Made in America

Do you love the English language? With all its quirks, odd idiosyncracies, phrases, and mish mash of confusing rules? Do you love the etymology of language?

Are you a huge nerd?

If yes, I’ve got the book for you. Bill Bryson falls into two categories as an author. Rib crushingly funny travel memoirs that have no business being so entertaining, and brain expandingly epic scholarly nonfiction tomes of exceeding length.

Made in America is the latter: a brief history of the American language. Brief by historian standards, not yours or mine.  There’s a plethora of little tidbits like live the life of Riley comes from a popular song from the 1800s where a man imagines what he would do with a fortune. That ‘penny’ is not actually the name for the coin but a bastardization of the Latin word ‘pannum'(literally ‘a piece of cloth’ coming from a time when cloth was used as medium for exchange.. That vamoose comes from the Spanish vamanos (Let’s go!). That bricks were at one point known as Irish confetti.

If I listed even half of the words I found interesting, this post would be 8,000+ words long. Just know that you are in for a dictionaries worth of explanations and vocabulary.

But Bryson elevates his book by organizing it into specific sections. He, of course, starts with our history. How the first people who landed here spoke and what they called things. What they adopted from the native peoples, what they adopted from immigrants, what England though about America and it’s crass use of the mother tongue. After going through our history he focuses in on events or inventions that drastically changed our dictionary, like the invention of electricity, air travel, or the vast lexicon of baseball terms we now use all the time. It gives the reader a great context for why these new words and phrases latched themselves into our collective conscience.

It’s a slog trying to read through it all, solely because it is a thick book. But it is splendid for anyone who loves words and loves to find out where they come from. Or, in many cases, finding out that we have no idea where any of them came from.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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