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Made In America: An Informal History of American English (Bryson) Paperback – 2 Apr 1998
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Bill Bryson's "Informal History of the English Language in the United States" is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it's clear that a nation's language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America's history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others.
Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more. Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau's given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Or that the supposedly frigid Puritans--who called themselves "Saints," by the way--had something called a pre-contract, which was a license for premarital sex? Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.
"A tremendously sassy work, full of zip, pizzazz and all those other great American qualities" (Will Self Independent on Sunday)
"Immensely entertaining... a sharp eye for odd facts and amusing anecdotes" (Michael Sheldon Daily Telegraph)
"The book is a triumph. Bryson carries it off by his joie de vivre, his unadorned prose and the sheer width of his snooping beneath the skin of the American dream" (Literary Review)
"Funny, wise, learned and compulsive" (GQ)
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In Made in America the book provides a man in the street history of the colonisation, expansion and growth of the USA. The title chapters (there are 21) show his approach .... The Mayflower and Before, Making a Nation, We're in the Money; The Age of Invention, The Movies, Politics and War, Welcome to the Space Age; 1950s and Beyond. The book doubles as a conversational history of the USA from the ground up. The influence of English (as spoken by the Pilgrims when they stepped ashore in 1620), German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Chinese and, of course, the native languages spoken by the indigenous population, can be seen as BB describes the onward march to that common language which WSC said separated us.
The one criticism I have of the book is really a comment on BB's obvious enthusiasm for the subject. I found often that he listed far too many ways of pronouncing this word or spelling that word. He is strongest when relating the characters and rise of individual eccentrics like Edison (he had 1093 patents in his name), J. Murray Spangler (invented the vacuum cleaner), Kodak, Goodyear, Rockefeller, Dr Kellog and weakest when giving us the origins of words like skidoo, fink and cahoots. Having made those points I am indebted to BB in that he seems to have nailed the origin of the initials 'O.K.' (page 103) and for telling me that keeping a stiff upper lip is an Americanism!
In addition to being a work of semiotics (I dont think BB would see it as such) and a work of history the book really is a superb work of reference - 567 pages with 18 of index and 22 of bibliography / chapter notes. Despite my slight crit., I would heartily recommend this book to all BB fans and to those who want to see how BB writes and how he sees his native language.
I enjoyed reading it but found it difficult to hold when relaxing... I must say Bill Bryson has immense knowledge and can impart it well... I had hoped to find a little more about the way Americanisms are creeping into the English language (Which I deplore.
Interesting, light-hearted yet immensely learned- it is the type of book you'll be referencing and discussing at dinner parties for years to come. Brilliantly written to appeal to readers on both sides of the pond.
While different from the travel books that Bryson is so famous for, this new genre of writing is no less wonderful.
Having said that, there is so much more than etymology. The anecdotes are amusing, and you will find yourself repeating them to everyone you know. The work that debunks urban myths is fascinating and, as is often the case, fact is stranger than fiction; some of the truths behind words and phrases are truly special.
The lists of when words were first used did not appeal to me personally, although I am perfectly willing to believe that there are people out there who would be interested, but they are fairly easy to skip.
The one thing I take away from this book more than anything else is respect for American English. As a young Englishman, I have been pre-conditioned into a certain disregard for 'Americanisms'. Yet after reading this book, you will see how useful many of these words are, and the ones we choose to attack are very limited. I think the book is worth reading for this information alone.
In conclusion, a good read that you can take your time over.
Bryson dissects language as used by our American brethren and does so by following the history and evolution of the American nation. Truly fascinating stuff, but nonetheless not one of Bryson's easier reads.
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The origins of what the Americans have done with the English language are facinating.