Hands down, one of the most enjoyable things about taking a vacation is the chance to wander in and out of fun and funky little stores — you never know what treasures you’ll turn up. On our recent trip to Vermont, my husband, David, found a great used book for all of two bucks called The Americans: The National Experience by the incredibly prolific Daniel J. Boorstin who served for many years as the Librarian of Congress.
Of course, as soon as David bought it, I had to take a peak. What caught my attention right away was the creative and energetic titles the author used to capture his ideas in the Table of Contents: “The Versatiles,” “The Transients,” “The Upstarts,” “The Vagueness of the Land.” Provocative, aren’t they?
Naturally, when I saw the heading “American Ways of Talking,” and subheads like “An Ungoverned Vocabulary” and “Booster Talk: The Language of Anticipation,” I was hooked. So I pinched the book for a bit and started reading. What a fascinating journey! As Boorstin puts it so well: “America had no powerful literary aristocracy, no single cultural capital, no London. And the new nation gave the language back to the people. No American achievement was more distinctive or less predictable.”
He goes on to describe the many sources that have enriched the American language and the tremendous influence of the spoken word and slang. In 1850, for example, William Fowler, Professor of Rhetoric at Amherst, made a heroic effort to classify “Americanisms” into 1) words borrowed from other languages (stoop from Dutch, sauerkraut from German); 2) words created to express new situations and ideas (squatter, selectman); and 3) truly distinctive words (to cave in, to flare up, to give up, plaguey, humbug, loafer, smart). My favorite in this category? Slang whanger (low, noisy talker or writer) — can’t wait to use that at a party when someone asks me what I do for a living!