|Prevalent||= P =||75-100%||of the Americans|
|Majority||= M =||45-75%|
|Typical||= T =||15-45%|
|Unusual||= U =||5-15%|
|Rare||= R =||1-5%|
This can hardly be done, even as a quick and
dirty research job. Historiography is not peanuts.
One may be forgiven if it is understood that a well-designed study
along these lines would occupy some twenty professional
expert-years in order to fill in the 64 x 17 cells
that would be required as the study design proceeded,
and, even then, the raw data would probably
be only 25% satisfactory for creating
valid measured judgements out of it.
A less expensive alternative would be to employ the
Delphic Panel: that is, locate an expert on
every trait and every period
(64 traits x 13 generations) and
ask them to draw upon their many years of study to
make a judgement and score each item.
Study-design research and meetings would have to be
conducted to be sure that standardized judgements are
being made, and the study could be cut back by 80%
then to the equivalent of four expert-years.
Incidentally, if this kind of methodology were applied
wherever feasible in historiography,
a catching-up to American history would require
thousands of man-years. Thus, for instance,
a scientific inquiry into the abilities and characters of
presidential candidates might take anywhere from
10 to 200 professional years; yet, equally
important would be similar studies of at least a random sample
(it would have to be large because of the federal system) of the
thousands of congressmen, the tens of thousands of state
legislators and all those who contended with them and
were their managers and confidantes. Did someone say,
"Historiography ain't peanuts."?
Then we would proceed with the history of the economy,
the culture of welfare, all the systems of data that
stand behind in more or less rough
parallelism to the beliefs and conduct, etc.
A budget of several billion dollars and half the
twenty-first century would be taken up with such projects --
and worthily so. Hopefully this kind of labor would
help to obtain good government; that would be worth
thousands of billions of dollars. Furthermore, nowadays the
future of the world is a matter of American public policy, and
even a few corrections of policies, and some good
instead of bad decisions, would cover neatly the
gamble of several billions for historical research.
Is there a typical character that you could call
"the good American."? Possibly there is.
One may at this juncture, when the history of the country
has been only partially written, move from
one item in the list above to the next item,
putting together those traits that one would like to
see in a person, and then ask oneself
whether he has ever encountered that ideal person.
It is possible to descend the list, asking whether the trait could be
applied to another nationality at various times in history or today,
such as the English or the Mexican or the German. Such a
procedure might not show who is good or bad,
but it would indicate whether the American was
(and may still be) different from other nationalities.
This author's comparison of Americans and English of the
Period 1810 to 1860 shows
a sharing of only 11 typicalities out of the above listed
half-hundred traits. These are English alone.
If the Isles Celtics were taken together -
Welsh, North Borderers (a kind of English),
Scots, Scots-Irish, and Irish Catholics, who in all
numbered probably a quarter of the American population - and
considered in place in the Old Country, they would probably
demonstrate twice or more as many typicalities of the American
character as the English. This author's comparison of American and
French typicalities gave an even division of the shared and disparate.
The results point dramatically to a typical American,
or, better, a constellation of American types,
clarifying what many have sensed but few have discovered:
Americans verged early toward a Celtic Norm,
all the more so since it was compatible
with the Indian and African components of the nation.
We did not include in the typicalities above the fact that Americans
were speaking a modified form of the English language of the most
typical kind, that of the greater London area. The American language
was developing at a moderately rapid pace from the beginnings of
settlement, rebuffed now and then by a King's English revival in
presumptuously literary quarters, only to resume its differentiation.
Inasmuch as language and character are interactive determinants, our
statements about language should support rather than contradict what
has been said about character.
The South was more capable of producing new language and new
popular culture to express its character during these times, with the
especial contributions of the African-American sector. Dancing and
music were scarcely the forte of New England, nor were they
especially produced in the pluralist Atlantic culture or the frontier. It
was exciting enough that people might occasionally dance, let alone
invent music and dances. There was a large territorial grouping
where only the beginnings, or more exactly the remnants, of old
folk cultures were noticeable, among the Germans, and, soon, other
continental groups, supplemented by visits from Europe of
performing artists, the principal source of artistic stimulation.
The country was of two minds respecting the development of the
American language. There were those who, having recovered from
anti-British Revolutionary sentiment, wished to keep the English and
American languages tied together as closely as possible.
Lawyers (who memorized Blackstone's Commentaries on the
English common law), medical men, and merchants were
particularly intent upon the retention of English.
There also were those who felt that long isolation had already
created a somewhat different language and that this ought to be
allowed to take its course; the population, having learned to speak and
write in many different ways ought to be allowed to keep their ways,
and even add to them when naturally educed. Noah Webster, a
lexicographer who took upon himself the heavy task of arbiter of the
American language (and who did such an impressive job of it that to
this day large corporations are suing one another over the right to use
his name on their dictionaries), did himself go through a period first of
Americanization of the English language ,
and then an Anglicizing of the American language,
leaving matters upon his demise rather as they were before,
but in neater form. He fell in line with the
crusade against abominable spelling, a failing of
some of the nation's high leaders - but, then, too, a failing of
English intellectuals and men of affairs as well,
until a late date, mainly because
the King did not prescribe under penalty the King's English,
and Oxford might not tell Cambridge how to vocalize.
Many effects were amusing. The frontier folk and African did most to
invent words and freak out the English syntax and idiom. At this time,
the late 1830's, the world's most widely known word came into being,
"O.K." "O.K." has the welcome attributes of conveying a positive
attitude in an egalitarian agreeable way, without the slightest
demeaning sense of other words for the affirmative. It suggests
understanding rather than affirmation alone.
It suggests camaraderie.
And lexicographers have spent the century and half between then
and now arguing its origins, the most commonly accepted
etymology explaining that Andrew Jackson could not spell, and
would mark a document that he approved, "Oll Korrect." This is
very likely a Federalist smear. More suggestive is a claim that the
Choctaw Indian language contained the word "oke" for "it is".
Indeed that syllable is found throughout the world, often with sacred
connections. The langue d'oc is the language of Southern France
that says "oc" for "yes".The term has an almost incantative and
Most likely the word derives from the Irish pagan Celtic god, Ok, or
Og, whose ancient vigorous celebration, with copious libations, was
banned by the Church but persisted anyhow. The public notice given
O.K. coincides with the arrival of the Irish in large numbers in New
York and Boston, and the graffiti OK (no punctuation, but, precisely
then, a fad for acronyms struck the Northeast ) is first remarked on the
side of whiskey barrels on wagons accompanying Irishmen parading
through the streets in election campaigns and fiestas. Everybody was
decidedly OK under the circumstances.
And the several meanings conveyed did their part to pull the world
together when American empire swelled to its greatest extent in the
late twentieth century. It is speakable and hearable in all languages.
At the time many new English words, especially scientific, slang and
vernacular, were flowing across the Atlantic to America, but beginning
also then a reverse flow commenced that was to acquire tsunami
proportions in the mid-1900's. Words from remote areas of England
in some cases were hand-carried to America without merging first into
proper English. There were words from the Scots, the Irish, the
French, several Indian nations, the German, the Spanish, and the
African languages, while pretentious orators and ministers larded their
speeches with mellifluous and resounding
syntactically complicated words of Latin and Greek roots to give
American speech its discombobulated and heterogeneous character.
(Italian, except for musical terms, and Yiddish words and
constructions, came in later.) Midwestern Americans who used often
the word "lousy" for all kinds of dislikables, had picked it up from
the German "laus," (louse), which was also a
mutant of most varied applications.
Boasting and bragging became a form of literature in America,
reaching a peak now then. The Davy Crockett cycle was famous, his
stories, his deeds, his humor, his self-depreciation in the very excess
of self-praise; there were more of these. And Americans were reputed
everywhere in the world to be boasters.
Where did this come from? It might have developed from people,
without control by authorities, who needed to boast because they felt
intensely insecure about their origins and circumstances of life.
It could come from the lonely mammal male yammering his
superiority to the winds hoping for a female listener somewhere.
And also rejecting women, who are not there to be rejected. (For
the insistence of little American boys upon their dislike of girls and
independence from women is unlike the messages conveyed by little
boys elsewhere. The English upper class boy was trained to avoid
intimacies, but this is not the same feeling.)
Boasting was a frontier speciality to begin with, and we are
therefore bound to imagine the origins of boasting in the Indian
practice of braves dancing about and shouting of their prowess and
deeds. This is noted early so that the frontier-prone Scots-Irish
cannot be pinned for it, but the practice needs a conveyor to the
larger culture and they served well to that end.
American character became ever more typically playful,
with large exceptions.
Abroad, therefore they were often regarded as juvenile.
Peer emulation, too: "Entering upon the spirit of the occasion."
"Is this a personal fight, or can anyone get in on it?" .
The universal success of American popular culture begins with children,
and extends to those adults to be found in foreign countries who,
in their own culture are often jestingly called "the American."
Much to the chagrin of the "serious" "fundamentalist" and such types.
Whence originated the American sense of humor?
Probably more often than not the most typical humor arose from the
pluralist borderlands running between North and South..
Here there were few authorities to admonish them to
act less childishly and be more grave, to boast less.
Loose Anglicans, secularists, aristocrats, cavaliers.
English were disposed often to be role-players, poseurs, and frauds,
possibly emanating from noble pretensions and commerce.
Also Jews from central Europe (sometimes via Britain)
-jesters, clowns, magicians, carnivals, wits, irony, mockers
(note nickname or slur-name, Mockies).
Then, importantly, oppressed blacks, needing to sublimate their tragedy,
but with a direct African inheritance of smiling and laughing,
then as outsiders looking in upon the foolishness of white society.
Hispanics were resentful and macho, hence too earnest.
So, too, American Indians.
The Irish "Mackerels" (cheap fish on Friday Catholics)
or Micks - from "Mc" ) importing often a sneering and
ridiculing habit reflecting low self-esteem,
too often butts of humor themselves,
in the old world, fed bitter jesting. Italian and Hungarian,
with ineffaceable humor, had no trouble becoming typical.
French, mostly dedicated Protestants and Canadien Catholic
to begin with: but southern Louisiana loosened up the type.
Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, Scots,
Puritans, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese
did not catch on readily. Non-Jewish, ex-communist
post-WWII East Europeans tended often toward
the melancholic, hence dark humor.
The American character also seduced its own type from abroad,
selected them - "Like attracts like.."
Once here for a while, most people Americanized.
After magicians, vaudeville and minstrels, comic
cartoons and situation comedies on TV became highly
popular among all but most intellectuals and grouches.
Americans usually felt dissatisfied with an exchange of last names,
and had to be recalled to the functions of last names for
respect, authorities, and registration, while first names
became sectionally segregated, so that you could use his or her
given name as one indicator of whether a person was a
White or Black Southerner, a Pluralist, a New England
or a frontier type.
The period was one for continuing the modification of names
sometimes to conform to peculiar American general
pronunciation or spelling practice. The absence of records
and illiteracy helped variegate names.
The process began early, in the "Old Country."
The name "Shakespeare" was spelled 83 ways
in his own times. "Mainwaring" had to accommodate
131 varieties. Writing and spelling were
poor, records unkept. Diversification
sped up in America. In the 1790 First
U.S. Census "Kennedy" and "McLaughlin" counted
each 32 spellings, Campbell 27.
"Mac's" were lopped off Scottish and Irish names.
Most long Welsh names went on acquiring English surrogates.
German Schmidts often became Smiths as well,
Müllers Millers, etc. König could be read
Koenig, Konig, Kenig, Kayng, or King.
There is no Eisenhower in Germany.
One of 100 Americans by 1920 had arrived at "Smith,"
and in 1995, its top standing remained at just that.
By 2000 A.D. some 100,000 different
American family-names were to be found.
The top ten, loaded with un-English types,
were "Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown,
Davis, Miller, Wilson, Moore, and Taylor."
The number of female first names was about 4000,
topping with "Mary, Patricia, Linda, and Barbara."
while male naming lagged at some 1200,
"James. John, Robert, and Michael" leading off.
With last names, a reducing factor was always
present, but in the twentieth century,
a highly differentiated immigration brought in
a multitude of new names from hitherto exotic countries.
The Korean "Kim" leaped up. "Lee" climbed
with the aid of Chinese not from Virginia.
In 1928 some 66 million people had
English and Welsh surnames, of which 41 million were
traceable to the Old Country, 7 million
were of Blacks, and 17.2 million
represented adaptations or adoptions in America.
Thus about one-third of the people with
English surnames were hardly of English ancestry.
Then there were the Scots who acquired altered
names in the Old Country, though also after arrival.
The clans were old but the membership often young,
like joining a fraternity or club or gang.
The MacGregor Clan was so full of gangsters and ruffians that
in 1603 the name itself was barred to
everyone on pain of death, whereupon thousands
Given names generally followed religious and regional
patterns and moved in cycles and with fads.
"John" has been the favorite, via the Bible,
the Greek, the French "Jean," the Teutonic "Johann,"
and royal characters. But the more Anglican "James" ("Jim")
edged him into second place" by 1994.
Mary," "Mother of Jesus," and favorite among queens,
together with "Maria" outshined
its nearest competitor three-to-one.
But any odd candidate could compete,
as in the New York Marathon race -
whether a famous person like "Franklin,"
a flower ("Lily"), or a virtue ("Temperance").
Indians took on double names, one translating the other,
or were dubbed with names by other Americans.
African names were almost entirely lost in
favor of given first names of Anglo-American,
natural, or Biblical origins, then, upon emancipation,
retained the surname of the former owner, a practice that has
since bothered many African-Americans
who would have preferred their original African name
or some African name. The practice was reversed,
mistakenly in many cases by the use of Islamic
names by the Black Islam Nationalist movement in the
twentieth century, and in some fewer cases
more authentically African ones by intellectuals,
entertainers and social reformers, leading to a
probability that at some point there might occur a
wholesale exchange of largely British and many
French and Spanish names for African names,
either based on some evidence of the African nation of
personal origin or by translation into an African tongue.
This would emulate the Indian trend.
So long as the dominant political class could express
its power by, on the one hand, scorning a "slave name" that
it could pronounce, while jeering at an African name
it was refusing to learn to pronounce,
the Afro-American, like the Indian, and like many another
"ethnic," was caught in a "no-win" bind.
African-Puerto Ricans, Haitians, South Louisianan, and other
Americans of African origin without the Anglo experience would
probably not turn in their Spanish or French names so often.
These lacked the sinister quality of the British names .
Later waves of change simplified to American speech and
orthography various Polish and other Slavic names,
also Greek and Armenian names.
In some "difficult" cases names were quite altered:
Rostenkowski sometimes to Ross or Rosten,
Agnopoulos ("Lamb's Son," cf. British "Lamson") to Agnew.
In many instances Jewish names were altered,
both to simplify and to evade possible anti-semitism,
Cohen to Cole, and Levinsky to Levin or LeVine, Rose, Harris, and
Stein, etc. In Italian names, the last vowel might occasionally be
dropped as Martini, Martin; Martelli, Martell; adding also phonetic
changes, Vincenzo, Vincent: Giuliani, Julian. Changes of Spanish
names have been rare, and logically, as a result of demographic
changes of the past century, more and more
American names became Hispanic.
The end result was a horde of names found only in the United States
and names from other languages that have seemed to proliferate here.
Coming out of every country were surnames that became peculiarly
American. Moreover, almost all names acquired an American
pronunciation that would not be readily understood in the Old
Country. This includes many British names. "Daugherty" is
spelled and pronounced several ways. Van der Pohl can be
Vanderpool. Mullen is French from "moulin, mill," although it might
seem a variant of the Irish Mullins. Morley was Moor-lea. Some
Tagliaferro's of Southern planter origin pronounce their name
"Tollifer" while persevering with the original spelling. At least six
countries furnished the basic material for the name "Johnson."
All in all, it may be said here, because the subject will not recur in
later pages, it came about that today perhaps nine out of ten
Americans have a full name that is not to be found in any other
country in the world, or that does not reflect their principal
ancestry, or that is pronounced differently when encountered
elsewhere. At the same time, Americans, reversing
a long-time movement to carry formal titles and surnames
into social discourse, no matter what the social class involved,
began in the 1960's to prefer first names,
to be called Jimmy and Jane rather than
Carter, Rumpelstilskin and Johnson. (Politely, the
New York Times had moved into calling everyone without noble
or professional title, even if nitwit or criminal, "Mr." or "Ms".)
First-name usage was not solely egalitarian vulgarism;
it was a denial of differences, a shame of the unpronounceable,
a vote for freedom of name against family and status,
a search for a buddy, and for universal cordiality.
Place names in America were usually Indian because the Indians were
the only ones who knew their way around, and they were not to be
overlooked. Thousands of places - -paths, towns, springs, mountains -
kept their Indian names or were given them. The process continued all
across the country. In Louisiana French names outnumbered the Indian
and maintained themselves. French names were kept for very many
places of the old Northwest and Louisiana Territory. So, too, Spanish
names dominated Southwest and West Coast locations and roads, and
some were added fancifully.
Admirers of the famous and rich were more than ready with new
names: Marietta, Ohio, for the unfortunately and wrongly
guillotined Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, or Dauphin County,
Pennsylvania for the French "Prince of Wales," etc. Virginia goes
for Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen," meaning in fondo that she took
no husband. English cities were honored (or disgraced) by
namesakes in America: New London, et al. Bismarck, North
Dakota, was settled during the days of the Prussian "Iron Chancellor,"
by Germanophiles not within his grasp.
Not to mention New England.
Names full of promise that went unfulfilled dotted the land, like
Paris, Tennessee. Great cities might begin humbly: Chicago, the "wild
onion" of the dunes around Fort Dearborn. Hundreds of place
names in the South have been traced back to Africa.
African sources have to be credited for a great many words of the
language, more than the Indians or Spanish. The 11-word sentence,
"Buckaroo guy he goose her diggin dirt fer yams an goobers," holds 7
African words and three dialect usages and 1 proper word "her." (It is
not a direct quotation in the vernacular.) Africans, probably Bantu,
profited from their relative isolation and low status on the offshore
islands and lowlands of the South Atlantic Coast to produce Gullah, a
distinctive Anglo-African language, the only natural language to
originate in America, or at least it is more
indigenous than Pennsylvania Dutch.
African-American "soul food" is made up of the cheapest greens and
animal offal, once pretentiously abhorred, now chic in some upper
class circles, Black and White. Some African culinary exotica
ultimately vanished. An old-timer of the Sea Islands told an
interviewer, "They ate funny kine uh food, roas wile locus an
mushruhm an tanyan root. It lak elephant-eah and taase lak Arish
potatuh." In this case, but also generally with dialectical
Afro-American speech and Gullah, at work is not an inability to master
the major American language forms, but an adaptation of Niger-Congo
tongues, following their rules of grammar and
pronunciation, to the new language.
Indeed, every people that has ever come to America has produced
this highly interesting linguistic phenomenon; it amounts to bringing
in a peculiar form of whatever basic language was spoken, including
numerous types of English, and adjusting this system to the peculiar
form of the American language where the group has settled. The
process ensuing, which accepts and rejects, and combines with
several American language variants, and invents and continues to
evolve, is almost entirely unconscious.
Only a few linguistic environments in America have been able to
discipline significantly a tongue: a private socially pretentious
school, a narrow special military unit, a specialized occupation with
a tight esprit de corps, a small cult, and an isolated locality.
The New Orleans area became also a center of African-American
culture: it was hospitable to voodoo, a Dahomean religious cult,
well-developed also in Haiti and the Caribbean, and for folklore and
aesthetics of Bantu origin. Bantu influence was heavy in South
Carolina and Louisiana, but enjoyed also a wide dissemination around
the South. The authorities of the larger culture were of course
interested mainly in the extirpation of African language and practices,
but were captivated at the same time, as in warfare one comes to
resemble the enemy.
Writing and literature in America remained fairly constant and
continuously changing in all major sections of the country. Speech
varied from section to section. The Yankee speech with its nasality,
dryness and high pitch moved from New England and Upstate New
York along the Great Lakes line going West - Northern Ohio,
Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin -and continued right on to
the Northern Great Plains, then to Washington and Oregon. A related
Delaware Bay speech moved through Pennsylvania, and
struck out westwards to the Pacific Coast.
The coastal Southern speech forms - drawling, softly enunciated,
the most singable - were bred in the Chesapeake Bay region and
moved through Virginia down to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, the uplands Southern speech pattern - high inflected,
both nasal and throaty, slightly drawling, slow-spoken - grew up in
Appalachia, moved along the Southern border states across the
Mississippi into the Hispanic Southwest, including
originally Southern California.
The egalitarian period witnessed the wide-scale increase of
nationalistic sentiments and a heavy production of national symbols.
At times the elite of the South were alarmed at the enthusiastic
adoption of national symbols, for in every enhancement of
nationalism or federalism was an implication of
lowered state loyalties.
The South was learning too that even the frontiersmen who were of
Southern origin were acquiring Federalist habits of thought. The
basic cause was evident, but nothing could be done about it: new
states were being formed with a paltry history, a mixed bag of
people, a total dependence upon the federal government, a set of
boundaries drawn more by a Jeffersonian geometrician than by an
ecologist and anthropologist.
The great body of people yearned for a union with all the
trimmings, flags, songs, legends, and mottoes and these were
forthcoming in this period. The flag, that had been evolving, was
adopted according to its present design and principles only in 1818,
when thirteen stripes and as many stars as states became the norm.
The poem composed by Francis Scott Key at and after the siege of
Baltimore, and put to the music of an English drinking song,
became the national anthem only during the Civil War.
There were other songs and poems about, and glorifying patriotism, by
the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph Rodman Drake, Julia Ward
Howe, and John Greenleaf Whittier. (The same process, incidentally,
was occurring in Europe, even more rapidly and with larger historical
and cultural resources, for wherever the gospel of democracy was
carried - everywhere in those days - a mass direct democratic feeling
was aroused that required far more symbolism of nation-plus-people
than the old regimes afforded.) Washington, long venerated,
was given the company of Jefferson and others.
The Fourth of July speech became a fixture of every annual
assemblage in every public place of the country. Then selected
orators would give forth, all hardly modifying the litany that
follows: to give a proper Independence Day oration you must -
a. Recite the history of America's founding in the colonial era.
b. Show how the Hand of God interposed Itself at every stage.
c. Reveal fully the American love of liberty.
d. Detail the oppression suffered under the British.
e. Announce the earth-shaking events that began the Revolution.
f. Glorify the heroic fighters of the Revolution and its Leaders.
g. Stress how, by emulating their virtues, all problems today can be solved.
h. Point to the amazing progress of the Republic since Independence.
i. Express our unbounded loyalty to the nation.
j. Conclude with the prophecy of a great future for America.
On this day the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia would be tolled (It
cracked and was silenced in 1835.) It was not rung for the
celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as
legend would have it. Nor was it called the Liberty Bell until long
afterwards, and then by African-Americans in reference to their own
need for liberty. Legends of the bell and other American symbols and
figures were contained in a fulsome work by George Lippard
published in 1847 (The same George Lippard whose "smutty" play
was banned from the Philadelphia stage.)
One may wonder whether the seizure upon symbols by so practical a
group as the Americans may not have accelerated the growth of the
advertising industry in the United Sates. This vast realm of enterprise
had its origins early. British soldiers besieging Breed's Hill received
well-composed appeals in print from a rebel press, urging them to
recognize their common bond and not to press the battle, a very early
instance of psychological warfare.
A stalwart pioneer here as in numerous areas was Benjamin
Franklin. He used a number of icons - boats, horses, etc. He could
not stand a simple ad appearing in his newspaper, especially when
his brother's product was concerned, and wrote a fitting
recommendation and announcement for his super-fine soap.
Newspapers were built up on advertisements, notices, political
payments, and, to a degree, news. The million or so potential
readers of 1820 might be reached by one of over 500 newspapers.
Their ads were at first directed largely to the well-to-do,
but then democratized.
America was destined to be a gigantic bulletin board
from the start. Since people moved about in vast numbers
- the National Road was a continuous stream of traffic -
notices were profitably posted everywhere.
A nation of bouncing atoms, a nation of strangers, a
people hungry for consumer goods, for quick-cures, for ways of
making money, for influencing people in large numbers: there was
every reason for the success of the new medium.