Language Arts: Author Tracks Down Word Origins

By 1995, Cox News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 16, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Language Arts: Author Tracks Down Word Origins

1995, Cox News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Ever wonder why the lower element of a stripper's attire is called a G-string?

It's not because of a G-string on a violin, explains Bill Bryson, a sort of linguistic evolutionist. "The term `geestring' was originally adapted from a much longer Indian word for the leather thong used to hold up a loincloth," he said.

An Iowa expatriate who lives in England, Bryson is the author of "Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States." Published last month by William Morrow and Co., the 417-page book examines American history and culture through its unique words.

For example, the archetypal American term is "OK," Bryson contends. "It is the most recognized of all American words, but its origins are mysterious. What does `OK' stand for?"

The answer is known mainly because Allen Walker Reed, a professor at Columbia University, devoted 20 years of life to tracking it down as a hobby, Bryson said. OK stands for "Oll Korrect," which stems from an 1830s fad for using "intentionally illiterate abbreviations."

"It was thought to be the height of wit," Bryson explained - sort of like the word play in the name of the singing group "Boyz II Men."

"OK" would probably have disappeared like "KG" (Know Go), except that the Democratic OK Club was formed in the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren and the term was thrust into national usage.

After OK, the second most recognizable American word is "Coca-Cola," said Bryson. The soft drink's name came from the cola nuts and coca leaves used in the original formula of Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, the author said.

"Made in America" follows Bryson's first book, "Mother Tongue," which examined British English and was published in Britain, Ireland and Australia. American English is not very different from the mother tongue, said Bryson.

"There are only about 4,000 words in common speech that are different," he said.

The most common examples are auto parts, he said. In England, the hood is a bonnet, turn signals are indicators, the trunk is a boot and the windshield is a windscreen.

On both sides of the Atlantic, though, English is exploding.

"At the turn of the century, the English language was growing at about 1,000 words a year.

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Language Arts: Author Tracks Down Word Origins


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