OUR OWN WORDS by Mary Ellen Dohan


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Dohan's book -- a popular etymology of the American language -- traces its roots from proto-Indo-European through Teutonic and Saxon to Norman, sprinkling the account with multifarious examples from each. From the Norman conquest through the Renaissance, apart from the normal evolution of the language (Old English, Middle English, modern English), the idiom changed according to political, economic and intellectual developments: medieval scholarship brought much Latin; trade introduced Dutch and Flemish; and mercantile expansion engendered its own locution. Finally, the American colonies began to distinguish themselves linguistically, the first indication of which was Francis Moore's reference to a river bank, ""Which they in barbarous English call a bluff."" Some sixty years later Mr. Webster declaimed, ""As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as in government."" Dohan demonstrates how the American character -- pragmatic, improvisational -- was manifest in its early parlance: ""rubberneck,"" ""bobcat,"" ""squatting."" Likewise the unique New World landscape engendered the development of new words. Immigrants -- Dutch and German settlers, French voyageurs and Huguenots -- continued to add to the common lexicon, and urbanization produced a stock of commercial, literary, industrial and legal terms. Dohan guides us through the 20th Century from the ""shell-shock"" of the ""doughboys,"" ""G.I's,"" ""Coke,"" and ""T.V."" to the 60's neologisms such as ""tripping,"" ""think tank,"" ""no-knock,"" ""ecosystem,"" ""gay,"" ""fragging,"" ""FORTRAN,"" ""soul."" An adequate survey of American vocabulary from the perspective of a traditional linguist.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1974
Publisher: Knopf