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."