Thursday, September 8, 2011

On Babbitts, Bellies, and Sons of Bitches

From My Bookshelves:


I Hear America Talking
An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases
By Stuart Berg Flexner
Published 1976
Van Nostrand Reinhold Company
ISBN: 0-442-22413-3

This is such a cool book! I found this gem when I was hunting for resources on common slang in early America. Here's what the author says in his preface:

This book is not exhaustive. I have had to pick and choose and have tried to emphasize typical and common American terms that best reveal our history and social history, the words and expressions used in the march of history and in the stroll of everyday life. What this book attempts to do, then, is present America and American history through our language.

Historical fiction writers face many challenges, including making sure they're using words appropriate to their time period, and bringing the voices of the past to life in a smooth, engaging manner for today's readers. Need to know if your Revolutionary War soldier can "take a piss" or if your Gilded Age socialite can refer to her derriere as her "fanny"?

In this book, you'll find answers to those questions and many more, and in a fun presentation with entries accompanied by pictures, artwork, and memorabilia. (Your soldier can take a piss, by the way. Americans have officially been "pissing" since 1760, though it is believed they were pissing much earlier, but since that word didn't get written down often, earlier records don't exist. And yes, your socialite can have a "fanny". That word dates back to the 1860s.)

Here are a few of my favorite entries:

  • Ain't it the truth? A brief history of this most maligned of contractions, and a little history on popular phrases throughout the twentieth century.
  • Babbitts, Joiners, Boosters, and Boobs
  • Beer. Six whole pages of beer-related terminology from the landing of the Mayflower through World War II.
  • Dashing Men. The photos accompanying this entry: Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Robert Redford.
  • Hicks, Rubes, and Hayseeds
  • Tits, Bellies, Rumps, Gams, and Meathooks
  • Son of a Bitch
  • Oh, Shit!
  •   
But it's not all fun and games. There are serious entries, too, from darker aspects of our history. The origins of racial slurs, derogatory terms for immigrants, and sections on all of America's military campaigns, including a large section of Civil War phrases, and quite a few songs, too. There are also sections on Native American words and foreign language words and phrases that have made themselves at home in American vernacular.

Though it's is not a comprehensive guide to American slang, as the author acknowledges, it's still a treasure trove of information, and a really fun book to have around. This book is out of print, but you can find a "very good" copy from online sellers for about fifteen dollars. When I bought this a few years ago I paid a bit more than that, but it was worth it. This is one of the neatest books in my collection, and a good conversation starter, too!

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