American from Boone to Crockett.

Rosemarie Ostler has a piece at HistoryNet about the effect of the western frontier on American English:

The English language started to become American as soon as the first English-speaking colonists landed. Unfamiliar landscapes, plants, and animals and ways of living called for new terms, and Americans soon were amassing a fresh vocabulary. Colonists borrowed from natives—raccoon, barbecue—inventively combined existing words—backcountry, pine barrens—and coined terms—demoralize, belittle. However, American speech was about more than words. Early Americans distilled vivid metaphors from everyday life. They blazed trails. They played possum. They found themselves sitting on the fence. They barked up the wrong tree. They improvised outlandish fabrications like scrumptious and blusteration.

From the beginning, certain facets of American life especially encouraged fresh, colorful language. Among these were the boisterous world of politics, source of caucus and gerrymander; the striking landscape, with its buttes, prairies, and swamps; the press, so fond of slang like fizzle out; and especially the Western frontier.

In 1775, Daniel Boone, a hunter and trapper born in western Pennsylvania, led a party of about 30 men across the Appalachian Mountains through the Cumberland Gap into the Kentucky Territory, blazing what became known as the Wilderness Road. After the Revolutionary War, England ceded to the United States of America all territory running west to the Mississippi River. The first rush of words from that region came courtesy of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose Corps of Discovery was to map the Louisiana Territory, which Napoleon had just sold to the United States for $15 million, or 3 cents an acre, and of which Americans knew little. […] Their journals brimmed with careful descriptions. Even as they were crossing the northern plains, portaging around falls, struggling through mountains, and canoeing western rivers, Clark and Lewis each wrote his journal nearly every day, meticulously recording every notable feature. As necessary, the explorers created language to do justice to what they were seeing. Many terms they repurposed, invented, or borrowed entered the American lexicon […] Crossing the plains of what is now South Dakota on September 17, 1804, Clark records in his journal that one of the men has killed “a curious kind of deer (Mule Deer).” He makes clear why he’s giving the animal that name—“the ears large & long.” The tail’s tip is “a tuft of black hair,” so Clark sometimes refers to “black-tailed deer” before concluding that the creature’s long ears make mule deer much more appropriate. […]

Lewis and Clark borrowed from native languages, though the difficulty of fitting these terms into English kept most from being adopted. There were exceptions: the Nez Percé camas referred to a plant with an edible bulb, the Ojibwe kinnikinnick identified a tobacco substitute, and the Cree pemmican, meaning a cake of dried meat, fat, and crushed berries.

I just recently learned the word camas, in the form of its genus name Camassia, when my wife asked the good people at the Hadley Garden Center to identify a beautiful flower we’d found growing near our house; the word is variable in spelling, AHD giving camas, camass, and quamash (and informing us that it’s from Nez Perce qém’es, qém’eš) and the OED adding camash to the mix. Here are some of its citations:

1805 W. Clark Jrnl. 20 Sept. in Jrnls. Lewis & Clark Exped. (1988) V. 222 Those people gave us..roots in different States, Some round and much like an onion which they call Pas she co quamash.
1837 W. Irving Adventures Capt. Bonneville II. 221 The Indians..come to it in the summer time to dig the camash root.
1884 W. Miller Dict. Eng. Names Plants 264/2 Zygadenus venenosus. ‘Death Quamash’, Hog’s Potato.
1884 ‘J. Miller’ Memorie & Rime 83 The camas blossom..all Oregon in the early spring.
1915 M. Armstrong & J. J. Thornber Field Bk. Western Wild Flowers 48 The name [Camassia] is derived from Quamash, the Indian name for these plants.
1959 E. Tunis Indians 112/2 For one thing they could dig any quantity of the sweet edible bulbs of a lily-like plant that we call camass and they called quamash.

The article finishes with a section on a famous fellow, who (it turns out) preferred the formal version of his name rather than the nickname under which he is famous:

Davy Crockett—he preferred David—was the apotheosis of the frontier word-slinger—tough, bold, resourceful, and at home in the tall timber and the halls of Congress. […] He popularized expressions forged in the trans-Appalachian West—chip off the old block, a hard row to hoe, be stumped, go the whole hog, root hog or die (work hard or lose out), fire into the wrong flock (mistake your target), and bark up the wrong tree. He often used the last expression when his hunting dogs surrounded the base of a tree other than the one concealing his prey. He also used it figuratively. In a letter about the politics of the day, he writes, “Some people are going to try to hunt for themselves . . . but . . . seem to be barking up the wrong sapling.” Legends and tall tales grew around his larger-than-life persona, which was based on his way of talking—frontier speech writ large, full of fanciful word inventions, wilderness metaphors, and outsize boasts. The posthumous 1837 Davy Crockett’s Almanack, written by others, relies on all three categories of self-expression. In the preface, he repeats his message to constituents before the 1835 election, which he lost: “If they did not re-elect me, they might go to hell and I’d go to Texas.” The Almanack intersperses weather predictions and other generic material with flights of verbal fancy in the Crockett mold, like “A Tongeriferous Fight with an Alligator” in which “Crockett” describes the wild rampoosings of saurians atop his house and the rageriferous wrestling he had to undertake to roust them. In another piece, “Crockett” describes Texas as a land “so rich, if you plant a crowbar at night it will sprout tenpenny nails before morning.” Countrified vocabulary and nonstandard verbs abound. “I was so wrothy I should have scun him alive,” the narrator declares. “I div down in a slantidicular direction.” Pestered by a “yankee peddler,” he threatens, “If you ain’t off in no time, I’ll take off my neckcloth and swallow you whole.” Crockett’s freewheeling speech and that of fellow frontier dwellers appealed to anyone inclined to use language for effect, spicing up newspaper editorials and injecting into campaign speeches—stem winders, as in keeping a watch running delivered on the stump, as in a handy place for a roving politician to get onlookers’ attention—a folksy touch, turning up occasionally in the Congressional Record and in time becoming essential to the American vernacular.

I confess I’ve always been fond of those 19th-century slantidicular rampoosings; our language has gotten tamer since. Thanks, Terry!


  1. David Marjanović says

    and coined terms—demoralize

    So I looked up German demoralisieren. Sure enough, from French démoraliser, which is really unlikely to come from the American frontier.

    And the original gerrymander was in Massachusetts.

  2. Just because barbecue is, like, “quintessentially American”, doesn’t mean English American colonists took it from the “natives”. It was Spanish before it was English.

    Some time ago I made a map of the paths by which indigenous words got into English ( Unfortunately, since it is based on OED2’s sometimes ambiguous etymological nomenclature, “barbecue” doesn’t show.

  3. Fun also in the various ways colonists tried to transcribe “raccoon”: rahaugcum, rahaughcum, rarowcun, raugroughcum, arathkone.

    And the history preserved in the fact that the OED records the sense of “pelt (of a raccoon)” before “animal (the raccoon”).

  4. Bathrobe says

    I am probably alone in this, but I find the congratulatory “our colourful characters” and “what a wonderful contribution they made to the English language” tone of such pieces rather offputting. It’s a common enough theme in much writing about the English language but seems to me immensely ethnocentric.

    Crockett himself I only have a nodding acquaintance with. I note that he opposed Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act (apparently to the dismay of many of his constituents), which was behind his threat to move to Texas.

  5. Dmitry Pruss says

    I am friends with Davy Crockett who even sports a coonskin hat. A famous ultrarunner and blogger. True fame never dies

    And deathcamas is the commonest plant in these parts. Even a town is called Kamas and its objectors’ suburb, Samak, I presume after the plant

  6. I like the idea of your map, D-AW, but there are some things which detract from it. It looks like probably of the majority of the words which came through English are ethnonyms. It’s interesting to see which ethnonym was mentioned in English first, but it’s hard to make a case for Chickasaw being an English word the way mahogany or even igloo are.
    There are also a number of errors, for which the OED is to blame: Great Spirit is most certainly not Ojibway; and, for God’s sake, Montezuma’s revenge is “Aztec”? (Guacamole, however, is “Nahuatl”.) Some scientific creations, like Eskimoid, Uto-Aztecan, and Mosan arguably don’t belong as native words (those three are also inaccurately identified as to origin: Eskimoid is from Eskimo, not an “Eskimo” but an Algonquian word; The Ute part of Uto-Aztecan is not “Aztec”; Mosan is from mos or so (‘four’) in some Salishan languages, more precise than “N. Amer. Indian”.)

  7. People grow ornamental camas on the East Coast? Who knew?

  8. stem-winder!

    I always had a half-formed mental image of someone giving a long speech while gesturing with their long-stemmed tobacco pipe? (I know it doesn’t make sense, but how often do you see “stem-winder” used? I didn’t have that many opportunities to investigate my preconceptions!)

    … most definitions seem to have it that stem-winder simply = “first-rate”, however, not, as the above excerpt would have it, that the speech itself somehow has the power to recharge timepieces.

  9. Never heard of “stemwinder” in any sense. Wiktionary informs me that it can mean both “rousing speech” and “boring speech”, and that it is an anagram of “midwestern”.

  10. AJP Crown says

    RHS has a pic:
    Camassia quamash

    Other common names
    common camassia
    bear’s grass

    North American wild hyacinth

    Camassia esculenta Lindl.
    Camassia teapeae


    Camassia are bulbous perennials with narrow, channelled leaves and erect racemes of star-shaped violet-blue or creamy-white flowers in early summer

    C. quamash is a clump-forming bulbous perennial, growing to 80cm tall, with long, narrow basal leaves. In late spring and early summer, upright stems bear a dense spike of star-shaped blue flowers, up to 7cm across

    “People grow ornamental camas on the East Coast? Who knew?”
    Not the RHS, apparently:

    Plant range
    W US to Montana

    Sounds lovely! Like irises; some of the irises here are just coming out today.

    Hadley Garden Center looks good too. It needs a much wider selection of roses (are there no ramblers?)

  11. John Cowan says

    t’s hard to make a case for Chickasaw being an English word

    It’s as much an English word as slenthem.

    Great Spirit is most certainly not Ojibway

    Not in the sense of being a borrowing, certainly, but it is a (second-level) calque. The OED3 says “Etymology: < great adj. + spirit n., immediately after French Grand Esprit […], itself after an expression in an Algonquian language; compare Ojibwa gichi-manidoo (< gichi ‘great’ + manidoo ‘spirit, supernatural being’: see manitou n.)”

    And the etymology of manitou is given as “< Pidgin Delaware Manétto ‘god, spirit’ < Unami (Delaware) manə́t:u and Munsee (Delaware) manə́to:w, subsequently influenced by French manitou (1613) ( < Old Montagnais manito:w and Old Algonquin (Ojibwa) manito:) and by Ojibwa, all < Proto-Algonquian *maneto:wa ‘supernatural being’.”


    The OED3 shows the semantic shifts as follows: ‘keyless watch’ > ‘geared logging locomotive’ (Webster, 1911)’ > (slang) ‘person or thing that is first-rate; enterprising or energetic person; impassioned talker or public speaker’ > (slang) ‘rousing speech’.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    how often do you see “stem-winder” used?

    Wherever people wear those diamond-encrusted wrist watches without a battery. Winding up a Rolex.

  13. Like irises; some of the irises here are just coming out today.

    Yes, ours are coming out too. My wife is a good gardener.

  14. Another 19th century American writer and talker now fallen into an undeserved obscurity is Josh Billings.

    “It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so.”

    His saying, “In the whole history of the world there is but one thing that money can not buy… to wit the wag of a dog’s tail” appears at the beginning of the Disney film Lady and the Tramp.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    # Billings died in Monterey, California on October 14, 1885.[12] Billings’ death is described in Chapter 12 of John Steinbeck’s fictional Cannery Row. According to Steinbeck’s homage, Billings died in the Hotel del Monte in Monterey after which his body was delivered for burial preparation by the local constable to the town’s only doctor, who also doubled as an amateur mortician. The doctor, per his usual embalming protocol, dispensed of Billings’ entrails by tossing them into the gulch behind his house before packing the torso with sawdust. The stomach, liver and intestines were found in the gulch the following morning by a dog whose master, a small boy, intended on using them for fish bait. Some local men, realizing the disgrace this could bring to Monterey—a town proud of its literary heritage—were able to stop the boy as he was preparing to row out to sea, retrieved the tripas and forced the doctor to give Billings’ organs a proper burial befitting a great author. #

  16. John Cowan says

    What you don’t see any more is watches that wind up with keys. Sherlock Holmes (the original) once deduced that a man was an alcoholic from the pattern of the scratches around the keyhole on his watch.

  17. January First-of-May says

    It’s as much an English word as slenthem.

    Some would certainly doubt it, since Chickasaw is a proper noun and slenthem is not. But it’s certainly at least as much an English word as Moscow.

    (Arguably more so, since it’s not quite the right kind of proper noun; in Russian, for example, it would not have been capitalized.
    Not that I can recall offhand what the Russian for Chickasaw is… OK, just checked, and Russian Wikipedia says it’s чикасо, which I probably should have guessed.)

    (Incidentally, I just now realized that Moscow has to derive from Old East Slavic Московъ, as in the original 1147 attestation, rather than from the Modern Russian version. Though, as always, Wikipedia claims it’s even more complicated than that.)

  18. If Chickasaw and Moscow are English words, so is every ethnonym and toponym in the world. Even only the ones that appear in English language publications would double the entry count in the OED.

  19. AJP Crown says

    Camas is very high in protein

    Jenine, thank you for the article. I wonder why it might take 70 hours to cook and whether anyone is eating it nowadays. I don’t think I can get hold of it in Europe.

    I had thought of growing white asparagus this year, to which it might be distantly related, but couldn’t face the palaver or the 4-year wait for crops.

  20. Camas is high in inulin (IIRC), which takes a long cooking to convert into sugars. Cooking for three days is not a hardship if you use an earth oven, and nowadays a slow cooker.

  21. AJP Crown says

    Goodness. Inulin may account for the flatulence. Such a part in N. American history camas has.

  22. One of my very favorite etymologies is for “buckaroo” – from “buck” meaning a young dandy or tough, mashed up with “vaquero,” a horse-mounted cattle herder (ie a cowboy). Other fun ones are bronco, directly from Spanish (“rough”), and hoosegow, from juzgado (courhouse).
    The whole western cattle-herding culture was Mexican before it was American, and many of the words are adopted or adapted from Spanish.

  23. John Cowan says

    hoosegow, from juzgado (courthouse)

    That’s most plausible, but the etymology I have read is that it’s from the homonymous participle:

    “Where is Juan today?”

    “Juzgao [judged, convicted].”

    Wikt doesn’t agree with me, but it’s a semantic extension either way: ‘court’ > ‘prison’ or ‘convicted’ misunderstood as ‘prison’.

  24. John Cowan: The OED says it is from the participle.

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