Books: Made in America

Years ago I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue – English and How It Got That Way, so when I saw his book Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States in the library, I thought it would be interesting to get a similar treatment of specifically American English.

I have read that The Mother Tongue is full of factual errors, so I would not be surprised to find out that Made in America is also. After all, Bryson is neither a trained linguist nor historian. But I admire both his wide-ranging interests (he has obviously read widely on the subject, regardless of his degree of expertise), and he writes well.

What does annoy me is that there is more general history than history of language. Obviously, the history of language depends on the general history, and I enjoy the history itself. But I was looking forward to learning the reasons behind more of the changes to pronunciation and vocabulary.

He cites some, certainly, but other times he merely states the fact that they happened. More than once he goes through a long list of neologisms, in each case citing the year each first appeared. Why in the world would I care about the year if there is no explanation of the origin of the word or phrase? Of course he can’t list them all, but why mention so many while answering no questions about them?

Still, it’s an entertaining and sometimes educational book. I enjoy history, and Bryson mentioned all sorts of facts I wasn’t familiar with (even if I’m not positive whether everything I learned from him is accurate). And along the way I learned a bit about the history of some words. I now understand why we say “ten of nine” to mean 8:50 (the preposition of used to be used in other ways that have mostly faded from use), and the convoluted history of filibuster, among many other linguistic factoids.

But I think the book would be more accurately subtitled “An Informal History of America Including Comments on American English.”

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