August 13: Americanisms from 1950s Day

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Today is the anniversary of an article published in the show-business magazine Variety that featured a new word. The article published on August 13, 1950 used the term disc jockey for the first time, reporting the phenomenon of New York radio hosts selecting and playing phonograph records for an eager audience of young fans of popular music. The term stuck, sometimes abbreviated as DJ or deejay. DJ is an example of an Americanism, an English word or expression that is born in the U.S.A. and that is used in the writing and speech of Americans.

The book America in So Many Words by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf documents Americanisms from the 1600s to the end of the 20th century. For each year, the authors select a single representative Americanism that was “newly coined or newly prominent.” Looking at the words and the background of each is a reminder that every English word is like a fossil or an archeological artifact that reveals the attitudes and trends of the age in which it was coined.

The below list of Americanisms from 1949 to 1960, for example, gives interesting insights into the characteristics of post-war America; the list also foreshadows several political, cultural, social, and economic trends that would emerge in the second half of the 20th century.

1949 cool

1950 DJ

1951 rock and roll

1952 Ms.

1953 UFO

1954 Fast Food

1955 hotline

1956 brinkmanship

1957 role model

1958 Murphy’s Law

1959 software

1960 sit-in (1)

If English is the global language of the 21st century, then it is certainly American English which is the most influential variety of English. Whereas the English language of the British Empire dominated and propagated English around the world in the first half of the 20th century, American English, since the end of World War II, has exported English even farther than the Brits, via satellite and computer technology.

As early as 1780, John Adams envisioned this linguistic American Revolution:

English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use.

One aspect that characterizes the American variety of English is its brevity. Americanisms are typically single syllable words or at least single syllable compounds. Americanisms include a variety of classifications that produce words that are short and sweet: Americanisms are clipped words (such as fan from fanatic), blends(such as motel from motor + hotel), abbreviations (such as Ms. from mistress), initialisms (such as UFO from Unidentified Flying Object), and acronyms (such as AWOL from absent without leave).

In fact, even the word acronym is an Americanism that emerged from the government and military build-up of World War II to give Americans a way to compress multiple-word expressions into easy-to-communicate small packages. This Americanism uses Greek roots: acro- meaning top, peak, or initial and -nym meaning name. Using the initial letters of words, acronyms condense names, titles, or phrases into single words, such as radar for radio detection and ranging.

Born in the U.S.A.

Given the number of letters and a brief definition, see if you can identify the Americanisms below. None are more than four letters long:

  1. Three-letter word in response to someone stating to obvious.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that emerged from rap music and its performers’ desire for respect.
  1. Two-letter initialism that reflects the American faith in the ability to measure anything, including the quality of a person’s gray matter.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that refers to any liquid, especially a sticky one.
  1. A frequently used two-letter initialism with two different meanings. The first came out of the world of technology; the second meaning came out of the multicultural movement.
  1. A two-letter initialism that refers to American soldiers.
  1. A four-letter acronym that evolved from the Civil War to refer to soldiers who fled the battlefield or their assigned posts.
  1. A three-letter initialism that reflects the American tendency to live life at a fast pace and to get things done in a hurry.

Today’s Challenge:  Yankee Doodle Lexicon
Based on your best guesses, what are some examples of words or expressions that are Americanisms, that is words or expressions that emerged from American English and the culture and history of the Unites States?  Select a single word or phrase, and do some research to verify whether or not it is an Americanism.  Once you have identified one, do some research to determine the etymology of the word or phrase.  Write an extended definition of the word that includes its definition, evolution, and history. (Common Core Writing 2)

The following are some examples:

bottom line

workaholic

Watergate

soundbite

stealth

gridlock

wannabe

yuppie

soccer mom

millennium bug

Quote of the Day: Thus the American, on his linguistic side, likes to make his language as he goes along, and not all the hard work of his grammar teachers can hold the business back. A novelty loses nothing by the fact that it is a novelty; it rather gains something, and particularly if it meets the national fancy for the terse, the vivid, and, above all, the bold and imaginative. —H. L. Mencken

Answers:

  1. duh (1963) 2. dis (1986) 3. IQ (1916) [intelligence quotient] 4. goo (1902) 5. PC (1990) [personal computer; politically correct] 6. GI (1917) [See Word Daze June 22 GI Day 7. AWOL [absent without leave] (1863) 8. P.D.Q [Pretty Darn Quick] (1875)

1- Barnhart, David K. and Alla A. Metcalf. America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

2 – Algeo, John. “Americans are Ruining English.” Language Myth #21. Do You Speek American? PBS.

http://www.pbs.org/speak/words/sezwho/ruining/

 

October 23: OK Day

Today we celebrate not only the single most recognized Americanism ever, but also the single most recognizable word period.

On this day in 1839, OK was first published in the Boston Morning Post. Oddly, the word sprung from an intentional misspelling of “all correct.”  Following a pre-Civil War fad of misspelling words for comic effect, “all correct” was spelled “oll korrect.”  The word gained widespread usage but with a different meaning during the reelection campaign of President Martin Van Buren in 1840.  Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook” which alluded to his hometown of Kinderhook, New York.  The initials OK became his rallying cry, and even though Van Buren lost the election to William Henry Harrison, OK gained popular usage, becoming an entrenched part of American English.

In the book America in So Many Words, David Barnhart and Allan Metcalf explain how and why OK became such a popular American linguistic export:

OK was quickly recognized as a brief, distinctive, universally understood annotation to indicate approval of a document, and a brief, distinctive, universally understood spoken response to indicate understanding and acceptance of a request or order. (1).

In fact Allan Metcalf, an English professor in Illinois, claims that OK is the single most spoken and typed word in the world.  He should know since he wrote an entire book on the word in 2010 called OK:  The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

Clearly OK, no matter how you spell it — OK, O.K., ok, okay, okey, or ‘key — is here to stay.

Today’s Challenge:  Okie-dokie Proverbs

OK is the most popular word in English, but what do you get when you string together popular words into phrases or clauses?  What you usually get are proverbs:  short, distilled statements of wisdom that are repeated frequently both because they are concise and because they express time-tested insights into human experience, such as “The pen is mightier than the sword” or “Practice makes perfect.”  Whether you call them proverbs, sayings, adages, maxims, motts, or aphorisms, they are recognized, repeated, and recycled from generation to generation.  What would you say is the single most important proverb?  What makes it important, and what do you know about its origin?   Brainstorm a list of proverbs.  Select the one you think is the most influential and important.  Then, make your case by explaining what the proverb means and why it is so important.  Do  a bit of research on its origin and history to provide your audience with some details that go beyond the obvious. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  I think OK should be celebrated with parades and speeches. But for now, whatever you do [to mark the anniversary], it’s OK. -Allan Metcalf

1- Barnhart, David and Allan Metcalf. America in So Many Words:  Words That Have Shaped America.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.