There are few things I like better than a good book about linguistics or etymology. The only thing, I think, that could possibly make one any better is if it’s written by one of my favorite authors—namely Bill Bryson.
In fact, Made in America was my introduction to Bryson: I purchased the book (a mint-condition hardcover) for $0.25 at the library and absolutely devoured it. Not only did the book initiate a long and storied appreciation of Bryson’s writing, but I think I can honestly credit the book with inspiring my lifelong love of language.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a book like, say, Pinker’s The Language Instinct; there’s no talk of deep grammars. It isn’t even really like Baugh’s A History of the English Language. It’s really blending of etymology and anecdote, the latter of which seems to be the quality which distinguishes it from its competitors. Bryson’s continued fascination with all things interesting—his quest for peculiar miscellany or errata seems unending—is woven into the book.
Then, too, Made in America isn’t a holistic look at the English language. It doesn’t touch on its Anglo-Saxon origins, its influence from Norman French, or the introduction (perhaps “invasion” is more accurate) of Nordic elements. It doesn’t mention how we construct phonemes, or any of the grammatical fabric that underlies the language. Rather, it’s a book about vocabulary. Sure, the first bits of the book, detailing the arrival of the first pilgrims, dealt with some of the differences in pronunciation, and the historical legacy of Shakespeare and Chaucer. But soon after, American English forks, becoming its own entity, and the structure of the language itself flattens out, ceasing the rapid change that it embodied for several hundred years.
American English is notable, then, for several reasons: first, we quickly became a world leader in, well, everything, and so cultural events which spawned new words and phrases (cars, for instance), tended to come from the United States. For this reason, Bryson generally divides the chapters up by subject matter, rather than a strictly chronological list of American neologisms. There are chapters on travel (cars, hotels, interstates, Burma-Shave billboards), on food (McDonalds, burger joints, fast food), on media (television, radio, prime-time, commercials), and anything else tied to Americana. Reading the book now, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that it was printed in 1991, since it’s therefore missing that last 18 years of linguistic innovation, especially with regard to computers and technology.
The study of American English, then, is less linguistics and more anthropology1, and Made in America like an informal cultural history of the United States, emphasizing throughout how these cultural trends gave birth to new words or whole areas of news words. It is, in short, fascinating, aided by Bryson’s utterly delightful writing and dry wit. The book remains one of my favorites by him, and I recommend it heartily to just about anyone.
- One could make the argument that these two items are completely inseparable…. perhaps even the same field.[↩]