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Vocabulary of American English


It is quite true that the vocabulary used by American speakers, has distinctive features of its own. More than that: there are whole groups of words which belong to American vocabulary exclusively and constitute its specific feature. These words are called Americanisms.

The first group of such words may be described as historical Americanisms.

At the beginning of the 17th c. the first English migrants began arriving in America in search of new and better living conditions. It was then that English was first spoken on American soil, and it is but natural that it was spoken in its 17th c. form. For instance, the noun fall was still used by the first migrants in its old meaning "autumn", the verb to guess in the old meaning "to think", the adjective sick in the meaning "ill, unwell". In American usage these words still retain their old meanings whereas in British English their meanings have changed.

These and similar words, though the Americans and the English use them in different meanings, are nevertheless found both in American and in British vocabularies.

The second group of Americanisms includes words which one is not likely to discover in British vocabulary. They are specifically American, and we shall therefore call them proper Americanisms. The oldest 01 these were formed by the first migrants to the American continent and reflected, to a great extent, their attempts to cope with their new environment.

It should be remembered that America was called "The New World" not only because the migrants severed all connections with their old life. America was for them a truly new world in which everything was strikingly and bewilderingly different from what it had been in the Old Country (as they called England): the landscape, climate, trees and plants, birds and animals.

Therefore, from the very first, they were ;faced with a serious lack of words in their vocabulary with which to describe all these new and strange things. Gradually such words were formed. Here are some of them.

Backwoods ("wooded, uninhabited districts"), cold snap ("a sudden frost"), blue-grass ("a sort of grass peculiar to North America"), blue-jack ("a small American oak"), egg-plant ("a plant with edible fruit"), sweet potato ("a plant with sweet edible roots"), redbud ("an American tree having small budlike pink flowers, the state tree of Oklahoma"), red cedar ("an American coniferous tree with reddish fragrant wood"), cat-bird ("a small North-American bird whose call resembles the mewing of a cat"), cat-fish ("called so because of spines likened to a cat's claws"), bull-frog ("a huge frog producing sounds not unlike a bull's roar"), sun-fish ("a fish with a round flat golden body").

If we consider all these words from the point of view of the "building materials" of which they are made we shall see that these are all familiarly English, even though the words themselves cannot be found in the vocabulary of British English. Yet, both the word-building pattern of composition (see Ch.6) and the constituents of these compounds are easily recognized as essentially English.

Later proper Americanisms are represented by names of objects which are called differently in the

United States and in England. E. g. the British chemist's is called drug store or druggist's in the United States, the American word for sweets (Br.) is candy, luggage (Br.) is called baggage (Amer.), underground (Br.) is called subway (Amer.), lift (Br.) is called elevator (Amer.), railway (Br.) is called railroad (Amer.), carriage (Br.) is called car (Amer.), car (Br.) is called automobile (Amer.).

If historical Americanisms have retained their 17th-c. meanings(e. g. fall, п., mad, adj., sick, adj.), there are also words which, though they can be found both in English and in American vocabulary, have developed meanings characteristic of American usage. The noun date is used both in British and American English in the meanings "the time of some event"; "the day of the week or month"; "the year". On the basis of these meanings, in American English only, another meaning developed: an appointment for a particular time (transference based on contiguity: the day and time of an appointment > appointment itself).

* * *


American vocabulary is rich in borrowings. The principal groups of borrowed words are the same as were pointed out for English vocabulary (see Ch. 3). Yet, there are groups of specifically American borrowings which reflect the historical contacts of the Americans with other nations on the American continent.

These are, for instance, Spanish borrowings (e. g. ranch, sombrero, canyon, cinch), Negro borrowings (e. g. banjo) and, especially, Indian borrowings. The latter are rather numerous and have a peculiar flavour of their own: wigwam, squaw, canoe, moccasin, toboggan, caribou, tomahawk. There are also some translation-loans of Indian origin: pale-face (the name of the Indians for all white people), war path, war paint, pipe of peace, fire-water.

These words are used metaphorically in both American and British modern communication. A woman who is too heavily made up may be said to wear war paint, and a person may be warned against an enemy by: Take care: he is on the war path (i. e. he has hostile intentions).

Many of the names of places, rivers, lakes, even of states, are of Indian origin, and hold, in their very sound, faint echoes of the distant past of the continent. Such names as, for instance, Ohio [qV`haiqV], Michigan [`mISIgqn], Tennessee [tene`sJ], Illinois [IlI`noI(s)], Kentucky [ken`tAkI] sound exotic and romantic. These names awake dim memories of those olden times when Indian tribes were free and the sole masters of the vast unspoiled beautiful lands. These words seem to have retained in their sound the free wind blowing over the prairie or across the great lakes, the smokes rising over wigwams, the soft speech of dark-skinned people. It seems that Longfellow's famous lines about Indian legends and tales could well be applied to words of Indian origin:


Should you ask me, whence the stories?

Whence these legends and traditions,

With the odour of the forest,

With the dew and damp of meadows,

With the curling smoke of wigwams,

With the rushing of great rivers ...


(From Hiawatha Song)


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One more group of Americanisms is represented by American shortenings. It should be immediately pointed out that there is nothing specifically American about shortening as a way of word-building (see Ch.6).It is a productive way of word-building typical of both British and American English. Yet, this type of word structure seems to be especially characteristic for American word-building. The following shortenings were produced on American soil, yet most of them are used both in American English and British English: movies, talkies, auto, gym (for gymnasium), dorm (for dormitory), perm (for permanent wave, "kind of hairdo"), то (for moment, e. g. Just а то), circs (for circumstances, e. g. under the circs), cert (for certainty, e. g. That's a cert), n. g. (for no good), b. f. (for boyfriend), g. m. (for grandmother}, okay. (All these words represent informal stylistic strata of the vocabulary.)


* * *


More examples could be given in support of the statement that the vocabulary of American English includes certain groups of words that are specifically American and possesses certain distinctive characteristics. Yet, in all its essential features, it is the same vocabulary as that of British English, and, if in this chapter we made use of the terms "the vocabulary of American English" and "the vocabulary of British English", it was done only for the sake of argument. Actually, they are not two vocabularies but one. To begin with, the basic vocabulary, whose role in communication is of utmost importance, is the same in American and British English, with very few exceptions.

On the other hand, many Americanisms belong to colloquialisms and slang, that is to those shifting, changeable strata of the vocabulary which do not represent its stable or permanent bulk, the latter being the same in American and British speech.

Against the general extensive background of English vocabulary, all the groups of Americanisms look, in comparison, insignificant enough, and are not sufficiently weighty to support the hypothesis that there is an "American language".

Many Americanisms easily penetrate into British speech, and, as a result, some of the distinctive characteristics of American English become erased, so that the differentiations seem to have a tendency of getting levelled rather than otherwise.


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