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Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States Paperback – October 23, 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 192 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Readers from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Idiotsville, Oregon--and everywhere in between--will love Made in America, Bill Bryson's Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it's clear that a nation's language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America's history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others.

Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more. Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau's given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Or that the supposedly frigid Puritans--who called themselves "Saints," by the way--had something called a pre-contract, which was a license for premarital sex? Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.

From Publishers Weekly

Bryson offers a playfully anecdotal account of the etymology of distinctive words and phrases that help to create a distinctly American English.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (October 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380713810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380713813
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (192 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa. For twenty years he lived in England, where he worked for the Times and the Independent, and wrote for most major British and American publications. His books include travel memoirs (Neither Here Nor There; The Lost Continent; Notes from a Small Island) and books on language (The Mother Tongue; Made in America). His account of his attempts to walk the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, was a huge New York Times bestseller. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, with his wife and his four children.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Having read Bryson's The Mother Tongue several years ago, I was delighted to find Made in America was going to explore the American variety of English with much the same humor and insight. As a teacher of both British and American literature, I've always tried to include a brief foray into the development of our language on both sides of the Atlantic. I have been able to spice up an otherwise pretty solid lecture presentation with Bryson's witty tidbits and elevate it to the level of the captivating (in my opinion, of course). Next year, I plan on assigning Made in America to my single honors American literature class; I have this suspicion that they will learn more lasting American history from this book than their regular text. When I had read a couple of chapters of the book, I bought an additional copy and sent it to my son, a history major at Notre Dame, who is currently studying in London. He called a few weeks later and was brimming with enthusiasm for the book and told me that he had not only finished it (before I had) but also that he was making all of his friends read it. His roommate read it in two days! I heartily recommend Made in America to anyone who is interested in food, travel, health, movies, history, or just about anything else. If all history and language texts were written with Bryson's flair for the interesting, our task as teachers would be significantly eased.
This last section is added in August 2004: I did, indeed, use the book with my junior class in my last year of teaching in Ohio before "retiring" and moving to Tennessee. It was very well received by the advanced readers and less so by those for whom any book assignment is, well, an assignment. Nonetheless, I'm back teaching in TN and am considering using the book again this second semester. (D.R. Powell at Hendersonville HS-since I didn't intend to make the original review anonymous)
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Format: Paperback
This book leaves me a bit puzzled as to how characterize it best. It's full of some of the liveliest and most engaging writing about the development of the American tongue, and at the same time it's just riddled with errors of etymology and history. Bryston relies on some of the classic references - Mencken, Flexner et al- to the extent that he has never checked any of the newer references. Hence he still repeats the etymology of "OK" as the mid-19th century "Oll Korrect", despite the more recent scholarship that points to a great number of cognates in West African languages as the more likely source.

His historical treatments are similarly spotty. He notes at least one Native American document that appears to have influenced the language of the Constitution, but is blissfully unaware of the numerous state constitutions and articles of confederation and other historical documents from which ideas and language were lifted. His reading of the first and second amendments are laughingly ahistorical.

In discussing the songs associated with wars, he remarks that unlike the Civil War and WWI, WWII had no memorable songs! He also states that "bought the farm" is a phrase from the Vietnam War, something that would surprise anyone who's ever seen a film about the RAF in WWII. (I believe the phrase is actually a bit older than that). And he thinks "pilot" came from early aviation, when it's a very old nautical term.
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Format: Paperback
I'm not a student of the English language, though the history of words does interest me, therefore I've tried to read William Safire's books but with little success. I picked up this book only because of Bill Bryson. The book is not what you think, "An Informal History," describes the book exactly. Bryson fills the book with more historical antidotes than a formal study of the English language in the United States.
Bryson takes you along for a history of the United States and how our language has changed from English into its current form today. The other half of the book contains chapters dealing with specific topics such as names, the movies and cooking. Each of the subjects deals with the words and phases that entered the language at the time or involving the subject.
There are some reviews that question Bryson's accuracy on some of the items, and this book is not filled with Bryson's usual humor, but the writing is enjoyable with just the right amount of wit throughout. Make sure you check out the chapter dealing with Puritan morality!
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Format: Paperback
I love language and all its peculiarities and variations. Scholarly works like David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language are great reference books. So is this, in a very different way. Not only is it a good "people's history" of some aspects of US history, it is one of those books you reach for when your 'favourite' language pedant starts waxing on about how terrible it is that noone speaks's proper any more, or "the kids of today..." As an Australian, and therefore being trilingual (British, American and Australian English) I love to be able to stop some fool in their tracks with the information that some 'vulgar Americanisms' are actually much older forms of English that were transported and survived, at the same time as English mutated in its homeland. The Grammar Pedants won't have it that English is a living language, that usage, spelling and grammar 'rules' change ... this book shows how it does and also demonstrates how some of the most common words we use to deal with life in our age were once US-invented neologisms or even slang. All this (and more) delivered in Bryson's wry and ironic (read witty) tone.
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