Blog Excerpts

Dictionary Day and the Quest for All-American Words

Today is National Dictionary Day, celebrating the birth of lexicographer Noah Webster. He came of age during the American Revolutionary War, set himself up as a writer and school founder, and then over the course of 27 years wrote An American Dictionary of the English Language, which defined an American version of the English lexicon for the first time.

The history of English on American soil is long and rich. From the first European settlers borrowing words from Native Americans (wigwam, moccasin, and opossum), our history of cultural intersections (barbecue), geographic exploration (canyon), new governing practices (filibuster), and good old American ingenuity (OK) have led to the creation of a American English distinct from what you might hear across the pond. 

That may be changing. Thank Harry Potter, Virgin Atlantic, or Madonna, but British words and phrases that have dropped out of American English but we still recognize, such as trousers, or feel new, such as snog, are working their way back in, with East Coast socialites routinely ringing each others' mobiles and storing their bespoke wardrobes in the cupboards of twee flats––brilliant, no? Linguist Ben Yagoda has been tracking these imports in his blog Not One-Off Britishisms since February of last year, and in the past few weeks, the media has caught on, with the BBC reporting on "Britishisms and the Britishisation of American English," The New York Times declaring that "Americans Are Barmy Over Britishisms," and The Atlantic asking "Are You an Anglocreep?

In honor of Noah Webster's mission to distinguish a specific American lexicon, let's all take a break from our cuppas and meditate on Americanisms instead. Leave a comment below letting us know your favorite all-American word, and try to remember the last time you saw or heard it. For extra credit, work it into your conversation or writing and let us know how that goes. Or join the fray and report on some Britishisms you've encountered. Love 'em? Wish you could send them back where they came from? 

Alternately, check out our own Ben Zimmer's list of "30 Great American Words." And for teachers looking for material about trans-Atlantic language differences, check out the worksheet, "Vocabulary from Across the Pond."

OK, y'all?


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Blog Excerpts.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 16th 2012, 5:03 AM
Comment by: Ann C.
When I emigrated to USA 40 years ago working as a cook for a family I went shopping and one of the items on the shopping list was RUTABAGA , I had no idea what that was and had to ask for help! A yellow vegetable was pointed out and to my surprise it was what we call in England a Swede!! Today their names haven't changed and amuse me still.
Tuesday October 16th 2012, 12:51 PM
Comment by: marni B. (manhattan beach, ca, CA)
My favorite all-American word is 'Swell' with 'Gee' as a second. So American they bring on a craving for appple pie and baseball although am not a giant fan of either.
Wednesday October 17th 2012, 1:43 PM
Comment by: Vocabulary.com (NY)Visual Thesaurus Moderator

@vocabularycom For some reason, I couldn't leave a comment on the site but "lackadaisical" is my favorite! Have a good Dictionary Day!

— Pulitzer Gateway (@PulitzerGateway) October 16, 2012

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.