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.
a cookout in which food is cooked over an open fire
American colonists borrowed
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
speak verbosely and windily
is pseudo-Latin, which works well for word indicating pomposity.
brought the word to national attention (along with
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
is a fine old Americanism from the Dutch word
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!
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.
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 --
powwow were other Native American contributions to the early American political scene.
fashionable and attractive at the time
An old word with many overlapping meanings,
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.
an informal form of address for a man
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
a punch made of sweetened milk or cream mixed with eggs and usually alcoholic liquor
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."
a tactic for delaying legislation by making long speeches
in the West Indies were called
in Spanish, related to English
. Eventually, the term got transferred from renegade adventurers to not-so-violent obstructionists in legislative bodies like the U.S. Senate.
divide voting districts unfairly and to one's advantage
Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry inspired
, after carving a salamander-shaped electoral district that favored his party in 1812. Two centuries later, Americans continue to craft
someone who rejects the established culture
Hipsters, hepsters, and hep cats
popped up in the jazz scene of the late '30s and '40s. Nowadays,
tends to be a derogatory epithet for self-involved fauxhemians.
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.
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 Morris
, a former circus strongman who peddled frankfurters in Paterson, New Jersey.
genre of American music that developed in the 20th century
Is there any word more American than
? Before it named the musical style,
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 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."
someone who exhibits independence in thought and action
Calling someone rebellious a
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 magic power or magic spell
A staple of blues lyrics,
probably had an
. It might be related to
("medicine man") in the west African language of Fulani, or
("witchcraft, magic") in Gullah, a creolized language spoken off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
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.
a form of address for a woman
The idea of a marriage-neutral alternative to
goes back to a
Springfield (Mass.) Republican
didn't come into its own until feminists embraced it 70 years later.
a student ridiculed as being boringly studious
Dr. Seuss created a
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,
has turned from a negative to a positive: now being a nerd can be cool.
expectedness as a consequence of being usual or regular
got a boost from Warren G. Harding, who brought a previously rare alternative to
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
was born in 1839, in a
Boston Morning Post
article using the playful misspellings and abbreviations that were all the rage at the time:
. From those humble beginnings,
has grown into America's
greatest linguistic export
fraudulent; having a misleading appearance
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.
noisy and lacking in restraint or discipline
had some similar-sounding precursors, like
robustious and rumbustious
first shows up in an 1830 Boston newspaper alongside another raucous cousin,
run away, as if in a panic
is an Americanism that brings to mind other
verbs in a hurry
, which in turn begat
, as in
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.
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.