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US trip

An etymological trip around the USA

This past month saw the publication of the fifth volume (Si-Z) of the magnificent Dictionary of American Regional English, an ongoing lexicographic project that has, over the past five decades, been tracking down and cataloging the seemingly infinite varieties of American English. DARE concerns itself with many words and terms that might not appear in a general dictionary, such as all the different ways people across the country refer to mosquitoes (cousin in Virginia, drill bug in Illinois, and gallinipper in the South in general, to give but three examples), or certain kinds of weather. Reading through it makes one wonder how many words we use on a regular (or not so regular) basis can be traced to a specific location. As it turns out, there are a good number of them.

Cheese, salads, and maverick lawyers

The origins of some words are rather self-explanatory, given that they wear their etymologies on their sleeves – a Bronx cheer obviously comes from New York City’s northernmost borough, and Monterey Jack cheese has its origin in California’s Monterey County. Similarly, the Waldorf salad is so named from being first served at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.

Other word and phrases that are place-specific have roots in an individual who lived there, like the term Philadelphia lawyer, which comes from Alexander Hamilton, a well-known 18th century lawyer from the state (who should not be confused with the Alexander Hamilton who was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr).

From soul music to the language of politics

But perhaps the most interesting stories tend to come with those lexical items whose histories are less direct. The name Motown, applied to the music released by Berry Gordy’s record company, and to others who record in this genre, is a shortening of Motor Town, due to the company’s roots in the car manufacturing city of Detroit. Subsequently, it has also become an informal name for the city itself.

Up the river (denoting going to prison) comes from the Hudson River, which connected New York City in the lower portion of the state and Sing Sing prison somewhat north. The phrase to sell someone down the river, however, refers to a different river, the Mississippi – it came from the practice of sending a slave to the sugar-cane plantations on the southern part of the river. Neither seems particularly appealing. The language of politics is replete with such words. Beltway, seen often in the phrase ‘conventional Beltway wisdom’, is drawn from the ring road that encircles the US capital city. And almost 250 years after the Bostonian colonists dumped a shipment of tea into that city’s harbor we find a modern political movement (that has very little to do with Boston), the Tea Party, has adopted a name tied to this event.

Some things are certain, others less so

As is so often the case with etymologies, some of the most interesting carry with them the potential for being apocryphal – a Mickey Finn may be from the name of a saloon keeper in Chicago, and the jonesing of a drug addict may come from Jones Alley in New York City – but the record is not certain. Future scholarship may provide us with a definitive answer, or perhaps we will never find out for sure.

What is certain is that the English language is eternally fecund, and continually draws from any source that serves the purpose of adding necessary new words to the language.

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