To find out the origins of any English word, a good dictionary will do. You can also google “[word] definition”, which will give you a whole
selection of online dictionaries to look up.
For example, I just did this and found that gasoline
(originally spelled gasolene
) is a Civil War-era American coinage, while
entered the English language from the Latin petroleum
via the French word petrole
around the turn of the sixteenth
Of course, this doesn’t tell us why
Americans (and Filipinos, and quite a few Arabs) use one word and English speakers in the rest of the
world use another. But these things tend to be unique historical accidents – meaning there’s a different explanation for the emergence of each
One thing worth remembering is that there is no fixed standard in English or any other language. This applies to grammar and syntax just as much as it
does to vocabulary. For example, I just spent some time wondering whether I should type ‘English or
any other language’ in the preceding
sentence, or type ‘English or in
any other language’ instead, or even ‘English, nor in
any other language’. A grammar or style
pedant might insist on one or another. In fact, all three are acceptable because they are clear and comprehensible, and the choice between them is
merely one of relative formality, fashion or personal taste. Such choices are made every time a speaker of English opens his or her mouth, puts pen to
paper or sits down at a keyboard.
The sum of all these choices is the direction of evolution of the English language, and this varies in different cultures and societies around the
American English began evolving away from British English from the very outset, the time of the first Virginia plantations. But British English
didn’t stand still in the meantime; it, too, has continued to evolve, and quite energetically at that. Notice, for example, that the word
no longer carries the same meaning it did in the sixteenth century, when it meant ‘colony’ (which is the sense in which I used
it in the previous sentence). Both the American and British ‘metadialects’* have changed enormously since their first divergence, and continue to
do so to this day.
Language, you see, changes to suit the needs of the people who speak it. It changes as society changes.
The early settlers of North America found themselves in a new country, full of new animals, plants and geographical formations, all of which needed
new names. They evolved new social institutions, laws and customs, and these, too, demanded new names. The result was a flood of new coinages, hugely
enriching the English language.
Some of these new words were borrowed or adapted from the languages of other European settlers in North America. The ancient tradition of borrowing
words from French, which goes all the way back to the Norman conquest of England, continued in the New World with such borrowings as bayou
; Spanish contributed a flood of new words, such as arroyo, burro, mesa
. Early Dutch settlers brought words
, while German ones contributed noodle
. The first Native American borrowing was
; many more followed. And of course the African-American linguistic tradition not only stands proudly distinguished from ‘standard’
American English as a variation in its own right (it has, for example, its own very highly developed grammatical features); it also contributes words
and forms of speech to the standard canon. Such English words as banjo, goober, mojo
are of African origin, but entered the
English language in America. African-Americans have always been prolific coiners, too: from jazz
, the tradition is remarkable
in its fertility.
Loanwords continued to figure strongly in the later evolution of American English, with Italian (pizza, espresso, mafia, ravioli
) being a
particularly strong contributor. But they were only one source of the new American vocabulary. Venerable English words were also given new meanings
(such as trunk
, which in addition to its many existing definitions acquired a new one, ‘luggage compartment of an automobile’;
itself is a French borrowing, although the usual word for ‘automobile’ in French is voiture
, and the rest of the
English-speaking world says ‘car’.) Some new words were created by joining old ones together (angleworm, backwoodsman, groundhog
seemed to arrive right out of the blue: pizzazz, oomph
Of course, the main difference most people notice between American and ‘British’ English is the spelling: aluminum vs. aluminium, color vs.
colour, gray vs. grey, socialize vs. socialise
. Many of these differences are the result of a self-conscious movement to create a new American
English that flowered in the springtime of the new republic. Thomas Jefferson was one of the animating spirits of this movement, and Noah Webster the
chief architect of its execution. Originally the planned reform was highly ambitious, with proposals to rationalize grammar, etc., but in the end,
only the spelling reform (which mostly consisted of dropping ‘silent’ letters from words, or replacing s
in certain verb
endings, as in the examples given above) was carried through.
There is another reason for such spelling differences, and it is that British English, too, has been changing. Americans spell the word for the colour
(color?) between black and white gray
, while English speakers in the rest of the world spell it grey
. At first glance you might think
this was another Websterian ‘rationalization’; in fact, gray
is the older spelling of the two, abandoned in Britain and the rest of the
former Empire but retained in America. Linguistics is full of little oddities like this, which is what makes it such a fascinating subject.
A last, gentle word of remonstration to the OP. The ‘English-speaking world’ does not consist solely of the UK and the USA. There are probably
more fluent English speakers in India than there are in both those countries combined. Indian English has a particularly rich tradition of its own: a
unique vocabulary (to which the once-derogatory name ‘Hobson-Jobson’ is sometimes applied), its own regional accents and dialects, its own
peculiarities of grammar and syntax, and its own literary tradition. Tens, no, hundreds of millions of people in other parts of the former British
Empire are also members in good standing of the ‘English-speaking world’. For many of us, English is not even a second language, but our mother
Each of these countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe, has its own varieties of English. I’m not talking about patois and pidgin. I’m talking about
good, solid versions of Standard English, comprehensible by English speakers from any country of origin, though with more or less minor local
variations in accent, vocabulary and grammar. All these are English; and their speakers, collectively, are the 'English-speaking world’. It is no
longer possible, as it was in 1927, for a reader to write to the editor of the New Statesman
The English language proper belongs to the people who dwell south of Hadrian’s Wall, east of the Welsh hills and north of the English
That linguistic revanchist was centuries too late with his letter even then; by the 1920s, the ‘English language proper’ already ‘belonged’ to
tens of millions of people who had never so much as set foot in England. Today, it belongs unequivocally to the world.
*Forgive the neologism. I’m sure professional linguists have a special word for this, but I don’t know it, and I’m sure my spur-of-the-moment
coinage is easy enough to understand.
**A venerable British political and cultural-affairs magazine
This post was largely inspired by a reading of The
Stories of English
by David Crystal, and many of the examples quoted above are from that book.
edit on 22/4/11 by Astyanax because: of linguistic developments (typos).