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What is an American word

written in 1975 for presentation to

the Toastmistress Group of Orlando, Florida



What is an American word. There are 50,000 of them in the Univ. of Chicago’s “A Dictionary of Americanisms.”


Since this is Thanksgiving week and Thanksgiving is definitely American, let’s just think a few minutes about these Americanisms and where they come from.


Today we have 2 kinds of Americanisms: those words, phrases, and idioms originating in the U.S. and those previously in the English language but given a new meaning since their adoption in America. Early settlers often created words by imitating real sounds. For instance, bobwhite imitates a partridge’s call; bobolink a blackbird’s harsh cry, and katydid the chirp of a grasshopper.


From Washington Irving’s (Almighty dollar) to Walter Winchell’s (blessed spirit) Americans have proved themselves enthusiastic word coiners. Ben Franklin contributed “Anglify,” “immigrate,” and “constitutionality.” Thomas Jefferson gave us “Anglophobia” and “belittle.” The word “blizzard” was first used by an Iowan newspaper-man to describe a snow storm.


Some English wordshave tank on American meanings -- for instance “gridiron”, which was originally a cooking vessel to American sport fans it’s a football field. And “applesauce” seemed to be simple dessert, but now it’s an American colloquialism for “nonsense.”


Then from the Injuns, pioneers created many new words: raccoon, chipmunk, tomahawk. Food stuffs like persimmon (dried fruit), hominy (parched corn), succotash (ear of corn) are Indian words. More Indian Americanisms would be found in the sentence, “You canoe during Indian summer, toboggan during winter -- and both activities require wampum especially if you bring your squaw and papoose.”


Americanisms swamp our sports field -- we’ve all had a Charly-horse try hard to be more than a bush leaguer adn man of you are south paws. Then how about K.O. (knockout) and cauliflower ear?


During World War II, new words invaded our language. The GI (government issue, colloquial for soldier) waited for V-mail and admiral cheesecake pin-ups, the ridiculed eager-beavers and yearned to go state side. At home, factory workers coined swingshift and graveyard shift for working hours from midnight til 8 AM. People joined car pools to save gasoline and used rationing cards for limited supplies of groc.


Politics have certainly not escaped Americanisms. Filibuster, grassroots, open door policy -- familiar words. Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the “New Deal.” And the elephant and donkey have continued to trumpet and bray daily since cartoonist Thomas Nast created them during the 1870s.


Americans are indeed a pioneering lot -- we are proud of our heritage and thankful to God for the freedoms this country allows us.

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