The United States hadn’t been born five years before the word Americanism was invented. It was coined by John Witherspoon, a Scottish minister who had become president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Writing in a Pennsylvania journal in 1781, he says he made the word up on analogy with Scotticism. Any usage different from what was used in Britain he would henceforth call an Americanism.
The word caught on and was soon applied to everything American–behavior, custom and institutions. It was all part of the process of forging a new national identity. When Noah Webster compiled his Compendious Dictionary in 1806, he emphasized the word’s general meaning, defining it as a “love of America and preference of her interest.”
This was the first dictionary to contain words specific to the USA. We find in its pages such local terms as butternut, caucus, checkers, chowder, constitutionality, hickory, skunk and succotash. Skunk is an early Americanism. It was one of dozens of words that were borrowed from the Algonquian language in the early 1600s. Many of them didn’t last. Nobody today (except possibly in some dialects) talks about a sagamore (“chief”) or a pocosin (“swamp”). But several words did survive, such as caribou, moccasin, moose, opossum, persimmon, powwow, tomahawk, totem, and wigwam.
It is sometimes difficult to recognize Indian words in early writings. The indigenous languages were very different from anything Europeans had encountered before, and they had no idea how to spell the words they heard. Captain John Smith arrived in Virginia in 1606 and explored the new territory at length, writing an account of the meetings between the colonists and the local tribes. He sent an account of the colony back to England, where it was published in 1608.
His book contains many Amerindian place-names, and at one point–during a visit to the Powhatan Indians–a new noun:
Arriving at Werawocomoco, their Emperour proudly lying uppon a Bedstead a foote high, upon tenne or twelve Mattes, richly hung with manie Chaynes of great Pearles about his necke, and covered with a great Covering of Rahaughcums.Rahaughcums? A little later in his book he spells it Raugroughcuns. These are the first brave attempts to write down raccoons in English.
Also of interest:
- Patricia T. O’Conner on American neologisms, a previous Reader's Almanac post
- Read an excerpt (PDF) from Capt. John Smith's report, The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612)
- "A Virginia Barbecue," Scottish visitor John M. Duncan's 1818 account of the origin of one of our most delicious Americanisms, a previous Story of the Week