Books Again

I’m reading Made in America by Bill Bryson. Lord, that man is a researcher. The amount of STUFF he crams into a book is just unbelievable and it’s all intensely interesting, funny and surprising.

The book is a wandering ramble through American place names, natural history, inventions, early legal scraps, the relationship with the Old Country, personal stories and just so much more. I’ve always loved Bryson’s chuckling and indulgent tone – he gently (and sometimes not so gently, on the subject of destroying nature in particular) pokes fun at Americans, Britons, presidents, drunkards, himself…everyone!

I’ve discovered so many American etymologies for words deeply embedded in the English language – and so many supposed Americanisms that in fact began life in England. You can never suppose anything with language. Things you thought obvious actually aren’t: with backformations and simultaneous borrowings popping up all over the place, America’s linguistic history is a very deep rabbit hole.

I’m deeply admiring of meticulous research and really respect anyone brave enough to trust that they’ve judged a source correctly – let alone hundreds of sources from many centuries and many unreliable authors.

Some favourites:

  • Snapshot was given its newer definition when the first mass market camera reached popularity – it originally meant a quick, poorly planned shot while hunting.
  • Pepsi-Cola is so named because it was originally supposed to be a health drink to help dyspepsia. Most sodas of the age were marketed as restorative draughts, like Cocoa Cola for energy and sexual vitality (of course: Peruvians have chewed coca leaves for energy for probably thousands of years. Cocaine tends to have that effect.)
  • The Morse of Morse code (Samuel F. B. Morse) never made any money from his invention – it was taken up by a man called Joseph Henry who continued to call on Morse for advice over the years, and yet never gave him any credit beyond the name. Interestingly, the distress call SOS was never intended to stand for Save Our Souls; it was just quick and easy to issue.

Thanks Bill, you rock.

(On another interesting note, rock ‘n’ roll comes from a euphemism for sex in early blues and jazz music.)

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