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Language, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, is fossil poetry. It is also fossil history, and when we examine the origins of words we learn a great deal about the people who coined and used them. In this fascinating compendium of American English words, lexicographers Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne Soukhanov examine, among other things, the language of prohibition and the Jazz Age, the origins of 19th-century words such as "undertaker" and "blizzard," and the enduring lingo of hippiedom. You'll also learn that the term "abolition" was originally applied to tax resistance against the English crown, and that the first known American folk song concerned a snakebite.
From School Library Journal
YA?An unusual, entertaining, etymological look at American English. The authors have continued and updated the study begun in I Hear America Talking (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1976; o.p.) and Listening to America (S & S, 1982; o.p.). Although there are fewer topics covered in this work, the format and style are similar to the earlier volumes. Attention-getting chapter titles such as "Cyberspace: I Hear America Clicking," "Communications: From Snail Mail to Email," and "Yo! America Raps" draw browsers into the text. Chapters present an overview that relates the topic to the evolving English language. They include discussions of specific words that came into being as a result of events or cultural changes. Despite the serious subject content, the style is breezy and informal. Arrangement is alphabetical by subject. The index includes most of the words discussed in the text. Numerous black-and-white photographs and quotes from history in sidebars present primary sources that relate to the summaries. An explanation in different type is given if the reason for inclusion is not immediately apparent. A must-purchase wherever the earlier volumes are in demand.?Claudia Moore, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The thought occurred to me, while leafing through this massive compendium of American English words and phrases, how much our language is a reflection of our cultures and beliefs. While the French and French Canadians man the bulwarks to guard against incursion against English words, we act like Libertarians on a toot, recklessly throwing open the windows and doors and letting whatever is out there to come in. While our mother tongue is not at the same level of complexity as Chinese dialects or the Japanese language, there can be no doubt that, upon realizing for the first time that the words tough, plough and dough are not spoken the same way, that some serious mutations have been going on.
"Speaking Freely" is based in part on two books by Stuart Flexner -- "I Hear America Talking" and "Listening to America" -- and edited and amended by Atlantic Monthly "Word Watch" columnist Anne Soukhanov. Each chapter approaches a given field -- such as politics, sex, food or cyberspace -- and rambles about like an enthusiastic, but absent-minded, professor, nittering on about one thing and, just when you've eased into the argument, switching to some equally fascinating fact. Unnerving.
But that's the way the language flows: freshly minted words appear, secure in their meanings, only to be kidnaped and altered. They're transplanted to other parts of sentences, their definitions altered without anesthesia, new meanings are grafted on. When it comes to words, we're the aliens with the anal probes.
Take the word snaw. We take the Old English word, transplanted the "a" for an "o" and called it snow. Then it's glued onto other words to form new meanings: snowfall (1821), snow forts (1853), snowstorms (1771), snowbanks (1779) and snowflakes (1734).Read more ›
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A highly recommended read for anyone new into the country. Sure to put an end to those drab lunches with your American colleagues at work as they blabber away about a certain Uncle Jesse or even worse some 'hickey' they had from their last night's 'getting laid'...
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