Rosemarie Ostler

Splendiferous Speech

How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English

What does it mean to talk like an American? According to John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, it means indulging in outlandish slang — higgeldy-piggeldy, flapdoodle — and free-and-easy word creation — demoralize, gerrymander. American talk also features picturesque expressions like go the whole hog and bark up the wrong tree, and big boasts like "I'm half horse, half alligator, and a touch of the airthquake."

Splendiferous Speech explores the main sources of the words and phrases that made it into Bartlett's dictionary — the expanding western frontier, the bumptious world of politics, and the sensation-filled pages of popular nineteenth-century newspapers. American language invention started with the earliest English colonists (first word adoption — the Algonquian raccoon) and is still going strong today. Come along on the journey as Americans learn to declare linguistic independence and embrace their own brand of speech.