It isn't that often that you can say, "I enjoy history, linguistics, and trivia," and have all your interests addressed and satisfied in the same book. Billy Bryson manages this in Made in America, which is, true to its subtitle, an informal history of the English language in the United States.
Bryson's engaging style and unfailing humour shine in this book. He breaks down his research into different categories rather than just starting at America's earliest point in history and jumping around from there. Thus, each chapter is fairly well self-contained, and it's easy to look up a fact or idea just from the chapter categories rather than trying to remember where in America's history something occurred.
I say "fairly well" self-contained because there are a few problems with this system, most notably in the inconsistancy Bryson has in bringing up facts that he already mentioned in previous chapters. He does his best to make sure that the earlier chapter gets the detailed explanation, and the problem doesn't lie so much in no explanation at all but rather in getting the explanation repeated.
Still, as this doesn't happen incredibly often, it's easy to overlook so that the rest of the book can be enjoyed without problem.
With great style and wit, Bryson accomplishes what so many teachers cannot - he makes history, and language, intensely interesting. This is one book that comes with a high recommendation from me. It's not for everyone, but anyone with an interest in history or linguistics will find something to appreciate. In this book, you'll learn things that you weren't even aware that you didn't know.
on March 3, 2004
Bill Bryson's book, "Made in America", is thoroughly enjoyable on many levels. First, he blithely debunks many of our folk legends - legends which we learn as schoolchildren and carry with us through life as if they were fact. Things like: the Puritans actually landing on Plymouth Rock; the ringing of the Liberty Bell on independence day; Patrick Henry's famous death-defying words about liberty or death, just to name a few. If these anecdotes are as true as he claims, then our school history textbooks seem canned and artificial by comparison.
Second, by saying aloud the early American pronunciations that Bryson describes, the reader can clearly grasp how 18th century colonists sounded in speech.
Third, Bryson's wry style gives the reader a good laugh on just about every page - a comparable textbook on early American language would never do that.
However, it's very important to keep in mind the word 'informal' in the book title. Several geographical errors in the 'Names' chapter led me to realize the potential number of inaccuracies in such a thick book. For instance, in that chapter he mentions the towns of Ipswich and Agawam as being quite close to each other in Connecticut. In fact, the two towns are in Massachusetts, on opposite sides of the state. One quick glance in an atlas by Bryson's editor would have cleared that up.
So read this enjoyable book for its humorous take on history, and not as a scholarly work.
on July 16, 2002
USA writer living in the UK, Bill Bryson takes stock of America. This book provides a humorous and critical re-look at the history of American and its version of the English language. I thoroughly enjoyed the book initially. The irreverant look at "real American history" rather than the fabricated and polished "offical version" was refreshing and enlightening. However, the "packed full o' facts" style gets tiresome after a while. Some of the "startling revelations" (Bill's special style)are intriguing -- but made me start to question his research as much as the accuracy "official history". I noticed a large number of factual errors particularly when he compared English-English and US-English -- many words and phrases that he claims are dead in England are in fact in very common usuage and some that he claims are alive in the US I have never heard or read in the US (or not in works published in the last 100+ years), and vice versa. It got to the point where the author had to some degree discredited himself in my eyes. Hopefully readers will not take his assertions at face value. Although ostensibly humerous, this book is actually formatted as something of a candid, factual modern update on the history of America and the contemporary American and English languages. A lot of people love Bill's work, but regretably I cannot recommend this particular book. [Hard-nosed BBC interviewer, Jeremy Paxman seemed to encounter similar problems in his recent book about the English -- perhaps this seemly innocuous subject matter is more challenging than might be expected?]. By all means try this book, it has redeeming qualities and my relations love Bill's work, including this book -- but take it with a pinch of salt.
on August 26, 2003
This wonderful book's title is something of a misnomer. It is as much a plain history of America -- albeit in very loose, mostly anecdotal form -- as it is a history of the English language in the country, though it does that very well. The word "informal" in the title is key. Though the book is, unquestionably, a scholarly work, and clearly was exahustively-researched, Bryson writes in a very loose, personal style, such as a scholar might share with you over a drink (if you've ever managed to corner an English or History professor in a non-classrooom setting and engage them in conversation, you know the feeling.) His writing style is very appealing, and it keeps the book going smoothly: though absolutely bursting with information and endless factoids, the book is a very quick read, thanks to Bryson's personable writing style. Bryson begins his story with the landing of the Mayflower, and then proceeds to give a pre-history of America, and winds his way all the way up to the very latter part of the 20th century. He examines the English that was spoken by the early colonists, and how it has since evolved. The book is then split into chapters that deal with various aspects of American life -- shopping, war, sex, travel, etc. -- and how they have altered and added to our language. In every such chapter, Bryson details how the words that we use in relation to them came about, where they come from, when they were first used, and much, much more. Along the way, he discourses on such perenially-interesting topics as swear words, slang, cultural taboos (the chapter on sex is particularly enlightening), and he even takes a -- quite thoughtful -- swipe at the PC debate. Many of these facts are, to say the least, quite surprising. Trust me, however much you know about the subject of American English going on, you will know a lot more after reading the book (I, for one, had no idea that there was such a wide difference between American and British English.) That said, the book is almost as much a history book as it is an etymology book. Quite thoughtfully, Bryson not only gives us information on the origins of words, but also relays to us the social contexts in which they emerged -- a background without which much of the etymological information would be rendered meaningless. In a stark contrast to the standard high school textbook interpretation of history, Bryson gives us a highly anecdotal fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants history of the United States; buckle up, friends, it's one wild ride. These stories are almost consistently interesting, frequently witty, very often funny, invariably surprising, and sometimes quick simply shocking. They are the kind of stories that will make you want to stop in the middle of your reading, find the nearest person to you, and shout out breathlessly, "Did you know...?!" Along the way, Bryson manages to debunk many of the most-cherished American stories -- I won't spoil any of them for you here, but rest assured that you will be quite shocked -- while confirming others, and creating some anew. As one commentor on the book succinctly said, If there is a more popular American pasttime than creating myths, it is trying to debunk them. Bryson, an American living in the U.K. at the time this book was written, seems generally proud to be an American, affirming the greatness of many of its folk heroes while holding the bright flame of truth up to some of its longest-standing fables, all in the admirable spirit of fierce, if tempered, patriotism. Due to this dichotomy, some sections of the book get very weighed down in almost list-like paragraphs detailing the origins of words, while some chapters, conversely, consist almost entirely of anecdotal histories with hardly any etymological content at all. All in all, it makes for very fun, interesting reading that goes by quickly and smootly; you'll learn a lot while reading it, and you'll enjoy yourself while doing it. This great book, which is much, much more than the title suggests, is a great read for anyone interested in the subjects it deals with, and an absolute must for scholars of American English and American History. Such is the enjoyment inherent in its nature, that I even recommend it to the general reader.
on March 15, 2002
This is a big Bill Bryson book, his thickest effort yet, I believe. It's also a book with a split personality, but one that works in the end.
"Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States," is more than the title suggests. Much of the book is given over to an exploration of American English etymology and phraseology. However, Bryson spends considerable time venturing off into what can best be described as an anecdotal journey through American history.
It works. In fact, the anecdotalisms are the best part of the book. I've noticed in this and "The Mother Tongue" (his exploration of the King's English), Bryson's word histories sometimes run towards long lists with not enough exploration to make them interesting. That same pattern is true for the early part of this book. However, Bryson soon gets sidetracked in discussing various historical oddities and characters that make very interesting and usually witty reading.
This is a good, light book that can be enjoyed in small pieces if desired. It's anecdotal parts most resemble one of those "1001 Things Everyone Ought To Know About American History Books" -- in short, a collection of brief and interesting stories that are well written and evoke the occasional guffaw.
His word derivations and explorations are more scholarly and exact. Often fascinating, they sometimes are a bit too list oriented and crowded. But, ultimately they are still interesting if one would like to know why we: "Keep the ball rolling," live in many places named after Indian words, call our soldiers "GIs drive in "cars" and "autos" or speak in the numerous ways that are not literal nor necessarily logical but are definitely American.
on May 22, 2001
After reading "The Lost Continent," Bryson's often whining and largely overrated travelogue on small-town America, I hesitated before picking this one up. However, this is a very enjoyable book. Ostensibly a study of American English, its development and impact on the English language in general, this book is more of a compendium of linguistic facts and historical trivia that cover the entire scope of U.S. history from the colonial period to the present. Bryson quite unabashedly plunders the works of historians, other scholars and writers who dealt with the same subjects, so what he offers here is hardly new. But the presentation and organization are impeccable. While informing us of the origins of many words and expressions common to American English, he also provides a wealth of particularly useful information on things like American cuisine or the origins of America's highway system and car culture (one of my only criticisms is that he failed to mention the origin of quintessential car-related Americanisms like "rumble seat" or "to ride shotgun"). Bryson's engaging writing style and dry humor keep the book moving, so it is never dull and always very amusing - it seriously lives up to that old cliché about how learning can be fun.
on October 16, 2000
I can truly say that I read every word of this delightful, well-presented informal history, and as a former Scot, was debunked of many myths and misconceptions I'd held about America, so much so that I'm noticing a new awareness, enthusiasm for and understanding of my chosen country after 32 years here. This book is so full of interesting detail, written in a way that no one group of people is the loser (i.e., we have all contributed), that it is impossible not to read it all the way through with enjoyment and to feel regret when one reaches the last page. This is how history should be taught to our children. Captivating in its scope and interest (the humanitarian, humorous and charming underlying voice of Bill Bryson throughout is an endearing presence), this great little book contains everything to enrich our awareness, and encourage reflection while providing a handy rationale (e.g., the reason for Levitt's building of tract homes to provide affordable housing -- equipped with appliances -- during the 50's). The chapter about the Wright brothers was so compassionate in its understanding of Orville and Wilbur that I was reduced to tears.