The Dictionary of Americanisms

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Speaking of old words and old dictionaries, I was recently dusting off some books on my bookshelves when I came across an impulse purchase I made a couple of years ago: a facsimile edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms, first published in 1848 (turns out it’s also available online). Bartlett, a Providence, Rhode Island native who worked, variously, as a clerk in a dry goods store, a book-keeper, a bookseller, a bank cashier, a boundary commissioner, and the Rhode Island Secretary of State, endeavored to compile:

A Vocabulary of the colloquial language of the United States… in which should be embraced all those words usually called provincial or vulgar all the words, whatever be their origin, which are used in familiar conversation, and but seldom employed in composition all the perversions of language, and abuses of words into which people, in certain sections of the country, have fallen, and some of those remarkable and ludicrous forms of speech which have been adopted in the Western States.

(As you might have guessed, he was rather partial to the language of his native New England.)

At any rate, the book is a fascinating look into American social, linguistic, and political history, and many of the words are positively delightful. Here, for example, is absquatulate: To run away, to abscond. Used only in familiar language.

Or wamble-cropped: Sick at the stomach; and figuratively, wretched; humiliated.

Or meechin: “A person with a downcast look is said to look meechin. Used on Long Island.”

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