Made in America, by Bill Bryson

>> Monday, December 05, 2005

I often reread bits and pieces of Made in America, by Bill Bryson (a couple of pages here, a chapter there), but this is the first time in a few years that I reread it from beginning to end.

Readers from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Idiotsville, Oregon--and everywhere in between--will love Made in America, Bill Bryson's Informal History of the English Language in the United States. It is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it's clear that a nation's language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America's history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others.

Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more. Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt's "speak softly and carry a big stick" credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau's given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Or that the supposedly frigid Puritans--who called themselves "Saints," by the way--had something called a pre-contract, which was a license for premarital sex? Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.
Anyone who loves language will be fascinated by this book. An A+.

Made in America is basically an informal collection of language-related anecdotes and interesting facts, all organized by theme, and it is one of the funniest, most entertaining books I've ever read. This is not a rigurously scientific treatise on language. If that's what you prefer, try The Mother Tongue. That one was much more "serious"... and not as entertaining, IMO.

Bryson states at the beginning that one of the agonies of writing such a book as this one is that the research unearths some wonderful stories that don't have much to do with the subject, and so can't be included in the book. Fortunately, Bryson includes quite a few, in an effort to give us context, and many, many of them are just brilliant.

When I started the book, I thought it would be fun to write only a short introductory paragraph and then let the book speak for itself, by quoting a few of the best parts. Well, I tried. I started reading with a stack of Post-It notes and marked every likely passage. By the time I was on page 20, it was becoming obvious this wasn't going to work. My book bristled with so many bits of paper that it looked like a porcupine.

So I've decided to open my book at random and look for the next fascinating snippet, so that you see the type of thing this book is chock-full of. Let's see, let's see... here. A small paragraph from the chapter on names (that chapter alone is worth the price of the book), discussing the penchant among some New Englanders of naming their children for virtuous qualities:

At first descriptive names were confined to a single virtue: Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, Increase, Continent and the like, but within a generation Puritan parents were giving their children names that positively rang with righteousness: Flie-Fornication, Misericordia-Adulterina, Job-Raked-Out-of-the-Ashes, Small-Hope, Praise-God, Fear-Not, The-Lord-Is-Near. Names began to sound rather like cheerleaders' chants, so that among the early Pilgrims we find Fight-the-Good-Fight-of-Faith Wilson, Be-Courteous Cole, Kill-Sin Pemble, and the memorably euphonious Safely-on-High Snat. Occasionally the desire for biblical fidelity resulted in names of daunting sonorosity: Mahershalalhasbaz, Zaphenathpaneah, Zerubbabel and Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin. And sometimes parents simply closed their eyes and stabbed blindly at the Bible, placing their faith in Providence to direct them to an apposite word, which accounts for the occasional occurrence of such relative inanities as Maybe Barnes and Notwithstanding Griswold.
How about that?

On a more serious note, I also particularly enjoyed the last chapter, in which Bryson changes the tone of the book a bit while writing about American English Today. As part of this chapter, he leaves his place of amused observer and vigorously defends the political correctness movement. I'd forgotten this was even there (I'd never got this far in my partial rereads), and while reading it I got the thrill you get when you read something that perfectly expresses those half-formed thoughts in your mind that you haven't yet succeeded in putting into a coherent form. He's so, so, right!

Anyway, read this book! And the best advice I can give you is to always read it with someone nearby. That way, when you come to passages which are so good you absolutely have to share with someone, you can read them out loud to that person ;-)


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