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There's a Word for It: The Explosion of the American Language Since 1900 Hardcover – April 27, 2010

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About the Author

SOL STEINMETZ, a well-known lexicographer, has published more than thirty-five dictionaries and reference books, including the recent Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. He lives in New Rochelle, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

The Dawn of the Twentieth Century:


Life during the first decade of the 1900s was closer to the past than to the future. The great advances of the twentieth century were still to come. Consider these facts: the life span of an average American was about forty-seven years (nowadays it is seventy-eight). The weekly wages of an average worker in 1900 was about $10, and to earn that he had to work ten hours a day for six days of the week. Child labor was rampant. The city poor, many of them recent immigrants, lived in filth and were riddled with disease. Among city dwellers, food was scarce and sanitation almost nonexistent.

And yet people looked back at an even bleaker past and thought that things were looking up. After all, there were new inventions like the telephone and the automobile. Never mind that having a telephone in a house was a rare luxury or that cars were slow, loud, smelly, and too fast (speed limits of twenty miles an hour were considered dangerous). It was progress. To the millions of immigrants huddled in masses in the big cities, America was the new promised land, the golden land of the future.

The term melting pot became a common metaphor for the process of assimilating the new immigrants in the United States into one great American culture. The term was popularized by the 1908 play The Melting Pot, by the English-born writer Israel Zangwill. In the play, which is set in New York City, the immigrant protagonist, David Quixano, declares: "Understand that America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians--into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American." When the play opened in Washington, D.C., in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt leaned over the edge of his box and shouted, "That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that's a great play!"

President Roosevelt, who was popularly known as "Teddy," also added a new word to the language, though not intentionally. During a hunting trip to Mississippi in 1902, Roosevelt's aides caught a black bear, tied it to a tree, and asked the president to shoot it. Roosevelt refused. The incident was depicted in a cartoon that showed a small and cute little bear being saved by the president. An enterprising businessman, inspired by the cartoon, created a toy in the form of a little stuffed bear cub and called it "Teddy's bear." Since then Teddy bears have found their way into toy stores everywhere to the delight of little children.

Entertainment for children was limited mostly to toys and games in the early 1900s. As Dan Rather writes in Our Times: America at the Birth of the Twentieth Century (1996), "In his newspapers of January 1, 1900, the American found no such word as 'radio,' for that was yet twenty years from coming; nor 'movie,' for that, too, was mainly in the future." The nickelodeon, a movie theater with an admission fee of one nickel, was all the rage because it was so affordable an entertainment. "There is no town of any size in the United States which does not contain at least one nickelodeon," reported the October 1908 issue of the World To-day.

The decade's newest and most surprising invention was the Escalator, or "moveable stairway." The word Escalator, which first appeared in 1900, was coined by adding the ending -ator (in elevator) to the French-origin word escalade (ultimately from Medieval Latin scalare "to scale"). After its inventor sold the rights to the Escalator to the Otis Elevator Company, Otis failed to maintain the word's status as a capitalized trade name, and in 1950 the U.S. Patent Office ruled that the lowercase word escalator had passed into public domain. Most people think that escalator was formed from the verb escalate, but the opposite is true. The verb escalate appeared in 1922 and meant "to climb on an escalator." Escalate was a back-formation from escalator, and it wasn't until about 1960 that it took on the meaning "to increase by degrees," as in Prices are escalating. In turn, the noun escalation was derived in 1938 from the verb.

Borrowing words from foreign languages was considered ultramodern and sophisticated at the century's turn. French especially was regarded as the language of elegance par excellence; among the newest French loans were arriviste (1901), a pushy or ambitious person, an upstart, literally "one eager to arrive," first recorded in a letter by Gabrille Gissing, wife of the late-Victorian novelist George Gissing; voyeur (1900), one who derives pleasure from secretly observing others, a Peeping Tom, first found in an English translation of a French work on the sexual instinct; deja vu (1903), the illusion of having experienced a present situation in the past, literally "already seen"; cri de coeur (1905), an anguished cry of distress, literally "a cry of (the) heart"; haute couture (1908), high fashion, literally "high dressmaking"; the interjection touche (1904), an exclamation used to indicate a hit in fencing, literally, "touched," which by 1907 was used figuratively to acknowledge a valid point or rejoinder made by someone.

It wasn't a coincidence that the French loanwords garage and limousine came in to English at the same time, in 1902. Carmakers, eager to make the automobile a status symbol, went to France to polish their terminology. There were no one- or two-car garages in 1902. The word garage referred to a building in which many cars were stored when not in use, something like today's parking garage. The word was considered foreign enough to put between single quotes or italicized in periodicals, as in the January 11, 1902, issue of the London Daily Mail: "The new 'garage' founded by Mr. Harrington Moore, hon. secretary of the Automobile Club . . . has accommodation for eighty cars." The French word was derived from the verb garer ("to shelter"). While the British, bowing to old tradition, promptly Anglicized the word, pronouncing it GAR ij, the more style-conscious Americans made a point of pronouncing it ge RAZH in as close an approximation to the French pronunciation as they could. The early limousine was a large luxurious car with an enclosed compartment for the passengers and a separate compartment for the driver, originally without a roof. It was named after the French word for a protective cloak used by drivers when the car had no roof, and ultimately from Limousin, a region in central France (capital, Limoges). By the mid-1920s, these cars were so popular that they were familiarly referred to as limos.

German was another popular source of borrowings, especially of a literary type. The term Getterdammerung, literally "Twilight of the gods," title of the last of Richard Wagner's four operas in The Ring of the Nibelung cycle, was adopted in English in 1909 in the figurative sense of "total destruction or downfall, as in a great final battle." The term was used to describe some of the devastating battles in World Wars I and II. Two other early German loans that are still widely used are Sprachgefuhl (1902), an instinctive feeling for language, first recorded in Greenough and Kittredge's Worlds and Their Ways (1902), literally "speech-feeling," and Ubermensch (1902), a superman, popularized by George Bernard Shaw, as in the preface to his play Major Barbara (1907), where he writes: "It is assumed on the strength of the single word Superman (Ubermensch), borrowed by me from Nietszche, that I look for the salvation of society to the despotism of a single Napoleonic Superman."

Another notable term of the decade coined by George Bernard Shaw was Bardolatry. G.B.S. coined it in 1901 in the preface to his iconoclastic Three Plays for Puritans (including The Devil's Disciple, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Captain Brassbound's Conversion). Shaw made up Bardolatry, meaning worship or adoration of Shakespeare, by blending Bard (of Avon), a popular epithet for Shakespeare, with (id)olatry. The coinage was intended to disparage the attitude of nineteenth-century Romantic critics like Thomas de Quincey and Samuel Coleridge, who not merely admired Shakespeare's works but could find no fault in them--in short, they worshipped the Bard. Here's what Shaw wrote in the preface: "It was the age of gross ignorance of Shakespear [his spelling] and incapacity for his works that produced the indiscriminate eulogies with which we are familiar. . . . So much for Bardolatry!" In his subsequent writings, Shaw coined Bardolater for a worshipper of Shakespeare, and Bardolatrous, meaning "characterized by Bardolatry," as in this 1914 passage: ". . . the familiar plea of the Bardolatrous ignoramus, that Shakespear's coarseness was part of the manners of his time."

The longest word in English happened to turn up in 1900. It was formed by gluing suffixes or prefixes to base words. By this process, British politicians concocted the word antidisestablishmentarianism, meaning, seriously, "opposition to those who oppose the establishment of a state religion." This sesquipedalian monster was created by adding the simple prefix anti- to the term disestablishmentarianism, itself a mouthful, that was cooked up in the 1880s by adding the prefix dis- and the suffixes -arian and -ism to the word establishment. The creation of this 1900 Frankenword was enough to prevent coiners from such agglutinations for the next hundred years.

Among the words that made news early in the decade was the verb hospitalize ("to put in a hospital"). The word first appeared in print in 1901, though no doubt it had been widely used in common parlance for years. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) points out that the word was "frequently commented on as an unhappy formation," which accounts for its absence in the press before 1901. Opposition to this verb was in line with criticism of such verbs as finalize, deputize, jeopardize, theorize, and prioritize, which in the nineteenth century were condemned by critics as "pretentious and unnecessary jargon." Another common term first recorded in 1901 is grass roots. It appe...

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (April 27, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375426175
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375426179
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1 x 7.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,353,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By ireadabookaday VINE VOICE on May 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a fun little book. Not really a dictionary, but a decade by decade analysis of new words that joined the langauge. Each decade has an essay that gives the social and historical context of the time, and analyzes the new words, with derivation and first known usage. The essay is then followed by a list of words with a brief ( a few words) meaning. Not really a dictionary, this is more of a book to read for pleasure than something for the reference shelf. This book will be appreciated by anyone even mildly interested in the English ( American) language, and would make a nice gift.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By E. Jaksetic on September 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The author provides an interesting look at how numerous new words have been added to American English since 1900.

In the book's Introduction, the author notes how the English language has grown since 1400, briefly identifies the different ways that new words are formed or created, and contends that there has been an "explosive growth" of new words in English since 1900. What follows are eleven chapters, one for each decade of the 1900s and the first decade of the 21st century. Each chapter: (1) briefly describes the personalities and events associated with new words and phrases that arose during each decade; (2) provides a short synopsis of the origins of approximately 10-20 common words that appeared during each decade; and (3) lists selected additional new words that entered the English language during each year of the decade. The book's Conclusion contains brief comments about increased interest in the new words entering the English language, how the author made his selections for the word lists for each decade, and the effect of the Internet on word lists and other compilations of new words.

The book is written in a style that does not require readers to have any training or expertise in linguistics or etymology. Anyone interested in, or curious about, the growth of American English since 1900 should consider reading this book.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I have the old-fashioned version of this book (that is, an actual hardcover book). It makes me wonder to what extent, if any, authors take advantage of e-formatted books to correct errors found in their books after publication. Based on the errors I found during a casual reading without resort to any other reference books, I would not recommend using this book as an authoritative source. It is interesting, true. But subjects from Thalidomide to Kurt Cobain contain significant errors.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By S. Cameron on June 3, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition
I really enjoyed this book. I am definitely a word nerd and this was a great read. It was really interesting to read the social context of many of the words we use everyday and just assume they have always been aroung.
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