Funny Things Americans Say: Bartlett, John Russell (1805-1886)

Americanisms word cloud

I’m intrigued by my mother’s occasional use of the Scottish “wee,” as in “I’m a wee bit cold.”  Why?  Because our family came from Scotland hundreds of years ago, and I’m fascinated by the idea that there might, after all these years, be a linguistic–almost archaeological–clue as to our origins.

Bartlett is known for his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), which might provide a map as to where you are from:

If you say this, you may be from here:
plug ugly Baltimore
to meet up with Georgia
crotchety New England
folks New England
happy as a clam New England
stocky New England
to play hookey New York
to muss (up your hair or clothes) New York
pinky; to pinky swear New York
pit (the stone of a fruit) New York
Yes sirree bob New York
to crown (Press a man’s hat down over his face) New York
spook New York
stoop (front step of a house) New York
peaked (thin from sickness) North
euphemistic oaths: dadburn, dadgummit, etc. Northeast
the whole kit and caboodle Northern States and New England
fizzle out Ohio
“Shall I go to market and get a couple of cherries?” where “couple means “a few.” Pennsylvania
to sock (Press a man’s hat down over his face) Rhode Island
cavorting South
a freeze, as a term for frost weather South
How come? South
right, as in “It rained right hard” South
scrawny South
shin dig South
to sidle out South
sun up South
I will come and tell you goodbye South
neck of the woods Southwest
blather West
to chisel or gouge West
to go whole hog West
to make tracks West
not overly so West
to be in a pinch West
strangely formed factitious words such as abskize, absquatulate, catawampously, exflunctify, obscute, slantendicular West
intensive and extravagant epithets both as adjectives and adverbs such as awful, powerful, monstrous, dreadful, mighty, almighty, and all-fired West and South
A tendency to exaggeration: “This is the finest cow in the State of South Carolina,” “The handsomest woman south of the Potomac” and “making bushels of money” West and South
cahoot West and South
fixings West and South
to splurge West and South
stamping ground West and South
sure enough West and South

If you’re fascinated by American town names, as I am (“Hell, Michigan”; “Truth or Consequences, New Mexico”), then you will like Bartlett’s explanation of how American place names changed:

The Indian names seem to have prevailed till the Revolution (e.g., Mississippi). Then came a burst of patriotism among the settlers, many of whom doubtless had served in the war, and every new place was christened with the names of the warriors and statesmen of the day. Thus arose Washington County, Washington Village, Washington Hollow, Jefferson County, etc. The State of New York has thus perpetuated in her towns and villages the names of Adams, Jay, Lafayette, Hamilton, Madison, Pinckney, Putnam, Pulaski, Schuyler, De Kalb, Steuben, Sullivan, Gates, and Wayne. The names of statesmen and generals, however, did not suffice for the patriotism of our early pioneers, for we find interspersed among them the names of Freedom, Freetown, Freeport, Independence, Liberty, Victory, Hopewell, Harmony, Concord, and Union.

Next comes the classical period when towns were christened by the names of such men as Homer, Virgil, Solon, Ovid, Cato, Euclid, Brutus, Pompey, Tully, Cicero, Aurelius, Scipio, Ulysses, Seneca, Hannibal, Hector, Romulus, Lysander, Manlius, Camillus, and Marcellus or of such places as Athens, Sparta, Marathon, Troy, Corinth, Pharsalia, Palmyra, Utica, Smyrna, Rome, and Carthage.

Testimony to the piety to say nothing of the good taste of our forefathers is also afforded by the occurrence of such names as Eden, Babylon, Sodom, Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, Goshen, Bethany, Bethpage, Bethlehem, and Sharon. Distinguished men in English history as Milton, Addison, Clarendon, Dryden, Scott, Byron, Chesterfield, Hume, Marlborough, and Junius have towns christened with their names. But not even a pond, a hollow or a swamp has been honored with the name of Shakspeare.

The battle fields of the Mexican war are commemorated in eighteen Buena Vistas, sixteen Montereys, nine Palo Altos, and two Resacas. And the names of its heroes have given birth to names like Taylor, Taylorville, Worth, Worthville, Pierce, Pierceville, Piercetown, Pierceland, Pierce Point, Polk, Polkville, Polktown, Polk City, Polk Patch, Polk Precinct, Polk Run and Quitman.

In California many places have been absurdly named from some trifling incident connected with the first settlement, such as Hangtown, Fiddletown, Shirt Tail Canyon, Whiskey Gulch, Port Wine, Diggings, Humbug Flat, Murderer’s Bar, Flapjack Canyon, Yankee Jim’s, Jackass, Guleh, Red Dog, Traveller’s Rest, and Fair Play.

Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms made me realize that Mark Twain’s use of seven (!) different dialects in Huckleberry Finn weren’t literary license but probably an accurate rendering of how people in the West actually talked.

Are there any odd expressions that persist in your family?


  1. Wordcloud from
  2. Extensive quotes from Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms at
  3. Information about Huckleberry Finn from

Barnes, William (1801-1886)


What would English sound like if we replaced all foreign words with Anglo-Saxon words?

Barnes, an English writer, poet, Church of England priest, and philologist, had a strong interest in language. He was fluent in Greek, Latin and several modern European languages.

He called for the purification of English by removal of Greek, Latin and foreign influences so that it might be better understood by those without a classical education. For example, the word “photograph” (from Greek light+writing) would become “sun-print” (from Saxon). Other terms include “wortlore” (botany), “welkinfire” (meteor) and “nipperlings” (forceps).

This “Pure English” resembles the “blue-eyed English” later adopted by the composer Percy Grainger, and sometimes the updates of known Old English words given by David Cowley in How We’d Talk if the English had WON in 1066.  Here are some of Cowley’s suggestions:

Among the former some of my favourites include “bonebreach” (bone fracture), “eldfather” (grandfather), “goldhoard” (treasure), “hungerbitten” (famished), “oathbreach” (perjury), and “searim” (shore).  These words have an otherworldly yet familiar feel that takes the reader back immediately to “days gone by” (to borrow another phrases suggested by Cowley).  Amongst the less obvious words, are such treats as “smicker” (which means “elegant” but sounds, to my ear, anything but), “swike” (deceit), “tharfer” (pauper), and “werekin” (the human race… as opposed to, say, werewolves) (

His poetry influenced two major writers, Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Looking for Anglo-Saxon neologisms seems like fertile ground for a poet.  (I don’t know if these poets did that, though.)

His efforts to purify the English language remind me of current French laws to purify the French language from English influences.  According to The Daily Beast, “[t]he French Government also attempted to outlaw ‘le weekend,’ ‘les drinks,’ ‘l’aftershave,’ and ‘le babysitter’ on pain of hefty fines, though this proved unworkable.”

Among Barnes’ other writings is a slim volume on “the Advantages of a More Common Adoption of The Mathematics as a Branch of Education, or Subject of Study,” published in 1834.  This surprised me, as I thought that math has always been an important part of education.  Makes me wonder what advantages he had in mind.


  1. Wikipedia, “Willam Barnes”