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236_________________________Reviews____________________________ Made in America: An Informal History ofthe English Language in the United States. 1994. Bill Bryson. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. xiv + 417 pp. $23.00 U.S., cloth. Made in America, Bill Bryson's most recent work on language, is a storehouse of information and anecdotes about the origins of American words and expressions (readers will likely be familiar with his earlier works, including A Dictionary of Troublesome Words and The Mother Tongue). During an enjoyable first reading of Bryson's new book, I was reminded of Walpole's three princes of Serendip who, as the tale goes, continuously and accidentally found many valuable and pleasant things while on their journeys. Any who enter the pages of Made in America, will find it a serendipitous excursion into American English. But, while thejourney is pleasurable, it must be noted that this present work, despite certain trappings ofscholarship, is intended for a popular market. It is also important to note that Made in America is no more a rigorous history of the English language in America than it is a socio-cultural history of the American people enveloped in word histories. In Bryson's own words, "This book is a modest attempt to examine how and why American speech came to be the way it is, and in particular where our words come from. It is not, I hope, a conventional history of the American language . Much of it is unashamedly discursive" (xi). Discursive is defined in The American Heritage College Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993) as "1. Covering a wide field of subjects; rambling. 2. Proceeding to a conclusion dirough reason." Made in America is wildly successful ifjudged by the first definition . As for the second definition, Bryson leads die reader to two predominant conclusions. He arrives diere, however, by a preponderance of anecdotal evidence rather than by reason or erudite scholarship. His first conclusion is that the English language is unfailingly interesting in its varieties and formation. His second conclusion is that to understand the history of the English language in America it is first necessary to understand the historical, social, and cultural contexts in which words were formed. Ostensibly, Bryson has written a work on the origins ofAmerican words and phrases in the tradition of H. L. Mencken's American Language. It is a work that generally avoids the finer issues of etymology but that explains word origins by identifying and describing the historical context in which they were conceived and popularized. Bryson ranges widely to discuss American culture, past and present; in his discussion he spends much time debunking both popular myths and school-book history. We are reminded, for example, that the Battle of Bunker Hill, in truth, occurred on Breed's Hill, that Charles Lindbergh was not the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, and that Ray Kroc was not the founder of the McDonald's drive-in restaurants. Many heroes from America's distant past are critically examined under Bryson's revisionist light. Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, is exposed as a ne'er-do-well drunkard who came to ruin and died in obscurity. Patrick Henry, it is revealed, never said in the Virginia House of Burgesses, "I know not what course others may take, but as for Reviews237 me, give me liberty or give me death." Bryson also writes, "there is no evidence that Henry ever said anytiiing of substance or found space in his head for a single original thought. He was a country bumpkin, unread, poorly educated, and famously indolent." (32) Thus, Paine, Henry, and odiers are exposed. They are figuratively supplanted by such Americans as the also famous Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Charles Goodyear as men worthy of emulation and more lastingly important to the story of America. Equally significant, however , are the stories that Bryson recounts of the non-famous. We learn, for example , of Alexander Stewart, an Irish immigrant in New York, who opened the first department store in 1846, and Sylvanus F. Bowser who invented die first workable gas pump in 1905 for the burgeoning automobile industry. Made in America is, openly, a work that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 236-245
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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