BILL BRYSON FEATURE
never pay any attention to, you suddenly find yourself looking at. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being in Greece reading a cornﬂakes box, because it has Greek lettering or whatever. All those things that you take for granted and never think about. when you step back from them, suddenly take on a kind of fascination. Which has a lot to do with making me interested in things like why American brand names got to be the way they are. A lot of
‘I still feel quite a bit like a foreigner when I go to America. I simply tried to make a strength
the book is answering those sort ofquestions I‘d always asked. like why there was a famous candy bar called O Henry. I’d always wanted to know why it was called that. It’s trivial without any doubt. nothing to do with the great sweep of history. but in another way not trivial in that it’s so much a part of our everyday lives.’
In the course of research Bryson uncovered so many unusual or startling facts that friends began to accuse him of becoming a bar-room bore. ‘But I like that.’ he says. ‘The biggest surprise to me was discovering that the word “roger”. as in having your way with a woman is an Americanism from the 18th century that completely died out in America, but lives on in Britain. Nowadays you won’t meet an American who understands rogcring any more than one who understands “randy”.’
Well you said it Bill. Lost Continent fans expecting more of the same in Made In America might be disappointed as this is a far more serious-minded book. It was initially commissioned for an American audience so the author’s mischievous streak of irony has been kept to a premium. In fact he occasionally had to restrain himself from cracking too many gags.
‘I found myself taking out expressions where they weren’t appropriate,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t setting out to write a humorous book. The word I was looking for was “entertaining”. which allows some humour but it’s incidental to the main purpose. Everything in the book is ( factual and I wouldn’t want the : reader to think I was just making a joke, whereas in The t. lost Continent, when I’m talking about Ronald Reagan’s haemorrhoids. it isn’t important whether l’m joking or not.’
In between The Lost Continent and an equally hilarious travel journal from Europe. Neither Here Nor
There. Bryson wrote a history of the English language around the world, The Mother Tongue. so has some prior experience of confounding his readers’ expectations. It doesn’t worry him as much as it used to. ‘The one obligation you have as a writer is to make your subject interesting. When The Mother Tongue was published, I was a bit concerned at that point as to whether people would worry about what kind of writing to associate me with. But in fact readers are very forgiving, very
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generous. I think of Paul Theroux who writes travel books and novels and doesn’t have any problems adapting to different styles.’
His biggest selling point in Britain at least has been as a gateway through which to gain an entry to America. He has the twin assets of being able to mock and celebrate America simultaneously.
‘My one personal advantage as a writer is that I’m an American abroad which gives me a different perspective whether I’m writing for other Americans. or as with The Lost Continent. being an American, having an intimate knowledge of that country. I went to school there. I have the education system inside out. know the political system better than 99 per cent of Britons. I know the country very well. but because I’ve lived away I have this distance. I still feel quite a bit like a foreigner when I go to America. I simply tried to make a strength of that.’
The American comedienne Kit Hollerbach. married to Jeremy Hardy. has a sketch about going to pick up her uptight English kids from school. ‘Don’t mind Mummy,’ they whisper embarrassedly to their friends. ‘she’s American.’ Bryson lives in Yorkshire with his English family. and admits they’ve ended up speaking a kind of polyglot Mid-Atlantic blend. He’s out of touch with American neologisms. but in a way his family have ajump start on the rest of us. as American English begins to colonise the rest of the world.
‘All the branches of English are very receptive to outside words,’ he says. ‘and if we hear something we like we tend to pick it up
‘Nowadays you won’t meet an American who understands rogering any more than one who understands randy.’
fairly quickly. What distinguishes American English is that because American culture is so pervasive the inventions of American English tend to be disseminated much more widely and rapidly, and they become very much more a part of global culture. There’s no question that American and British English are coming closer. perceptibly so. Even in the time that I’ve been here, twenty years or so, l have seen things like truck become accepted. When I came here it would always be lorry, but now truck is perfectly normal usage.’
At that Bryson heads out back over the moors to polish up a few more entries for his Mid West meets Yorkshire primer. 1 don’t know, these Yanks. they come over here, steal our women, and now they want us to speak their language as well. Where will it end? C]
Made In America is published by Seeker and Warburg on 4 July (f I 5).
Bill Bryson will be reading and signing at John Smith’s Bookshop, 57 St. Vincent Street, Glasgow at 6.30pm on Wednesday 6 July. Budweiser and Jazz on tap.
Part of the USA’s endless linguistic attractiveness is its plethora of intriguing place- names. In chapter 7 of Made In America, Bill Bryson rounds up some of the more exotic suspects.
‘Made in America’ by Bill Bryson
When the naming was left to unofﬁcial sources, as with the towns that sprang up around the mining camps in California. the results were generally livelier. California brieﬂy revelled in such arresting geographic designations as Murderer's Gulch, Guano Hill. Chucklehead Diggings, Delirium Tremens, Whiskey Diggings, You Bet, Chicken Thief Flat, Poker Flat. Git-Up-And-Git, Dead Mule, One Eye, Hell~out-for-Noon City, Puke and Shitbritches Creek. The practice was by no means confined to California. The whole of the West was soon dotted with colourful nomenclature - Tombstone. Arizona; Cripple Creek, Colorado; Whiskey Dick Mountain. Washington; Dead Bastard Peak, Wyoming; and others beyond counting. Often the more colourful of these names were later quietly changed for reasons that don’t always require elucidation, as with Two Tits, Califiornia, and Shit-House Mountain, Arizona. Once, doubtless in consequence of the loneliness of western life, the West had more Nipple Mountains. Tit Buttes and the like than you could shake a stick at. Today we must make do with the Teton Mountains, whose mammary implications are evident only to those who are proficient in French. Colourful appellations are not a uniquely western phenomenon, however. Lunenberg County, Virginia, once boasted a Fucking Creek and a Tickle Cunt Branch. North Carolina had a Coldass Creek, and Kentucky still proudly boasts a Sugar Tit. Indeed, oddball names know no geographical bounds, as a brief sampling shows:
Who’d A Thought lt. Alabama
Greasy Corner. Toad Suck and Turkey Scratch. Arkansas
Zyzx Springs, California
Two Egg, Honda
Zook Spur and What Cheer, lowa
. Rabbit Hash, Bug, and OK, Kentucky
Bald Fn'ar and Number Nine, Maryland
Sleepy Eye and Dinkytown, Minnesota
Tightwad, Peculiar and Jerk Tail, Missouri
Hot Coffee and Goodfood, Mississippi
Brainy Boro and Cheesequake, New Jersey
Rabbit Shuffle, Stifﬂknee Knob and Shoofly, North Carolina
Knockemstiff, Pee Pee, Lickskillet, and Mudsock, Ohio
East Due West, South Carolina
Yell, Bugscuﬁle, Gizzards Cove and Zu Zu‘, Tennessee
Lick Skillet, Bugtussle, Chocolate Bayou, Ding Dong, Looneyville. Jot ’Em Down, and Cut and Shoot, Texas
Lick Fork, Unthanks and Tizzle Flats, Virginia
Humptulips and Shittim Gulch, Washington
Superior Bottom, West Virginia
© Bill Bryson I994
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