Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

Early American English

Need to sharpen up your English history trivia? Here are ten trivia factoids to keep handy for your next pub quiz!

  1. Early American settlers sometimes chose to pluralize words by adding an N to them instead of an S. For example: house would become housen or tree would become treen.
  2. A toilet was once called a "Quincy" because John Quincy Adams was the president who first installed toilets in the White House.
  3. Americans often replace why with the phrase "how come" because they have appropriated the Dutch word hoekom.
  4. American English isn’t the only dialect to blame for the differences across the pond. British English also continued changing post-1776, most notably by dropping the "r" sounds from words like "car" and "hard." This de-rhotacization led to what we know of today as the posh British accent. This means the rhotic pronunciation we often associate with American speech didn’t come from Americans — but rather the Brits of yore.
  5. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Americans liked to drink a concoction of chicken soup and beer called the "cockale". Many people believe that the cockale is the origin of the modern word "cocktail".
  6. Many common words, including "skunk", "chocolate", "bayou", "avocado", "hammock", "canoe", "hurricane", "squash", "hickory", and "toboggan" come from Native American languages.
  7. Another Dutch word "snoepen", which meant to put candy into your mouth without any one else noticing was transformed by the Americans into snoop, which means to spy on someone or to be nosy.
  8. American English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not put much stock in being consistent in spelling. The creativity of your spelling was looked upon as a sort of intellectual plus. Learned men like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin would often spell one word one way in one paragraph and the same word differently in the next paragraph, even in documents as important as the Declaration of Independence.
  9. "Goodbye" was originally just an abbreviation for "God be with you.
  10. If one man got his way, we would write "wimmen" instead of "women". In 1806, Noah Webster published the first American dictionary, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, which was full of laughable suggestions for streamlining American spelling. He eventually arrived to a standardization of American English that was palatable enough to stick (such as our beloved "color" and "theater"), but a lot of his earliest attempts earned him the title of "prostitute wretch". His biggest crime? Wanting America to form a unique cultural identity, in which "tung" meant "tongue".