Finding America

Me and Tarah

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America. So often the linguistic punching bag of my British compatriots. So often the nation “where everyone don’t talk proper”. So often a place that should "mind its own business because we invented the bloody English language so I think we are the experts in how to pronounce the words." I mean, let’s ignore the fact that the English language borrowed heavily from Germanic, French, Latin, Greek, and countless other languages, and—while we’re at it—let’s pretend for a moment that America has not, itself, been a fairly recent contributor to the language. 

Actually, let’s not do that. Because the fact remains there are countless everyday words used in all corners of the English-speaking world that originated right here in the United States. I’m not just talking about obviously American-derived words like “jazz,” “jive,” “rock ‘n’ roll,” or “Chicken McNuggets”; I’m talking about your bog-standard, run of the mill verbs, nouns, and adjectives—the kind you’d barely notice if they walked into a room and said “Howdy”, which, incidentally, is also not an example of such a word. 

And so, before we belittle our American cousins, let’s take a look at 8 common English words they gave to the English language—one of which was used in this very sentence. 

1. Belittle
Like all entries on this list, the word “belittle” is in common use in both present-day America and Britain. However, what makes this particular word unique is that—not only was it coined in Americabut almost certainly by one of its Founding Fathers. First attested from 1781, the word is first found in the writings of the third president, Thomas Jefferson, and now widely attributed to him. Of course, British journalists at the time scoffed at the word, with the European Magazine and London Review insisting, “Belittle! What an expression! It may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Another example, then, of how the popularity of a word can and will evolve over great lengths of time. And speaking of lengths...   

2. Lengthy
First attested in American English from 1759, the word “lengthy” was, once again, soundly ridiculed during the early years of its life—this time on both sides of the Pond. John Pickering, writing in his appropriately lengthy, A Vocabulary, or Collection of Words and Phrases Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America, had this to say: “this word has been very common among us, both in writing and in the language of conversation; but it has been so much ridiculed by Americans as well as Englishmen, that in writing, it is now generally avoided.” 

How about that? The word lengthy was once the “irregardless” of its day, which is easy to say with the benefit of our next entry: 

3. Hindsight
It should be lost on absolutely no one that the decision to coin “Hindsight” was itself a very good example of… hindsight. You see, prior to 1862—the year the word entered the American lexiconthere already existed the word “foresight.” By mid-to-late nineteenth century, it was realized after the fact that “foresight” didn’t possess an antonym, and, so, with the utmost nod to the kingdom of irony, "hindsight" was born. It was with this same knowing wink that the rest of the English-speaking world saw what America had done and said, I wouldn’t mind a slice of thatsomething they also said of this.

4. Fudge
Decadent, sumptuous, gorgeous, succulent… just some of the sorts of words a BBC chef might use to describe a majestic slice of, well, anything, but certainly fudge. Yet, you wouldn’t know it given the word’s unlikely history. In the sense of a type of confection, fudge began life in 1895 when it caught on across, of all places, American womens’ colleges. Except the word, in this sense, seems to derive, confusingly, from an earlier sense to mean “insubstantial”. Now, after four servings just this afternoon, I beg to differ. In fact, there’s another word America gave to the English language that might perfectly sum up the resulting stomach ache, and it's the following:  

5. Hassle
The most recently realized word on this list, “hassle”, has its roots in America’s south and, as such, was coined in 1945. And in case you thought my segue into it from excessive fudge consumption was contrived, guess again. Because the word hassle is thought to have derived from a dialectal southern term meaning “to pant or breathe noisily”. What can I say? Fudge takes me to places I don’t always want to go. And in that respect, it’s not alone...

6. Escalator
Shopping precincts or shopping malls? Whatever you call them, whichever side of the Atlantic you fall on, you have, at some point, tried to run up the downward version of these moving steps only to fall on your arse and be escorted out by police. Well I have. 

Interestingly, though, the very word “escalator” not only originated in the United States in 1900 but did so as a blending of the words “escalade” and “elevator”, the latter of which is more commonly referred to in the UK as a lift. Either way, the Otis Elevator Co. representatives who coined it were either cunning linguists or, like many salesmen, had quite an eye for the following:  

7. Gimmick
From happy meals to Peppa Pig toothbrushes, gimmicks have become a tried and tested method for deceitfully increasing the appeal of a product. Lesser known, however, is the word’s etymology. While it can be approximately stated that 1910 was the year of its origin, and the United States its place of birth, little consensus remains over how the word came about. The Oxford Dictionary suggests it may have originated as a slang term to describe a method by which a con artist or magician deceives his or her audience. Indeed, other etymologists surmise it might in fact be a corrupted anagram of the very word "magic." Either way, given our love of the bottle, us Brits would queue up in a heartbeat for any gimmick that promised a magic cure for our final entry.
8. Hangover
Friday night has come and gone: 7 Heinekens, 3 glasses of rioja, and half a donner kebab later, you're left nursing the effects of a Dutch beer, a Spanish wine, a Turkish dish, and an American neologism. That's right, the word “hangover”—meaning “shit, how many did I have?”is first attested from 1902 in American English. And thank goodness it came when it did; not 18 years later, the United States would enter the prohibition era, in which a 13-year constitutional ban was placed on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol. Had it waited until then, the word “hangover” might never have materialized, leaving drunkards everywhere with the uncertainty of a nameless enemy. So thank you, America.

Laurence Brown is a British man documenting his life in the truly bizarre and beautiful world of America. Before the end of the decade, he plans to achieve his goal of visiting all 50 United States - highlighting each one in Lost in the Pond's Finding America web series. To help fund this exciting project, consider becoming a patron. Your contribution would be incredibly useful.

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