Monday, August 12, 2013

America's Secret Slang

If you love words and you missed the first season of the History Channel’s new series America’s Secret Slang, you missed some television viewing that was interesting, educational and just plain fun. The first six episodes of the new series, hosted by Zach Selwyn, premiered earlier this year.  I just happened to catch Episode 5 "Coming to America” and Episode 6 "Talking Turkey" on May 5.  I grabbed a pen and wrote as fast as I could.  I marveled at some facts and laughed at others, and I know you will too.  

Series Description
From the Revolution to Prohibition, from 'schmaltz' to stool pigeon', a diverse world of words unites and exemplifies America's everyday vocabulary and individuality. Modeling the style of How the States Got Their Shapes, America's Secret Slang reveals our nation's vibrant expressions and how we are defined by U.S. history. The unique phrases we have come to embrace are secret messages, a powerful hidden record of the American story spoken for everyone to hear. H2™ releases this six-part series as a voyage through our nation's past venturing into the phrasebook of our identity today.

I apologize for technical difficulties that prevent me from being able to embed these two episodes here, but all six are available on YouTube. Go to YouTube and type in America's Secret Slang and you can choose which episode you want to watch.  Each lasts about 22 minutes.  I promise, if you love words, you'll get hooked.  Each episode is also available for purchase on Amazon and viewing in HD on Kindle Fire HD, Xbox 360, PS3, Roku, TiVo and other Amazon Instant Video HD-compatible devices.

Episode 5: Coming to America Description
Ever wonder why American cowboys say "'git along little doggies" when they're talking about herding cattle? Or why a losing wrestler "cries uncle?" And why do we say "ouch" when we stub a toe?

Watching this episode I learned we Americans speak more foreign languages than we think.  For three centuries we have been melting the languages of other countries into our everyday speech and many of the words and phrases we use today were brought to us by immigrants from across the world.

I learned I speak more Spanish than I thought I did - and I bet you do too.  The Spanish-speakers, part of the Spanish Empire, were already settled when we got around to claiming the West in 1848.  We changed the meanings of some of their words, but others remain in use today, rooted in our American culture.  

  • "Gringos" – English speakers; a Greek word “griego” which means impossible to speak.  
  • "Ten-gallon hat" was coined from the Spanish words “tan galan” which means “so handsome,” 
  • "Breeze" - evolved from the Spanish word “briza” which means North wind.  
  • Other words of Spanish origin remain today as part of America’s cowboy culture: "rodeo," "lasso," "ranch" and "stampede."
Jewish immigrants mixed English with Yiddish, which started in Eastern Europe in Germany 1,000 years ago as a separate language.  The result is many words that slowly made their way into our everyday language, or are at least words we all recognize: "chutzpah," "spiel"  (long-winded speech), "schmaltz" (overly sentimental)," klutz," "tush" (from takes – beneath) and "glitch."  Other words changed their meanings somewhat when they were Americanized: "schmooze" in Yiddish just means talk; In America it means trying to get something you want through talk; and in their words, "schmuck was a curse word, or at least a very bad word and 'putz' was schmuck on Viagara.”

Episode 6: Talking Turkey Description
Americans have always loved to eat and expressions relating to food--from New York's "big apple" to "wake up and smell the coffee" --pepper our everyday speech. But where did they all come from? For example, why is something that's as "easy as pie" considered "a piece of cake?" Or why do you "talk turkey" about quitting a bad habit "cold turkey?" And what does it really mean to "bring home the bacon"? The answers reveal the hidden history behind America's food and its secret slang.

In this episode I learned about the hidden language of America that evolved from the foods we eat.  I learned why we say "pork barrel," "going whole hog," "hog wash" or he was" hamming it up."  Watch this episode to find out all that and more.  Did you know "living high on the hog" originated from those who were able to buy the best cuts of pork which are located higher up on the pig.

You'll learn that a smart person is called an "egghead" because someone used that term on President Eisenhower in 1952 because he was intellectual and had a bald head that looked like an egg.  You'll learn why we say you "egged someone on;" or why we say "he laid an egg;" and that we say someone "has egg on their face" because they used to throw eggs at  bad vaudeville acts.  You'll learn where the phrases "apple pie order," "apple polishers," and "how do you like them apples" came from.

Hey you better head on over to You Tube and catch an episode of America's Secret Slang now.  The host is enthusiastic, the action is fast-paced and fun is contagious.  

Other Episodes

Episode 1: Guns, Booze, and Politics
Politics is full of odd phrases like "pork barrel projects," "slush funds," and "lame ducks" -- all of which had practical origins and morphed to mean what they do today. The same can be said about the language and culture of guns and booze during the Prohibition era, which gave us phrases like "falling off the wagon," "teetotaler," and "skid row." But what exactly do them mean? Find out those answers in this episode and discover what it really means to be a "bootlegger."

Episode 2: Them's Fighting Words
Have you ever wondered why someone who can't get it together is called a "basket case"? Or where the term "Yankee" came from? And why do we say someone "bought the farm" when they die? The answers to these questions all have one thing in common: war. From the American Revolution to WWII, wars have spurred thousands of words and phrases you use every day including "sideburns," "deadlines," and even "hookers!" Join us, as we reveal the history behind America's secret slang.Ep. 5 "Coming to America
Ever wonder why American cowboys say "'git along little doggies" when they're talking about herding cattle? Or why a losing wrestler "cries uncle?" And why do we say "ouch" when we stub a toe?

Episode 3: Y'all Speak Country

The American South has given us words like "y'all" and "rednecks" as well as dozens of colorful phrases like "fly off the handle," "having an axe to grind," and "barking up the wrong tree." But what are the origins of these expressions and why has one group of people contributed so much to the American language? The answers reveal the hidden history behind the American south and its secret slang.

Episode 4: West Word, Ho!

Expressions from "riffraff" to "betting your bottom dollar", "passing the buck," "acid test" and even "heard it through the grapevine" all come from America's frontier days. But have you ever wondered why these phrases were first used and what they mean today? The answers reveal the hidden history behind America and its secret slang.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Fascinating! I have to watch this series. I learned about a few expressions researching Colonial times. "Upper crust," stemmed from the fact that flour was scarce and precious. Having enough to make a top crust on a pie connoted having the funds to do so.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I adore learning where and how expressions originated. That series is a must-see for me. Thanks for recommending it.