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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-05-19)

Having taken a few swipes at American English in past articles in this series, I thought it might be polite to have a look at some American words that have enriched the language. I rounded up four or five that have crossed my path in the last few weeks, and the first that came to mind was “humdinger”, which I had thought to mean something conspicuously good - or bad.

“Humdinger” is defined in the indispensable Chambers Dictionary as “an exceptionally excellent person or thing; a smooth-running engine ; a swift vehicle or aircraft.” The word’s derivation is given as “probably from hum (in the musical sense) and ding.” Now I always believed that “ding” was a contemporary slang expression for changing the profile of a motor car by ramming it into a stationary object; I was entirely wrong. It turns out to have Middle English origins, and it means: “ to beat, thump, knock or (in Scotland) surpass.” That, coupled with “hum”, seems to take care of the “smooth-running engine” (one that hums and surpasses others), and the other meanings probably developed from that. Apparently there is no American connection at all.

My next candidate was “filibuster”. We all know that a filibuster is “a person who obstructs legislation by making lengthy speeches, introducing motions, etc”, just as Chambers says, or the obstruction so caused. Surely an American concept?

Wrong again. “Filibuster’s” original meanings were “pirate; buccaneer; military adventurer or revolutionary.” There are equivalents in other languages: Spanish “filibustero” through French “fribustier”, which in turn came from the Dutch “vrijbuiter”, instantly recognizable in its English form, “freebooter” – a pirate roving around in search of booty. An American word? Not at all.

Oh, well, let’s try “sockdolager.” (Don’t fuss with the spelling – the dictionary lists at least seven possible variants. As for pronunciation, it’s “sok-DOL-a-jer.”) At last, we have an attribution to “old US slang”, and the meanings “a conclusive argument; a…decisive blow; anything unusually big, a whopper.” The derivation suggested is barely credible – “sock, to strike hard, to thrash” (easy to accept), but “influenced by doxology, as the closing act of a service”? Oh, come on! But I must admit I like it – what a wonderful connection!

We’re on safer ground with my next word, “hootenanny”. Nowadays, “in US dialect” it means “a thingummy”, an indefinable gadget; and Penelope, my companion in life, uses it to identify one of those curious bits of lint that accumulate in your navel while your attention is elsewhere. Its original meaning was “a party with folk-singing and sometimes dancing, especially an informal concert with folk music.” I’d always understood this to be a North American Indian word, which it may be, but Chambers says simply “N Am colloq.” At least it’s American.

Finally, the ultimate American word, understood all over the world – “dollar”. As expected, it’s not an American word at all. Its origins are German. Their word “thal” means a valley (or dale). In old times, there was a silver mine in “Joachimsthal” (Joachim’s vale) in Bohemia, and the coins minted there were called “Joachimsthalers.” This was abbreviated to “Thalers” or “Dalers”, from which it was a short step to “dollars.”

There’s a useful hint here, on how to pronounce “Neanderthal,” describing the Palaeolithic people whose remains were found in the Neander valley (thal) near Dusseldorf. It has to be “Ne-AN-der-tahl” (for the next time you want to say it out loud.)

As for our “American” words, we scored two out of five. A pass mark? Only just.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online.




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