Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Boston Globe and the former "On Language" columnist for The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.
We asked Ben, as an expert on the history of American English, to give us some of his favorite words that originated in the United States.
"I'm fascinated by how the English language developed a unique American flavor (not flavour!) beginning in colonial times. I've been collecting examples of great contributions from American English. Here is a cornucopia of copacetic coinages from fertile American minds."
work of little or no value done merely to look busy
Boondoggle burst on the scene in 1935, thanks to a New York Times headline: "$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play ... Boon Doggles Made." A
boondoggle was a lanyard or other bit of leatherwork, but the word was transformed to describe a wasteful or unnecessary project.
a person who exercises control and makes decisions
Boss is a fine old Americanism from the Dutch word
baas meaning "master, foreman." Over time it became a verb and an adjective, and also gave rise to the petulant expression, "
You're not the boss of me!"
The best guess is that this political word derives from the Algonquian word
cau’-cau’-as’u meaning "adviser." It was borrowed by New England clubs of the 18th century --
powwow were other Native American contributions to the early American political scene.
fashionable and attractive at the time; often skilled or socially adept
An old word with many overlapping meanings,
cool became a general term of approval (as in "That's cool," "He's cool," or simply "Cool!") in jazz circles in the early '40s. Sax player Lester "Pres" Young
gets the credit.
This mysterious word first appeared in a 1919 biography of Lincoln: "Now there’s the kind of a man! Stout as a buffalo an’ as to looks I’d call him, as ye might say, real copasetic." It took off in the mid-20th century, and its unknown origin has provoked endless etymological speculation.
Dude came out of nowhere in the 1880s, spreading like wildfire to describe fashionable young men in New York and other American cities. Over time it lost its foppish connotations and became a
general term of address.
(law) a tactic for delaying or obstructing legislation by making long speeches
Pirates in the West Indies were called
filibustero in Spanish, related to English
freebooter. Eventually, the term got transferred from renegade adventurers to not-so-violent obstructionists in legislative bodies like the U.S. Senate.
divide unfairly and to one's advantage; of voting districts
Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry inspired
gerrymander, after carving a salamander-shaped electoral district that favored his party in 1812. Two centuries later, Americans continue to craft
Hornswoggle was born on the American frontier. One theory is that it came from the movement of a steer trying to slip free of a lasso around its neck. The story goes that a cowpunch was
hornswoggled if the steer got away. It might have something to do with cattle's horns, but nobody knows for sure.
This all-American food got its name in the 1890s as a rude joke about the canine source of sausages. The earliest known purveyor of the
hot dog was one
Hot Dog Morris, a former circus strongman who peddled frankfurters in Paterson, New Jersey.
a genre of popular music that originated in New Orleans around 1900 and developed through increasingly complex styles
Is there any word more American than
jazz? Before it named the musical style,
jazz meant "pep" or "vigor" in
West Coast baseball circles. A banjoist named Bert Kelly is said to have brought the word from San Francisco to Chicago.
a small gift (especially one given by a merchant to a customer who makes a purchase)
New Orleans gives us
lagniappe, based on a Louisiana French creole term that comes from Spanish
la ñapa, meaning "a gift," in turn from a Quechua word. Mark Twain called it "a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word."
someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action
Calling someone rebellious a
maverick goes back to the nineteenth-century Texas lawyer and politician Samuel Maverick who bucked the system by refusing to brand his cattle. The unbranded cattle took on the eponym, which eventually got applied to free spirits of the human variety -- especially in
A staple of blues lyrics,
mojo probably had an
African origin. It might be related to
moco'o ("medicine man") in the west African language of Fulani, or
moco ("witchcraft, magic") in Gullah, a creolized language spoken off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
Moxie entered the language through a soft drink of that name, first sold in the 1880s by the Massachusetts doctor Augustin Thompson. Thompson's concoction had started off as a medicine called "Moxie Nerve Food," which he claimed contained an extract from a rare South American plant discovered by his friend Lieutenant Moxie. Getting people to believe that story took a lot of moxie.
The idea of a marriage-neutral alternative to
Mrs. goes back to a
1901 article in the
Springfield (Mass.) Republican. But
Ms. didn't come into its own until feminists embraced it 70 years later.
an insignificant student who is ridiculed as being affected or boringly studious
Dr. Seuss created a
nerd for his 1950 book "If I Ran the Zoo," but it already
entered teen slang by the following year to describe someone uncool. Whether or not Seuss gets the credit,
nerd has turned from a negative to a positive: now being a nerd can be cool.
expectedness as a consequence of being usual or regular or common
normalcy got a boost from Warren G. Harding, who brought a previously rare alternative to
normality into mainstream usage. Some think that Harding's usage was
merely a gaffe, but I give him (and his speechwriters) more credit than that.
an expression of agreement normally occurring at the beginning of a sentence
OK was born in 1839, in a
Boston Morning Post article using the playful misspellings and abbreviations that were all the rage at the time:
OK stood for
oll korrect. From those humble beginnings,
OK has grown into America's
greatest linguistic export.
phoney) arose in the late 19th century, probably as a playful variation of
fawney, in turn from Irish
fainne, meaning "ring." A "fawney man" was a con artist who would practice a scam in which he'd appear to discover a gold ring on the street and then sell it to an unwitting passerby, who'd think it was a bargain. The ring wasn't gold, of course, but cheap brass.
The first tall buildings to be called
skyscrapers were steel-frame towers that appeared in Chicago's cityscape in the 1880s. Before that,
skyscraper was used metaphorically for tall horses, tall men, tall hats, and high fly balls in baseball.
Thank you, Edgar Allan Poe! Poe's evocation of "the tintinnabulation that so musically wells ... from the jingling and the tinkling of the bells" cemented this word in the language -- even though the word had been circulating for a few years before Poe's 1849 poem.