Ex-patriate journalist Bryson (Neither Here Nor There, 1992, etc.) skims the history and present condition of American English.
The text is an entertaining compendium of possible and less possible word origins. Does "okay'' come from Martin Van Buren's nickname, Old Kinderhook? Or from the fact that Andrew Jackson was reported to write "oll korrect''? Or is it from the Greek ollakalla (all good)? Bryson offers a cogent discussion of sexism in the language, and there's a lot of orthography, etymology, and toponymy. But this isn't just a book about language. It's also a bestiary of American pop culture, many of whose stereotypes Bryson debunks (a back-formation from Buncombe County, N.C., of course): Ellis Island, in its original splendor, wasn't half bad; the Puritans enjoyed a good time just like the rest of us; and Ray Kroc hadn't the inventiveness of the Brothers MacDonald, after all. Bryson tells us a lot we surely never thought about. There's the cost of sending a letter by Postal Express and the reason for the bump on the fuselage of the Boeing 747. "Debugging'' of computers began, we are told, on the day 50 years ago when a moth entered a Navy computer. There are, however, some facts that aren't facts. Bryson places the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad among the group of Americans whose names were changed from awkward foreignness. And, surprisingly for a lexicographer, he indulges in the popular confusion of the 18th-century "long s'' and the modern "f.'' This offering won't replace the popular works by Flexner, much less the majestic Mencken, but the style is engaging and the narrative diverting. An index is appended, but there is no useful list of words and phrases.
If, as the old saw has it, England and America are two countries divided by a common language, here's some disarming help sent by a Yank from the other side of the pond.