Friday, 30 December 2016

Our American Cousins and their Lingo* Part 1

This four-part posting is a more or less word-for-word version of a talk that was given on two relatively unacademic occasions, in July 1989 and (in a revised version) May 1990. It was written partly to entertain American visitors and partly to demonstrate the hitherto undreamt-of possibilities of searching the OED (OED2) electronically. It is now posted in response to a request. There are a few biographical and lexicographical inserts not in the original talk. The examples, searches, and numbers have not been corrected with reference either to OED Online (OED3) or to the vast range of other online resources which were not then available. Some of the opinions advanced might well be revised after 27 years.

Part 1 — Our American Cousin: the play

I have been told that every American student knows what play Abraham Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in 1865 when he was assassinated. Yes: Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor.

Tom Taylor was the editor of the British satirical magazine Punch. The magazine attacked both sides in the Civil War and contritely published some poor anonymous lines on Lincoln’s death (‘Abraham Lincoln, foully assassinated’).

Tom Taylor (1817–1880) was the son of a self-educated brewery owner from Cumberland; his mother came from a German family. He attended Trinity College Cambridge and gained a first class in classical Tripos (1840); was elected a fellow in 1842 but relinquished this and moved to London in 1844 where he took up journalism. He was called to the bar in 1846; in 1850 became Assistant Secretary to the Board of Health; Secretary 1854; retired 1871. His journalistic career began with writing for the Morning Chronicle and Daily News (1845). He was on the staff of Punch from 1874 and editor until his death. He was also the art critic of The Times and The Graphic. In 1844 he had four burlesques produced at the Lyceum theatre; he wrote 70 plays in 35 years. His very successful Ticket-of-Leave Man was performed in 1863. Taylor also acted. Mrs Tom (Laura) Taylor was a skilled composer.

Our American Cousin was first produced in New York in 1858 (at Laura Keene’s, 15 October 1858). The play was subsequently a huge success in London. Taylor received £150 but the producer got over £2000.

Notably, the play converted a hitherto indifferent actor, E. A. Sothern, into a star. He was given the tiny part of Lord Dundreary, an aristocratic fop, which he expanded into a leading role. Lord Dundreary became a national craze; there were Dundreary everything, especially Dundreary whiskers, which were a style of facial hair worn by Sothern for the role (also known as Piccadilly weepers). Here’s the OED2 entry:

Dundreary (dʌnˈdrɪərɪ) [Name of Lord Dundreary, a character in T. Taylor's comedy Our American Cousin (1858).] In allusive attrib. uses, esp. Dundreary whiskers, long side whiskers worn without a beard. Also absol., usu. in pl. (See also quot. 18642.) 1862 Englishwoman's Dom. Mag. Aug. 183 Bodger‥came to understand (in a Dundreary manner) a little more about Bradshaw. 1864 Chambers's Jrnl. 17 Sept. 595/2 It was only a summer scarf, of the sort that is called Dundreary. 1864 Hotten Slang Dict. 127 Dundreary, an empty swell. 1867 ‘Pips’ Lyrics & Lays 141 Full proud is he, I ween, Of his Dundreary whiskers. 1882 ‘F. Anstey’ Vice Versa xvii, Bushy black whiskers, more like the antiquated ‘Dundreary’ type than modern fashion permits. 1894 C. G. Harper Revolted Woman ii. 39 This fashion was the ‘Piccadilly-weeper’ variety of adornment, known at this day—chiefly owing to Sothern's impersonation of a contemporary lisping fop—as the ‘Dundreary’. 1906 Galsworthy Man of Property i. i, His cheeks, thinned by two parallel folds, and a long clean-shaven upper lip, were framed within Dundreary whiskers. 1929 C. H. Smith Bridge of Life ii. 38 The older men wore beards, Dundrearys or side whiskers; the middle-aged, mustaches.

E. A. Sothern (1826–1881), actor, moved to the US in about 1851. He was dismissed from a role for incompetence. He joined Laura Keene’s, 12 May 1858. He reluctantly took on the role of Lord Dundreary, which he then elaborated; on the play’s performance at the Haymarket, 11 November 1861, it became the talk of London and ran for 496 nights, partly on account of Dundreary’s monologues. Sothern returned to the US for the years 1874–8.

In the play, the ‘American Cousin’ of the title is the good guy. He is the slightly bumptious distant relative from Vermont who rescues an impoverished family which has been cheated of its money by a family friend.

The ‘American Cousin’ is called Asa Trenchard. He is presented as a kind of American backwoodsman who uses a whole vocabulary of his own that is incomprehensible to the English relatives. Here are some of the phrases that he uses, together with the date at which OED2 lists the first use in English. The first list comprises those in which the action shows their incomprehension; their verbal reactions are quoted when these occur.

I. Phrases not understood by the English characters
Old shoat
‘what does he mean by’
Put on a clean buzzom
‘[they] all start’
There’s no mush

17th cent
Nary slapjack

Hurry up the fixins
‘what do you mean by’
‘ab— what sir’
Make tracks
‘make what’
‘make vamose’

Like a thousand of brick
‘that is doubtless some elegant American expression’
You’re small potatoes and few in a hill†
‘I’m what’
Some pumpkins
‘first I am small potatoes and now I’m some pumpkins’
A regular snorter
‘a what’
Hitched [= married]
†The exchange continues: ‘will you be kind enough to translate that for me, for I don’t understand American yet’ ‘Yes, I’ll put it in French for you, petite pommes de terres’

II. Other phrases used by Asa Trenchard

Consarn your picture


Riley ‘I get kinder riley’


’skeeter net

[New England]
Fix our flint for us

A day’s work rail-splitting
[Lincoln’s sobriquet rail-splitter recorded
Old hoss

Old cuss

I’ll bust

That makes him all hunk

You sockdologizing old man-trap


Asa is also given phrases that are dialectal or vulgar, according to the OED, rather than specifically U.S.

III. Phrases used by Asa that are not specifically U.S., according to OED2

I worried down (food)
[north. and Sc.]
Soft solder

[colloq.: 1838 in US]
Cow juice
[slang: 1796, Grose]
This side the pond

I sot down

I riz

Spliced [= married]

Asa’s language is a rough regional US variety, akin to dialect.

Before he comes on to the stage, the English family imagine him ‘with a strong nasal twang and a decided taste for tobacco and cobblers’.

His language is compounded of the following elements: general dialect, aphetic or ‘corrupt’ forms of standard words, pseudo-Latin, and colourful imagery.

It is represented as being used in the year 1858. The words and phrases given above were all first recorded in the OED between the late 18th century and the 1860s, half of them between 1830 and 1847. So in fact (at least in terms of lexical items) the linguistic sketch is pretty accurate (pace Sala: see Part 2) and pretty up to date, though there are a few wilder shots.

*The first example of lingo in the OED is from America:
1660 New Haven Col. Rec. (1858) II. 337 To wch the plant [= plaintiff] answered, that he was not acquainted with Dutch lingo.

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