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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 20, 1995|DICK RORABACK

MADE IN AMERICA: An Informal History of the English Language in the United Sates by Bill Bryson. (Morrow: $23; 417 pp.) If the English language were a school, Bill Bryson would be recess. The irrepressable journalist/author has written a linguistic history that's a lot more fun than it ought to be, by far the best book on the mother tongue since 1990's "The Mother Tongue." Bill Bryson wrote that too. In an attempt--endlessly engaging and "shamelessly discursive"--to examine how and why American speech came to be the way it is, Bryson ranges in time from Plymouth Rock (they never landed there) to politically correct. Lost with the Mayflower (chopped up for kindling) were the colloquial fribble , spon , bantling and "the much-missed slobberchops ." Lame replacements in a language that grows by an astounding 20,000 words a year are PC phrases chemically inconvenienced (drunk) and alternative dentation (false teeth). In between and agape, we learn that there was strong sentiment among the Founding Fathers to call the country the United States of Alleghania, or even Freedonia; that our motto, e pluribus unum , was cribbed from the recipe for a salad in a poem by Virgil; that the world's largest owner of real estate is McDonald's; that grog originated in the War of Jenkins' Ear. Bryson confirms what we've long suspected; that the American dialect is closer to original English than the London variety is. (That cahn't is an upper-class pronunciation is cant; in colonial days, that's the way the Cockneys said can't . We're informed, as well, that Chicago derives from the Indian word for "place that stinks of onions"; that Glendale means Valley Valley; that Post Toasties were originally called Elijah's Manna; that the fortune cookie was invented in Los Angeles; that in 1899 the head of the U.S. Patent Office resigned because "Everything that can be invented has been invented"; that pure and joyous pursuit of knowledge can metamorphose into one of the most engaging books of the year.

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