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Can you speak American?

A wide-ranging account of American English, Richard Bailey’s Speaking American investigates the history and continuing evolution of our language from the sixteenth century to the present. When did English become American? What distinctive qualities made it American? What role have America’s democratizing impulses, and its vibrantly heterogeneous speakers, played in shaping our language and separating it from the mother tongue? Bailey asked himself these questions, now it’s time to ask yourself how well you really know your American English. We’ve composed a quiz for some Friday fun. Can you speak American? –Alice & Justyna

What’s “the blab of the pave”?

a. A description of the talk of Okies and others moving west during the Great Depression, typically used by urbanites in a derogatory way
b. A popular expression for how young “delinquents” talked in Northern California during the 1950s
c. Walt Whitman’s description of the way New Yorkers speak
d. A description of the way cement settles in intense heat used in the South, particularly around New Orleans

Which great event determined whether Shakespeare should be performed in American or British English in the US?

a. American. The Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, which pitted actor Edwin Forrest (American) against actor William Charles Macready (English).
b. English. 1823 legislation, for which aristocratic Carolinians educated in England lobbied, that Shakespeare’s plays be performed “in the manner in which they were written.”
c. American. Competing theaters set each other alight during the Great Chicago Fire, but the Wicker Park neighborhood rallied to save the Liberty Theater, then staging an American English production of Hamlet.
d. English. Following the introduction of sound in the 1920s, MGM’s British English movie production of Romeo & Juliet out-earned its American English competitors, so all studios switched to English actors for future Shakespeare productions.

Which of the following is true?

a. Alaska cotton is a species of grass growing in the Alaskan wetlands.
b. Alaska candy is strips of smoked salmon.
c. An Alaska divorce is liberating oneself from marriage by murdering the spouse.
d. Baked Alaska is a dessert in which a quickly baked meringue encases a blob of frozen ice cream.

Where does the word “buckaroo” come from?

a. Slang for ranch hands on the American frontier who were initially paid a dollar (“a buck”) to work for a rancher
b. Name given to young men at the stage of their equine apprenticeship when they would handle young male horses in the Colonial South
c. Buckra, meaning someone with power or knowledge in the Efik language of West Africa, which passed into American English via Barbados Creole
d. An invention of screenwriter and dime novelist John Grey for the silent western “Canyon of Fools”

What is “bisket”?

a. A Boston expression for unleavened bread made from flour, salt, and water
b. A Yiddish expression for dough, sometimes found in New York English
c. A Chinook expression for a day when it doesn’t rain during the winter months
d. An alternate spelling of “biscuit” found in rural Alabama and Mississippi

In the 1980s, the song “Valley Girl” about the singer’s teenage daughter and her affinity for Valspeak (a word blend of “San Fernando Valley” and “speak”), unintentionally lead to an enormous popularity for this style of English. Which singer composed the song?

a. Brian Wilson
b. Tom Waits
c. Frank Zappa
d. John Phillips

In the 1960s, California became associated with the New Age movement in spirituality and various ego-centered psychological therapies. These efforts produced which term that became widely known beyond California?

a. bipolar disorder
b. ego-trip
c. get it together
d. all of the above

Between 1892 and 1928, millions of Europeans entered New York through the immigration facility on Ellis Island. As a result, their cultures (and languages) had an immense impact on the city. Which language was most influential in transforming New York?

a. Polish
b. Yiddish
c. French
d. Italian

Which important factor made New Orleans the foundation of English for the Louisiana Purchase?

a. A high influx of English speakers purchasing cheap territory
b. Thomas Jefferson deemed English the official language after purchasing it from the French
c. The introduction of the steamboat in the Mississippi waterway
d. None of the above



AND NOW THE ANSWERS…


What’s “the blab of the pave”?
Walt Whitman’s description of the way New Yorkers speak

Which great event determined whether Shakespeare should be performed in American or British English in the US?
American. The Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, which pitted actor Edwin Forrest (American) against actor William Charles Macready (English).

Which of the following is true?
All are correct: Alaska cotton is a species of grass growing in the Alaskan wetlands. Alaska candy is strips of smoked salmon. An Alaska divorce is liberating oneself from marriage by murdering the spouse. Baked Alaska is a dessert in which a quickly baked meringue encases a blob of frozen ice cream.

Where does the word “buckaroo” come from?
Buckra, meaning someone with power or knowledge in the Efik language of West Africa, which passed into American English via Barbados Creole

What is “bisket”?
A Boston expression for unleavened bread made from flour, salt, and water

In the 1980s, the song “Valley Girl” about the singer’s teenage daughter and her affinity for Valspeak (a blend of “San Fernando Valley” and “speak”), unintentionally lead to an enormous popularity for this kind of English. Which singer composed the song?
Frank Zappa

In the 1960s, California became associated with the New Age movement in spirituality and various ego-centered psychological therapies. These efforts produced which term that became widely known beyond California?
All of the above: bipolar Disorder, ego-trip, and get it together

Between 1892 and 1928, millions of Europeans entered New York through the immigration facility on Ellis Island. As a result, their cultures (and languages) had an immense impact on the city. Which language was most influential in transforming New York?
Yiddish

Which important factor made New Orleans the foundation of English for the Louisiana Purchase?
The introduction of the steamboat in the Mississippi waterway

Richard W. Bailey was the author of Speaking American: A History of English in the United States, Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language, Nineteenth-Century English, and Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff. Bailey served in the course of his career as the President of the American Dialect Society and of the Dictionary Society of North America, and the associate editor for The Oxford Companion to the English Language. A long-time faculty member at the University of Michigan, he retired as Fred Newton Scott Collegiate Professor of English.

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9 Responses to “Can you speak American?”
  1. John Falotico says:

    Disagree with the etymology of “buckaroo”. This is undoubtedly an anglo corruption of the the Spanish word for cowboy, “vaquero”. Since the letter “v” is pronounced as a “b” in the Spanish language, English speakers heard the term as “baquero” which evolved into “buckaroo”. The cowboy culture in the US started in Texas borrowing from Mexican traditions. Another example of an anglicism adopted from Texas Spanish is “hoosegow” meaning “jail”. This is derived from the Spanish past participle of the verb to judge, “juzgado” in which the “j” is pronounced as an “h” in Spanish.

  2. Ken says:

    I’m pretty sure “Buckaroo” is a word evolved from the Spanish word Vaquero.

  3. Marcel Kincaid says:

    Indeed, buckaroo came from vaquero, via forms such as bakhara, bocarro, buckhara, and buckayro. The claim that it came from the West African “buckra” is nonsense with no basis in fact.

    In “Speaking American”, Richard Bailey writes “In the 1970s two investigators examined nicknames of people in the region and noted that the given names were often of English origin and the nicknames of African. The person bearing the nickname buckaroo was, they reported, especially skilled in the management of farm animals, and they asserted that the name was derived from vaquero ‘cow hand’ (< Spanish vaca 'cow'). More likely, however, is the explanation that it was the special skill rather than the animals that accounted for the nickname (Baird and Twining 1991)." Sorry, no, that is not more likely, and in any case that is no way to do etymological analysis.

  4. Tom Wylie says:

    I agree with Richard Bailey that buckaroo came from the African buckra, and indeed arrived with the first Africans in Virginia in 1619.

    The Bantu word “buckra” appears to be the origin of buckaroo, a word meaning cowboy. Some think that buckaroo comes from the Spanish vaquero, which in turn was derived from the Arabic languages. Buckra and buckaroo however, sound more like the Arabic equivalent “bakara” or “bakhara” than like the word vaquero. I put my money on buckra, rather than vaquero. Arabic influence was as great and perhaps greater in Africa than it was in Spain and Portugal. Buckra, I believe, came directly out of Africa, or through Portugal to Africa, and was Americanized as buckaroo.

  5. Marcel Kincaid says:

    ‘The Bantu word “buckra” appears to be the origin of buckaroo, a word meaning cowboy.’

    No, it most certainly does not appear so.

    ‘sound more like’

    Totally bogus basis for etymology.

    ‘I put my money on’

    Meaningless nonsense.

  6. [...] We (unintentionally) started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. In an excerpt from Richard Bailey’s Speaking American, he argues that it comes [...]

  7. [...] started a debate about the origin of the word “buckaroo” with our quiz Can you speak American? last week. Richard Bailey, author of Speaking American, argues that it comes from the West African [...]

  8. Alice says:

    Just a note for those following the comments to refer to the two trackbacks above for follow-up on the question of the origin of “buckaroo.”

    - Blog Editor Alice

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