American English Writing Assignment 1

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American English Writing Assignment 1

Length: three to five pages
Draft due: Friday September 20
Final Draft due: Friday October 4
In this assignment you have your choice of topics that concern the history of words in American English. Each assignment involves a bit of research in dictionaries, in particular the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and quite possibly in other sources that provide historical contexts.
What I am looking for:
1. Your ability to connect your findings to concepts we have discussed in class and/or encountered in the readings.
2. Your attention to the use of language in context.
3. The quality of your research and the clarity of your explanations.
4. Claims about how vocabulary (or vocabulary change) reflects geography, cultural attitudes, cultural change, or social and economic forces acting upon culture.
5. Claims about how the sense of words may change.
Useful Sources
You should be prepared to consult dictionaries that provide definitions, some indication of dates in which the words or phrases are first recorded, and examples of usage (which may provide contextual information). Probably the most helpful general source will be The Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED is available online at: Since UT has a subscription, you can also access the online version through the library’s Web site. Print versions are available in the reference sections of the UGL or PCL (call number: -Q- PE 1625 O87). The OED is a valuable resource, since it provides evidence for dates and examples of context, but you may also find an American dictionary that provides style labels and examples of usage helpful, since the OED is British and its coverage of Americanisms is sketchy. You may also consult any specialized source that you find useful. In doing this assignment, you will need to consider polysemy (multiple meanings for one word), types of meaning change, and the role of metaphor in meaning change. You will also need to consider the part of speech of the word as it is used in the document, though you may find that in some cases it is useful to look at meanings of related words from the same stem.
1. The attached will of Francis Peabody is roughly contemporary with the will of Richard Kimball, and Peabody lived in a town bordering the town Kimball in which lived, though the contents of the two documents differ somewhat. The following are some of the expressions in Peabody’s will that are either obsolete/archaic or that have somewhat different meanings in contemporary English (I’ve provided modern, or American, spellings in parentheses after 17th century variants):at someone’s dispose/despose, dispose (subst.) [dispose] needful
currant (current) pay [current] moveables (movables) [movable]
Indian corn [corn] occasion(s)
temporall (temporal) estate [temporal adj. & subset.; estate]
threescore [score]
Look up five of these expressions in the OED. Discuss their likely meanings in the will. I’ve provided possible starting points for words in the OED to look up in square brackets, but since some of these are expressions composed of more than one word or are variants of other expressions, you will have to do some checking of cross references. Note that in some cases, the will uses words as nouns that we would use as adjectives (e.g. moveables), and in other cases, it uses plurals in slightly different ways than we would (e.g., occasions). Discuss how long the sense attested in the 17th century document was in use and how it may have developed out of earlier senses or how it may have developed different senses in later English. The expressions will be both British and American, but you may find that some expressions reflect 17th century concerns, or American colonial life in particular. If you find this is so, how do you think the expressions display 17th century (or particularly colonial concerns)? In at least one case you will find variation in usage within the will. If you do uncover such variation, explain why the will might have an archaic form beside a more modern one.
2. The attached section from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is contemporary with The Declaration of Independence, and like the Declaration, it is a political document arguing for American Independence. The following words are used by Paine with somewhat different senses in those that are most common in contemporary English or are they are rare, obsolete, or metaphorical:
almanacs (almanacs) engrossed seed-time
designs prepossession suffer
enemyship resource virtually
Look up five of these words in the OED. Discuss their likely meaning in Paine’s writing. Discuss too how long the 18th century meaning Paine uses was common, how it may have developed from earlier senses, and how (if it is still used), its sense may have changed. Do some of the words Paine uses have political senses that may have existed beside non-political senses? Some of the differences in meaning are fairly subtle, or you may take the most common contemporary meaning for granted, so you might want to consult a contemporary monolingual dictionary of American English such as The American Heritage or one of Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries.
3. The attached selections from The Journals of Lewis and Clark have words pertaining to conditions on the America frontier in the early 18th century. Most are loanwords from Native American or European languages. Some are loanwords from Native American languages (sometimes through European languages as intermediaries). Look up five of these words in the OED, and iscuss their likely meanings. What are their etymologies? What do their etymologies and meanings say about the nature of contacts between English speakers, speakers of Native American Languages, and speakers of other European languages on the American frontier or earlier? Two of the words are not loanwords, but their meanings on the frontier may have differed from their meanings in England
batteau portage jerking [jerk v.]
rapid (n.) prarie [prarie] moccasins
canoe bluff
perogue, periogues, perogue [piroque]
4. The following is a list of words or phrases in contemporary British English that are not generally used in American English (or may be used with different meanings):
dustbin hoover (verb) mufti (sb.2) Sellotape
flyover agony aunt navvy (rubbish) tip
cling-film jaffa pillar-box tights
Look up five of these in the OED. You may also use another source for British English, but the evidence you will need for the meanings of these words should be in the OED. Discuss their meanings in contemporary British English and note their equivalents in American English. Again, you may want to look up the American equivalents in an American dictionary for comparative purposes only. Discuss the etymologies of the words and how these etymologies may reflect differences between post-18th century British material culture and American material culture. Some of these words reflect British colonial history, some reflect commercial history, and some may be adaptations of words that were used much earlier in British English in different senses. Discuss what the etymologies of these words may reveal about contemporary British culture or about changes in British culture as the result of colonialism, commercial, technological, or cultural developments. These are all relatively common words for every day items or actions. Why do you think British and American English employ different words for these items or actions?

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