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Bill Bryson

Of the many American brand names that have infiltrated the English language—kleenex, aspirin, q-tips, to name a few—none has enjoyed greater success than the word Kodak. Properly capitalized, Kodak originated as the trade name of an inexpensive camera invented by George Eastman of Rochester, New York. As Eastman’s revolutionary invention burgeoned in popularity, kodak became a common noun and a generic term for camera. Yet, for all its eventual currency, Kodak had the least auspicious of origins. The word was coined by Eastman and his mother in 1888 with the aid of an anagram set and three guiding principles. First, the word had to be short. Second, it had to be easily pronounced. And third, it should not resemble any other word or be associated with anything other than the Eastman family business. Kodak, in other words, was conjured out of thin air and meant precisely nothing.

That story is but one of the many explanatory anecdotes to be found in Bill Bryson’s Made in America (1994), an “informal history of the English language in the United States.” Engaging his subject with wit, erudition, and a keen eye for the ridiculous, Bryson offers a minor revelation on nearly every page. We learn, for example, that the word nitwit comes from the Dutch expression Ik niet wiet (“I don’t know”) and that the meaningless word Idaho was concocted by nineteenth-century congressmen, who thought that it sounded like a good Indian name. Vermont, by contrast, is a botched approximation of monts verts (“green mountains”), with the French word-order inexplicably reversed. Beyond these risible etymologies, however, Bryson’s comprehensive history illuminates some deeper truths about language in general and American English in particular. Through a profusion of colorful examples, Bryson reveals the strikingly recent origins, the often arbitrary nature, and, when all is said, the radical insubstantiality of words whose established pedigree and reliable solidity one tends to take for granted.

With respect to recent origins, it may surprise even connoisseurs of American culture to learn that Levi’s dates from the 1940s, supermarket from 1933, and restroom from 1900. Panties dates from 1845, but the word originally referred to men’s undershorts, being an abbreviation of pantaloons and a close relative of pants, a then-controversial Americanism first recorded in 1840. Panties did not refer to a female article until 1908. Vacation dates from 1879. Weekend was in use in the 1870s in England but not in America until the 1930s. Of particular interest is the word escalate, a verb employed today to describe the intensification of a conflict. Escalate is a back-formation of the noun Escalator, a trade name introduced by the Otis Elevator Company in 1900. Before then, escalators were known as moving stairs. As all of these instances illustrate, common words are seldom the fixed entities they appear to be. They more resemble colors in a stream, subject to forces social and commercial and to ever-changing causes and conditions.

Yet to ascribe the origins of words to shifting external conditions is to tell only part of the story. Often, those origins are purely arbitrary. That is particularly true of trade names and place names, which have sometimes been chosen after long deliberation but have just as often lacked any grounding in concrete reality. Betty Crocker came into being because an executive at the Washburn Crosby Company thought Betty sounded wholesome, and Crocker was the name of a fellow executive, recently deceased. A small town in Iowa is named after the Seminole chief Osceola, who never set foot in Iowa. And as Bryson points out, many a town on the American frontier was named by passengers on transcontinental railway lines, who were granted the privilege of naming stops along the way. Elsewhere, towns around the mining camps acquired their names from unofficial sources, resulting in such  appellations as Guano Hill, Dead Mule, and Puke, California.

Rivaling those American words whose origins were conditional or arbitrary, there are those whose derivations are wholly unknown. Why anyone would call a quarrel a rhubarb or the act of chasing fly balls shagging remains a mystery, even to baseball aficionados. Where the word gumption, an old-fashioned synonym for initiative, came from is anyone’s guess. And why a certain boxy, uncomfortable wartime vehicle should be known as a jeep has remained a conundrum for more than half a century. Various theories have been advanced, but none has been proven.

According to Zen teachings, what we conventionally view as static “things” are actually fluid processes. All are impermanent and dependent upon causes and conditions. By attaching names to purported “things,” we delude ourselves and live at a far remove from ultimate reality. But as Bryson’s book vividly illustrates, much of our everyday vocabulary also lacks a firm footing in the actual world. Our common language is also insubstantial. Beyond the bounds of American English or any other language lies the boundless, unnameable dimension of our lives, which may well be intuited but cannot be described by words alone.

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Bill Bryson, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States (HarperCollins, 1994).

 

 

 

 

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