Friday, 30 December 2016

Our American Cousins and their Lingo Part 2

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 2 — Our American Cousins: the phrase.

As a result of the play, the phrase ‘our American cousins’ entered the English language. It is not given as a main entry in OED2, but there are two quotations under COUSIN (which we will come back to below). However, the OED is now electronically searchable in ways previously impossible. We can ask for ‘our American Cousins’ and find a quotation from 1859—the very next year:


1859 Sala Twice round the Clock 11 a.m., A shy kiss, and a squeeze, and a pressure of the foot or so, and a variety of harmless endearing blandishments, known to our American cousins..under the generic name of ‘conoodling’.

The author of the above quotation, George Augustus Sala (1828–96) had close connections with Our American Cousins. In his book Breakfast in Bed or Philosophy between the Sheets (1863), he criticized the play, and in particular the role of Asa Trenchard (‘an unnatural and ungrateful rôle manifestly written down by a bad dramatist to suit the morbid vanity of a Bowery audience’) and described Sothern’s acting in detail. In 1851–6 he wrote regularly for Household Words and the Daily Telegraph, and enjoyed describing bohemian haunts. He was a frequent traveller to the US, and also anywhere there was a crisis; he covered the end of the Civil War from November 1863–December 1864, reported from the Crimea in 1856, and also from Algiers, Italy, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Spain, and St Petersburg, and was back in the US 1879–80. It seems possible that Sala made the phrase into an institution.

The computer search discloses five other examples of our American cousins.

COUSIN sb. 1c

1860 Jeaffreson Bk. about Doctors II. 158 The example..was not lost upon the physicians of our American cousins.


1865 Cornh. Mag. Oct. 504 The Maories seem to be in advance of us, if not of our French and American cousins, in spiritism.


1888 Daily News 9 July 4/8 The apology is a very lame one—what our American cousins call ‘thin’.

MAKE sb.2 8, on the make 

1890 Pall Mall G. 6 Sept. 2/1 Suppose..that I am a man, as our American cousins say, ‘on the make’—suppose that I have parliamentary ambitions.


1975 Listener 2 Oct. 433/1 What our American cousins describe as ‘quangos’, which‥are the quasi non-governmental organisations.

And finally, back again at COUSIN sb. 1c:

1892 Times (Weekly Ed.) 12 Aug. 7/1 The toast of ‘Our American Cousins’ was proposed by Mr. Harry Furniss.

There’s a certain irony in this. Harry Furniss (1854–1925) was an artist and illustrator who worked for Punch from 1880 to 1894, contributing over 2,600 drawings. In 1890, George Augustus Sala took Harry Furniss to court over a remark that Furniss had made about Sala’s drawing ability. According to The Spectator (3 May 1890) at an after-supper speech at a literary club in Nottingham, Furniss told a story about how Sala, who began life as an art student, sent in for the competition at the Academy schools a drawing of a foot with six toes to it. ‘The examiner,’ said Mr Furniss, ‘having counted these toes, pointed the matter out to Mr Sala, who did not get into the schools; so now he was the art critic of the Daily Telegraph.’ Sala was awarded damages of £5.

We can also discover by searching an example, from just a year after Sala’s first use of ‘our American cousins’, of a variant containing Yankee. This features an early example of a well-established transatlantic joke.

KNOCK v. 18j

1860 Hotten Dictionary of Slang (ed. 2) 166 Knocked up. In the United States, among females, the phrase is equivalent to being enceinte, so that Englishmen often unconsciously commit themselves when amongst our Yankee cousins.

[Incidentally the OED provides a more recent example of this joke, though not using our phrase to attrribute it:

1973 National Observer (U.S.) 3 Feb., Fielding’s guide-book considerately explains that a male host may quite casually tell a female American house guest that he will ‘knock you up at 7:30 tomorrow morning’. The term, of course, conveys nothing more than a rapping at the door until one is awakened.]

Here’s another variant on our American cousins, from the novel Zuleika Dobson. A rather colourless don from Oriel College, Oxford, is failing utterly to engage Zuleika in small talk at dinner, since she is enraptured by the Duke of Dorset:

1911 M. Beerbohm Zuleika Dobson (1952) iii. 25 He primed himself with a glass of sherry, cleared his throat. ‘And what,’ he asked, with a note of firmness, ‘did you think of our cousins across the water?’  Zuleika said ‘Yes’; and then he gave in.

Now the OED, at the relevant sense of COUSIN, pretends that there is wide use of ‘cousin’ in this sense, but it seems rare otherwise than as illustrated above. Here’s the OED definition:

COUSIN 1.c. Applied to people of kindred races or nations (e.g. British and Americans).

But the only examples given apart from ‘American’ ones are two; the Cornhill Magazine one already quoted about ‘our French and American cousins’ and this:

1837 W. Irving Capt. Bonneville II. 252 He had received such good accounts from the Upper Nez Percés of their cousins, the Lower Nez Percés.

The Americans hardly seem to speak of ‘our English / British cousins’ (English ~ 1974, British ~ 1907), and I’ve searched in vain for Australian or Canadian cousins or other examples of French cousins. (German cousins are something different!)

1829 Young Lady’s Book 337 No drops, or, as our country cousins call them, kisses, will fall in the passage of the wax from the taper to the seal. [drops = drops of sealing wax]

1974 Times 29 Mar. 19/6 Surely our English cousins, having themselves retired from being ‘nanny to the world’, must understand how we [presumably the Americans] feel.

1907 N.Y. Evening Post (Semi-Weekly ed.) 13 May 6 The person enjoying the title of Quartermaster Captain (a rank that causes our British cousins to smile).

To sum these up, our American cousins is a beautiful example of the British problem with the Americans. How one feels about cousins: that mixture of gratification and alarm! ‘Cousins’ acknowledges the relationship, but keeps them at arm’s length. In short, it’s a rather patronizing expression.

No comments:

Post a Comment