Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1711/Americanisms

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From The Leisure Hour.


The signboards are instructive. One of them represents the establishment as a "dry-goods store," the name for haberdashery another bears the whimsical legend, "notions," representing small-wares of various kinds. Our maid herself has ceased to be a "servant," and we, who are king and queen of our domestic castle, are no more "master" and "missus." The free air of the country in which all are "citizens" and no "subjects" has raised the servant to be a "help," and her employer to be "governor" or "boss," or, if slang is to be avoided, "Mr. A." or "Mrs. A." A "biscuit" is a soft bun, and a hard English biscuit is called a "cracker." Notes representing a number of dollars are called "bills;" small notes of ten or twenty-five or fifty cents are "greenbacks," or "change." "Potatoes" are either "sweet potatoes" or "Irish potatoes" (also termed "white potatoes"). "Lumber" signifies timber, or sawed boards. "Deal" is unknown as a specification of a kind of wood, but the wood itself is abundant, and is called "white pine." "Vine" is used generically for any climbing plant, and the common phraseology runs of "grapevine," "ivy-vine," and again of "poison ivy." English terms of natural history are misapplied in a country where the species vary from those of Great Britain. The American "robin" is a large red-breasted thrush; the "haw" is a kind of plum-tree; "daisy" is not the sweet, crimson-tipped flower of home. "Clever" does not indicate mental ability (which is expressed by "able" or "smart"), but means generosity of spirit. The accent and tone of words is sometimes peculiar. Mamma and papa, with accent on the first syllable, are universal, and we give testimōny with long o, not testimǒny, as in Europe. . . . The peculiarities of expression may be traced to various sources. The American Indians have left their mark extensively in geographical names, and also in a few words which persist in the language of the country: as "hominy," for food prepared from Indian corn. Some of their words, as canoe, calumet, wigwam, tomahawk, and pemmican, are becoming classical English terms. "Maize" originated in the West Indies; "cob," expressing its head deprived of the seeds, and "shuck" for its husks, are probably Indian words, as is the widely-known "tobacco." "Guano" is Peruvian for "dung." "Corn" is employed in the United States for Indian corn. "Porridge," made of oatmeal, is called "mush," or "oatmeal mush," or simply "oatmeal" (and is partaken of, sup by sup, along with coffee or beefsteak, as is cheese with apple-tart or other sweets). "Supper" means the English "tea," saving that tea is rarely used at it, coffee being the national beverage. "Cookey" (a Christmas cake), "doughnuts" (balls of sweetened dough, fried), "bush" (land covered with rank shrubbery), and "boss" (employer or overseer), are of Dutch parentage. "Prairie" is French; and quite a large number are Spanish, as mulatto, quadroon, creole, filibuster, savannah, stampede. Germans, negroes, and Chinese have also made their mark in the popular vocabulary. . . . Some of the Americanisms savor of slang; thus to "run" a concern or to run a church, is to manage its finances; and if the affair "comes to grief," as the English say, "Brother Jonathan" remarks that it has "gone up a spout;" if it is only in difficulties, then he says "it is gone up a tree" (like an opossum when hunted). The "hub," or nose of a cart-wheel, means the centre of refinement, and having been applied to Boston by one of its own citizens, the name stuck. Skedaddle is a Scotch (or Greek) term Americanized, and is retained because of its odd sound. "Scallawag" is a very pithy designation for one who is a loafer and scamp combined. The English "chimney-pot" hats are not so known in the United States, but are called "stove-pipe hats." "He's a goner" signifies that he is ruined in fortune and health; and "he's played out" indicates that he is without resource, that his last card had been played and failed. "Nine cheers and a tiger" is a call for the applause to be backed by such a yell as is only heard in American election meetings. Some of the slang as "prospecting," "cantankerous," has been imported to England. "Sundown" and "sun-up" need no explanation nor does the "fall" for autumn. "Varmin" means all sorts of wild animals.