Americanisms (and ‘America Firsters’) in the OED

By Ben Zimmer

In 1928, William Craigie praised ‘the inventive genius of the American tongue’; find out how American English has been a part of the OED since its very first edition.

When the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were putting the finishing touches on the first edition ninety years ago, they knew their work was in no way ‘complete’. The philologist Ernest Weekley, writing about the OED’s milestone in The Observer in April 1928, remarked, ‘Every dictionary is out of date before it is published because new words pour into English in a steady stream.’

The OED’s lexicographers recognized that American English was contributing mightily to that steady stream. The New York Times quoted one of the dictionary’s two editors, William Craigie, as saying, ‘The time for any prejudice against “Americanisms” is past. They have already proved their value as additions to the English tongue wherever it is used.’ He went on to praise the ‘inventive genius of the American tongue’, and noted that even Americanisms identified as slang had ‘a way of rising out of this character and taking their place in serious discourse and writing.’

Craigie had firsthand experience with American linguistic inventiveness, because he had taken up a professorship at the University of Chicago in 1925 and was beginning work on his Dictionary of American English while the OED’s first edition was nearing completion. Craigie’s study of Americanisms would continue to infuse the OED as it went through subsequent supplements and revisions, a tradition carried on by U.S.-based researchers to the present day. (I’m one of many following in Craigie’s footsteps, as I’ve been an informal consultant to the OED, primarily on American slang, for more than a decade.)

Back in 1928, Craigie would not have needed to look far to find examples of burgeoning American neologisms, as Chicago was a hotbed of new word formation. In Speaking American: A History of English in the United States, Richard W. Bailey used Chicago as his focal point for discussing the vitality of American English in the first half of the twentieth century. Chicago made many key contributions to the lexicon of the era, perhaps most notably jazz (first attested as a name for a new style of music in the Chicago Tribune in 1915).

Chicago’s politics contributed new words as well – though the words, like the politics, could get a little ugly. At the time that Craigie was a professor there, Chicago was run by the notoriously corrupt mayor ‘Big Bill’ Thompson, who managed to divert attention from his crooked administration by dramatically warning of British neo-imperialistic incursions into American sovereignty. Thompson famously said that if King George V ever visited Chicago, he’d ‘crack him in the snoot’.

Thompson founded the jingoistic America First Foundation and pressed other local politicians to join the cause. In 2002, the OED, in revisions for its third edition, added entries for America First and America Firster, and the illustrative quotations for both of these nationalistic terms betray a strikingly Chicagoan tone. While the slogan America First is dated back to 1915 in an address by Woodrow Wilson, one of the early quotations for the attributive use of the phrase comes from a 1927 article in the London Times about Mayor Thompson’s America First Foundation. And the earliest example given for America Firster is from a Chicago Tribune article dated April 11, 1928 about a political acolyte of Thompson’s, identified as ‘Edward F. Moore, America Firster.’ (Thanks to newly digitized newspapers, it’s possible to push America Firster back further. Precisely a year earlier, on April 11, 1927, an article in Ohio’s Dayton Daily News about Thompson’s mayoral re-election campaign paints the picture: ‘Big Bill was swathed from head to toe in the Red, White, and Blue as the original America Firster.’*)

One can imagine William Craigie being alarmed to read about the nativistic America Firsters of Chicago, at the very moment that the OED was celebrating a fruitful transatlantic partnership with the completion of the first edition. Ninety years later, the America First slogan has been revived for the Trump era – but then as now, the border-crossing international research project that is the Oxford English Dictionary serves as an antidote to narrow-minded isolationism.

*Editor’s note: the OED entry for America Firster will be revised in a future update to include this antedating, which makes it a year older than the dictionary itself.

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Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a contributing editor to The Atlantic.

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