trying to catch up--or to slow down the evolution, a futile effort.

    • scarytaff profile image

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Well done, Ianto bach. A very informative hub.


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