The Story of
American
By Alan DeSantis
Fun But True:
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Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde
Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr
the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt
tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at
the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses
and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.
Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not
raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a
wlohe.
Fcuknig amzanig huh?
Part One:
American Language—A Case
Study in Unity and Diversity
Immigration: Wave 1
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During America’s first 200 years, the culture
and its language was shaped by many
different ethnicities
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A) German, English, Irish, Scottish, Swedish,
Spanish (Mexico, Florida), French (Canada &
Louisiana)
B) In addition, there were over 500 different Native
American tribes
C) There were also millions of African Slaves with
their native languages
Immigration: Wave 2
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As America matured, more and more wanted to be
part of this great experiment
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1) Total immigration 1607-1840 was no more than one
million.
• Until 1840, America received only 20,00 immigrants a year
(from Africa and Britain)
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2) Then, 1845 to 1900, 30 million poured into the country.
3) 1901-1905, America absorbed: 1 mill Italians, 1 mill
Austrian-Hungarians, 1/2 Mill Russians, and so on . . .
At the turn of the century, NYC had more Germans
than anywhere but Berlin; Irish than anywhere but
Dublin; Russians than in Kiev; Italians than in Malian
or Naples
Immigration: Wave 3
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Today, we still have millions coming . . .
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South-East Asia: Korea, Vietnam, China, etc.
South & Central America: Mexico, Guatemala,
Columbia, etc.
Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic,
etc.
Africa: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, etc.
Eastern Europe: Russia, East Germany, Romania,
etc.
The Fear of Contamination
Through it all (from the 1600 to 2000) we
have feared the impact of diverse
cultures on American society
 We are worried about the “purity” of
American culture & language
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Forgetting, of course, that there is nothing
pure about American or our language
 We are mongrels, through & through
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Our Two Great Fears:
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1) Jefferson and Noah Webster both thought
American would become separate from English
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2) Franklin thought that America would
fragment into a number of speech
communities like Europe
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Like English evolved away from German
One country speaking English, another speaking Irish,
and another speaking German
This is not unlike the fear we have today about South
Florida (Cuban), California (Asian), and Texas (Mexican)
Neither of these happened. Why?
Why American Has Worked
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There are at least 6 reasons why we
have not splintered into many
fragmented cultures
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1) People moved back and forth
throughout the country quite often and
rapidly
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Thanks to mass transportation & open
state boarders
Why American Has Worked
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2) Intermingling of people from diverse
backgrounds—everybody married everybody
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My Italian Grandfather married my Jewish
Grandmother / Dad’s Irish best friend
3) Social pressures to conform. Not to “blend
in” meant you were dirty, poor, stupid
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You were a wop (gwapo—strutting and cocky), Kraut
(from the food); Yid (for Yiddish), Dago (for the
Spanish deago); Mc and Patties (from names of
Irish)
Only with future generations do we want to reconnect with our old cultures (Tullio vs. me)
Why American Has Worked
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4) The desire for a common national
identity
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We all have a need for social identity
• Perhaps it is hard wired in us (social creatures)
• Being part of a group simply feels better to us
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America allowed us to take part in the
“dream” and make it ours
• Unlike old Monarchies
Why American Has Worked
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5) The mass media
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“Our common story teller”
By the 1920’s, we were all glued to the radio
By the 1950’s, we were hooked on the TV
Today, every youth in America knows MTV’s “top
20”—and the culture of sex, violence, and
consumption it represents
6) The desire for financial/materialistic success
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To “make it rich” in America means you have to
assimilate into main-stream society
Why American Has Worked
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Within one generation, most Americans
could not speak their parent’s language
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This trend continues even today
With some exceptions where there
was/is geographical isolation, almost all
immigrants assimilate
Cajuns from Louisiana
 Gualala from the Islands off of NC
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Part Two:
Influences that Made
American the Largest & Most
Interesting Language in the
World
Making American out of English
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Just as English was shaped by the Celts, Christians,
French, Romans, Vikings, and the Anglos & Saxons. . .
American was (and is) also shaped by 1) other cultures
and 2) unique experiences
Thus, English and American are both:
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New (compared to the rest of the world’s languages)
Mongrelized
Constantly evolving
Very large (because of it willingness to grow and borrow)
Let’s see some of these influences . . .
“American” Influences
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Early Americans
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Spain
• They not only gave us horses, cows, & cowboys (so American)
• Barbecue, chocolate, tomato, marijuana, plaza, stampede, tornado
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France
• Toboggans, caribous, bayou, crevasse, levee, depot, cents, dimes,
cache, jambalaya, gopher, chowder, peak
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Dutch (in New York)
• Waffle, coleslaw, cookie, landscape, caboose, boss, snooping,
spook, Yankee, poppycock, snoop, dope (drugs), Santa Claus
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African Slaves
• Banjo, voodoo, jazz, gumbo, jitter, cola, yam, zombie
“American” Influences
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Place Names:
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England: Boston, Greenwich, Cambridge, Oxford, London (all
old towns), Charlestown, Jamestown, Maryland & Carolina
(after Royals)
Native Americans: 26 of the 50 state names: Connecticut,
Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, Dakotas,
Massachusetts, & most rivers and streams
World History:Troy, Utica, Athens, Paris, Corinth, Memphis,
Sparta, Cicero, Cairo, Versailles, Rome, Cincinnati
French:Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, Detroit, Baton Rouge,
St. Louis, Des Moines
Spanish: Florida, Santa Fe, San Antonio, Los Angeles,
Appalachians
Famous People: Washington (a state, the nation’s capital, 31
counties, and 120 towns), Lincoln (2nd most popular), & Clay
(towns in 18 states).
“American” Influences
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Place Names:
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The Funniest: Toad Suck, Idiotville, Boring,
Chucklehead Diggings, Git up and Git, Dead Mule,
One Eye, Puke, Shitbritches Creek, Whiskey Dick
Mountain, Dead Bastard Peak, Two Tits, Shit-House
Mountain, Fucking Creek, Tickle Cunt Branch,
Coldass Creek, Pee Pee, Two Eggs, Ding Dong, Hot
Coffee, & Blue Balls, PA (right next to Intercourse)
Names That Sound Indian: Indiana, Wyoming,
Oklahoma & Idaho (the latter two were coined by congress
because they thought it sounded like good Indian)
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The Best of KY: Sugar Tit, Rabbit Hash, Bug, O.K.,
and 88 (find info in mother tongue)
“American” Influences
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Ben Franklin:
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Frontier (in a new and rough land):
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Presidential, bamboozle, colonization, advocate, bookstore
Bluff, notch, gap, divide, and clearing took new meaning
Hickory, live oak, sweet potato, eggplant, squash, bullfrog,
groundhog, garter snake, Backwoodsman, squatter, prairie,
clapboard, popcorn bobsled, sleigh
Lewis & Clark: 178 plants and 122 animal names, including grizzly
bear, Yellowstone, great plains, prairie dog
Native Americas:
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Wigwam, hickory, pecan, chipmunk, moose, terrapin, totem,
papoose, squaw, moccasin, tomahawk, igloo, kayak, Pow-wow
Sayings: smoking a pipe of peace, war paint, fire water, Indian
summer, playing possum, bury the hatchet, go on the warpath
“American” Influences
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Cowboy (Spanish):
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Stampede, desperado, ranch, coral, rodeo, bronco, lasso,
chaps, bandit, vamoose, gringo (meaning Greek)
Cowboy (American):
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lollapalooza,, discombobulate, hornswagal, bite the dust, hot
under the collar, tight ($), cowboy, punch, hand (for helper),
pardner, jeans
Expressions: He is a Maverick (a man who did not brand his
horses), real McCoy
“American” Influences
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19th & 20th Century Immigration:
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Italians—pizza, lasagna, espresso, minestrone, parmesan,
pasta, tortellini, macaroni, ravioli, broccoli, zucchini
Germans—Westinghouse, Heinz, Budweiser, don’t be fresh,
dumb, cookbook, bum, cylinder, kindergarten, ouch, scram,
and how, hold on, deli, ouch, ecology, fresh, hoodlum, nix,
phony, scram, will do, let it be
Jewish/Yiddish—chutzpah, smaltsy, hole in the head, who
needs it, enough already, schmooze, nosh, schlep, kibitz,
mensch, if you’ll excuse the expression, I need it like a hole in
the head
Irish—The largest group gave us virtually nothing (like their
Celtic ancestors) hooligan, speakeasy, slew
Japanese—kamikaze, karate, judo, ninja, sushi, tycoon,
tsunami, karaoke
“American” Influences
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Gold Rush (1840s):
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America’s Capitalism (1850-1950):
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Gold mine (for good thing), pay dirt, panning for gold, panning
out, strike it rich
Time is money, self-made man, well-to-do, money bag,
tycoon,
manufactories,
millionaires,
slum,
sweatshop,
tenement, skyscraper, get on the ground floor, sitting pretty,
on easy street), dead broke, flat broke, sound as a dollar, &
terms for money (beans, dough, c-note, buck, sawbuck)
Harlem (1910-30):
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Jazz (again), jam session, jive talk, beat, groovy, too much,
hip, send me, solid, chick
Corporate Brand
(that have become synonymous with the item)
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Trademarked Names
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Singer
Hoover (England)
TV Dinners (for all frozen
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meals)
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Xerox
Coke (South)
Kleenex
Jell-O
Q-Tips
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Un-trademarked names
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Many lost in legal battles
*thermos
*cellophane
*shredded wheat
*zipper
*bubble gum
*aspirin
*escalator
*yo-yo
*At one time, all these were
capitalized and worth a fortune
But what about our
expressions?
America’s Expressions:
Sports (used by men & corp. America)
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Golf
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Throwing in the towel
Taking one on the chin
Hitting below the belt
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Home stretch
By a nose
Playing the Field
Dead Heat
Neck and Neck
Jockeying for Position
Basketball
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Slam Dunk
Nothing But Net
Football
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Horse Racing
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Par for the course
Boxing
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Blindside
Cheap shot
Game plan
Punt
Quarterback
Superbowl
Fumble
Drop the ball
Hunting
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In my sights
Blow your load
Shooting blanks
America’s Expressions:
Baseball (used by men & corp. America)
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Strike 3 (blow it)
Homerun (to succeed)
You're out of here (to leave)
Let’s play ball (to start a deal)
Keep you head in the game (stay focused)
Keep you eye on the ball (stay focused)
Throwing a curve ball (an unseen trick)
Out in left field (a bit crazy)
Off the wall (a bit crazy)
Hard Ball (serious business)
Swinging for the fences (attempting something bold)
And of course, the “bases” metaphor in making out
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Where you can “strike out”
America’s Expressions: War
(used by men & corp. America)
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Behind enemy lines
Bombard
Break ranks
Land minds
Booby trap
Attack (food, women, etc)
Surrender (give up)
Dodging a bullet
Don’t give up the ship
Dog fight
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Shell shock
Blockbuster
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Type of bomb
Ground zero
Fall out
Grunt
No-man’s land
Going over the top
Digging in
Dud
War Metaphors in Football
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“Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium,
sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial
Stadium. In football the object is for the
quarterback, also known as the field general, to be
on target with his aerial assault, riddling the
defense by hitting his receivers with deadly
accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use
shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs,
he marches his troops into enemy territory,
balancing this aerial assault with a sustained
ground attack that punches holes in the forward
wall of the enemy's defensive line.”
• George Carlin
America’s Expressions:
Gambling
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Crap shoot
To follow suit
Hit the jackpot
Just for openers
To stand pat
You bet your life
You bet I do
Deal me out
I’ll pass
Bet your bottom $
Fold (quit)
High roller
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Pass the buck
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The knife, not $
Fair, big, & raw deal
Stack the deck
Deal from the bottom
Poker face
Call the bluff
Ante-up
Up and ante
Blue chip
Cashing in your chips
String along
America’s Expressions:
Railroad
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All fired up
Getting up a head of
steam
In the clear
Back tracking
Side tracked
Rite of way
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Stream lining
Gravy train
Main lining
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Drug use
Make the grade
Reaching the end of
the line
One track mind
Conclusion
The Never-Ending Story
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At the turn of the century, words were being
added to American dictionaries at a rate of
1,000 per year
Today, according to NYT, the rate has
increased from 15,000 to 20,000 per year
The newest Random House Dictionary, second
edition (1987), included 50,000 new words that
did not exist only 21 years earlier
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Including: preppy, quark, flextime, chairperson,
sunblocker, pina colada, sushi, crepes and the
names of 800 other new foods
Of its 315,000 entries, 210,000 had to be revised
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The Story of American - University of Kentucky