A short {brief, concise} history of synonyms

Did you know American English began as a hybrid of old British dialects? Teach your kids this fascinating history of synonyms!

If you’ve taught writing for awhile, this scene might sound familiar:

Mom: Let’s replace some of those repeated words with interesting synonyms.

Child (grumbling): Why do we have so many words that mean the same thing, anyway?

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (David Hackett Fischer)Perhaps you’ve wondered about this yourself. If so, make yourself a mug of hot tea or coffee, dust off your copy of The Synonym Finder {the links in this post are my affiliate links because I’m convinced you will love these books}, and let’s have some fun exploring the history of English synonyms!

Although few of us can claim British ancestry, Americans share a cultural inheritance from the speech folkways of Great Britain. United States dialects find their origins in four separate waves of English immigrants, described in David Hacket Fischer’s marvelous cultural history, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Fischer has much to tell about English speech patterns, including some of the synonyms that emerged in colonial America.

English Puritans (1629-1641)

From the eastern counties of England, middle class Puritan families began a great migration to the New World in the early seventeenth century. Most of these families came from urban areas, and they settled the towns that became New England, New Jersey and New York.

The Puritan ministers and magistrates, trained in Latin at Cambridge University, brought a plethora of multi-syllable words to their New England pulpits. The country members of their congregations naturally adopted some of these formal words. New Englanders also invented words of their own with fancy-sounding Latinate endings, such as:

  • -ize, -ous
  • -ulate, -ticate
  • -ical, -iction
  • -acious, -iferous

When words like rambunctious and splendiferous began appearing for the first time, Boston especially became known for a “florid, pompous” style of speech.

Distressed Cavaliers & Indentured Servants (1642-1675)

The colony of Virginia was a welcome haven for the Royalist and Anglican elite. From the south and west of England they came, bringing the language and manners of London nobility. Quickly, the Virginia colony emerged as a hierarchical society, where upper-class families took pride in rank and reputation.

Most Virginia immigrants were young men who earned a living as poor tenant farmers (75% crossed the Atlantic as indentured servants). If they shared one thing in common with their masters, it was their set of regional speech patterns. For instance, a Virginian might use like instead of “as if” (“he looks like he’s sick”)—a sentence construction not found in New England. Virginians also had a distinct vocabulary:

  • Chomp for chew
  • Flapjack for pancake
  • Howdy for hello
  • Laid off for out of work
  • Skillet  for frying pan
  • Tarry for stay
  • Yonder for distant

These had become archaic words in Britain by late 1700s, but they survived and flourished in the American South.

The Society of Friends (1675-1725)

When William Penn recruited Quakers to settle in the Delaware Valley, thousands would settle in West Jersey, Pennsylvania, and North Delaware. Some of these Quakers came from Holland and Germany, but it was the Irish, Welsh and English Friends who shaped the culture of the middle colonies.

English Quakers largely hailed from the North Midlands of England, a land originally colonized by Viking invaders. Norse-speaking shepherds and farmers were the ancestors of lower middle class Quakers, humble people who valued simplicity and hard work. They spoke in plain and forceful language, with little use for Latin and French.

The dialect of the North Midlands favored thee and thou in place of “you.” Horses whinnied instead of neighed, and farmers commonly exclaimed by golly, by gum, or good grief! Other distinctively northern terms that immigrated to the middle colonies include:

  • Bamboozle for deceive
  • Budge for move
  • Cuddle for caress
  • Dad for father
  • Flabbergasted for extremely surprised
  • Frightened for scared
  • Grub for food
  • Mad for angry
  • Nap for a short sleep
  • Sick for ill
  • Spuds for potatoes
  • Swatch for a fabric sample
  • Wed for married

The Borderland Immigration (1717-1775)

In the early eighteenth century, the first waves of a mass migration swept through the American colonies. Desperately poor and stubbornly proud, these men and women came from the North of Ireland, Scottish lowlands, and northernmost English counties. These borderlands, too accustomed to the wars and violence of competing monarchs, had harbored fighting men with fierce clan loyalties for centuries.

Unlike the other English immigrant groups, the border immigrants came to America in search of material prospects rather than religious freedom. In time, they came to settle in the American backcountry, an untamed wilderness from the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains to the lower Mississippi Valley. There, they introduced the southern highland speech, filled with critters and young-uns and hants (ghosts). The border immigrants brought distinctive vocabulary words from North Britain to America, including:

  • Brickle for brittle
  • Cute for attractive
  • Nigh for near
  • Scoot for slide
  • Honey as a term of endearment

As Albion’s Seed carefully explains, American English began as a wonderful hybrid of old British dialects. New words from the Indians, the Spaniards, and others added to our language over time, until the language emerged as we know it today. Encourage your children to enjoy this cultural heritage as they search for just the right words in their writing.

Happy synonym hunting!

WriteShop Blog--In Our Write MindsDaniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.com.

Photo:  Les Haines, courtesy of Creative Commons.

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