If table talk at dinner has fallen flat or you've forgotten most of your American history, read this lively treatment of the development of American English.
Amusing anecdotes abound, written with the understated humor familiar to readers of the expatriate American author's previous travel and language books. Topics range from revolution, invention and immigration to shopping, sex and the space age.
Learn, for example, that the 10-gallon hat gets its name from galón, Spanish for the braid with which it was decorated, and that, after the first cafeteria opened in 1890s Chicago (the term was influenced by Cuban Spanish), the nation was flooded with such places as drugeterias, shaveterias and bobaterias—the last being a place to have your hair bobbed.
Bryson shows how Americans, never comfortable with anything too complicated, are unsurpassed in making practical use of foreign scientific and technological breakthroughs, reflecting the country's essential "pragmatism" (a word coined by William James in 1863).
The book loses steam near the end because too often Bryson mentions new words without explaining their origins. He also makes mistakes. Acoma, for instance, considered as a possible name for New Mexico, is not a made-up word but the name of what is thought to be the oldest continually inhabited settlement in North America. Nor was Jack Benny's original name John Kebelsky but rather Benjamin Kubelsky. But this book is no lemon—a term inspired by the losing symbols on early 20th-century slot machines—it's a peach! (Morrow, $23)