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Review of  Americanisms

Reviewer: Elizabeth A. Martinez-Gibson
Book Title: Americanisms
Book Author: Maximilian Schele De Vere
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.2057

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Date: Thu, 30 Jun 2005 21:33:11 -0400
From: Elizabeth A. Martinez-Gibson
Subject: Americanisms: The English of the New World

AUTHOR: Schele De Vere, Maximilian
EDITOR: Davis, Daniel R.
TITLE: Americanisms: The English of the New World
SERIES: American English 1781-1921, Volume V
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2003

Elizabeth A. Martínez-Gibson, Associate Professor of Spanish and
Linguistics, Department of Hispanic Studies, College of Charleston.

In his text, Americanisms of the New World, Schele De Vere discusses
American English in relation to the origins of its people, and its
geographical, historical, and social aspects. The linguistic aspect
addressed is for the most part lexicon with a few references at times
to the pronunciation of particular words. Pronunciation is also
reflected in the spelling of the many examples that Schele De Vere
provides to illustrate the use of specific lexicon or pronunciation of a
given geographic region or ethnic group.

The main idea addressed in this text is to analyze whether certain
lexicon and slang expressions are truly Americanisms. Did these
words and expressions already exist in the English language prior to
the American colonization? Were they borrowed from one of the
native or immigrant languages? Maximilian Schele De Vere analyzes
these linguistic issues by addressing historical, regional. And social
aspects, as well as native and immigrant influences of the times.
Language is observed through the lives of the settlers in the United
States. The origins of the settlers and their linguistic and cultural
influences are discussed, as well as certain social aspects such as
religion and politics; and their evolving colonization from east to west.

Schele De Vere divides his text into twelve main parts: The Indian,
Immigrants from Abroad, The Great West, The Church, Politics, Trade
of All Kinds, Afloat, On the Rail, Natural History, Old Friends with New
Faces, Cant and Slang, and New Forms and Nicknames.

Part I: The Indian.
Schele De Vere begins by analyzing the indigenous influence on
American English in terms of topography. What he reveals is a greater
use of British named places instead of indigenous names. Places
tended to be named after the first settlers rather than their more
poetic indigenous names which reflected the scenic beauty of these
places in the United States. Many of the words that are thought to
have entered the English language via indigenous languages were in
fact of other origins or a combination thereof. The main indigenous
tribes that influenced American English were those of North and South
America with few examples of other indigenous tribes such as those
from Guiana. Aside from topographic terms, terms regarding fauna
and flora native to America such as moose, caribou, and the linguistic
origins of these names were presented in the text.

Part II: Immigrants from Abroad
Schele De Vere presents the immigrant influences in the United States
by dividing this part into different chapters to represent each group. .

He presents the Dutch influence in the first chapter. Dutch terms and
slang are observed in the New York/Eastern New Jersey area in
names of places (Nassau and Catskills), foods (cruller and cole slaw),
clothing, social system (boss), and even holiday customs (Santa
Claus). In this chapter, he discusses the confusion that existed with
the terms Dutch versus Deutsch (German). Many terms that were said
to be of German origin were in fact later found to be of Dutch origin.
Although it was difficult to determine whether some terms were
influenced by German or Dutch terms. The meaning of the terms was
what ultimately determined the language of origin. New York’s
influence was clearly Dutch, and not German, as was Pennsylvania.

The French and French owned territories in Canada immigrated to
different parts of the United States, but their influence is most notable
in the South. The religious group, the Huguenots spread south and
westward leaving their influence of culture in some of the southern
states such as South Carolina. Schele De Vere points out that there is
little French influence observed in American English today. There are
very few names of places (Lake Champlain) and in Louisiana there
are some words referring to nature such as bayou. In their movement
west, some terms for animals (gophers from gaufre), nature,
transportation/traveling (voyageurs, batteaux=boat), and others were
borrowed or influenced from French.

The Spanish influence in American English between 1781 and 1921
were terms that existed prior to the Anglo Saxon take over of the
Southwest. Terms identifying ethnic and racial groups derived from
the Spanish language (mulatto, negro), as well as terms pertaining to
horses, farms (ranch from rancho), foods (palmetto from palmito),
nature (ratoon from retoño , canyon from cañón ), and bug terms such
as mosquitoes.

German, on the other hand, despite its importance in the United
States, left very little influence on American English. Most of the terms
presented in this text reflect food and drink, and some slang. The
terms for food and drink have not only left a linguistic influence, but
these food items such as apple sauce, lager beer, noodles, and
others are now part of our culture.

The “Negro” influence, as Schele De Vere refers to it, was considered
low on the social scale and their language was considered to be “but
a step removed from the African savage” (p. 149). Schele De Vere
points out certain sound differences that African-Americans do not
distinguish (b and p, t and d). He also discusses terms of African
origin that are Americanisms such as swanga=swankey. Some of the
terms brought to this country from African-Americans may have had
Spanish influence of origin based on historical reasons. The last part
of his discussion turns to a more cultural topic of the African-American
passion for religion and music and its influences in the United States.

The Chinese influence on language during the 1781-1921 was minor.
In this chapter, Schele De Vere talks about the poor treatment the
Chinese received in the West.

Part III: The Great West.
This part of the text presents the greatest variety of lexicon. Many
new words were created since the colonialists chartered into new
territories encountering new country and new people. There were
mainly two types of people that headed west: the “adventurers” and
the “planters”. The terms discussed in this part include: rights to land
and land division (squatters and claims), the gold rush (diggings, bed-
rock, and prospecting), types of land (bottoms, flats, knobby, and
barrens), trees (stump, chunk, barking up the wrong tree, and
chopping bee), log cabin (clapboards and stick-chimney), fences
(Virginia fence and fence-riding), clothing (hunting shirt, leggings,
blanket), weapons (rifle; lock, stock, and barrel; and half-cock),
hunting (grisly, trappers, and deadfall), insects, animals, and liquor.

In providing the numerous terms that relate to the above mentioned
social topics that were a part of the westerners life, Schele De Vere
also gives detailed information on the lifestyle, development, and the
political issues of the pioneers and their rights to land.

Part IV: The Church.
The people that came to the New World were from different origins
and their religious backgrounds varied. In this part, Schele De Vere
discusses the terminology related to different churches and the
practices of different religions.

Part V: Politics.
This part of the text analyzes a mixture of lexicon that is considered
political and/or legal to the American system. As he presents these
terms, he also explains their meaning within the system. For example,
he discusses the different branches of the American government,
explaining the duties and composition of each; or different laws such
as Blue Laws and Lynch Laws. His discussion includes terms and
meanings associated with bills or voting such as filibuster, lobbying,
and platform. Terms for different classes or ethnic groups and gangs
of the times such as Border-Ruffians, Jayhawkers, and Scallawags, as
well as terms for territorial divisions such as Yankeedom, Dixie, Old
Dominion, and the West are addressed.

Part VI: Trade of All Kinds.
Money and commerce are the topics of this part. In discussing money,
terms such as greenbacks and coniackers are described, as well as
terms that deal with money transactions such as to run one’s face
(credit), foot the bill, dickering, and bank notes; or bankruptcy (dead-
broke, flatbroke, going up the spout, or to go on lays. On the other
hand, words such as shoddy or bogus, denote the negative aspects of
business. Lexicon associated with different trades such as cobblers,
barkeepers, grocery stores, store-keepers, and relating to stocks are
presented with their significance of the times. Finally, Schele De Vere
leads to terminology associated with sports such as card games and
wrestling, which led to the discussion of fighting (rumpus, rowdy, and
bully), crime, and punishment (spanking).

Part VII: Afloat.
The water was one of the leading means of transportation of the time.
Schele De Vere presents a wide variety of terms and slang (to go a
cruise, and keeling over) related to boats, navigating, and fishing.

Part VIII: On the Rail.
The railroad, a newer means of transportation as the West was
settled, allowed for new terminology. In this part, Schele De Vere
presents vocabulary and meaning associated with the different
railcars (palace-cars, mail-car, sleeping-car, express-car and
baggage-car); personnel (conductor, engineer, and baggage
smasher); parts of the cars, both inside (berths, and state rooms) and
out (bumpers). Many slang terms have resulted from the railroad such
as flagged, off the track, to be on the right track, on board, and

Part IX: Natural History.
In this part, there are few Americanisms. However Schele De Vere
presents the different animals native to the United States such as
buffalo, elk, muskrat, groundhog (or woodchuck), birds (mockingbirds,
eagles, buzzards, robins, humming birds, owls, dippers, loons, and
others), fish (catfish, sunfish, black fish, and rock fish), turtles, crabs
(fiddler crabs), bugs, plants, herbs, roots, fruits, and berries, weeds,
grasses and oats, cotton, and moss, trees, creeks, swamps, and rocks.

Part X:Old Friends with New Faces.
Here, Schele De Vere provides one-hundred and forty pages of
lexicon from American English that have been preserved from an
obsolete England’s English. Schele De Vere has compiled this list of
words giving both their new meaning in American English and their old
meaning in England’s English. He also provides information on regions
or ethnic groups where these terms are used. For each of the words
he cites examples of its use from varied documents.

Part XI: Cant and Slang.
In this part, Schele De Vere compiles another list of slang terms. Many
of these slang terms already existed throughout Europe so few are
true Americanisms. However the development and discovery of the
West have provided new slang terms, some of which still exist in
American English today.

Part XII:New Forms and Nicknames
This part presents the creation of new terms which result in
backformations, abbreviations, and nicknames for states and cities.


This book provides a good idea of the linguistic/cultural and
historical/social development of American English during the period of
1781 and 1921. It includes the origins of many Americanisms as well
as those words that were not considered Americanisms. Schele De
Vere presents a great variety of lexicon for the fauna and flora specific
to the United States, as well as foods, equipment, and social systems
found in the United States or brought by other cultures.

In reading this text and analyzing the different immigrant and native
indigenous groups of the various regions of the United States, the
linguistic influences in specific areas become obvious.

This text is a good reference book. It provides a historical perspective
of the various regions of the United States: the indigenous influences
of different regions, the immigrant influences from east to West, the
social influences such as the church and politics, the cultural
influences of food, trades, and nature. In addition, it presents a good
explanation of words that are truly Americanisms, those that existed
before English came to America, and those words that were borrowed
or simply created from mispronunciations of lexicon in the other
immigrant languages. Schele De Vere also looks at lexicon that
existed prior to the colonizing the United States that either, kept their
original meaning, extended their original meaning, and/or changed it.
Many of the slang expressions and terms observed in this text can be
seen in today’s American English and the text provides good
explanations of their origins.


Elizabeth A. Martínez-Gibson is an Associate Professor at the College
of Charleston, Charleston, SC. She is the author of "Morpho-syntactic
Variation Among Two Generational Groups of Spanish Speakers in
the United States," (Peter Lang, 1993) and numerous articles. She
has been at the College of Charleston for fourteen years and created
a Linguistics Minor in 2003. Her areas of interest include: Spanish and
English linguistics, Language variation and change of English and
Spanish, second language acquisition, bilingualism, Spanish in the
U.S., Spanish and English phonetics, and most recently medical

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0415279690
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Pages: 500
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