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Bill Bryson has an amazing talent ? he can write about the most boring, dry and deadly dull topic yet make it seem fascinating. Although he is most well known for his travel books such as Notes From A Small Island and Neither Here Nor There, he has also written several books on other subjects. One is the recent A Short History Of Nearly Everything, a very accessible book covering just about all of science, and another is the earlier Mother Tongue, a book on the English language. This review is on Made In America, which is a successor to Mother Tongue, but there is no need to read them in order, this can stand alone. Made In America is about that much maligned variant of English, American-English. This is not presented in a boring text-book form, but instead the context in which the language developed is included, along with many interesting and obscure snippets of trivia. These are the kinds of things that you just have to tell someone, such as the fact that there is a place called Cheesequake, New Jersey, that slot machines were first invented as chewing gum dispensers, and that the term computer bug was invented after an actual bug was trapped between two connectors and stopped an early computer working. The book progresses in a roughly chronological fashion, starting out with the Mayflower and the Saints, as the Pilgrims called themselves, heading for the New World. They took the form of English that was spoken at the time along with them, and some of this older English remains today while our own language has moved on. For example ?Fall? as a term for Autumn evolved in England before the Pilgrims left and they took it with them. It died out in the nineteenth centaury in England, but remains as an American term today. T
he same is true for trash, attic, molasses and many other words. We then move through the establishment of an American nation, via the flag once having 18 stripes and the Oyster War. You then reache immigration and ?The Melting-Pot?, a term which comes from a play written by the British Israel Zangwill in 1908. You learn something new on every page! Now the effect that immigration had on America?s language is examined ? you would be surprised to learn some of the words that originate from foreign languages brought by immigrants. Yankee and boss come from Dutch, smithereens from Gaelic, cranky from German. As well as language, the effect that immigration had on society is also included in these chapters. It seems that racism and the clashing of cultures is not limited to recent times. After this the book moves onto the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are chapters on travel, food, advertising, shopping, movies and sport. These all examine how American popular culture developed, and how these developments affected the language along the way. For example the food chapter details the emergence of the first hamburger, the start of fast food and explains some lunch counter lingo. Most people probably know BLT, which was first used in these establishments, is bacon, lettuce and tomato. But did you know that ?Noahs?s Boy? is a slice of ham, and ?dough well done with cow to cover? is toast with butter? Well you do now! Via politics and war, which includes an explanation for why tanks are called tanks and what Gestapo is short for, we then get onto the more risqué ?Sex and Other Distractions? chapter. Yes you learn that pornography comes from the Greek for ?harlot writing? and that most US states still have laws against fornication, plus quite a bit more that
73; can?t really include here! Then we are brought up to date with developments in the last fifty years, and end with some predictions for what American-English may do in the future. Will America need laws to establish English as the national language? Will American-English and English become two different languages? Will political correctness demand manholes be renamed sewer holes? That would just be taking things a bit far! This is just such a fascinating and intriguing book. Every page has something new and another piece of random trivia that may come in handy someday. You can annoy yet intrigue the people around you for hours by reading particularly amazing things out to them, such as explaining how there was once a chocolate bar called a ?Vegetable Sandwich? which consisted of chocolate covered vegetables and was sold with the assurance that ?it will not constipate?. You don?t learn things like that from most books. It is written in a very easy to read way, and you can either read the whole thing in one go or just dip into areas that interest you now and then. It is great for long train journeys I find, except I always have the urge to tell complete strangers sitting opposite me an interesting fact that I?ve just read? If you like Bill Bryson?s other books, are interested in American culture, the English language, history, trivia or just want a light yet informative book then this is for you! Made In America is £7.99 on amazon.co.uk
Bill Bryson is probably best known in this country for his travel writings, especially "Notes From a Small Island" (though in my view "The Lost Continent" is still to be bettered). But, somewhat less known to most people, he is also an accomplished linguist, and "Made In America" is an excellent advertisement for his skills in this department. The idea of the book is to explain, for a mainly British audience (Bryson's books sell very poorly in his native US, perhaps because some - *some!* - Statesiders have trouble with anything that isn't of the "ain't the good ol' US of A jes' wunnerful?" school), the origin of various American words and phrases. It sounds, on the face of it, a fairly un-Bryson like subject, but he succeeds in making it fascinating, if not quite as hilarious as some of his other books. (I must say, I do worry about the Glasgow Herald reviewer, quoted on the back cover, who called it "the funniest book I read all year" and mentioned "rib-aching, carpet-rolling bouts of laughter". Doesn't this man get out much, then?) The book is split into 21 reasonably brief chapters, each dealing with a broad subject (travel, shopping, eating etc), and arranged in (very rough) chronological order, so that we start with "Before the Mayflower" and end with "American English Today". In between the two extremes, we are subjected to a never-ending torrent of American neologisms of the last 500 years, but not in dry lists and tables. Instead, the words and phrases are cleverly worked into a gripping narrative, which prevents the all too common feeling of information overload. Bryson's gift for anecdotes is employed to full effect here. If there is an interesting snippet to be told, at least vaguely relevant to the point in hand, then we are given what is often a chuckle-inducing illustration. For example, he treats us to the glory of th
e Burma-Shave advertising signs. These American icons of the 1930s, 40s and 50s were in the form of advertising signs placed at intervals by the side of a road, so that at cruising speed they would form a continuous message. Such as: "Shaving brushes / You'll soon see 'em / Way down South / In some museum". Bryson is clearly taken by these signs (for one thing, he remembers them from his youth, as Bryson fans may already be aware), and I can't help but agree. (If you're hooked too, www.nidlink.com/~dgookin/burma_shave has huge numbers of these things for your amusement.) Although the book is not designed as an academic work, it does make a good reference book, for three reasons. Firstly, the sheer number of American terms covered - I really don't know how Bryson managed to achieve this density of information without turning the book into a dictionary. Secondly, there are copious footnotes - one chapter has no less than 61. I normally prefer footnotes to be in the main text, but when there are this many, a separate "Notes" section at the back of the book is the only option. The last point in the book's favour is its excellent index. This may not seem particularly unusual, but there have been an increasing number of works published recently with either a very basic index or, worse, none at all. There is no excuse for this laziness (even The Lord of the Rings has an index, y'know), and it's pleasing that Bryson has done things properly. Moving now from impartial reviewing to pure prejudice, I think the best chapter in "Made in America" is the one on American placenames. This is a subject that can always raise a smile, and here is no exception. We may think that the US today has some... er... interesting placenames - Who'd A Thought It, Alabama; Cut And Shoot, Texas; and Tightwad, Missouri are all genuine current examples. But that's as nothing to what there used to be. California al
one once boasted Delirium Tremens, Chicken Thief Flat and the wonderfully evocative Git-Up-And-Git, not to mention a whole slew of others not suitable for publication on a family website! (Whether Dooyoo qualifies for that honour I'll leave up to you!) "Made in America" manages to steer a skilful course between musty academia and populist sensationalism, and as such will be of most interest to the intelligent layperson who is interested in language in general, and enjoys an informative read with plenty of interesting diversions (I suppose that should be "detours!). In my family, we have a word, "wodgeful" - a term used for books that have a lot of detail, but are not by any means tiring to read. "Made in America" fits this description perfectly, and so long as you don't expect a laugh-a-minute romp (pace the Glasgow Herald), you'll be well pleased with this book. pub. Black Swan, 1998 ISBN: 0-552-998052
All my life I went to American Schools and I got a very thorough American education: full of "The Star Spangled Banner", the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and of course lots of American history. It never was my favorite subject, but then again, Bill Bryson certainly wasn't my teacher. When I read this book it took me back to my school days but it made the history come alive. Now, this isn't your traditional history book but it is full of useful information, tidbits and even humorous coments. It helps to make the book a very entertaining read. I would say that, even if you aren't in the slightest bit interested in American history you will still find this book surprisingly entertaining and a very satisfying read. You might even become interested in American history!
When Bill Bryson got hold of this subject he sure went to town! I suppose to a certain extent this could be considered as something of a follow up to Mother Tongue, the history of the development of the English language, charting as it does the development of American version of the language. This book though delves deep into the spawning of America and its progression to what it represents to us today. I would consider this to be Bill's most thorough work, weighing in at almost 500 pages, complete with index, lengthy bibliography and complete chapter reference notes. Despite the formal sound of all that, rest assured it is written in a very accessible and informal manner. The history of the language is of course tied strongly to the development of the nation and that forms a great part of the book, examining the formation of the nation and the signing of the constitution, the reasons behind the adoption of English as the official national language, the effects of slavery and immigration as well as the ever improving infrastructure. Oh, and he also covers politics, sport, war, food, media, economics and business, space travel....I told you it was thorough! I shudder to think how much research went into this book, but because it tells you a bit about everything, it never bores you with too much detail (that isn't to say this is a book of trivia we're dealing with). The Bryson wit is present throughout, as Bill picks up on every obscure and amusing detail in the subjects he writes about, but you also get the sense from his writing that he probably sat there wide eyed with wonder himself in researching the book as I did sitting reading it. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that this books constitutes a phenomenal achievement by a writer who is usually just considered a funny travel writer. Not as consistently funny or immediately enjoyable as Notes From a Small Island et al, but worthy
of the attention of any Bryson fan, anybody with an interest in American history or culture and anybody who wants a good informative read.