Ben Zimmer's 30 Great American Words

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of 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."

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. absquatulate
    run away, taking something or somebody along
    This word dates to the 1830s, when making up new words was all the rage. It's fake Latin, part of an American tradition of poking fun at classical language.
  2. barbecue
    a cookout in which food is cooked over an open fire
    American colonists borrowed barbecue from the barbacoa of Haiti's Taino Indians and proceeded to make it their own. These days the meaning of the word depends a lot on where you live.
  3. bloviate
    speak verbosely and windily
    Like absquatulate, bloviate is pseudo-Latin, which works well for word indicating pomposity. President Harding brought the word to national attention (along with normalcy).
  4. boondoggle
    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.
  5. boss
    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!"
  6. callithump
    a noisy mock serenade to a newly married couple
    France had the tradition of charivari, in which pots and pans would be played as a burlesque serenade. Americans created the callithump for similarly noisy revels.
  7. caucus
    meet to select a candidate or promote a policy
    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 -- sachem and powwow were other Native American contributions to the early American political scene.
  8. cool
    fashionable and attractive at the time
    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.
  9. copacetic
    completely satisfactory
    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.
  10. dude
    an informal form of address for a man
    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.
  11. eggnog
    a punch made of sweetened milk or cream mixed with eggs and usually alcoholic liquor
    The earliest examples of eggnog come from American sources of the mid-18th century. A Philadelphia paper in 1788 warned that "when wine and beer, punch and eggnog meet, instantly ensues a quarrel."
  12. filibuster
    a tactic for delaying 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.
  13. gerrymander
    divide voting districts unfairly and to one's advantage
    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 political eponyms.
  14. hipster
    someone who rejects the established culture
    Hipsters, hepsters, and hep cats popped up in the jazz scene of the late '30s and '40s. Nowadays, hipster tends to be a derogatory epithet for self-involved fauxhemians.
  15. hornswoggle
    swindle or deprive of by deceit
    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.
  16. hot dog
    a frankfurter served hot on a bun
    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.
  17. jazz
    genre of American music that developed in the 20th century
    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.
  18. lagniappe
    a small gift given by a merchant to a customer
    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."
  19. maverick
    someone who exhibits 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 politics.
  20. mojo
    a magic power or magic spell
    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.
  21. moxie
    fortitude and determination
    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.
  22. Ms.
    a form of address for a woman
    The idea of a marriage-neutral alternative to Miss and 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.
  23. nerd
    a student ridiculed as being 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.
  24. normalcy
    expectedness as a consequence of being usual or regular
    Like bloviate, 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.
  25. OK
    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.
  26. phony
    fraudulent; having a misleading appearance
    Phony (or 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.
  27. rambunctious
    noisy and lacking in restraint or discipline
    Rambunctious had some similar-sounding precursors, like robustious and rumbustious. But rambunctious first shows up in an 1830 Boston newspaper alongside another raucous cousin, riproarious.
  28. skedaddle
    run away, as if in a panic
    Skedaddle is an Americanism that brings to mind other verbs in a hurry, like scoot and scooch. Skedaddle begat scadoodle, which in turn begat skidoo, as in 23 skidoo!
  29. skyscraper
    a very tall building with many stories
    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.
  30. tintinnabulation
    the sound of a bell ringing
    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.

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