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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

II. The Beginnings of American

2. Sources of Early Americanisms

THE FIRST genuine Americanisms were undoubtedly words borrowed bodily from the Indian dialects—words, in the main, indicating natural objects that had no counterparts in England. We find opossum, for example, in the form of opasum, in Captain John Smith’s “Map of Virginia” (1612), and, in the form of apossoun, in a Virginia document two years older. Moose is almost as old. The word is borrowed from the Algonquin musa, and must have become familiar to the Pilgrim Fathers soon after their landing in 1620, for the woods of Massachusetts then swarmed with the huge animals and there was no English name to designate them. Again, there are skunk (from the Abenaki Indian seganku), hickory, squash, caribou, pecan, scuppernong, paw-paw, raccoon, chinkapin, porgy, chipmunk, terrapin, menhaden, catalpa, persimmon and cougar. Of these, hickory and terrapin are to be found in Robert Beverley’s “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), and squash, chinkapin and persimmon are in documents of the preceding century. Many of these words, of course, were shortened or otherwise modified on being taken into colonial English. Thus, chinkapin was originally checkinqumin, and squash appears in early documents as isquontersquash, and squantersquash. But William Penn, in a letter dated August 16, 1683, used the latter in its present form. Its variations show a familiar effort to bring a new and strange word into harmony with the language—an effort arising from what philologists call the law of Hobson-Jobson. This name was given to it by Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, compilers of a standard dictionary of Anglo-Indian terms. They found that the British soldiers in India, hearing strange words from the lips of the natives, often converted them into English words of similar sound, though of widely different meaning. Thus the words Hassan and Hosein, frequently used by the Mohammedans of the country in their devotions, were turned into Hobson-Jobson. The same process is constantly in operation elsewhere. By it the French route de roi has become Rotten Row in English, écrevisse has become crayfish, and the English bowsprit has become beau pré (= beautiful meadow) in French. No doubt squash originated in the same way. That woodchuck did so is practically certain. Its origin is to be sought, not in wood and chuck, but in the Cree word otchock, used by the Indians to designate the animal.

In addition to the names of natural objects, the early colonists, of course, took over a great many Indian place-names, and a number of words to designate Indian relations and artificial objects in Indian use. To the last division belong hominy, pone, toboggan, canoe, pemmican, mackinaw, tapioca, moccasin, paw-paw, papoose, sachem, sagamore, tomahawk, wigwam, succotash and squaw, all of which were in common circulation by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Finally, new words were made during the period by translating Indian terms, for example, war-path, war-paint, pale-face, big-chief, medicine-man, pipe-of-peace and fire-water. The total number of such borrowings, direct and indirect, was a good deal larger than now appears, for with the disappearance of the red man the use of loan-words from his dialects has decreased. In our own time such words as papoose, sachem, tepee, wigwam and wampum have begun to drop out of everyday use; at an earlier period the language sloughed off ocelot, manitee, calumet, supawn, samp and quahaug, or began to degrade them to the estate of provincialisms. A curious phenomenon is presented by the case of maize, which came into the colonial speech from some West Indian dialect, went over into orthodox English, and from English into French, German and other Continental languages, and was then abandoned by the colonists. We shall see other examples of that process later on.

Whether or not Yankee comes from an Indian dialect is still disputed. An early authority, John G. E. Heckwelder, argued that it was derived from an Indian mispronunciation of the word English. Certain later etymologists hold that it originated more probably in an Indian mishandling of the French word Anglais. Others derive it from the Scotch yankie, meaning a gigantic falsehood. Yet others derive it from the Dutch, and cite an alleged Dutch model for “Yankee Doodle,” beginning “Yanker didee doodle down.” Finally, Ernest Weekly, in his Etymological Dictionary, makes the conjecture that it may be derived from the Dutch Jan (=John), possibly by back-formation from Jan Kes (=John Cornelius). Of these theories that of Heckwelder is the most plausible. But here, as in other directions, the investigation of American etymology remains sadly incomplete. An elaborate dictionary of words derived from the Indian languages, compiled by the late W. R. Gerard, is in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution, but on account of a shortage of funds it remains in manuscript.

From the very earliest days of English colonization the language of the colonists also received accretions from the languages of the other colonizing nations. The French word portage, for example, was already in common use before the end of the seventeenth century, and soon after came chowder, cache, caribou, voyageur, and various words that, like the last-named, have since become localisms or disappeared altogether. Before 1750 bureau, gopher, batteau, bogus, and prairie were added, and caboose, a word of Dutch origin, seems to have come in through the French. Carry-all is also French in origin, despite its English quality. It comes, by the law of Hobson-Jobson, from the French carriole. The contributions of the Dutch during the half century of their conflicts with the English included cruller, cold-slaw, dominie (for parson), cookey, stoop, span (of horses), pit (as in peach-pit), waffle, hook (a point of land), scow, boss, smearcase and Santa Claus. Schele de Vere credits them with hay-barrack, a corruption of hooiberg. That they established the use of bush as a designation for back-country is very probable; the word has also got into South African English and has been borrowed by Australian English from American. In American it has produced a number of familiar derivatives, e. g., bush-whacker and bush-town. Barrère and Leland also credit the Dutch with dander, which is commonly assumed to be an American corruption of dandruff. They say that it is from the Dutch word donder (=thunder). Op donderen, in Dutch, means to burst into a sudden rage. The chief Spanish contributions to American were to come after the War of 1812, with the opening of the West, but creole, calaboose, palmetto, peewee, key (a small island), quadroon, octoroon, barbecue, pickaninny and stampede had already entered the language in colonial days. Jerked beef came from the Spanish charqui by the law of Hobson-Jobson. The Germans who arrived in Pennysylvania in 1682 also undoubtedly gave a few words to the language, though it is often difficult to distinguish their contributions from those of the Dutch. It seems very likely, however, that sauerkraut and noodle are to be credited to them. Finally, the negro slaves brought in gumbo, goober, juba and voodoo (usually corrupted to hoodoo), and probably helped to corrupt a number of other loan-words, for example banjo and breakdown. Banjo seems to be derived from bandore or bandurria, modern French and Spanish forms of tambour, respectively. It may, however, be an actual negro word; there is a term of like meaning, bania, in Senegambian. Ware says that breakdown, designating a riotous negro dance, is a corruption of the French rigadon, but offers no evidence. The word, used in the American sense, is not in the English dictionaries. Bartlett listed it as an Americanism, but Thornton rejected it, apparently because, in the sense of a collapse, it has come into colloquial use in England. Its etymology is not given in the American dictionaries. It may be a compound regularly formed of English materials, like its brother, hoedown.