BOOK REVIEW / Can do, will write: Made in America - by Bill Bryson, Secker pounds 15
Sunday 24 July 1994
It was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein - not a notably pro-American figure, although he did adore Westerns - who gave substance to the perennial and commonsensical view of semantics, that the meaning of a word is principally a function of how it is used in ordinary speech. It is this abiding concern that lies behind Bill Bryson's amusing tour d'horizon of the social and material preconditions that have led to the genesis of American English.
Linguistic purity is an abiding concern, particularly of the English, who find it difficult not to view themselves as being in terminal decline. There are few subjects that can induce almost complete assent across the English political and social spectrum, but the depredations, crassness, sloppiness - and damn it all, the shoddiness - of most American English is undoubtedly one of them.
In his witty and engaging survey, Bill Bryson can be forgiven for spending some time correcting this absurd view. And his detailing of just how many American coinages and neologisms have entered English English without provoking a whimper makes a perfect mockery of the Sir Bufton-Tuftons who inveigh against Americanisms. As Bryson's philological tergiversations propel him back and forth across the continent, and in and out of its history, ethnic minorities and business concerns, what emerges as the chief characteristic of American English is its status as a 'can-do' language - the term itself being a kind of eponymous hero of American mercantile communication.
The impulse towards technological innovation has generated a comparable mass-production of new terms. Bryson is entranced and captivated by the way in which techno-craze after techno-craze has swept the country. And indeed, it is startling to realise that as early as the 1880s the expression 'I'll call you' was taken as necessarily implying the use of a telephone.
Made in America is full of a heartening kind of 'gee whiz' enthusiasm for these bush fires of modernity. We learn that: within five years of Morse's first public demonstration of the telegraph America had 5,000 miles of telegraph wire; within four years of its invention American had 60,000 telephones; during the quarter-century beginning in 1956, American spent dollars 118bn on interstate highways; in just three years, from 1922, more than four million radio sets were sold . . . and so on. In terms of the old shibboleths about everything being bigger and better in America, Bryson's book is a marvellous confirmatory text.
The chapters are arranged thematically rather than historically. There are overviews of travel, food, shopping, advertising, and so on. In the historical summary that begins the book Bryson demolishes one after another of the false conceptions we have about the Founding Fathers. (One example: we think they were puritans; they styled themselves 'saints'.)
He notes with bemused approval the extent to which the glutinous concatenations of consonants that make up Algonquin place-names have been retained in European-dominated America. But this is really a sideline. What Made in America is principally about is the way in which American Wasps' English has deviated from the mother tongue. Despite nods in the direction of the influence of such linguistic minorities as the Jews, Italians and Germans, Bryson's main focus is on American English qua American English. More exotic coinages are relegated to short lists and trite observations such as that the 'pizza' and 'hamburger' are American inventions.
What amuses Bryson most, and makes Made in America an engaging read, is the plethora of wacky anecdotes that he has trawled from the ocean of American cultural history. He is at his most peppy when describing the Quixotic quest for durable rubber undertaken by one Mr Firestone. Inventors are what Bryson likes best. He rhapsodises Benjamin Franklin more for his 'can- do' approach to domestic labour-saving devices than for his political ideals.
This is all very well as far as it goes, but Made in America is weak in just those areas of linguistic innovation that have made American English such a pervasive contemporary argot. Thus there is hardly any examination of black and criminal slang, and not enough about the extent to which Yiddish turns of phrase have impacted on urban American English. But Bryson's book does not have any pretensions towards being either exhaustive or overly theoretical. Instead, it's a tremendously sassy work, full of zip, pizzazz and all those other great American qualities.
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