March 11, 1995 in Features

Book Examines History Of Words

Bob Dart Cox News Service
 

Ever wonder why the lower element of a stripper’s attire is called a G-string?

It’s not because patrons are apt to say “Gee, look at that,” or even because of the thinness of a G-string on a violin, explains Bill Bryson, a sort of linguistic evolutionist. “The term ‘geestring’ was originally adapted from a much longer Indian word for the leather thong used to hold up a loincloth,” he said.

An Iowa expatriate who lives in England, Bryson is the author of “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.” Published this month by William Morrow and Co., the 417-page book examines American history and culture through its unique words.

For example, the quintessential American term is “OK,” Bryson contends. “It is the most recognized of all American words, but its origins are mysterious. What does ‘OK’ stand for?”

The answer is known mainly because Allen Walker Reed, a professor at Columbia University, devoted 20 years of life to tracking it down as a hobby, Bryson said. OK stands for “Oll Korrect,” which stems from an 1830s fad for using “intentionally illiterate abbreviations.”

“It was thought to be the height of wit,” Bryson explained - sort of like the word play in the name of the singing group “Boyz II Men.”

“OK” would probably have disappeared like “KG” (Know Go), except that the Democratic OK Club was formed in the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren and the term was thrust into national usage.

After OK, the second most recognizable American word is “Coca-Cola,” said Bryson. The soft drink’s name came from the cola nuts and coca leaves used in the original formula of Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, the author said.

“Made in America” follows Bryson’s first book, “Mother Tongue,” which examined British English and was published in Britain, Ireland and Australia. American English is not very different from the mother tongue, said Bryson.

“There are only about 4,000 words in common speech that are different,” he said.

The most common examples are car parts, he said. In England, the hood is a bonnet, turn signals are indicators, the trunk is a boot and the windshield is a windscreen.

Political correctness, itself a new term, has spawned a wide range of linguistic changes, Bryson said. There are absurd euphemisms - alternative dentation for false teeth; custody suite for a prison cell. But there are also words that promote accuracy and sensitivity - the terms “date rape” and “developmentally challenged,” for example.

Words often disappear nearly as quickly as they appear.

Americans still go to the movies, but once called them “photoplays” or “cinematographs.” Westerns were oat operas; tear-jerkers were weepies; flops were palookas; and a hit was a clicko. An actress like Sharon Stone was known as a bombshell in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bryson said he inherited books and an interest in words from his father, a Des Moines sportswriter whose lifelong hobby was looking into the derivation of baseball terms.

He is skeptical about charges that the language is being corrupted by a generation addicted to television and the Internet.

xxxx HOW SOME AMERICAN TERMS CAME TO BE Here are some distinctly American terms and their history: Jeans: An American corruption of Genoa, the Italian city that originated the type of cloth that Levi Strauss fashioned into tough trousers around 1850. Ham actor: Lesser performers once had to use ham fat rather than cold cream to remove makeup. First recorded in 1875. Linda Ronstadt: Baseball term for a good fast ball. Comes from the singer’s hit, “Blue Bayou.” The fast ball “blew by you.” Sawbuck: A $10 bill, which originally bore a Roman numeral “X” (for 10) and reminded folks of a sawhorse, or sawbuck. Hot dog: Known as a frankfurter until the early 1900s, when cartoonist T.A. “Tad” Dorgan drew a dachshund in an elongated bun. Sideburns: Coined during the Civil War to describe the whiskers worn by Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Dial 8: Baseball expression for hitting a home run. Hotel guests had to dial 8 before making a long-distance call from their rooms. Source: “Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.” Cox News Service

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