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A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH OF ENGLAND: PROBLEMS AND FINDINGS1 ALLEN WALKER READ According to investigators of our linguistic attitudes, Americans have long regarded dictionaries in a distorted way. Much too readily do we run to them as a panacea to solve our usage problems. It is much better that we should be alert observers of the usage around us and go to dictionaries merely as a source of information. But in spite of this reduction of the role of didionaries, much can still be said in their favor. The newer dictionaries pay more attention to contexts and illustrative passages, and the example of the OED has brought in its wake a number of specialized dictionaries that spread illustrative quotations before us in rich array. They present the raw material for cultural analysis and for the study of the relation of language to the life of people. Several regional didionaries are now available for North America. Following Sir William Craigie's DAE and M. M. Mathews's DA, we now have Walter Avis's Dictionary of Canadianisms and Frederic Cassidy's Dictionary of Jamaican English, along with the prospect of the Dictionary ofAmerican Regional English (DARE), which is now engaging Cassidy's attention. My own colledions over several decades are looking forward to a work to be entitled A Dictionary ofthe English of England, which deals with the relations of British English and American English, approached from the point of view of a British base. The old notion that one can construct parallel lists of British terms on the one side, with their American equivalents on the other, or vice versa, is more and more recognized as inadequate. Such lists date from 18722 and have appeared in books by Herbert Horwill,3 G. V. Carey,4 Col. William de Funiak,5 and others. H. L. Mencken confided to friends that the parallel lists in his American Language caused him more worry than any other section and aroused the sharpest criticism. The truth of the matter is that the lines of division 149 150A Didionary of the English of England between the two branches are not at all clear. The descriptive word that appeared time and again in the TV conversations of Marckwardt and Quirk is "overlapping."6 . It is fairly easy to pinpoint the innovations in either branch, but the question with the most elusive answer is this: at what time did new British words seep into American English? Similarly, when did words that continued in British English fade from American English? The study of such word relations bears out a prindple that is well known in linguistics, that every word has its own unique history. In the present paper I am trying to document some of this complexity in the transit of words back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. As we all like to try to get back to the beginnings, I shall deal first with what may be called the "incunabular period" in the relations of British and American English. Explorers and travelers in the New World brought back many names of plants, animals, and produds. The very earliest word to enter the English language from the New World, so far as we now know, was guaiacum, in 1533.7 An Austin friar, Thomas Paynell, in translating a medical book from the Latin, used this word that had been brought from the Caribbean and established in Spain from 1 508.8 It referred to a curative drug made from the bark of a hard wood tree and remained in the pharmacopoeia until the middle of the last century. The name of another early drug, jallop, was the first word to be spoken of as having currency in England in contrast to an American name. In 1698 the English traveler Gabriel Thomas, in his description of Pennsylvania, noted: "There grows also in great plenty . . . Poke-Root, called in England Jallop."9 Here an equivalence is postulated, concerning this purgative root— the American poke-root versus English jallop. The ironical aspect of this situation is that the British term had been borrowed from Mexico, from the Náhuatl place name Xalapan. It is indeed paradoxical that the earliest labeled...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 149-163
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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