About the Book

Bill Bryson turns away from the highways and byways of middle America, so hilariously depicted in his bestselling The Lost Continent, for a fast, exhilarating ride along the Route 66 of American language and popular culture.

In Made in America, Bryson de-mythologizes his native land – explaining how a dusty desert hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say ‘lootenant’ and ‘Toosday’, how Americans were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up – as well as exposing the true origins of the G-string, the original $64,000 question and Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame.

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About the Book

Title Page


List of Illustrations



1. The Mayflower and Before

2. Becoming Americans

3. A ‘Democratical Phrenzy’: America in the Age of Revolution

4. Making a Nation

5. By the Dawn’s Early Light: Forging a National Identity

6. We’re in the Money: The Age of Invention

7. Names

8. ‘Manifest Destiny’: Taming the West

9. The Melting-Pot: Immigration in America

10. When the Going was Good: Travel in America

11. What’s Cooking?: Eating in America

12. Democratizing Luxury: Shopping in America

13. Domestic Matters

14. The Hard Sell: Advertising in America

15. The Movies

16. The Pursuit of Pleasure: Sport and Play

17. Of Bombs and Bunkum: Politics and War

18. Sex and Other Distractions

19. The Road from Kitty Hawk

20. Welcome to the Space Age: The 1950s and Beyond

21. American English Today


Select Bibliography


About the Author

Also by Bill Bryson



Bill Bryson
Illustrations by Bruce McCall
To David, Felicity, Catherine and Sam

List of Illustrations

Founding Fathers’ Day, Plymouth Rock

Dame Railway and Her Choo-Choo Court, Cincinnati Ironmongery Fair, 1852

Let us show you for just $1 – how to pack BIG ad ideas into small packages!!

Hoplock’s amazing catch in the 1946 World Series

Wing dining, somewhere over France, 1929

New as nuclear fission and twice as powerful – that’s the new, newer, newest, all-new Bulgemobile!!


Among the many people to whom I am indebted for assistance and encouragement during the preparation of this book, I would like especially to thank Maria Guarnaschelli, Geoff Mulligan, Max Eilenberg, Carol Heaton, Dan Franklin, Andrew Franklin, John Price, Erla Zwingle, Karen Voelkening, Oliver Salzmann, Hobie and Lois Morris, Heidi Du Belt, James Mansley, Samuel H. Beamesderfer, Bonita Lousie Billman, Dr John L. Sommer, Allan M. Siegal, Bruce Corson, and the staffs of the Drake University Library in Des Moines and the National Geographic Society Library in Washington. Above all, and as ever, my infinite, heartfelt thanks and admiration to my wife, Cynthia.


In the 1940s, a British traveller to Anholt, a small island fifty miles out in the Kattegat strait between Denmark and Sweden, noticed that the island children sang a piece of doggerel that was clearly nonsense to them. It went:

Jeck og Jill
Vent op de hill
Og Jell kom tombling after.

The ditty, it turned out, had been brought to the island by occupying British soldiers during the Napoleonic wars, and had been handed down from generation to generation of children for 130 years, even though the words meant nothing to them.

In London, this small discovery was received with interest by a couple named Peter and lona Opie. The Opies had dedicated their lives to the scholarly pursuit of nursery rhymes. No one had put more effort into investigating the history and distribution of these durable but largely uncelebrated components of childhood life. Something that had long puzzled the Opies was the curious fate of a rhyme called ‘Brow Bender’. Once as popular as ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’, it was routinely included in children’s nursery books up until the late eighteenth century, but then it quietly and mysteriously vanished. It had not been recorded in print anywhere since 1788. Then one night as the Opies’ nanny was tucking their children in to bed, they overheard her reciting a nursery rhyme to them. It was, as you will have guessed, ‘Brow Bender’, exactly as set down in the 1788 version and with five lines never before recorded.

Now what, you may reasonably ask, does any of this have to do with a book on the history and development of the English language in America? I bring it up for two reasons. First, to make the point that it is often the little, unnoticed things that are most revealing about the history and nature of language. Nursery rhymes, for example, are fastidiously resistant to change. Even when they make no sense, as in the case of ‘Jack and Jill’ with children on an isolated Danish isle, they are generally passed from generation to generation with solemn precision, like a treasured incantation. Because of this, they are often among the longest-surviving features of any language. ‘Eenie, meenie, minie, mo’ is based on a counting system that predates the Roman occupation of Britain, and that may even be pre-Celtic. If so, it is one of our few surviving links with the very distant past. It not only gives us a fragmentary image of how children were being amused at the time that Stonehenge was built, but tells us something about how their elders counted and thought and ordered their speech. Little things, in short, are worth looking at.

The second point is that songs, words, phrases, ditties – any feature of language at all – can survive for long periods without anyone particularly noticing, as the Opies discovered with ‘Brow Bender’. That a word or phrase hasn’t been recorded tells us only that it hasn’t been recorded, not that it hasn’t existed. The inhabitants of England in the age of Chaucer commonly used an expression, to be in hide and hair, meaning to be lost or beyond discovery. But then it disappears from the written record for four hundred years before resurfacing, suddenly and unexpectedly, in America in 1857 as neither hide nor hair. It is dearly unlikely that the phrase went into a linguistic coma for four centuries. So who was quietly preserving it for four hundred years, and why did it so abruptly return to prominence in the sixth decade of the nineteenth century in a country two thousand miles away?

Why, come to that, did the Americans save such good old English words as skedaddle and chitterlings and chore, but not fortnight or heath? Why did they keep the irregular British pronunciations in words like colonel and hearth, but go our own way with lieutenant and schedule and clerk? Why in short is American English the way it is?

This is, it seems to me, a profoundly worthwhile and fascinating question, and yet until relatively recent times it is one that hardly anyone thought to ask. Until well into this century serious studies of American speech were left almost entirely to amateurs – people like the heroic Richard Harwood Thornton, an English-born lawyer who devoted years of his spare time to poring through books, journals and manuscripts from the earliest colonial period in search of the first appearances of hundreds of American terms. In 1912 he produced the two-volume American Glossary. It was a work of invaluable scholarship, yet he could not find a single American publisher prepared to take it on. Eventually, to the shame of American scholarship, it was published in London.

Not until the 1920s and ’30s, with the successive publications of H. L. Mencken’s incomparable The American Language, George Philip Krapp’s The English Language in America and Sir William Craigie and James R. Hulbert’s Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, did America at last get books that seriously addressed the question of its language. But by then the inspiration behind many hundreds of American expressions had passed into the realms of the unknowable, so that now no one can say why Americans paint the town red, talk turkey, take a powder or hit practice flies with a fungo bat.

This book is a modest attempt to examine how and why American speech came to be the way it is. It is not, I hope, a conventional history of the American language. Much of it is unashamedly discursive. You could be excused for wondering what Mrs Stuyvesant Fish’s running over her servant three times in succession with her car has to do with the history and development of the English language in the United States, or how James Gordon Bennett’s lifelong habit of yanking the cloths from every table he passed in a restaurant connects to the linguistic development of the American people. I would argue that unless we understand the social context in which words were formed – unless we can appreciate what a bewildering novelty the car was to those who first encountered it, or how dangerously extravagant and out of touch with the masses a turn-of-the-century business person could be – we cannot begin to appreciate the richness and vitality of the words that make American speech.

Oh, and I’ve included them for a third reason: because I thought they were interesting and hoped you might enjoy them. One of the small agonies of researching a book like this is that you come across stories that have no pressing relevance to the topic and must be let lie. I call them Ray Buduick stories. I came across Ray Buduick when I was thumbing through a 1941 volume of Time magazines looking for something else altogether. It happened that one day in that year Buduick decided, as he often did, to take his light aircraft up for an early Sunday morning spin. Nothing remarkable in that, except that Buduick lived in Honolulu and that this panicular morning happened to be 7 December 1941. As he headed out over Pearl Harbour, Buduick was taken aback, to say the least, to find the western skies dense with Japanese Zeros, all bearing down on him. The Japanese raked his plane with fire and Buduick, presumably issuing utterances along the lines of ‘Golly Moses!’, banked sharply and cleared off. Miraculously he managed to land his plane safely in the midst of the greatest airborne attack yet seen in history, and lived to tell the tale, and in so doing became the first American to engage the Japanese in combat, however inadvertently.

Of course, this has nothing at all to do with the American language. But everything else that follows does. Honestly.


Founding Fathers’ Day, Plymouth Rock



The Mayflower and Before


The image of the spiritual founding of America that generations of Americans have grown up with was created, oddly enough, by a poet of limited talents (to put it in the most magnanimous possible way) who lived two centuries after the event in a country three thousand miles away. Her name was Felicia Dorothea Hemans and she was not American but Welsh. Indeed, she had never been to America and appears to have known next to nothing about the country. It just happened that one day in 1826 her local grocer in north Wales wrapped her purchases in a sheet of two-year-old newspaper from Massachusetts, and her eye was caught by a small article about a founders’ day celebration in Plymouth. It was very probably the first she had heard of the Mayflower or the Pilgrims, but inspired as only a mediocre poet can be, she dashed off a poem, ‘The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (in New England)’ which begins:

The breaking waves dashed high

On a stern and rock-bound coast,

And the woods, against a stormy sky,

Their giant branches toss’d

And the heavy night hung dark

The hills and water o’er,

When a band of exiles moor’d their bark

On the wild New England shore …

and continues in a vigorously grandiloquent, indeterminately rhyming vein for a further eight stanzas. Although the poem was replete with errors – the Mayflower was not a bark, it was not night when they moored, Plymouth was not ‘where first they trod’ but in fact their fourth landing site – it became an instant classic, and formed the essential image of the Mayflower landing that most Americans carry with them to this day.fn1

The one thing the Pilgrims certainly didn’t do was step ashore on Plymouth Rock. Quite apart from the consideration that it may have stood well above the high-water mark in 1620, no prudent mariner would try to bring a ship alongside a boulder on a heaving December sea when a sheltered inlet beckoned from near by. Indeed, it is doubtful that the Pilgrims even noticed Plymouth Rock. No mention of the rock is found among any of the surviving documents and letters of the age, and it doesn’t make its first recorded appearance until 1715, almost a century later.1 Not until about the time Ms Hemans wrote her swooping epic did Plymouth Rock become indelibly associated with the landing of the Pilgrims.

Wherever they first trod, we can assume that the 102 Pilgrims stepped from their storm-tossed little ship with unsteady legs and huge relief. They had just spent nine and a half damp and perilous weeks at sea, crammed together on a creaking vessel about the size of a modern double-decker bus. The crew, with the customary graciousness of sailors, referred to them as puke stockings, on account of their apparently boundless ability to spatter the latter with the former, though in fact they had handled the experience reasonably well.2 Only one passenger had died en route, and two had been added through births (one of whom revelled ever after in the exuberant name of Oceanus Hopkins).

They called themselves Saints. Those members of the party who were not Saints they called Strangers. Pilgrims, in reference to these early voyagers, would not become common for another two hundred years. Nor, strictly speaking, is it correct to call them Puritans. They were Separatists, so called because they had left the Church of England. Puritans were those who remained in the Anglican Church but wished to purify it. They would not arrive in America for another decade, but when they did they would quickly eclipse, and eventually absorb, this little original colony.

It would be difficult to imagine a group of people more ill-suited to a life in the wilderness. They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. One William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots. Yet between them they failed to bring a single cow or horse or plough or fishing line. Among the professions represented on the Mayflower’s manifest were two tailors, a printer, several merchants, a silk worker, a shopkeeper and a hatter – occupations whose importance is not immediately evident when one thinks of surviving in a hostile environment.3 Their military commander, Miles Standish, was so diminutive of stature that he was known to all as ‘Captain Shrimpe’4 – hardly a figure to inspire awe in the savage natives whom they confidently expected to encounter. With the uncertain exception of the little captain, probably none in the party had ever tried to bring down a wild animal. Hunting in seventeenth-century Europe was a sport reserved for the aristocracy. Even those who labelled themselves farmers generally had scant practical knowledge of husbandry, since farmer in the 1600s, and for some time afterwards, signified an owner of land rather than one who worked it.

They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigours ahead, and they demonstrated their manifest incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves. Six expired in the first two weeks, eight the next month, seventeen more in February, a further thirteen in March. By April, when the Mayflower set sail back to Englandfn2 just fifty-four people, nearly half of them children, were left to begin the long work of turning this tenuous toehold into a self-sustaining colony.5

At this remove, it is difficult to conceive just how alone this small, hapless band of adventurers was. Their nearest kindred neighbours – at Jamestown in Virginia and at a small and now all but forgotten colony at Cupers (now Cupids) Cove in Newfoundlandfn3 – were five hundred miles off in opposite directions. At their back stood a hostile ocean, and before them lay an inconceivably vast and unknown continent of ‘wild and savage hue’, in William Bradford’s uneasy words. They were about as far from the comforts of civilization as anyone had ever been (certainly as far as anyone had ever been without a fishing line).

For two months they tried to make contact with the natives, but every time they spotted any, the Indians ran off. Then one day in February a young brave of friendly mien approached a party of Pilgrims on a beach. His name was Samoset and he was a stranger in the region himself, but he had a friend named Tisquantum from the local Wampanoag tribe, to whom he introduced them. Samoset and Tisquantum became the Pilgrims’ fast friends. They showed them how to plant corn and catch wildfowl and helped them to establish friendly relations with the local sachem, or chief. Before long, as every schoolchild knows, the Pilgrims were thriving, and Indians and settlers were sitting down to a cordial Thanksgiving feast. Life was grand.

A question that naturally arises is how they managed this. Algonquian, the language of the eastern tribes, is an extraordinarily complex and agglomerative tongue (or more accurately family of tongues), full of formidable consonant clusters that are all but unpronounceable to the untutored, as we can see from the first primer of Algonquian speech prepared some twenty years later by Roger Williams in Connecticut (a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally). Try saying the following and you may get some idea of the challenge:

Nquitpausuckowashâwmen – There are a hundred of us.

Chénock wonck cuppee-yeâumen? – When will you return?

Tashúckqunne cummauchenaûmis – How long have you been sick?

Ntannetéimmin – I will be going.6

Clearly this was not a language you could pick up in a weekend, and the Pilgrims were hardly gifted linguists. They weren’t even comfortable with Tisquantum’s name; they called him Squanto. The answer, surprisingly glossed over by most history books, is that the Pilgrims didn’t have to learn Algonquian for the happy and convenient reason that Samoset and Squanto spoke English. Samoset spoke it only a little, but Squanto spoke English with total assurance (and Spanish into the bargain).

That a straggly band of English settlers could in 1620 cross a vast ocean and find a pair of Indians able to welcome them in their own tongue seems little short of miraculous. It was certainly lucky – the Pilgrims would very probably have perished or been slaughtered without them – but not as wildly improbable as it at first seems. The fact is that in 1620 the New World wasn’t really so new at all.


No one knows who the first European visitors to the New World were. The credit generally goes to the Vikings, who reached the New World in about AD 1000, but there are grounds to suppose that others may have been there even earlier. An ancient Latin text, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot), recounts with persuasive detail a seven-year trip to the New World made by this Irish saint and a band of acolytes some four centuries before the Vikings – and this on the advice of another Irishman who claimed to have been there earlier still.

Even the Vikings didn’t think themselves the first. Their sagas record that when they first arrived in the New World they were chased from the beach by a group of wild white people. They subsequently heard stories from natives of a settlement of Caucasians who ‘wore white garments and … carried poles before them to which rags were attached’7 – precisely how an Irish religious procession would have looked to the uninitiated. (Intriguingly, five centuries later Columbus’s men would hear a similar story in the Caribbean.) Whether by Irish or Vikings – or Italians or Welsh or Bretons or any of the other many groups for whom credit has been sought – crossing the Atlantic in the Middle Ages was not quite as daring a feat as it would at first appear, even allowing for the fact that it was done in small, open boats. The North Atlantic is conveniently scattered with islands that could serve as stepping-stones – the Shetland Islands, Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland and Baffin. It would be possible to sail from Scandinavia to Canada without once crossing more than 250 miles of open sea. We know beyond doubt that Greenland – and thus, technically, North America – was discovered in 982 by one Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericson (or Leif Eríksson), and that he and his followers began settling it in 986. Anyone who has ever flown over the frozen wastes of Greenland could be excused for wondering what they saw in the place. But in fact Greenland’s southern fringes are further south than Oslo and offer an area of grassy lowlands as big as the whole of Britain.8 Certainly it suited the Vikings. For nearly five hundred years they kept a thriving colony there, which at its peak boasted sixteen churches, two monasteries, some 300 farms and a population of 4,000. But the one thing Greenland lacked was wood with which to build new ships and repair old ones – a somewhat vital consideration for a sea-going people. Iceland, the nearest land mass to the east, was known to be barren. The most natural thing would be to head west to see what was out there. In about 1000, according to the sagas, Leif Ericson did just that. His expedition discovered a new land mass, probably Baffin Island, far up in northern Canada, over a thousand miles north of the present-day United States, and many other places, most notably the region they called Vinland.

Vinland is one of history’s more tantalizing posers. No one knows where it was. By careful readings of the sagas and calculations of Viking sailing times, various scholars have put Vinland all over the place – on Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, in Massachusetts or even as far south as Virginia. A Norwegian scholar named Helge Ingstad claimed in 1964 to have found Vinland at a place called L’Anse au Meadow in Newfoundland. Others suggest that the artefacts Ingstad found were not of Viking origin at all, but merely the detritus of later French colonists.9 No one knows. The name is no help. According to the sagas, the Vikings called it Vinland because of the grape-vines they found growing in profusion there. The problem is that no place within a thousand miles of where they must have been could possibly have supported grapes. One possible explanation is that Vinland was a mistranslation. Vinber, the Viking word for grapes, could be used to describe many other fruits – cranberries, gooseberries and red currants, among them – that might have been found at these northern latitudes. Another possibility is that Vinland was merely a bit of deft propaganda, designed to encourage settlement. These were after all the people who thought up the name Greenland.

The Vikings made at least three attempts to build permanent settlements in Vinland, the last in 1013, before finally giving up. Or possibly not. What is known beyond doubt is that sometime after 1408 the Vikings abruptly disappeared from Greenland. Where they went or what became of them is unknown.10 The tempting presumption is that they found a more congenial life in North America.

There is certainly an abundance of inexplicable clues. Consider the matter of lacrosse, a game long popular with Indians across wide tracts of North America. Interestingly, the rules of lacrosse are uncannily like those of a game played by the Vikings, including one feature – the use of paired team-mates who may not be helped or impeded by other players – so unusual, in the words of one anthropologist, ‘as to make the probability of independent origin vanishingly small’. Then there were the Haneragmiuts, a tribe of Inuits living high above the Arctic Circle on Victoria Island in northern Canada, a place so remote that its inhabitants were not known to the outside world until early this century. Yet several members of the tribe not only looked unsettlingly European but were found to be carrying indubitably European genes.11 No one has ever provided a remotely satisfactory explanation of how this could be. Or consider the case of Olof and Edward Ohman, father and son respectively, who in 1888 were digging up tree stumps on their farm near Kensington, Minnesota, when they came upon a large stone slab covered with runic inscriptions, which appear to describe how a party of thirty Vikings had returned to that spot after an exploratory survey to find the ten men they had left behind ‘red with blood and dead’. The inscriptions have been dated to 1363. The one problem is how to explain why a party of weary explorers, facing the prospect of renewed attack by hostile natives, would take the time to make elaborate carvings on a rock deep in the American wilderness, thousands of miles from where anyone they knew would be able to read it. Still, if a hoax, it was executed with unusual skill and verisimilitude.

All this is by way of making the point that word of the existence of a land beyond the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was then known, was filtering back to Europeans long before Columbus made his epic voyage. The Vikings did not operate in isolation. They settled all over Europe and their exploits were widely known. They even left a map – the famous Vinland map – which is known to have been circulating in Europe by the fourteenth century. We don’t positively know that Columbus was aware of this map, but we do know that the course he set appeared to be making a beeline for the mythical island of Antilla, which featured on it.

Columbus never found Antilla or anything else he was looking for. His epochal voyage of 1492 was almost the last thing – indeed almost the only thing – that went right in his life. Within eight years, he would find himself summarily relieved of his post as Admiral of the Ocean Sea, returned to Spain in chains and allowed to sink into such profound obscurity that even now we don’t know for sure where he is buried. To achieve such a precipitous fall in less than a decade required an unusual measure of incompetence and arrogance. Columbus had both.

He spent most of those eight years bouncing around the islands of the Caribbean and coasts of South America without ever having any real idea of where he was or what he was doing. He always thought that Cipangu, or Japan, was somewhere near by and never divined that Cuba was an island. To his dying day he insisted that it was part of the Asian mainland (though there is some indication that he may have had his own doubts since he made his men swear under oath that it was Asia or have their tongues cut out). His geographic imprecision is most enduringly preserved in the name he gave to the natives: Indios, which of course has come down to us as Indians. He cost the Spanish crown a fortune and gave in return little but broken promises. And throughout he behaved with the kind of impudence – demanding to be made hereditary Admiral of the Ocean Sea, as well as Viceroy and Governor of the lands that he conquered, and to be granted one-tenth of whatever wealth his enterprises generated – that all but invited his eventual downfall.

In this he was not alone. Many other New World explorers met misfortune in one way or another. Juan Díaz de Solís and Giovanni da Verrazano were eaten by natives. Balboa, after discovering the Pacific, was executed on trumped-up charges, betrayed by his colleague Francisco Pizarro, who in his turn ended up murdered by rivals. Hernando de Soto marched an army pointlessly all over the south-western US for four years until he caught a fever and died. Scores of adventurers, enticed by tales of fabulous cities – Quivira, Bimini, the City of the Caesars and Eldorado (‘the gilded one’) went looking for wealth, eternal youth, or a shortcut to the Orient and mostly found misery. Their fruitless searches live on, sometimes unexpectedly, in the names on the landscape. California commemorates a Queen Califía, unspeakably rich but unfortunately non-existent. The Amazon is named for a tribe of one-breasted women. Brazil and the Antilles recall fabulous, but also fictitious, islands.

Further north the English fared little better. Sir Humphrey Gilbert perished in a storm off the Azores in 1583 after trying unsuccessfully to found a colony on Newfoundland. His half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to establish a settlement in Virginia and lost a fortune, and eventually his head, in the effort. Henry Hudson pushed his crew a little too far while looking for a north-west passage and found himself, Bligh-like, being put to sea in a little boat, never to be seen again. The endearingly hopeless Martin Frobisher explored the Arctic region of Canada, found what he thought was gold and carried 1,500 tons of it home on a dangerously overloaded boat only to be informed that it was worthless iron pyrite. Undaunted, Frobisher returned to Canada, found another source of gold, carted 1,300 tons of it back and was informed, no doubt with a certain weariness on the part of the royal assayer, that it was the same stuff. After that, we hear no more of Martin Frobisher.

It is interesting to speculate what these daring adventurers would think if they knew how whimsically we commemorate them today. Would Giovanni da Verrazano think being eaten by cannibals a reasonable price to pay for having his name attached to a toll bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island? I suspect not. De Soto found transient fame in the name of an automobile, Frobisher in a distant icy bay, Raleigh in a city in North Carolina, a brand of cigarettes and a type of bicycle, Hudson in several waterways and a chain of department stores. On balance, Columbus, with a university, two state capitals, a country in South America, a province in Canada and high schools almost without number, among a great deal else, came out of it pretty well. But in terms of linguistic immortality no one got more mileage from less activity than a shadowy Italian-born businessman named Amerigo Vespucci.

A Florentine who had moved to Seville where he ran a ship supply business (one of his customers was his compatriot Christopher Columbus), Vespucci seemed destined for obscurity. How two continents came to be named in his honour required an unlikely measure of coincidence and error. Vespucci did make some voyages to the New World (authorities differ on whether it was three or four), but always as a passenger or lowly officer. He was not, by any means, an accomplished seaman. Yet in 1504–5, there began circulating in Florence letters of unknown authorship, collected under the title Nuovo Mundo (New World), which stated that Vespucci had not only been captain of these voyages but had discovered the New World.

The mistake would probably have gone no further except that an instructor at a small college in eastern France named Martin Waldseemüller was working on a revised edition of Ptolemy and decided to freshen it up with a new map of the world. In the course of his research he came upon the Florentine letters and, impressed with their spurious account of Vespucci’s exploits, named the continent in his honour. (It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that: first he translated Amerigo into the Latin Americus and then transformed that into its feminine form, America, on the ground that Asia and Europe were feminine. He also considered the name Amerige.) Even so it wasn’t until forty years later that people began to refer to the New World as America, and then they meant by it only South America.

Vespucci did have one possible, if slightly marginal, claim to fame. He is thought to have been the brother of Simonetta Vespucci, the model for Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli.12


Since neither Columbus nor Vespucci ever set foot on the land mass that became the United States, it would be more aptly named for Giovanni Caboto, an Italian mariner better known to history by his Anglicized name of John Cabot. Sailing from Bristol in 1495, Cabot ‘discovered’ Newfoundland and possibly Nova Scotia and a number of smaller islands, and in the process became the first known European to visit North America, though in fact he more probably was merely following fishing fleets that were trawling the Grand Banks already. What is certain is that in 1475, because of war in Europe, British fisherman lost access to the traditional fishing grounds off Iceland. Yet British cod stocks did not fall, and in 1490 (two years before Columbus sailed) when Iceland offered the British fishermen the chance to come back, they declined. The presumption is that they had discovered the cod-rich waters off Newfoundland and didn’t want anyone else to know about them.13

Whether Cabot inspired the fishermen or they him, by the early 1500s the Atlantic was thick with English vessels. A few came to prey on Spanish treasure ships, made sluggish and vulnerable by the weight of gold and silver they were carrying back to the Old World. Remarkably good money could be made from this.fn4 On a single voyage Sir Francis Drake returned to England with booty worth $60 million in today’s money.14 On the same voyage, Drake briefly put ashore in what is now Virginia, claimed it for the crown and called it New Albion.15

To give the claim weight, and to provide a supply base for privateers, Queen Elizabeth I decided it might be an idea to establish a colony. She gave the task to Sir Walter Raleigh. The result was the ill-fated ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke, whose 114 members were put ashore just south of Albemarle Sound in what is now North Carolina in 1587. From that original colony sprang seven names that still feature on the landscape: Roanoke (which has the distinction of being the first Indian word borrowed by English settlers), Cape Fear, Cape Hatteras, the Chowan and Neuse rivers, Chesapeake and Virginia.16 (Previously Virginia had been called Windgancon, meaning ‘what gay clothes you wear’ – apparently what the locals had replied when an early reconnoitring party had asked them what they called the place.) But that alas was about all the colony achieved. Because of the war with Spain, no English ship was able to return for three years. When at last a relief ship called, it found the colony deserted. For years afterwards, visitors would occasionally spot a blond-haired Indian child, and the neighbouring Croatoan tribe was eventually discovered to have incorporated several words of Elizabethan English into its own tongue, but no firmer evidence of the colony’s fate was ever found.

Other settlements followed, among them the now forgotten Popham Colony, formed in 1610 in what is now Maine, but abandoned after two years, and the rather more durable but none the less ever-precarious colony of Jamestown, founded in Virginia in 1607.

Mostly, however, what drew the English to the New World was the fishing, especially along the almost unimaginably bounteous waters off the north-east coast of North America. For at least 120 years before the Mayflower set sail European fishing fleets had been an increasingly common sight along the eastern seaboard. Often the fleets would put ashore to dry fish, replenish stocks of food and water, or occasionally wait out a harsh winter. As many as a thousand fishermen at a time would gather on the beaches. It was from such groups that Samoset had learned his few words of English.

As a result, by 1620 there was scarcely a bay in New England and eastern Canada that didn’t bear some relic of their passing. The Pilgrims themselves soon came upon an old cast-iron cooking pot, obviously of European origin, and while plundering some Indian graves (an act of crass injudiciousness, all but inviting their massacre) they uncovered the body of a blond-haired man, ‘possibly a Frenchman who had died in captivity’.17

New England may have been a new world to the Pilgrims, but it was hardly terra incognita. Much of the land around them had already been mapped. Eighteen years earlier, Bartholomew Gosnold and a party described as ‘24 gentlemen and eight sailors’ had camped for a few months on nearby Cuttyhunk Island and left behind many names, two of which endure: Cape Cod and the romantically mysterious Martha’s Vineyard (mysterious because we don’t know who Martha was).

Seven years before, John Smith, passing by on a whaling expedition, had remapped the region, diligently taking heed of the names the Indians themselves used. He added just one name of his own devising: New England. (Previously the region had been called Norumbega on most maps. No one now has any clear idea why.) But in a consummate display of brown-nosing, upon his return to England Smith presented his map to Charles Stuart, the sixteen-year-old heir apparent, along with a note ‘humbly intreating’ his Highness ‘to change their barbarous names for such English, as posterity might say Prince Charles was their Godfather.’ The young prince fell to the task with relish. He struck out most of the Indian names that Smith had so carefully transcribed and replaced them with a whimsical mix that honoured himself and his family, or that simply took his fancy. Among his creations were Cape Elizabeth, Cape Anne, the Charles River and Plymouth. In consequence when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth one of the few tasks they didn’t have to manage was thinking up names for the landmarks all around them. They were already named.

Sometimes the early explorers took Indians back to Europe with them. Such had been the fate of the heroic Squanto, whose life story reads like an implausible picaresque novel. He had been picked up by a seafarer named George Weymouth in 1605 and carried off – whether voluntarily or not is unknown – to England. There he had spent nine years working at various jobs before returning to the New World as interpreter for John Smith on his voyage of 1613. As reward for his help, Smith gave Squanto his liberty. But no sooner had Squanto been reunited with his tribe than he and nineteen of his fellows were kidnapped by another Englishman, who carried them off to Málaga, and sold them as slaves. Squanto worked as a house servant in Spain before somehow managing to escape to England, where he worked for a time for a merchant in the City of London before finally, in 1619, returning to the New World on yet another exploratory expedition of the New England coast.18 Altogether he had been away for nearly fifteen years, and he returned to find that only a short while before his tribe had been wiped out by a plague – almost certainly smallpox introduced by visiting sailors.

Thus Squanto had certain grounds to be disgruntled. Not only had Europeans inadvertently exterminated his tribe, but twice had carried him off and once sold him into slavery. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Squanto was of a forgiving nature. Having spent the greater part of his adult life among the English, he may well have felt more comfortable among Britons than among his own people. In any case, he settled with them and for the next year, until he died of a sudden fever, served as their faithful teacher, interpreter, ambassador and friend. Thanks to him, the future of English in the New World was assured.

The question of what kind of English it was, and would become, lies at the heart of what follows.

fn1 Mrs Hemans’ other principal contribution to posterity was the poem ‘Casabianca’, now remembered chiefly for its opening line; ‘The boy stood on the burning deck.’

fn2 The Mayflower, like Plymouth Rock, appears to have made no sentimental impression on the colonists. Not once in Of Plimouth Plantation, William Bradford’s history of the colony did he mention the ship by name. Just three years after its epochal crossing, the Mayflower was unceremoniously broken up and sold for salvage. According to several accounts, it ended up being made into a barn that still stands in the village of Jordans, Buckinghamshire, about twenty miles from London. Coincidentally, almost in its shadow is the grave of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

fn3 Founded in 1610, this small colony was abandoned in the 1630s, though it was soon replaced by other British settlements on the island. Because of their isolation, Newfoundlanders created a peculiarly colourful patois blending new coinages and old English dialectal words that now exist nowhere else: diddies for a nightmare, nunny-bag for a kind of knapsack, cocksiddle for a somersault, rushing the waddock for the game of rugby. They continue to employ many odd pronunciations. Chitterlings, for instance, is pronounced ‘chistlings’. The one word that Newfoundland has given the world is penguin. No one has any idea what inspired it.

fn4 Spain was preyed on not only by sailors from rival nations, but also by mutineer sailors of her own. These latter were called buccaneers because after fleeing their Spanish masters they would sustain themselves by smoking the flesh of wild hogs on a wooden frame called a boucan, until they could capture a becalmed ship and make it their own.


Becoming Americans

We whoſe names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by ye grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland, King, defender of ye faith, etc., haveing undertaken for ye glory of God and advancement of ye Christian faith, and honour of our King and countrie, a voyage to plant ye firſt Colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by theſe presents Solemnly, and mutualy … covenant and combine ourſelves togeather into a civil body politick for our better ordering and preſervation and furtherance of ye end aforeſaid …

So begins the Mayflower Compact, written in 1620 shortly before the Mayflower Pilgrims stepped ashore. The passage, I need hardly point out, contains some differences from modern English. We no longer use S interchangeably with s, or ye for thefn1 A few spellings – Britaine, togeather, Northerne – clearly vary from modern practice, but generally only slightly and not enough to confuse us, whereas only a generation before we would find far greater irregularities (for example, gelousie, conseil, audacite, wiche, loware for jealousy, council, audacity, which and lower). We would not nowadays refer to a ‘dread sovereign’, and if we did we would not mean by it one to be held in awe. But allowing for these few anachronisms, the passage is clear, recognizable, wholly accessible English.

Were we, however, somehow to be transported to the Plymouth colony of 1620 and allowed to eavesdrop on the conversations of those who drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact, we would almost certainly be astonished at how different – how frequently incomprehensible – much of their spoken language would be to us. Though it would be clearly identifiable as English, it would be a variety of English unlike any we had heard before. Among the differences that would most immediately strike us:

I am monarch of all I survey …

From the centre all round to the sea.

Different as this English was from modern English, it was nearly as different again from the English spoken only a generation or two before in the mid-1500s. In countless ways, the language of the Pilgrims was strikingly more advanced, less visibly rooted in the conventions and inflections of Middle English, than that of their grandparents or even parents.

The old practice of making plurals by adding -n was rapidly giving way to the newer convention of adding -s, so that by 1620 most people were saying knees instead of kneen, houses instead of housen, fleas instead of flean. The transition was by no means complete at the time of the Pilgrims – we can find eyen for eyes and shoon for shoeschildren, brethrenoxen