A few days ago in one of my Facebook discussion groups, Rod Marsden, author of Disco Evil: Dead Man’s Stand and Ghost Dance left a comment about The Canterbury Tales and the origin of language that stunned me with its depth and beauty. Facebook seems to pride itself on unwitty witticisms, too-cute aphorisms, and political opinionating all mixed together in a big pot of self-aggrandizement, and the remark struck me as being too important to be swallowed up by that voracious maw. I asked Rod if he’d like to expand on his comment and let me post it here. He sent me an awesome tribute to the English language that I started posting yesterday, and will finish posting tomorrow. I hope you will be as fascinated with Marsden’s tour of the English language as I am. Click here for: A Cook’s Tour of the English Language by Rod Marsden — Part I
A Cook’s Tour of the English Language — Part II
by Rod Marsden
In places like Boston there were attempts to keep the emerging American version of the English language pure. As in England, such attempts were doomed to failure. The USA expanded and, with every new territory and then state added to the union, came new ideas and new words. How, for example, can you keep Spanish out of the language when California and New Mexico are part of the USA? How can you lock the door on further French influence when cities such as New Orleans are in the country and you have some French influence floating down the Hudson from Canada, your northern neighbour? Was the adoption of foreign words into the language democracy in action? There were those who would make this argument. It was certainly made in England in the 19th Century when English scholars were examining their language.
Some of the words that came from Spanish into English from the cattle trade are rodeo, lasso and hacienda. I believe Mustang is also Spanish. The guitar has its origins in Spain. San Francisco is a city named after a Spanish saint. Los Angeles is Spanish and has the meaning of city of Angels. Did the Spanish language add a certain type of richness to the American version of English? I would think so.
There had to be a definitive dictionary for the USA. It came out of a small blue book written by Webster in the 19th Century that could be purchased cheaply by anyone in the USA. Earlier attempts had been made but it was Webster who had the right handle on what the USA was about and what would work best in the USA. As the work expanded, certain areas of English were modernized to make the written language more palatable for everyone. Colour, for example, became color. Defence became defense. Centre became center. Gaol became jail. It was very much a case of making the written language more phonetic. This of course was not always easy or even possible. For example, in Davy Crockett’s part of the USA, thanks to Scottish and perhaps German influence, the word bear is actually pronounced bar. Compromises then had to be made.
Also words used by Americans could have a different meaning to the way they were used in England. Store, for example, was similar in meaning to warehouse to the English. In the USA store came to mean shop. Today, in Australia, you can use either the word shop or store to mean basically the same thing.
The gold rush and the push west in the 19th Century added lots of words to American English. Red-neck, for example, originally meant the migrants who could not afford passage on riverboats and so travelled by raft. They got red necks because they didn’t have much protection from the sun and when they turned to farming they got red necks in the fields they ploughed as well. ‘Slap leather’ was a call to fight a duel with guns. ‘Honest Injun’ as well as ‘you speak with forked tongue’ either came directly out of the west or the eastern chap books connected with the west. ‘Get along little doggie’ came from the cattle trade. Cowboys were once nothing more than common workers but all that was changed with eastern publications and then Hollywood cinematography. Stories about gunfighters like Billie the Kid and Wyatt Earp also had their influence on the language. Slowly but surely Native American words also made it into American English. There were words such as wampum and wigwam.
By the end of the 19th Century new ways of working with steel were developed in the USA. This led to building being constructed first in Chicago and then in New York that could literally scrape the sky. Yes, the skyscraper (an American term) was born. From the mid-19th Century onwards there was a great influx of migrants from Europe into the USA. There was the Irish escaping famine. There were European Jews fleeing persecution from countries such as Russia. There were also the Italians and the Chinese.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865) there were Irish migrants in American army uniforms. Some fought for the north and others for the south. At times a regiment made up of Irish in blue would be lined up against a regiment of Irish in grey. Regardless, the Irish whether protestant or Catholic (both came to the USA) have had a great influence on American life, on the American belief in liberty and justice and on the language.
In 1917 an American writer of Irish Catholic descent by the name of George M. Cohan wrote a song called ‘Over There’. It is an inspirational piece known the world over. It was sung in both World Wars and is why many people throughout the world still prefer to refer to Americans as Yanks
Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware -
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.
As for the Jewish migrants that settled in the USA, their influence on the language and those of their descendants has been most profound. Entertainers such as the Marx Brothers brought a form of craziness and also a form of sophistication in comedy to first the stage and then the screen. The actor who first played Spock in Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, is of a Jewish American background. The Vulcan salute that comes with the words ‘Live long and prosper’ comes out of his Jewish this background. When people think of peace they often think of that Vulcan salute with the thought that it is only logical to do so. Other Jewish Americas include Jerry Lewis, Barbara Streisand and Jack Benny (In his career he pretended to be a skinflint but in real life he was a very kind and generous fellow). Here perhaps I should note that skinflint is a purely American term.
The Italians that settled in the USA certainly did their bit to transform the language. They possibly began with the American diet. The introduced the word pizza and also the food. I don’t know why but Americans have this tendency to call a pizza a pizza pie. In Australia, where there has also been Italian influence, we just call a pizza a pizza. Where does pie come into the equation? I have no idea. In any event, there were forms of Italian coffee such as espresso and cappuccino that became popular and whose names were added to the American dictionary. Famous Italian Americans include Liza Minnelli and Jimmy Durante who is better known as Shnozzles Durante because of his big shnozzola (nose). Possibly his most famous line was: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It was the Chinese migrants that often did the dirty and dangerous jobs in the building of the American railway system in the 19th Century. Chinese style food came with the Chinese and so did Chinese names such as Chow Mein for it. The Chinese also brought with them the idea of fireworks for America’s Fourth of July celebrations.
In the 20th Century, thanks to radio and movies then television, both American and British style English have expanded their influence and, as a consequence, been influenced by the rest of the world. New technical terms have arisen for new technical devices. Meanwhile old terms have been put to new use. The term computer was around before the 20th Century but our ideas of what a computer is and what it is capable of doing has grown enormously. Laptop is very much a late 20th Century and early 21st Century term referring to something that didn’t exist in previous centuries. The space race with the Russians in the 20th Century brought about a revolution in thought and in word usage. Many people use aluminium or what the Americans call aluminum cookware. Non-stick pans came out of NASA experimentation.
Rod Marsden has a BA in Liberal Studies, a Graduate Diploma in Education and a Master of Arts in Professional Writing. Rod’s short stories have been published in Australia (Small Suburban Crimes anthology), New Zealand (Australian Animals are Smarter than Jack 2 anthology), England (Voyage magazine), Russia (Fellow Traveler magazine) and the USA (Cats Do it Better than People anthology, Night to Dawn magazine, Detective Mystery Stories magazine). Then there is the more recent NTD book, Undead Reb Down Under Tales.
Marsden lives on the south coast of NSW, Australia.
Click here for: A Cook’s Tour of the English Language by Rod Marsden — Part I
Click here for: A Cook’s Tour of the English Language by Rod Marsden — Part III