Wednesday, November 13, 2013

23 Words The United States Gave to the English Language

For a country that only gained its independence less than 240 years ago, the United States has been responsible for a surprising number of neologisms that have remained in the English language on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps as a sign of the times, many of these words pertain to technology, while others - such as motel - are portmanteaus of other words. Here are 23 such words:

1. Baby-sitter - baby-sitter, 1914, from baby (n.) + agent noun from sit (v.). Short form sitter is attested from 1937. 

2. Belittle  - 1781, "to make small," from be- + little (v.); first recorded in writings of Thomas Jefferson (and probably coined by him), who was roundly execrated for it in England.

3. Brainiac - "very smart person," 1982, U.S. slang, from brain (n.) + ending from ENIAC, etc. Brainiac also was the name of a comic book villain in the Superman series and a do-it-yourself computer building kit, both from the late 1950s, and the word may bear traces of either or both of these.

4. Breathalyzer - 1960, from breath + (an)alyzer; an earlier name for it was drunkometer (1934).

5. Commuter - 1865, American English, "holder of a commutation ticket," agent noun from commute (v.).

6. Escalator - 1900, American English, trade name of an Otis Elevator Co. moving staircase, coined from escalade + -ator in elevator. Figurative use is from 1927.

7. Fudge - type of confection, 1895, American English, apparently a word first used among students at women's colleges; perhaps a special use of fudge (v.).

8. Gimmick - 1926 (in Maine & Grant's "Wise-Crack Dictionary," which defines it as "a device used for making a fair game crooked"), American English, perhaps an alteration of gimcrack, or an anagram of magic.

9. Grapevine - 1736, from grape + vine. Meaning "rumor source" is 1862, U.S. Civil War slang for "telegraph wires."

10. Hangover - also hang-over, 1894, "a survival, a thing left over from before," from hang (v.) + over. Meaning "after-effect of drinking too much" is first attested 1904, on notion of something left over from the night before.

11. Hassle - 1945, American English, perhaps from U.S. Southern dialectal hassle "to pant, breathe noisily" (1928), of unknown origin; or perhaps from hatchel "to harass" (1800), which may be a variant of hazel, the name of the plant that furnished switches for whippings. Noted in 1946 as a show biz vogue word.

12. Hindsight - by 1841, "backsight of a firearm," from hind (adj.) + sight. Meaning "seeing what has happened" is attested by 1862, American English, (in proverbial "If our foresight was as good as our hindsight, it would be an easy matter to get rich"), probably a formation on the model of foresight.

13. Hooker - "prostitute," often traced to the disreputable morals of the Army of the Potomac (American Civil War) under the tenure of Gen. "Fighting Joe" Hooker (early 1863), and the word might have been popularized by this association at that time (though evidence is wanting). But it is reported to have been in use in North Carolina c.1845 ("[I]f he comes by way of Norfolk he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French's hotel. Take my advice and touch nothing in the shape of a prostitute when you come through Raleigh, for in honest truth the clap is there of luxuriant growth." letter quoted in Norman E. Eliason, "Tarheel Talk," 1956).

14. Internet - 1985, "the linked computer networks of the U.S. Defense Department," shortened from internetwork, from inter- + network (n.).

15. Jazz - by 1912, American English, first attested in baseball slang; as a type of music, attested from 1913. Probably ultimately from Creole patois jass "strenuous activity," especially "sexual intercourse" but also used of Congo dances, from jasm (1860) "energy, drive," of African origin (cf. Mandingo jasi, Temne yas), also the source of slang jism.

16. Jive - 1928, "to deceive playfully," also "empty, misleading talk" (n.) and "a style of fast, lively jazz and dance music," American English, from Black English, probably of African origin (cf. Wolof jev, jeu "talk about someone absent, especially in a disparaging manner"). Related: Jived; jiving. Used from 1938 for "New York City African-American slang."

17. Lengthy - 1759, American English, from length + -y (2). Until c.1840 always characterized in British English as an Americanism.

18. Motel - 1925, coined from motor- + hotel. Originally a hotel for automobile travelers.

19. Phony - also phoney, "not genuine," 1899, perhaps an alteration of fawney "gilt brass ring used by swindlers."

20. Rock 'n' Roll - 1954 in reference to a specific style of popular music, from rock (v.2) + roll (v.).

21. Teenager - also teen ager, teen-ager; derived noun from teenage (q.v.), 1922. The earlier word for this was teener, attested in American English from 1894, and teen had been used as a noun to mean "teen-aged person" in 1818, though this was not common before 20c.

22. Truck - "vehicle," 1610s, "small wheel" (especially one on which the carriages of a ship's guns were mounted), probably from Latin trochus "iron hoop," from Greek trokhos "wheel," from trekhein "to run" (see truckle (n.)). Sense extended to "cart for carrying heavy loads" (1774), then in American English to "motor vehicle for carrying heavy loads" (1913), a shortened form of motor truck in this sense (1901).

23. Typewriter - in the mechanical sense, 1868, from type (n.) + writer.

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary.



Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. Please follow Laurence on this journey by clicking on any of the icons below.




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