Made In America - A History of the English Language in America
Notes From A Big Continent
Other Works


It is often the little, unnoticed things that are most revealing about the history and nature of language. Nursery rhymes, for example, are fastidiously resistant to change. Even when they make no sense, as in the case of 'Jack and Jill' with children on an isolated Danish isle, they are generally passed from generation to generation with solemn precision, like a treasure incantation. Because of this, they are often among the longest-surviving features of any language. 'Eenie, meenie, minie, mo' is based on a counting system that predates the Roman occupation of Britain, and that may even be pre-Celtic. 
        - Introduction

In terms of linguistic immortality no one got more mileage from less activity than a shadowy Italian-born businessman named Amerigo Vespucci... how two continents came to be named in his honour required an unlikely measure of coincidence and error. Vespucci did make some voyages to the New World, but always as a passenger or lowly officer. Yet in 1504 there began circulating in Florence letters of unknown authorship collected under the title 'Nuovo Mundo', which stated that Vespucci had not only been captain of these voyages but had discovered the New World.
The mistake would probably have gone no further except that an instructor at a small college in eastern France named Martin Waldseemuller was working on a revised edition of Ptolemy and decided to freshed it up with a new map of the world. In the course of his research he came upon the Florentine letters and, impressed with their spurious accounts of Vespucci's exploits, named the continent in his honour.
It wasn't quite as straightforward as that: first he translated Amerigo into the Latin Americus and then transformed that into its feminine form, America, on the ground that Asia and Europe were feminine.

By the early 1500s the Atlantic was thick with English vessels. A few came to prey on Spanish treaure ships, made sluggish and vulnerable by the weight of gold and silver they were carrying back to the Old World. Spain was preyed on not only be sailors from rival nations, but also by mutineer sailors of her own. The latter were called buccaneers because after fleeing their Spanish masters they would sustain themselves by smoking the flesh of wild hogs on a wooden frame called a boucan, until they could capture a becalmed ship and make it their own.
        - The Mayflower and Before

Where the could the first colonists stick doggedly to the words of the Old World. They preserved words with the diligence of archivists. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of English terms that would later perish from neglect in their homeland live on in America thanks to the essentially conservative nature of the early colonists. Fall for autumn is perhaps the best known. It was a relatively new word at the time of the Pilgrims - its first use in England was recorded in 1545 - but it remained in common use in England until as late as the 19th century.

Out of this inchoate mass a country began to emerge - loosely structured, governed from abroad, populated by an unlikely mix of refugees, idealists, slaves and convicts, but a country none the less. By the fourth decade of the 18th century the British were feeling sufficiently confident of their standing in the New World to begin looking for an excuse to throw their weight around a little. In 1739 the Spanish gave it to them when they made manifest their long and wholly understandable exasperation with British privateers by cutting off the ear of an English smuggler named Edward Jenkins. Never mind that Jenkins was little more than a common criminal. The British responded by launching possibly the only interesting-sounding conflict in history, the War of Jenkins' Ear.
        - Becoming Americans

Thomas Paine's value was not as an originator of ideas, but as a communicator of them, He was a consummate sloganeer. In 'Common Sense' and a flurry of following works, he showered the world with ringing phrases that live on yet: 'the Age of Reason'; 'the Rights of Man'; 'That government is best which governs least'; 'These are the times that try men's souls'; 'The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot'. Less poetically but no less memorably, he was the first to refer to 'the United States of America'. Previously even the boldest patriot had spoken of the 'United Colonies'.
In Britain, the Declaration was received by many as arrant hogwash. The Gentleman's Magazine mocked the assertion that all men are created equal. 'In what are they created equal?' it asked. 'Is it in size, strength, understanding, figure, moral or civil accomplishments, or situation in life? Every ploughman knows that they are not created equal in any of these. All men, it is true, are equally created, but what is this to the purpose? It is certainly no reason why the Americans should turn rebels.'
To this day it remains a commonplace in England that American English is a corrupted form of British speech, that the inhabitants of the New World display a kind of helpless, chronic 'want of refinement' every time they open their mouths and attempt to issue sounds. In fact, in several significant ways it is British speech that has become corrupted, or, to put it in less reactionary terms, has quietly evolved.
        - America In The Age Of Revolution

Money was a feature of American life that did not become standardized until relatively late in the day. Until the issuing of the first 'greenbacks' during the Civil War, the federal government produced no paper money, but only coins. Paper money was left to banks... some banks' money was more respected than others'. The Citizens' Bank of New Orleans issued a particularly sought-after $10 bill. Because the French word for ten, 'dix', was inscribed on the back they became known as Dixies. As a descriptive term for the whole of the South, the word didn't really catch on until Daniel Decatur Emmett, a northerner, wrote the immensely successful song Dixie's Land (which almost everyone thinks, wrongly, is called Dixie) in 1859.

The first recorded attack on an American usage came in 1735 when an English visitor named Francis Moore referred to the young city of Savannah as standing upon a hill overlooking a river 'which they in barbarous English call a bluff' and thereby, in the words of HL Mencken, 'set the tone that English criticism has maintained ever since.'
Samual Johnson, who seldom passed up a chance to insult his colonial cousins (they were, in his much quoted phrase, 'a race of convicts, and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging'), villified an American book on geography for having the misguided audacity to use such terms as creek, gap, branch and spur when they had not been given a British benediction.

Many sincerely believed that America wuld cut itself off from its linguistic and cultural database (as it were) by forming an effectively separate dialect. Linguistic isolation was not s sensible or desirable goal for a small, young nation if it wished to be heard in the wider world of commerce, law and science... a few pointed out that the American continent required a more expansive vocabulary, like the anonymous essayist in North American Review who plaintively noted: 'How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?'

However sophisticated his prose style, Lincoln's spoken English always had a whiff on the backwoods about it. Certainly we know that he enjoyed an earthy story and took delight in showing his associates a letter he received from a disgruntled citizen in 1860.It read: 'God damn your god damned old hellfired god damned soul to hell god damn you and goddam your god damned family's god damned hellfired god damned soul to hell and god damnation god damn them and god damn your god damn friends to hell.' The letter came, it hardly needs saying, from the frontier.
        - Forging A National Identity

James Gordon Bennett, a newspaper baron, liked to announce his arrival in a restaurant by yanking the tablecloths from all the tables he passed. He would then hand the manager a wad of cash with which to compensate his victims for their lost meals and spattered attire. Though long forgotten in his native land, Bennett and his exploits were once world famous, and indeed his name lives on in England in the cry, 'Gordon Bennett!'.

The telephone not only brought instant communication to millions, but enriched American English in a way the telegraph never had. Scores of new words entered the language or were given new meaning. Operator was current by the late 1870s... yellow pages and information first appeared in 1906, telephone directory in 1907, and telephone book in 1915.

From the linguistic point of view, it is interesting to note how seldom inventions were patented under the names by which we now know them. Bell dsecribed his most famous invention as 'telegraphy'... The cash register began life as the 'Incorruptible Cashier' - so called because every dip into the till was announced with a noisy bell, thus making it harder for cashiers to engage in illicit delvings among the taking. For much the same reason, early owners discovered that if they charged odd amounts like 49 or 99 cents the cashier would very probably have to open the drawer to extract a penny change, thus obviating the possibility of the dreaded unrecorded transaction.
        - The Age Of Invention

Changing their names is something that towns do more often than you might expect. Few communities have not changed their names at least once. Scranton, Pennsylvania, has gone through no fewer than eight names, the most notable of which perhaps was its first: Skunk's Misery.
Merely changing the names can reportedly give property values an instant boost of up to 15%. Mellifluousness is generally given priority over etymological considerations, as with Glendale, California, a name that combines the Scottish-Gaelic glen with the northern English dale to form a name that means 'valley-valley'.

From the earliest times, immigrants from non-English-speaking countries likewise adapted their names to ease their way into American society. The Rockefellers began as Roggenfelders. President Hoover's forebears were Hubers... the result is that American surnames often have an Anglo-Saxon homogenity that belies their origins. Miller and Johnson, for instance, are far more common family names in America than in Britain, and almost entirely because of adoption by Germans and Scandinavians with similar, but other, names.
        - Names

Frontier, which meant (and still means) a national border in British English, took on in America the new sense of the ever-moving dividing line between wilderness and civilization.

Despite having three interpreters to call on, Lewis and Clark often encountered extraordinary language difficulties with the native Americans. At one meeting, in a kind of pass-the-parcel round of translating, Lewis's English was translated into French by one listener, from French into Minitari by another, from Minitari into Shoshone by the next person in line and finally from Shoshone into Nez Perce.

'Oregon Trail' is a somewhat misleading term. For one thing, it wasn't a trail in the sense of a well-defined track. It was almost entirely a notional corridor, highly variable in width, across the grassy plains.

Cowboys certainly didn't spend a lot of time shooting each other. In the ten years that Dodge City was the biggest, rowdiest cow town in the world, only 34 people were buried in the infamous Boot Hill Cemetery, and almost all of them had died of natural causes. Incidents like the shoot-out at the OK Corral or the murder of Wild Bill Hickock became famous by dint of their being so unusual.
        - Taming The West

"I have stood on the other side of Jordan in the land rules by a rude Arab chief, where the police looked so like brigands that one wondered what the brigands looked like. But they did not ask me whether I had come to subvert the power of the Shereef; and they did not exhibit the faintest curiosity about my personal views on the ethical basis of civil authority."
        - GK Chesterton recalls US immigration circa.1921

Though the Dutch were only a passing political presence in America, their linguistic legacy is immense. From their earliest days of contact, Americans freely appropriated Dutch terms... a group's linguistic influence bears scant relation to the numbers of people who spoke it. The Irish came in their millions, but supplied only a handful of words, notably smithereens, lallapalooza, speakeasy, hooligan and slew, plus one or two semantic nuances, and the habit of attaching definite articles to conditions that previously lacked them, so that whereas a Briton might go into hospital with flu or measles, Americans go to the hospital and suffer from the flu and the measles.

Finally, a word needs to be said about descriptive terms for black people. Negro is Spanish and Portuguese for 'black', and first noted in English in 1555. Nigger appeared in 1587 and was not at first a perjorative term but simply a variant pronunciation of Negro. Blacks were generally called blacks (or more politely, coloureds) until the 1880s when negro became the preferred term. It wasn't capitalized until the 1930s.
        - Immigration In America

Occasionally circumstances would be so dire that sailors would refuse to put to sea and would 'strike', or lower, the sails to show their defiance, which explains why workers today who withhold their labour are said to be on strike.

The automobile may have its drawbacks, but at least it doesn't normally attract flies or drop things you need to step around. The filth of horses was a constant problem for cities well into this century, one that we can barely imagine. In 1900 some dedicated official in Rochester, New York, calculated that the manure produced by the city's 15,000 horses would in a year cover a one acre square to a depth of 175 feet. Often kept in insanitary conditions and worked hard through all weathers, horses not only drew flies but dropped like them. At the turn of the century, 15,000 horses a year died on the streets of New York. Sometimes they were left for days. Between the flies, the manure and the steaming corpses, there was no mistaking you were in a city.

It is generally overlooked that the US once had the finest system of public transportation in the world... Streetcars changed the way people lived. They opened up surburban life. The population of the Bronx went from under 90,000 to 200,000 in the years immediately after the introduction of the streetcar. By 1902 New York streetcars were carrying almost 1 billion passengers annually. Cities became bigger, busier, more confusing and in consequence in the 1890s two new words entered the language: rush hour and traffic jam.

As the opening years of the 20th century ticked by, two things became clear: America desperately needed better roads and they weren't going to be paid for with government money. Into this seeming impasse stepped Carl Graham Fisher, one of the most remarkable go-getters of this or any other age... his fame came from creating America's first coast-to-coast highway. In 1912 Fisher proposed spending $10 million on a gravelled two-lane road from New York to San Francisco, and to raise the money through donations... in 1923 the Lincoln Highway - the first transcontinental highway in the world - officially opened. Almost overnight it became, as the postcards proudly boasted, America's Main Street.

In less than two decades, America's modern interstate highways drained the life from thousands of towns. No longer was it necessary - and before long not even possible - to partake of the traditional offerings of two-lane America: motels with cherishably insane names like the Nite-E-Nite Motor Court, roadside diners with blinking neon signs and a mysterious fondness for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, two-pump gas stations built in the cosy style of a rustic cottage. Today in western Nebraska the old Lincoln Highway, or Route 30, is so little used that grass grows in its cracks... it has become a fading memory, and what a sad loss that is.
        - Travel In America

Many 'classic' Italian dishes are in fact New World creations... even spaghetti and meatballs were all products designed to satisfy the American palate. By the 1950s Italian-American food was all but unrecognizable to visitors from Italy. A businessman from Turin might peruse a menu in an Italian restaurant in Chicago and not be able to decipher a single item.

No one knows where the first hamburger was made. The preumption has always veen that it came to America from Hamburg, Germany, in the same way that the frankfurter came from Frankfurt. However, that overlooks the niggling consideration that Hamburg has never had any tradition of serving such a dish... There is some evidence to suggest that it may have appeared as 'Hamburg steak' on a Delmonico's (of New York) menu as early as 1836. What is certain is that the Hamburg steak was widely called a hamburger steak by 1889. This term in turn was being shortened to hamburger by 1901, by which time it had come to signify a patty of ground beef fried on a grill.

Through most of the 18th century the principal strong drink in America was rum, a shortening of rumbullion, a word whose origins are entirely obscure. Toward the end of the century a new drink came along that rapidly displaced it - bourbon. Bourbon was a by-product of the Whisky Rebellion of 1791, when the federal government imposed a bitterly opposed tax on domestic rye whisky. In an effort to evade taxation, some two thousand distillers fled to Kentucky - which was not yet a state and thus, they hoped, not subject to tax - and set up their stills there. When the rye crop failed, they turned as an expedient to corn and found to their gratification that it produced a drink of uncommon smoothness. They called it after the county in which they had settled, though in fact it was not bourbon as we know it. It was only later, after the 1820s, that distillers took to ageing it in oak casks, a process that gives modern bourbon its agreeable colour and flavour. By the 1830s, the average adult American was drinking six gallons of bourbon a year, 24 times more than today.
        - Eating In America

Because of confusion, and occasional lack of fastidiousness on the part of their owners, many dozens of products have lost their trademark protection, among them aspirin, linoleum, yo-yo, thermos, cellophane, milk of magnesia, celluloid, dry ice, escalator, shredded wheat, kerosene and zipper. All were once proudly capitalized and worth a fortune.
        - Advertising In America

Trailers were so called because in the early days they followed, or trailed, the main film. Ham actor, first recorded in 1875, alludes to the practice of lesser performers having to use ham fat rather than cold cream to remove their make-up. Soon a second-rate actor was known as a hamfatter; by 1902 he was just a ham.
        - The Movies

The oddest and certainly the most historically complicated borrowing is filibuster. It began as the Dutch vrijbuiter, a pirate. To English speakers vrijbuiter naturally yielded freebooter. But vrijbuiter was beyond the command of Spanish tongues. They converted the word to filibustero. The French then borrowed it as filibustier. Thus by 1585 vrijbuiter had given English two words with the same meaning. Freebooter went no further, but filibuster had a busy career ahead of it in American politics. First, still bearing something of its original sense, it came to describe Americans who formed private armies with a view to taking over Central American countries, for which there was a short but persistent fashion in the 1850s (the idea of manifest destiny rather going to some people's heads)... By the mid-1850s filibuster was being used in Congress to describe any vaguely disruptive debating tactic, and by the 1880s had settled into its present sense of a wilful delaying action designed to thwart the passage of a bill.
        - Politics And War

Southpaw has been attributed to Charles Seymour of the Chicago Times, because pitchers at the city's old West Side ballpark faced west, and thus a left-hander would stand with his throwing arm on his south side.
        - Sport And Play

The women's movement of the 19th century grew out of a huge thrust for social change that gripped America like a fever between about 1830 and 1880. Scores of new ideas seized the popular consciousness and found huge, fanatical followings: utopianism, spiritualism, populism, vegetarianism, socialism, women's suffrage, black emancipation, tax reform, mysticism, occultism, second adventism, temperance, transcendentalism. People dipped into these social possibilities as if pulling sweets from a bag. One group, styling itself the Nothingarians, rallied behind the cry 'No God, no government, no marriage, no money, no meat, no tobacco, no sabbath, no skirts, no church, no war and no slaves!"

Never before or since, in short, has there been a more confused and bewildering age. To read on one hand the New York Times castigating women for saying 'what a cunning hat' and on the other hand to read Angela Heywood publicly arguing for the right to say 'fuck', it is all but impossible to believe that we are dealing with the same people in the same country in the same century.

Problems of definition with obscenity are notoriously thorny... not until 1957 did the Supreme Court get around to considering the matter of obscenity, and then it was unable to make any more penetrating judgment than that it was material that appealed to 'prurient interests' and inflamed 'lustful thoughts'. In effect it ruled that obscenity could be recognized but not defined - or as Justice Potter Stewart famously put it: 'I know it when I see it'.
        - Sex And Other Distractions

In 1959, in one of those delvings into the future that magazines found so satisfying at the time, Newweek presented a confident scenario for the lucky housewife of 1979... among the many things that Newsweek's soothsayer failed to foresee was that by 1979 the housewife would be an endangered species. What the world got instead were words like workaholic, drive-by shootings, crack cocaine, AIDS, repetitive stress injury, gridlock and serial killer.
If Newsweek surveyed the future from a somewhat optimistic perspective, we can hardly blame it. In the 1950s life in the United States was about as good as it gets.

With just 6% of the earth's population and 7% of its land area, the US by the mid-1950s was producing and consuming 40% of total global output. What is particularly notable is how self-contained America was in this period. Throughout the 1950s, imports amounted to no more than 3.2% of gross national product and direct exports to no more than 4.7%. America became the richest country in the world without particularly needing the rest of the world.

In short, life in post-war America was bounteous, secure and infinitely promising. Only two things threatened the horizon. One was the omnipresent possibility of nuclear war. The other was a phenomenon much closer to home and nearly as alarming. I refer to teenagers... so little had they been noticed in the past that teenager had entered the language only as recently as 1941.

To qualify as an 'edge city' as defined by Joel Garreau, a community must have 5 million square feet of office space, 600,000 square feet of shopping, and more people working there than living there. America now has more than 200 edge cities. Los Angeles and New York have about two dozen each. Almost all have been created since 1960, and almost always they are soulless, impersonal places, unfocused collections of shopping malls and office complexes that are ruthlessly unsympathetic to non-motorists. Many have no pavements or pedestrian crossings, and only rarely do they offer any but the most skeletal public transport links to the nearby metropolis, effectively denying job opportunities to many of those left behind in the declining inner cities. About one third of all Americans now live in edge cities, and up to two-thirds of Americans work in them. They are substantial places, and yet most people outside their immediate areas have never heard of them... this new kind of cummunity is emotionally and economically independent from the metropolis that had spawned it.

Edsel had the most expensive advertising promotion of any product up to that time, but the company could hardly give the cars away. Two years, two months, $450 million and 110,847 Edsels later, Ford pulled the plug and Edsel became part of history.
 - The 1950s And Beyond


In a funny way nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not. For 20 years (living in England) being an American was my defining quality. It was how I was identified, differentiated.
        - Coming Home

One of the great improvements in American life in the last 20 years is the advent of phone numbers that any fool can remember. Let me explain. For complicated historical reasons, on American telephones all the punch buttons except 1 and 0 also come with three of the letters of the alphabet on them. Button 2 has ABC on it, button 3 has DEF, and so on.
A long time ago people realized that you could remember the numbers more easily if you relied on the letters rather than the numbers. In my hometown of Des Moines, for instance, in you wanted to call time - or the talking clock as you people so charmingly term it - the official number was 244-5646, which of course no one could recall. But if you dialled BIG JOHN you got the same number, and everybody could remember that (except, curiously, my mother, who was a bit hazy on the Christian name part, and so generally ended up asking the time of strangers whom she had just woken, but that's another story).
Then at some point in the last 20 years big businesses discovered that they could make everyone's life easier, and generate lots of lucrative calls for themselves, if they based their numbers on catchy letter combinations, such as 1-800-FLY TWA or 244-GET PIZZA. Not many changes in the last 20 years have made life immeasurably better for simple folk like me, but this unquestionably has.
        - Help!

People sometimes ask me, 'What is the difference between baseball and cricket?'. The answer is simple. Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats, but with this crucial difference: baseball is exciting and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won.
        - Take Me Out To The Ballpark

As for Boxing Day, most people in America have never heard of it, or at best have only the vaguest idea of what it is. It may surprise you to hear, incidentally, that Boxing Day is actually quite a modern invention. The Oxford English Dictionary can trace the term back no further than 1849. Its roots go back at least to medieval times, when it was the custom to break open church alms boxes at Christmas and distribute the contents to the poor.
        - The Mysteries of Christmas

There are endless forms to fill in, each with pages of instructions, which often contradict other instructions and almost always lead to the need for more forms.. it is like this with every encounter you have with every branch of the American government. After a whike you begin to understand why flinty-eyed cowpokes in places like Montana turn their ranches into fortresses and threaten to shoot any government officer fool enough to walk into the cross-hairs.
        - Drowning In Red Tape

There are many wonderful things about the United States of America that deserve praise - the Bill of Rights, the Freedom of Information Act and free bookmatches are three that spring to mind - but none is more outstanding than the friendliness of the people.
When we moved to this little town in New Hampshire, people received us as if the one thing that had kept them from total happiness to this point was the absence of us in their lives. They brought us cakes and pies and bottles of wine. Not one of them said, 'So you're the people who paid a fortune for the Smith place', which I believe is the traditional greeting in England.
        - Friendly People

There is no market for stolen goods here. If you sidled up to anyone in New Hampshire and said, 'Wanna buy a car stereo?' the person would report you the police and the police would come and shoot you.
Of course the police don't shoot people here because they don't need to because there is no crime. It is a rare and heartwarming example of a virtuous circle.
        - Friendly People

If occured to me that although I have never done anything quite so foolish as that, it was only because I had not thought of it.
        - On The Hotline

Most people in most places don't know much about the rest of the world. I mean to say, could you name the leaders of Denmark or The Netherlands or even Ireland? Of course you couldn't - and you are immensely intelligent and attentive. I can see that from here. No reason why you should. There is a lot of world out there to follow, and you have your hands full just keeping up with Eastenders. I understand.
        - Those Boring Foreigners

There were 212 people in Stockholm named Erik Eriksson, 117 named Sven Svensson, 126 named Nils Nilsson and 259 named Lars Larsson... if you go to Stockholm, take drink.
        - The Cupholder Revolution

Nothing better captures the manifest irrationality of people towards risks as one of the liveliest issues of recent years: passive smoking. Four years ago the Environmental Protection Agency released a report concluding that people who are over thirty-five and don't smoke but are regularly exposed to the smoke of others stand a one in 30,000 risk of contracting lung cancer in a given year. The response was immediate and electrifying. All over the USA smoking was banned at work and in restaurants, shopping malls and other public places.
What was overlooked in all this was how microscopically small the risk from passive smoking actually is. A rate of one in 30,000 sounds reasonably severe, but it doesn't actually amount to much. Eating one pork chop a week is statistically more likely to give you cancer than sitting routinely in a roomful of smokers. So, too, is consuming a carrot every seven days, a glass of orange juice once a fortnight, or a head of lettuce every two years. You are five times more likely to contract lung cancer from your pet budgie than you are from secondary smoke.
Now I am all for banning smoking on the grounds that it is dirty and offensive, unhealthy for the user and leaves unsightly burns in the carpet. All I am saying is that it seems a trifle odd to ban it on the grounds of public safety when you are happy to let any old fool own a gun or drive around unbuckled. But then logic seldom comes into these things.
        - The Risk Factor

Step outside in Iowa in August and within 20 seconds you will experience a condition that might be called perspiration incontinence. The temperature and humidity climb steadily with every passing day of summer until by mid-August it is so hot and airless that even the flies lie down on their backs and just quietly gasp.
        - Ah, Summer!

In the US, frozen cheese pizza is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Frozen pepporini, on the other hand, is regulated by the Department of Agriculture... this kind of madness would not be possible in a small country like Britain. You need the European Union for that.
Altogether, it has been estimated, the cost to the nation of complying with the full whack of federal regulations is $668 billion a year, an average of $7,000 per household. That's a lot of compliance.
        - Inefficiency Report

You have to understand that I have very happy hair. No matter how serene and complicated the rest of me, no matter how grave and formal the situation, my hair is always having a party. In any group photograph you can spot me at once because I am the person at the back whose hair seems to be listening, in some private way, to a disco album called Dance Craze '97.
        - A Visit To The Barbershop

Problem: My computer won't turn on.
Solution: Check to make sure the computer is plugged in; check to make sure the power button is in the ON position; check the cables for damage; dig up underground cables in your garden and check for damage; drive out into country and check electricity pylons for signs of fallen wires; call hotline.
        - Your New Computer

A snowmobile, I should perhaps explain, is a rocket ship designed by Satan to run on snow. It travels at speeds up to 70 miles an hour, which - call me chicken, I don't care - seems a trifle fleet on narrow, winding paths through boulder strewn woods... to cut a long story short the next thing I knew I was on the edge of the New Hampshire woods, wearing a snug, heavy helmet that robbed me of all my senses except terror, and sitting astride a sleek beastlike conveyance, its engine throbbing in anticipation of all the trees against which it might soon dash me.
        - Fun In The Snow

For a long time it puzzled me how something so expensive, so leading edge, could be so useless, and then it occurred to me that a computer is a stupid machine with the ability to do incredibly smart things, while computer programmers are smart people with the ability to do incredibly stupid things. They are, in short, a perfect match.
        - Lost In Cyber Land

Most big companies don't like you very much, except for hotels, airlines and Microsoft, which don't like you at all.
        - For Your Convenience


And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorstep or sleepy rural pubs, and the countryside will be mostly shopping centers and theme parks. Forgive me. I don't mean to get upset. But you are taking my world away from me, piece by little piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off. Sorry.
        - from "The Lost Continent"

To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.
        - from "Notes from a Small Island"


I also host a page of quotes from "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson.

Bill's official site has excerpts from his latest books.

For more quotes from Bill and similar style writers, check out


Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.