American Flag

Someone, probably Bernard Shaw, once said that the British and the Americans are two people separated by a common language and it is certainly true that when Daniel Webster wrote his famous dictionary he set out to make the two languages distinctive – hence us Brits have humour and the Americans humor and so on.

Of course over time the two languages naturally deviated from one another. Americans had to find new words to describe their new country – the animals they found in it and so on – we don’t have prairies in England , nor cougars or groundhogs. Many new words were borrowed from the native people, from the Algonquin came the words raccoon and moose, gopher is French, cookie and stoop come from Dutch, and, because the Spanish were there from the earliest days of European settlement, lots and lots of Spanish words such as canyon , mesa and rodeo.

Unfortunately there was a flood at my brother-in-law’s house recently, as a result I now have a number of books which are drying out underneath the radiator in my office; one of these is the fascinating volume ‘Speaking freely: A guided tour of American English’ by Flexner and Soukanov. It includes words such as bodacious, (a variation on audacious which is said to mean audacious, prodigious or remarkable), hornswaggle/hornswoggle which means to cheat or swindle, and snollygoster (a new one for me) which means a politician who is out for his own benefit rather than any political principles. There are loads of these words, teeter totter instead of see saw, a goozle instead of trachea or windpipe, then there’s tote instead of carry and so on. Some of these words are very regional – Hawaiians for instance have huli stomachs instead of upset ones.  The word ranch, now used as much to describe a house style as an actual ranch, comes from Mexican Spanish, as do words such as plaza, lasso and bronco.

Some words have changed meaning, even if only a little – if an English farmer refers to corn he means wheat , because that is the main grain grown here, though he might use the same word to describe some other grain. An American though uses it only for maize, because that is his main grain, a use the English only have when referring to cornflour. Flour in England is made from wheat or else is specifically specified as in rye flour, rice flour or gram flour, which is made from chickpeas.

No one, not even an American, would use all of these words, and you certainly don’t have to know them all in order to speak good English, be it American or British English, but I for one find these differences fascinating.
So, don’t just figure out the meaning of a word, find out about its origins too.  I was given an etymological dictionary when I was quite young and spent many an otherwise dull hour reading it. You may not be quite as  interested as I was, but it is still useful to acquire as many new words as you possibly can.

Keep a notebook and next time you are watching Friends or some other American programme (they have programs of course) or reading a novel set in America, jot down any new word or phrase you hear and look it up later. Your English teacher will be so impressed if you manage to use one or two in your next lesson and I think you should be pretty impressed with yourself too. So, don’t just keep words trapped in your notebook – use them.

There used to be a popular system of language learning known as the Lamp system. The method is simple and was designed originally for missionaries going out into areas where the local language was unusual, perhaps with no written grammar. The student would learn a phrase or sentence and then go out and use it. It is a very effective means of learning a language, so if you are somewhere where English is widely spoken why not give it a go, although I think you had better not accuse someone of hornswaggling you or of being a snollygoster!