Review: Made in America by Bill Bryson

“Eenie, meenie, minie, mo” is based on a counting system that predates the Roman occupation of Britain, that may even be pre-Celtic.”
~Bill Bryson, Made in America

Plot summary

“Readers from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Idiotsville, Oregon – and everywhere in between – will love Made in America, Bill Bryson’s Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

It is, in a word, fascinating. After reading this tour de force, it’s clear that a nation’s language speaks volumes about its true character: you are what you speak. Bryson traces America’s history through the language of the time, then goes on to discuss words culled from everyday activities: immigration, eating, shopping, advertising, going to the movies, and others. Made in America will supply you with interesting facts and cocktail chatter for a year or more.

Did you know, for example, that Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ credo has its roots in a West African proverb? Or that actor Walter Matthau’s given name is Walter Mattaschanskayasky? Or that the supposedly frigid Puritans–who called themselves ‘Saints,’ by the way – had something called a pre-contract, which was a license for premarital sex?

Made in America is an excellent discussion of American English, but what makes the book such a treasure is that it offers much, much more.” More on Goodreads

For information on Bill Bryson and further book recommendations, check out the review for A Short History of Nearly Everything.

An artifact at the Museum of Mechanical Music in Varkaus, Finland. Photo: fictivestina
An artifact at the Museum of Mechanical Music in Varkaus, Finland. Photo: fictivestina
Key concepts
  • Something for the trivia addicts!
  • Useful and useless info on the history of US English
  • Linguistic roller coaster ride guaranteed

Summers come and go and vacations whoosh by even faster. The human brain adapts slowly to being back from vacation mode. This year the concept of summer is rather dubious, at least when it comes to living in the Nordic countries. Even though it says “summer” in the calendar, the weather conditions have for the most part disagreed with this timetable.

This being said, it is time to get back to blogging. It has been a while since the latest review post, so here we go. I have taken a break from reading for several weeks, except for the occasional audiobooks. There simply have been too many competing cultural activities – museums and art exhibitions – to visit. Also, a road trip took place.

Bryson‘s Made in America (1994) has been a longer project but only because the book is a massive work, and not because the book was not interesting. So it naturally took some time to finish with Bryson.

An artifact at the Museum of Mechanical Music in Varkaus, Finland. Photo: fictivestina
An artifact at the Museum of Mechanical Music in Varkaus, Finland. Photo: fictivestina

Made in America is a perfect summer book. I guess by this I mean a sort of book that is not too serious but informative at the same time. The content is classic Bryson: entertaining and witty. One never gets tired of the distinctive details on the history of the US English language.

The adventure with Bryson got me thinking about my native language, Finnish. They say Finnish is pretty difficult to learn as a foreign language. I wouldn’t know since I have been practicing the language since I was able to talk.

Thus, since most of the blog followers seem to reside outside Finland, why not reveal some fun facts about the Finnish language.

  • There are over 40 words for snow but not a single one for the verb “to snow” (check out words for snow and Finnish Snow Guide)
  • Finnish has some pretty long wordsLentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas is a classic (check out more on Wikipedia)
  • Fun Finnish expressions: Juoksentelisinkohan? is among my favorites, it translates pretty much into “I wonder whether I should run around aimlessly?” and I think it captures an attitude towards life that should be more embraced
  • Did you know that Finnish has no grammatical gender nor definite and indefinite articles? (more on Wikipedia)
  • The number of noun cases is exhaustive (more on Wikipedia)
  • The sentence kuusi palaa has around 9 different meanings (explained at the end of the site)
  • Not related to the Finnish language itself, but check out these 14 facts about Finland

Because of social strictures against even the mildest swearing, America developed a particularly rich crop of euphemistic expletives – darn, durn, goldurn, goshdad, goshdang, goshawful, blast, consarn, confound, by Jove, by jingo, great guns, by the great horn spoon (a nonce term first cited in the Biglow Papers), jo-fired, jumping Jehoshaphat, and others almost without number – but even this cautious epithets could land people in trouble as late as the 1940s.
~Bill Bryson, Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States

Educating Vietnamese kids on how to flip the bird. Photo: ST
Educating Vietnamese kids on how to flip the bird at a mall in Hanoi (no advertisement intended). Photo: ST

I am currently reading, which I seldom do, a book in Finnish. Let me try to get a review of Emmi Itäranta‘s Memory of Water out in August. Stay tuned, take care and enjoy the rest of the summer season (sorry for the Northern hemisphere centered thinking) 🙂

More information
– Will Self: Can do, will write: Made in America – by Bill Bryson, Secker pounds 15, published in the Independent on 23 July 1994, link retrieved on 25 July 2017

“The one word that Newfoundland has given the world is penguin. No one has any idea what inspired it.”
~Bill Bryson, Made in America


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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