BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Allan A. Metcalf, co-author of "America In So Many
Words: Words That Have Shaped America." Where did you get the idea for this book?
Professor ALLAN METCALF (Co-Author, "America In So Many Words"):
Well, it began with a project that the American Dialect Society had.
I'm the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society which is a
small group of scholars who study American English. And starting in
1990, we decided to have a word of the year chosen at our annual
meeting each year. And so 1990, an unmemorable word, bushlips, that
quickly dropped out of--out of sight; some other years, more important
words. And two of the people, myself and David Barnhart, who've done
the words of the year, decided that we should really go back and do
the entire history of America, choosing the most significant words for
each year. And with the benefit of hindsight, we got rid of bushlips
and a few other mistaken choices of the early 1990s.
LAMB: What's bushlips?
Prof. METCALF: Well, it's supposed to mean--it comes from `read my
lips' that George Bush said. And so bushlips is an insincere remark.
It was noted by one of the American Dialect Society members in the
year 1990 as a--a clever word, I guess. And for some reason it was
voted word of the year. But that just shows that word of the year is
not a scientific, philosophical, carefully based choice. At the
time--it was the first time we had even done that kind of thing, as a
matter of fact, trying to choose a word of the year. And after that,
the society has done a little bit better. Last year, the phrase
soccer mom was word of the year. That seems fairly significant.
LAMB: You changed bushlips to PC in 1990.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Looking back on it, PC for politically
correct--of course, PC also means another kind of technological
gadget, so that gets in there, too. But PC is a way of--even
abbreviating the whole concern about politically correct certainly
seems much more important nowadays. So we use the benefit of
hindsight to go back and improve on the choices made earlier.
LAMB: American Dialect Society. Who started it?
Prof. METCALF: That was founded in 1889 by a couple of professors at
Harvard. So we celebrated our centennial about 10 years ago. And at
the time, it was thought to be--well, the aim of the American Dialect
Society was to produce a dialect dictionary just as the English
Dialect Society had done in England. We never got around to producing
our dictionary. So the English Society, once they produced their
dictionary, disbanded. The American Dialect Society has never
disbanded. And now, finally, our dictionary is under way. In fact,
three volumes have been published. It's called The Dictionary of
American Regional English. Fred Cassidy at the University of
Wisconsin is the editor of that. They still have three volumes to go.
But even when they have finished the dictionary, we're going to keep
LAMB: Where did you get--or where did we get the word or the letters
and wh--and what do they mean, O-K?
Prof. METCALF: Well, OK is, I think, the quintessential American
word and that came fr--in 1839 in Boston. It must have been a dull
summer because the newspaper columnists were filling their columns
with humorous abbreviations. OK was an abbreviation for all correct,
which, of course, isn't all correct even in its spelling. The letters
are both incorrect, and all the other letters--all the other words
that they can--they made up then have faded away, but OK kept going
mainly because in the very next year Martin Van Buren, old Kinderhook,
was running for president. And OK clubs supporting him sprouted up
all through the country. And so saying, `OK is OK,' really carried
LAMB: And o--and Kinderhooks--Kinderhook, New York, where he's
Prof. METCALF: Yes, that's right. Yes.
LAMB: How often does a word come from a politician?
Prof. METCALF: Well, not as often perhaps as we could expect. Take
a word that's in the book but is regrettably just about obsolete now.
The word newt--N-E-W-T--which was our word for--I think it's about
1994 or maybe '95.
LAMB: I think it's '95, yeah.
Prof. METCALF: The--we put it in there because at the time Newt
Gingrich was such an apparition in Washington that the mere mention of
his name suggested doing negative things to the agencies of
government. Yes, there's a picture of him, too. But in the past year
or two, I don't know if even--anyone would even recognize the name
n--or the word newt.
LAMB: Who decides that newt is the word for 1995?
Prof. METCALF: Well, for this book it was David and I who decided.
LAMB: And why?
Prof. METCALF: Well, the choices for 1995 weren't that exciting. I
don't remember the other choices for that particular year. But that
brings up an important problem with recent years. It seems to me that
it takes about 40 years to decide if a word is going to permanently
reside in the vocabulary. And until then, until you've had about two
generations--not only one generation using it fashionably but another
picking it up and using it, and then it seems as if it's perfectly at
home, then a word is really in the vocabulary. So for recent years,
we have words that are maybe prominent in that year, but who knows?
We'll take the word for this year, ebonics. That was the talk of
everyone earlier in 1997. And the bonics suffix was used humorously
to indicate any kind of language study or any kind of dialect. The
word itself was coined in 1973 and first published in 1975. But it
became prominent this year. Now whether that's going to become maybe
even a standard way of referring to a kind of dialect or whether it's
a flash in the pan, that remains to be seen.
LAMB: You point that on newt, for instance, that that's not the first
time that it's--that a word comes from an individual. You le--lead
off that particular section by saying, `On a rare occasion, a person's
name becomes a word like gardenia...'
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes.
Prof. METCALF: Right.
LAMB: `...or bloomers.'
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: Can you remember the gardenia, lynch and bloomers...
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes.
LAMB: ...and what they stand for?
Prof. METCALF: Well, Gardenia--there's a man named Alexander Garden,
who was a botanist--a wonderful name for a botanist. And in his
honor, he was, I think, in South Carolina. This was in the late
1700s. A--a flower that we now know as the gardenia was named in his
honor. During the Revolutionary War, it turned out that he was a
loyalist, so he fled back to England or Scotland or whatever. But he
was in America while the plant was named for him. So we get to count
that as an American word.
LAMB: What about lynch, 1780?
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Lynch--well, that's one of the downsides of
American history that gets included in our vocabulary.
LAMB: Captain William Lynch.
Prof. METCALF: Captain William Lynch. And, in fact, there were two
different Lynches, both I believe in Virginia.
LAMB: Charles Lynch of Bedford County and William Lynch of
Pennsylvania County. I'm ju--I'm only going to do this to help 'cause
I know you have--you don't have--I've got the crutch here. So...
Prof. METCALF: Yes, I don't have all 327 words and phrases fully
memorized. But in any case, they--which of the Lynches is responsible
for the term is still debated. But in any case, it's someone who
takes the law into his own hands, and we continued lynching
unfortunately well into the early 20th century.
Prof. METCALF: Ah, bloomer, there was Miss Amelia Bloomer, who
devised a new costume for the liberated woman of the 1850s.
LAMB: She was an early feminist.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, the kinds of things that women
conventionally wore in those days were very constricting, so she had
bloomers, things that developed into pantlike things and women could
suddenly move their limbs around better.
LAMB: Where did teddy bear come from?
Prof. METCALF: Teddy bear is from President Teddy Roosevelt, of
course. And, in fact, Roosevelt is the cause of our having two words
for 1906. It's the only year when we have two different, completely
separate words. But he's responsible for teddy bear. He went hunting
but spared a little bear. And a poem, I believe, in a cartoon
commemorated that and very soon the enterprising American
manufacturers began producing little bears and calling them teddy
bears. And that was in 1906.
Also in 1906, if can bring it up, is the great word muckraker. And
the great journalistic muckrakers were operating at the time, but
Teddy Roosevelt, though he was a reformer, was denouncing the
muckrakers, the reporters who were looking around in the dirt and muck
instead of looking at more noble causes.
LAMB: Now I'm gonna read your whole quote in here because it might be
interesting for folks to hear what Teddy Roosevelt said about
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: ...then back in 1906. "The men with the muckrakes are often
indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when
to stop ruck--raking the muck and to look upward to the celestial
crown above them to crown--to the crown of worthy endeavor. There are
beautiful things above and round about them, and if they gradually
grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of
usefulness is gone."
Prof. METCALF: I would think that would be a sentiment in the mouths
of many politicians nowadays.
LAMB: N--has it always been the same?
Prof. METCALF: Oh, I think so. There have been politics like this
and politicians complaining that the media were not treating them
properly for a long time; although the word media comes from 1921.
It's a relatively recent word, and it began with advertising, of
course. Nowadays we talk about the media very casually, but it was
the journalists back in those days.
LAMB: You write also about muckraker. "Roosevelt was annoyed with
writers like Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, who
exposed corruption and greed in government and business."
Prof. METCALF: Yes. And they--as long as your own ox isn't being
gored, you're happy about the muckrakers, and when it gets pointed in
your direction, there you go.
LAMB: Bible Belt.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, that was H.L. Mencken who also should be noted
as one of the most prominent people to study American English. His
great book, "The American Language," is perhaps the most famous book
on American English. But he came up with the term Bible Belt, not
entirely compliment--tarily, in the 1920s.
LAMB: As a matter of fact, in that section--it's a 1926 word or
words, Bible Belt. There's reference to a Wheat Belt in northern Ohio
as early as 1863. The first Oil Belt running from New York to
Kentucky was mentioned in 1865. We also spoke of the great Cotton
Belt of the South in 1871. The Fruit Belt of the Michigan peninsula
in 1874, a Gold Belt in northern Georgia in 1879, and a Midwestern
Corn Belt on a--and a California Redwood Belt in 1882. How do you
find all this stuff?
Prof. METCALF: Well, that's thanks to the scholars who've done great
studies of American English. There are two great dictionaries. One
is called The Dictionary of American English in four big volumes, and
the other is called The Dictionary of Americanisms in two volumes,
published both by the University of Chicago Press in mid-century. And
then there are some wonderful new dictionaries coming along in
addition to The Dictionary of American Regional English that I was
mentioning, there's the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. And
there have been many excellent books on American English including
The thing that David and I tried to do here that makes this
distinctive is that we decided to look for the top American words,
because there have been something like 20,000 new words or new
meanings, maybe 30,000--depends on how many you count--introduced into
the English language in America. And our search was always which
words are the most important, the ones that tell us most about
ourselves and our way of thinking and our history and so on.
LAMB: Who is your co-author David Ba--it's--pronounce it.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, David Barnhart.
Prof. METCALF: Well, he comes from the illustrious Barnhart family
of lexicographers. And he himself is a lexicographer--a professional
LAMB: What's that?
Prof. METCALF: Dictionary maker. Lives near New York City, and his
father, Clarence Barnhart, is author of the Thorton--the--the
Barnhart-Thorton--wait. I forgot. Anyhow, the--the Barnhart
dictionaries used in schools and...
LAMB: Barnhart Dictionary Companion.
Prof. METCALF: And David Barnhart himself is editor of the Barnhart
Dictionary Companion, which is a quarterly journal that consists of
new words. It's like a dictionary but it consists entirely of new
LAMB: How did you get together with him?
Prof. METCALF: Well, I'm the--being the executive secretary of the
American Dialect Society, one day I decided that we ought to have our
words of the year. And David, I knew, was one of the people who was
expert on new words, so I wrote to him and said, `How about words of
the year,' and then wrote to another person who was conducting the
American Dialect Society's column among the new words in our journal
American Speech. So the three of us started the words of the year and
we began talking about that year after year. And then a couple of
years ago, David and I thought, `Let's do it for the whole 100
and--several hundred years of American history.
LAMB: How did you go about doing this book?
Prof. METCALF: Well, we first started drawing up lists, of course.
We had our favorite words and OK was at the very top of the list.
Frontier was a word we knew we would have to include since that is
such an important word in American history.
LAMB: Came from?
Prof. METCALF: Well, it's a perfectly ordinary English word.
Actually it comes from the French meaning the boundary between two
different places. But in America, as Frederick Jackson Turner said in
a very famous lecture about a century ago, frontier took on the new
meaning of the boundary between the so-called civilized areas and the
free or uncivilized. And so we thought of America as having the
civilized colonies and then the United States and the free area to be
colonized to the west of us. And the idea of the frontier and of
settling it and bringing civilization to it dominated American
thinking--well, even to the present day. Once we ran out of
geographical frontiers, we looked for new frontiers in space and
LAMB: David Barnhart, your co-author, lives in Garrison, New York,
and you live in--in...
Prof. METCALF: Jacksonville, Illinois.
LAMB: ...Jacksonville, Illinois.
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: How do you--then how did you work together?
Prof. METCALF: Well, thank goodness for e-mail. If it weren't for
the electronic means of communication, I'm not sure we would have
managed to collaborate so promptly because we would send our drafts
and our lists back and forth on e-mail all the time. We came up with
lists of--oh, I don't know--our final list must have had several
thousand candidates and from them we picked about 300.
LAMB: All right. Which word--there's got to be a word on this list
that you two didn't agree on.
Prof. METCALF: Well, I'm not sure I would have picked `keep the ball
rolling.' That was from the early 1830s or 1840s, for example. But I
LAMB: Actually 1840 is the date.
Prof. METCALF: Well, yes. And it's a political term. I've kind of
favored just simple words or phrases rather than a whole phrase myself
LAMB: All right. Keep the ball rolling came from what?
Prof. METCALF: Well, it comes from a political campaign. As a
matter of fact, it's that campaign of 1840 when OK was against Tyler,
LAMB: William Henry Harrison.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, Henry Harrison.
LAMB: I think that i--"The--the rip-roaring 1834 presidential
campaign of 1840." Rip-roaring, I guess, came from 1834.
Prof. METCALF: Some--yes, that's right.
LAMB: "Renowned for the OK clubs of..."
Prof. METCALF: That's right.
LAMB: "...incumbent Martin Van Buren and the Log Cabin in 1770 and
hard cider of successful challenger William Henry Harrison also
introduced the ball that we kep--have kept rolling every since."
Prof. METCALF: It was a big ball--just a huge inflated ball that the
candidates would roll along in political parades. And we don't have
parades of that sort, or at least we don't have balls of that sort
these days. But we certainly keep the ball rolling.
LAMB: So if you two disagreed on that one, how did you work it out
that it stayed?
Prof. METCALF: Well, we were perhaps horse trading. I'll put my
word in here; you put your word in there. With 327 words and phrases,
there's room for maneuver.
LAMB: What was your word that you wanted that he didn't?
Prof. METCALF: I can't even think of it. He was so polite that he
never objected. Or at least I would always slip in there first. So
my--one of my favorite words, though, thinking of political words is
mammoth, which I think you could count as a political word. That's
from the 1st of January, 1802. A cheese made in Cheshire,
Massachusetts, that had taken several months to come down here to
Washington, on the 1st of January, 1802, was installed in the White
House. And it was--now I got the name mammoth through a curious
process. Thomas Jefferson was president. And Jefferson was in love
with mammoths--at least in love with the idea of mammoths. Mammoths
were these extinct creatures whose bones were found all throughout
North America. And Jefferson, of course, was hoping that someday they
might discover one of those mammoths. Maybe even the Lewis and Clark
Expedition might have looked for them. But in any case, Jefferson was
concerned that--to show that the American flora and fauna were more
robust than those of the defeat Old World. And the mammoth showed
that our big creatures were bigger than elephants.
When he went to the White House, there was a large room at the White
House which Jefferson called the mammoth room, thinking, well, I guess
it--it was a room fit for a mammoth. And when the cheese was
installed in the White House and installed it really was. It wasn't
eaten for about another year or two. So it just sat there. You can
imagine--I--maybe they scraped the mold off. I don't know what would
have happened, but in any case, the cheese was put in the mammoth room
and, therefore, it was called the mammoth cheese. And suddenly the
term mammoth, no longer just referring to an animal, meant anything
big. And so we had mammoth sales and mammoth opportunities. The--the
language of advertising, the language of politics picked up mammoth
which we have even to the present day.
LAMB: Anybody else do a book like this before?
Prof. METCALF: Not a book year by year. Again there are many books
that have the words of American English that have heaps of words. But
we're always trying for the really significant ones, the ones
that--well, let me give you some examples from the 20th century.
I'm--I think maybe the most important word of the 20th century is
teen-ager. And it's--was surprising to me to discover that
teen-ager--we have it for 1938. You can date it a little bit ahead or
back, but that--there were certainly people who were 13, 14, 18 and so
on in centuries before, but only in the 20th century do we have
teen-agers, and that has obviously had a profound effect on our
culture. In fact, you can arger--through teen-agers we have rock 'n'
roll. Through rock 'n' roll we have elements of show biz. That's our
1945 word. There's a controversial one.
I was--a newspaper columnist recently sent me an e-mail message
complaining that for 1945 surely there was something more important
than show biz. For example, World War II was ending and you could
easily use the term atomic bomb, which might be thought to be more
important than show biz. But I would argue, at least nowadays with
the benefit of hindsight, with the collapse of communism, that it was
show biz, rock 'n' roll, teen-agers, the American culture that
undermined communism in a way that atomic bombs never did. And so the
most potent term, the most potent concept perhaps of the 20th century
in America is teen-ager.
LAMB: Now this book is hardback and only $18.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. I'm--I don't know how the people at Houghton
Mifflin managed it. But it's--certainly seems like a reasonable price
for an--a hardback book.
LAMB: How many did they print for this first run?
Prof. METCALF: Well, I hope they printed a lot. I--I don't know
what the print run was.
LAMB: And on this back of this book, you des--for some reason or
another, somebody picked out the word from 1895, hotdog.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Well, hotdog is a tremendous American word. It
refers to things like the corruption, the making of sausages out of
dogs. All through the 19th century, the big joke was that a stray dog
would end up in a sausage despite whatever claims might be made for
the contents of the hotdog. Perhaps that eventually led to the pure
food and drug laws of the 20th century. And in--it was at Yale
University that some students began calling it a--well, it began being
sold by a lunch wagon as a--as a hotdog. And that term then gradually
spread. And the old term frankfurter--well, it's still around, but
hotdog is our standard term.
LAMB: Let's go back to David Barnhart is in Garrison, New York...
Prof. METCALF: Right.
LAMB: ...which is how far from New York City?
Prof. METCALF: It's a commuter train ride.
LAMB: And you're in Jacksonville, Illinois...
Prof. METCALF: Right.
LAMB: ...which is kind of in the middle of the middle.
Prof. METCALF: It is. It's not far from Springfield. It's 80 miles
north of St. Louis.
LAMB: You had your e-mail.
Prof. METCALF: Right.
LAMB: How did you decide who would write what word in the essays in
Prof. METCALF: Well, at first, we thought--we spent quite a while
deciding that. So we went through our list and began thinking, `Well,
I'll do this and then I'll do that.' But what really happened was
instead of having a complete lists of 327 words and then saying, `OK.
I'll write this and you write that,' we found ourselves with, oh, 100
that we knew we really wanted to do. And we began writing them. And
as we wrote them, the ideas for others came to mind. And the question
of choosing them became clearer as we fit some into place. So doing
the last few words was much easier than doing the first few.
And there were some last-minute discoveries. I think one of the most
interesting is underprivileged, which I think is 1897, a century ago.
That was just a--a little word when you think about it. But
underprivileged implies that--well, until underprivileged,
everyone--there were those who had privileges and those who didn't.
There were the rich who had privileges and there was everybody else.
To say someone is underprivileged is like saying someone is
undernourished. That means there's a level of nourishment which you
are more or less entitled and, therefore, you deserve the nourishment.
To say someone is underprivileged suggests that there are privileges
to which everyone is entitled, and I think you can see the term
underprivileged gradually leading to the sense of entitlement that we
LAMB: Can someone tell--is there a tip-off who wrote which essay?
Prof. METCALF: That's pretty difficult. We went over them, edited
them, smoothed them out. I'd say that it's very hard to tell. In
fact, if you ask me, I can't remember most of them myself.
LAMB: Right next to underprivileged, 1898, is yellow journalism.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Well, yellow journalism--it's funny that it
was named after the cartoon figure, the yellow kid, one of the very
first comic strip figures. And it was another one of those terms like
muckraker. It was not--well, I guess it still isn't a very
complimentary term, but it was used for the newspapers that were
stirring up the Spanish-American War, the remember the Maine campaign.
And that's been with us ever since.
LAMB: Now--I don't know if I'm gonna pronounce this right. Is it
Prof. METCALF: I think it's sockdolager. But there you have one
word that we don't use very often. So I'm not quite sure how you use
LAMB: Last words...
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: ...heard by Abraham Lincoln?
Prof. METCALF: Yes, there's a play called "Our American Cousin,"
which I guess is still performed now and then in that theater. And
the greatest laugh line in that play is where one character accuses
another of being a sockdolagizing old mantrap. Now the author of that
particular play was an Englishman and he knew that sockdolager was an
American word. It turns out that sockdolagizing--it's not a verb.
And the word doesn't really have--it doesn't make much sense in that
particular context. Sockdolager originally meant just a strong blow,
like i--`That was a sockdolager of a punch you landed on me,' or,
`That was a sockdolager of a speech.' In fact, blizzard, which is from
1825, is a similar word. We had strong--strong words, strong language
in the early 19th century.
But I put that in there partly because those were the last words
that--presumably that Lincoln heard at least before he was shot. And
that was a line, incredible as it may seem, `You sockdolagizing old
mantrap,' that was the line that brought down the house and that John
Wilkes Booth knew that that line would create a lot of noise, a lot of
laughter. And that was when he shot Lincoln.
LAMB: What is the institution in Jacksonville, Illinois, that you
Prof. METCALF: I'm a professor at MacMurry College in Jacksonville,
a very small college. In fact, its number of students which is
about--little over 600 is about the same as the number of members of
the American Dialect Society.
LAMB: And how long have you been at MacMurry?
Prof. METCALF: For almost a quarter century.
LAMB: How did you find your way to Jacksonville?
Prof. METCALF: Well, I was looking for a job at the time. I had
been teaching at the University of California at Riverside. There was
an interesting position there in the English department, and I enjoy
the opportunity at MacMurry College in an English department. There
are five of us, and I was able to teach everything. At the University
of California at Riverside, I had been teaching old English literature
and linguistics and a few other things. And--but that was one of the
nice things about MacMurry. It's also in Illinois. I grew up in
Chicago. And I enjoyed being back in Illinois.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Prof. METCALF: I went to Cornell University. Then I went off to the
Free University of Berlin for a year. I was in Berlin during the very
interesting year of 1961-62. And then I went to...
LAMB: When they built the wall.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, right. I got to Berlin two weeks after the wall
first went up, but they were, of course, just building it then. They
had the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie and all sorts of interesting
things then. Then I--in the fall of '62, I went to the University of
California at Berkeley and I got there in time for some interesting
events--the free speech movement of 1964. That's where I got my MA
and PhD in English literature.
LAMB: Can you remember when you first got interested in words and
Prof. METCALF: Well, I can remember when I first got interested in
words when I was very little. I've always been in--interested in
language and writing, but I was especially--when I got to the
University of California at Riverside, in my first teaching position,
there was a Professor Carroll Reid there who was an expert on American
dialects, and he pointed out that no one had really studied much about
California dialects. So I did some studies in California English, and
that led me to the American Dialect Society and my interest in all
things having to do with American English, and that led me eventually
to dealing with American words.
LAMB: What does the word dialect mean?
Prof. METCALF: Well, it means a variety of a language. They
sometimes say that a--that a language is a dialect with an army and a
navy. You can take low German and Dutch, for example, they're both
rather similar, but the--but the Dutch speakers have their own army
and navy--or at least they used to--and the low Germans are simply
part of the German language, so they were just a dialect. So you can
say that every variety of English spoken in the United States is a
dialect. There are regional dialects. There are social dialects,
ethnic dialects. There are--jargon.
The American Dialect Society has sometimes discussed changing the name
because we study much more than dialects. We study the history of
American English. We study usage. We study all sorts of things. But
to call it `the society for the study of the English language in North
America' doesn't necessarily sound like an improvement, either.
LAMB: Where's it headquartered?
Prof. METCALF: It's headquartered wherever the executive secretary
is, so for the time being, and for the past 17 years, it's
headquartered in Jacksonville, Illinois.
LAMB: 1811, the word was White House.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Well, of course, that was known as the
president's house, starting in 1800, and it wasn't until about 1900
that it was officially renamed the White House. So the--but
apparently, the very first mention of it is in 1811.
LAMB: Do you know where it was that someone s--called it the White
Prof. METCALF: You'll have to read it to me.
LAMB: I'm trying to find it.
Prof. METCALF: I have forgotten that one.
LAMB: Let me see if I--I--let me go to--legends--it says this guy's
name--the White House when it was rebuilt and painted white after the
British burned it in 1814. In fact, it was known as the White House
at least three years earlier. A letter of 1811 mentions a politician
who went, quote, "to act as a sort of political conductor to attract
the lighting--lightning that may issue from the clouds around the
Capitol and the White House at Washington."
Prof. METCALF: Yes, so apparently, it was always painted white, and
I guess it was called the White House even before the repainting.
LAMB: 1812 is gerrymander.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Well, you're pronouncing it right. I think
most people say gerrymander (pronounced with soft G), but his name was
Elbridge Gerry (pronounced with hard G), and that's, perhaps, the most
famous political term that's ever come in to American English. That
wonderful drawing that showed the redistricting of Massachusetts, I
believe, into a thing that looked like a salamander and the editor who
saw the cartoon said, `That's a gerrymander.'
LAMB: And you mention, also, that Gilbert Stuart sketched some lines
on a map--the--the--the famous painter, Gilbert Stuart.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, Gilbert Stuart, so the man whose picture of
Washington we see everywhere also drew the first gerrymander.
LAMB: Slave driver, 1807.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Well, a slave driver--we have to include some
language involving slavery. And in addition to the word abolition,
which comes from 1787, we have slave driver. The thing about it that
suggests the way slaves were treated is, it's like mule driver; it
suggests someone who is dealing with animals. It's interesting,
though, that even nowadays, though than--slavery is, thankfully, long
gone, we still talk about someone as being a slave driver.
Prof. METCALF: That's a very curious term. For some reason, people
pick up on matters of usage, and Thomas Jefferson, I believe, used
belittle, and the British were very upset with him for using
belittled. They--not that there was anything wrong with belittle,
with the meaning of it--but for some reason, they just couldn't stand
it. There has been occasional complaining about that. Also, another
usage matter, George Washington o--talked about, too, progress:
`Our--our country will always be progressing.' And the British were
very upset at that, so that's our word for the late 1700s.
Prof. METCALF: American. Now, of course, we could have that word
for almost any year, but we decided to put it in for 1776, which was
the year when you had to decide, `All right, we have the United States
of America. What do you call a citizen of America?' And you can be
called a Columbian or a United Statesian, and there've been debates
ever since and, of course, people from pe--places like Canada or
Mexico complain about us being Americans, but we haven't come up with
LAMB: Amerigo Vespucci is 1507.
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: Is--is it hard for you when--when you have to come out and talk
about this book, to remember all these little details?
Prof. METCALF: Every now and then I forget them. I'm surprised at
how many I remember, though, because they do kind of sear into your
mind, this giant jigsaw puzzle of all the words, forming a picture of
an America where, first, we were naming the plants and animals and
observing the Indians' customs, whether they were tomahawks or
caucuses. Then we began establishing our own institutions in the
1700s. I like 1753; Ben Franklin was the first to invent and use the
word mileage, the very first person to suggest that you should get
paid for the miles you traveled to go to a meeting.
LAMB: How much did he get, do you know?
Prof. METCALF: I don't know. I'm not sure how much h--I don't think
he got very much, but he was--he was proposing a convention in 1753,
of the united colonies, to suggest a united front against the mother
country, and he suggested that since some delegates would have to come
a long way, they should have mileage for their expenses.
LAMB: Mother country, 1617.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, apparently, we were the first to use the term
mother country, and this was, of course, from the colonies' point of
view. And I guess, like all per--parent-child relations, the mother
and child relations weren't always harmonious.
LAMB: I'm jumping around here.
Prof. METCALF: Yeah.
LAMB: What was the first year that you decided to have a--a word?
Prof. METCALF: The first year is almost cheating a little, 1555. We
decided on the word canoe, which is a word that Christopher Columbus
heard from some of the Indians. It was from the language of some of
the Indians that he talked with, and then, an English book translating
some of Columbus, uses the word canoe. And since canoe is such an
American vehicle, we decided that we'd put it in there, and besides,
David Barnhart likes to canoe very much, so we also put in portage.
That was one of David's choices.
LAMB: What do you want people to do with this book?
Prof. METCALF: Well, I'd like them to consider that these--to--to
ask themselves how much our way of thinking is conditioned by the
words in this book, and also to ask themselves whether they agree that
these are the words that have really shaped our way of thinking,
especially, I'm interested in whether the words that we've chosen for
recent years are going to be the ones that remain. We even chose a
word for 1998. We already have a decision for that. It's the word
millennium bug or year 2000 problem. We think that since it's
recently been estimated something--$300 billion to $500 billion to
solve the computer problem, that computers will think that the year
after 1999 is 1900, that that's going to be what everyone is talking
about next year.
LAMB: Where did you come up with the idea of--of 1994, go postal?
Prof. METCALF: Well, that's one that seems to have caught on a great
deal, although the US Postal Service isn't happy about it. But
the--at least, the folk imagery of postal workers going berserk
because they couldn't stand the conditions under which they worked has
caught on so that anyone who goes on a shooting spree is going postal.
And berserk is an old Norse word, so going postal is a nice new
LAMB: And you say in here that s--in the last decade, there've been
34 postal workers killed and 26 wounded by fellow employees.
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: Is that a big number?
Prof. METCALF: Well, I think from the point of view of the Postal
Service, that's a very small number. I mean, think of all the
hundreds of thousands of postal workers, the...
LAMB: Something like 850,000 postal employees.
Prof. METCALF: Yeah, so my--that's probably less--you have a greater
chance of getting killed in a highway accident. But on the other
hand, that's--those things get lots of publicity.
LAMB: 1992, the word is not.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. That's--or rather, it's not, coming from
the movie "Wayne's World," not that it was not heard before then. In
fact, there were some attestations going back to about 1900. But
making a statement that is blatantly untrue and then adding the
exclamation not! seems to have peaked around 1992.
LAMB: What do you think of these latest words?
Prof. METCALF: Well, a few of them maybe are going to last a long
time, but it's very hard to pick out of all the ephemera and all the
cute words of recent years, ones that seem destined to stay with us.
And one of the things that we were trying to do, and especially with
the earlier words, is to look for words, not that were the cutest or
cleverest or strangest, but words that are so intrinsic that, perhaps,
we don't even think of them as being new or having been invented.
LAMB: Let's go back to the '30s; 1931, skid row.
Prof. METCALF: Yeah. Skid row comes from logging operations where
logs were sent down on skids, and then eventually a part of town where
people would live who were, perhaps, loggers down on their luck, and
in the 1930s, of course, a lot of skid rows became prominent.
LAMB: And it used to be skid road.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, because our--the skid road was a road made of
skids or logs down which logs would actually be sent, you know, rolled
LAMB: By the way, 1934 was a word that we heard a lot--we hear a lot
of, even in the time of airplanes, whistle-stop.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Well, of course, in politics Harry Truman,
in the--in 1948, made whistle-top--s--whistle-stop so prominent.
But--and, in fact, apparently, whistle-stop was brought up as a
derogatory term. I think candidate Dewey joked at Truman for making
campaign stops at whistle-stops at unimportant places. And Truman, of
course, took that as an insult to the people of America and turned it
around on him.
LAMB: Actually, it says, `Mocking Truman's efforts, Republican
Senator Robert Taft declared that the president was, quote,
"Blackguarding" Congress at whi--whistle-stops all across the country.
The Democrats were delighted at Taft's inadvertent insult to the towns
in Truman's itinerary and they managed to turn whistle-stop into
something of an honorific.'
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: Boondoggle, 1935.
Prof. METCALF: Boondoggle was a simple, nice little handicraft
activity that Boy Scouts or cowboys would do when they had idle
moments. And in 1935, there was a hearing in New York City on some of
the make-work of the--of the WPA, I think, and some of the city
councilmen were outraged at these boondoggles, and so it became a name
for wasting the public money.
LAMB: Jukebox you say is an African word--or juke is.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Juke is a term--it refers to a kind of place, a
roadhouse, a place where you might get beverages or other things that
African-Americans were involved in, in the early part of the century.
Now jukebox was a box of, obviously, playing music, and I think
whoever coined jukebox tried to combine--tried to bring in the flavor
of the--excitement of the juke houses.
LAMB: What does the American Dialect association do?
Prof. METCALF: Well, the American Dialect s--Society meets once a
year. We're meeting this year in early January in New York City, and
during that time we vote on word of the year. We also have serious
talks by about--oh, 30 or 40 people talking about their research into
American English, its pronunciations, its vocabulary, the--its
changes, its history--everything that possibly can do with American
LAMB: What do you teach at MacMurray state?
Prof. METCALF: I teach English. I teach the--I teach freshman
composition. I teach a survey of English literature. I teach
LAMB: I said MacMurray state, by the way. It's not state.
Prof. METCALF: No, it's MacMurray College, a private college in
Jacksonville, Illinois. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And how much teaching do you do?
Prof. METCALF: I teach four courses each semester, and then also in
our January term.
LAMB: 1946, intercont--Iron Curtain and Cold War.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Well, there, that's getting into the heavy
political terms. We put them both under the same heading because
they're so obviously related. Iron Curtain is especially noted in
Winston Churchill's famous speech of 1946, at Fulton College, I think.
Prof. METCALF: Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, right. And
Cold War was introduced around the same time, not by Churchill but
LAMB: Herbert Byard Swope.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Apparently, a very famous person of the
LAMB: He was a s--in a speech he wrote for financier and political
adviser Bernard Baruch.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, and they were particular about who got credit
for Cold War there. But Cold War and Iron Curtain certainly set the
stage for the next 30 or 40 years of political struggle.
LAMB: When you're at the--your dialect association--or society, can
you get a good argument started on whether these really were the words
of those--these years?
Prof. METCALF: Oh, absolutely. Yes. Because there really is no
absolute principle on them, you just have to argue, `Well, these words
tell us more about ourselves than any other.' And going back to the
one we began with, OK, I think that you could really argue that OK
sums up America, not so much in the 19th century, when it got started,
but I think ours, I hope, is ending up as an OK century in which,
instead of a dictatorship, a totalitarian state where everything is
absolute, it's just that, `Well, we have a pretty OK form of
government, pretty OK way of life, a pretty OK society. I'm OK;
you're OK.' So OK has really--maybe it's--it's subtly influenced our
American way of thinking.
LAMB: You say on page 266, `We find an isolated early incidence in
1967, from the San Francisco Examiner, quote, "George Murphy"--former
senator, former actor--"and Ronald Reagan certainly qualified because
they have gotten elected. I think that's the bottom line."
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: And I ask you a couple of things: Often, you find in here a
quote from a journalist or a newspaper.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Right.
LAMB: Starts the word bottom line, not--not until 1970.
Prof. METCALF: Well, and accountants were using it, of course,
earlier than that. The question that always comes up is exactly when
should we put the word in? What year should we choose for that word?
There are a few words--and OK is one of them--where the word not only
began to be used, but was pretty prominent in that year. But so
often, a word will be like a--well, like, you ligh--light a wick, and
it smolders and then it explodes maybe 20 years later, ebonics being a
good example, the word was coined in '73. It appeared in a book in
'75. It was known to just very few people. And in December of '96
and early '97, everyone was talking about ebonics. So what year do
you use for that? And thank goodness for that kind of leeway, because
otherwise, since we had all sorts of words we wanted to put in, we--we
could put in the words in the years that we thought were--that we--we
could fudge without fudging. We could truly, honestly, put in words
in the appropriate years. And we're always straightforward there. We
tell you what the first year of citation is, and then we try to
explain why we have it in the year that we have it.
LAMB: 1819, buncombe.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes, another fine Washington word. Buncombe
County--was it South Carolina?
LAMB: Actually, it's Asheville, North Carolina.
Prof. METCALF: North Carolina, yes. Well, a--a representative from
Buncombe County, North Carolina, made such a long-winded, pointless
speech for the benefit of hi c--his constituents back home, th--rather
than for any other purpose, that he was said to be speaking for
Buncombe. That then reduced itself simply to buncombe, being any kind
of ridiculous or pointless or worthless speech. And in the 20th
century, we shortened that to bunk, and in the 1920s, someone came up
with the term debunk as an antidote to bunk.
LAMB: So it's really Buncombe, North Carolina.
Prof. METCALF: It is, indeed. So I guess--I don't know if they have
any historical plaque there in Buncombe to commemorate the fame of
LAMB: 1907, pork barrel.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. It's--it's funny, you know, pork barrels
had, obviously, been around for, easily, a century or so before then,
but it was in 1907...
LAMB: Actually, I'm sorry, it's 1909.
Prof. METCALF: ...1909--well, around then--that people in Congress
began referring to projects that were suiting their own districts as
LAMB: All right. As a matter of fact, the last line--one of the
last: `A pork barrel suggests fat and grease.'
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: Do y--do you remember--I'm looking here--where it came from?
Prof. METCALF: Well, it would--pork used to be stored in barrels and
shipped in barrels. So their--the pork barrel had been around for a
long, long time.
LAMB: GI, 1917.
Prof. METCALF: Yes, meaning either government issue or galvanized
iron, or perhaps both. But it began to be a term towards the end of
World War I for the American soldier.
LAMB: Trash can, when was it--it says...
Prof. METCALF: Right.
LAMB: ...`GI was born early in century, not as a soldier, but as a
Prof. METCALF: Yes. Well, a galvanized iron trash can, and then,
seeing it on the trash can people saw GI, and they associated it with
military things and soldiers.
LAMB: Normalcy, 1920.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. That was the campaign slogan of--Who was
Prof. METCALF: Harding. Excuse me. Yes. And he was taken to task
by the--the precursors of William Safire for--if--if Safire had been
running his column back then, he would have had a column on normalcy.
Normalcy was considered not a real word by those who didn't like him,
although, in fact, then those who liked him, found that it had been
used as far back as 1880 or so. They thought that normality was a
fine word, but normalcy, ever since, has become so normal that we
don't even argue about normalcy.
LAMB: You referred to Bill Safire, why?
Prof. METCALF: Well, Safire is the reliable commentator on political
words and on usage nowadays. I say reliable because he's one of
the--perhaps the only one who's a member of the American Dialect
Society, and furthermore, listens to advice from members of the
American Dialect Society. So his columns--and furthermore, he's happy
to be proved wrong, where a whole lot of them pontificate without
regard to the facts.
LAMB: And--and does he come to your meetings?
Prof. METCALF: Well, in 1989, when we had our centennial meeting in
Washington, DC, he came to that meeting, otherwise, he's been a little
LAMB: Let's see, I'm looking for a word I want to ask you
now--Murphy's Law, 1958.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. That's a very interesting one, about its
origin, whether there ever was a Colonel Murphy, who managed to get
things wrong. But in any case, around '58 and thereafter, stories
about a Colonel Murphy, who managed to botch things up or who said
that `if a thing possibly can go wrong, it will go wrong,' and
numerous corollaries of that law have developed since.
LAMB: The--y--again, in this case, you--you say that The Nation, the
magazine The Nation...
Prof. METCALF: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...explained in 1958, `There is an old military maxim known as
Murphy's Law, which asserts that wherever there is a bolt to be
turned, someday there will be someone to turn it the wrong way.'
Prof. METCALF: Yes. And it's interesting, that's almost one of the
earliest citations we have, yet they say it's an old military maxim.
There are many words whose origins are in deep obscurity, and if there
are people who are looking for a hobby or activity, searching for the
true origins of words, you can spend a lifetime searching for the
origin of one word, and maybe get no closer to it.
LAMB: Find it interesting that the--the father of--or the inventor of
radio--the father of radio, Lee DeForest, had something to do with the
Prof. METCALF: Yes, he invented some goo, which was useful in making
radio equipment, and whether he invented the word goo entirely on its
own or whether it was already a slang term in use for meaning a
liquid--it apparently had been used in colleges for that--but he
invented something that he actually called goo and described it as
LAMB: And it says here that it was a paste to coat the end of wires.
So I s--do you get out of that gooey?
Prof. METCALF: Yes, you do.
LAMB: Or goo-goo?
Prof. METCALF: Right. Yes. Now...
LAMB: That--go ahead.
Prof. METCALF: Now 19--that was 1902, wasn't it?
Prof. METCALF: Another term for 1902--and I'll give you some
examples of ones that, if we had more room, we'd put them in--there's
a wonderful term for 1902 that almost strikes me as the word for the
century, and that's foolproof. It seems to me that in this century
many people thought they had foolproof solutions to problems.
LAMB: The year before 1902 is grass roots, 1901.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes. Yes.
LAMB: Where does that come from?
Prof. METCALF: Well, that's going--I'm not sure if we know much
about the origins of it--but it's going back to the sense of finding
out where the true sentiment of the people is to be found.
LAMB: It says here that in an 1876 book about the Black Hills--I
assume out in c--out in South Dakota--it says that, quote, "Gold is
found almost everywhere in the bars and the gravel and the sand of
beds, even in the grass roots. That is the soil just below the
Prof. METCALF: Right. And that's the literal meaning, and then, in
the early 1900s, we got the grass roots--and, of course, recently, we
have AstroTurf, which is pseudo grass roots.
LAMB: In 1941, multicultural. It goes all the way back to '41?
Prof. METCALF: Yes. There is an example of one where we chose to
put it in at the very first use of the word, multicultural, simply
referring then to a world--or the ideal of a world dominated, not by a
single ideology and a single dictatorship, but allowing for different
cultures to have their own expression. And that's a word that,
obviously, simmered very low on the horizon for a long time, and then,
in the '80s, I guess, or even the '90s, has finally become very
LAMB: I mean, you have two very political paragraphs here. I'll read
both of them: `S--liberals began voicing their dream of the United
States as a multicultural country, one with diverse peoples and
cultures drawn from all over the world, sharing a common belief in
freedom and democracy.' And then later you say, `For some
conservatives, this was too much. They saw multiculturalism as
undermining respect for our unique American ideals and way of life for
the Western civilization from which these ideals sprang.' Y--you use
the word some conservatives. Are you in--I mean, are there some--are
there some conservatives that would believe in multiculturalism?
Prof. METCALF: I was just hedging. I was trying to be totally
unbiased. I wrote that particular one--in trying to--and also, I was
really hedging because who knows 10 years from now if someone picks up
this book, what they're going to think of multicultural, especially
the recent words. One of the things about this book is that they're
all written from the perspective of the present day, and from the
present day, we look back on multicultural, but if somebody was
writing a book like this in 1950, I don't think they would have
LAMB: One of the toughest words for us to talk about here, if it is a
word, is snafu.
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes.
LAMB: You--now do you want to tell the audience what it means?
Prof. METCALF: Well, now one of the things that we did in our
book--we--we could have used all kinds of vulgar language and all
kinds of disagreeable terms--some of them are disagreeable, but
there's nothing vulgar--and so it means--it's an acronym, and the word
that we like to use for the fourth letter is, `situation normal, all
fouled up.' And a stronger term was used for the fouled, but it was a
military term from World War II, and there were a number of other
abbreviations using the F-word.
LAMB: As I understand it, right before that, in '43, you say the word
Prof. METCALF: Yes. So the very term acronym needed to be coined
for all of the acronyms that were emerging during World War II. And
one of the interesting things there are--of course, there's OK, we
have PDQ from the 19th century, and there are other ones also, but
those are--although those also can be called acronyms, the kind where
you pronounce them as if they were a word, like snafu or scuba, those
are, for the most part, 20th century phenomena.
LAMB: What's scuba mean?
Prof. METCALF: That means self-contained, underwater breathing
apparatus. But I don't think it's American, so--so we didn't put it
LAMB: You go back to 1899 to find the word--1889--excuse me--to find
the word Hispanic...
Prof. METCALF: Yes.
LAMB: ...and then you go to 1890, the year after that, to find Afro-American.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. We wanted to be sure to include terms that
referred to both of those ethnic groups and, of course, in those
essays we mention how the terms have changed from time to time.
Afro-American is--that's one of the earliest uses of Afro-American,
and Hispanic was around for a long time before the 1880s, but
referring to the population of the United States with a Spanish
background, Hispanic is first used then.
LAMB: 1885, hello. How widespread is th--th--that word, hello, used
around the world?
Prof. METCALF: I think it's used considerably. Hello is a telephone
word. It comes from having telephone exchanges. At first, they had
boys operating telephone exchanges, but they would shout obscenities
at the customers, so instead, they hired young women, who, instead of
saying, `Helloo,' would say, `Hello,' and they were immediately known
as hello girls. And they were a great civilizing influence, also,
because American businessmen used to be able to talk with each other
whatever vulgar language they wished, but when they had to converse on
the telephone with young ladies they would be more decorous.
LAMB: And the graham cracker comes from Sylvester Graham.
Prof. METCALF: Ah, yes, a health food, of course.
LAMB: Yeah. The--the year was way back then. I--I had my finger on
Prof. METCALF: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Oh, here, 1882.
Prof. METCALF: Yes. You could eat a graham cracker and feel that
you were nourishing yourself.
LAMB: You gonna do another book like this?
Prof. METCALF: I have another in mind about the whole world.
LAMB: Words of the world?
Prof. METCALF: Well, the--the English language has words from,
perhaps, 300 different languages in it, and so I'm beginning to get
the notion of a book that would have one word from each language.
The--it--it--it's--a challenge like this one, it's not as if people
haven't written about it before, but which one to pick. If you pick a
language that has hundreds of words, which word do you pick? And if
you have a language that has just a very few words, are there any
LAMB: We are out of time, Allan A. Metcalf of MacMurray College of
Jacksonville, Illinois, along with his co-author David K. Barnhart.
And the book is "America In So Many Words," by Houghton Mifflin.
Thank you very much.
Prof. METCALF: You're welcome.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1998. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.