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Lexical Research in American Speech

Curated by Michael Adams

Indiana University — Bloomington

Every American word has a story — sometimes, in fact, many stories — and the story is somehow embedded in American culture. Lexical research differs from other types of language scholarship because it lends itself less easily to aggregation and statistical evaluation, nor indeed, coming at language from another angle, is native speaker intuition always a reliable guide to word history, meaning, or form. Whether in dictionaries or in scholarly articles, we thus often treat words one at a time. Lexical research is inefficient, but it lends itself to narrative explanation, which has its intellectual and aesthetic attractions — sometimes, the stories are irresistible, sometimes culturally significant, and, in the best cases, both. American Speech has been committed to lexical research since it was founded in 1925. The more or less quarterly feature, “Among the New Words,” has been running since 1941; and, until recently, issues of the journal teemed with lexical items in its “Miscellany” section. In either case, treatment of the words in question is brief, in the “Miscellany” items often noting the very existence of an unexpected word or an emerging new use or meaning. Much of this work is valuable, but I have put it aside in preparing the current list of outstanding lexical studies. Likewise, I have avoided works in which lexis is a means to an end, as when words are the locus of variation — in such cases, variation is the theme, not the words themselves. The articles here are all superb variations on the lexical theme: most of them are at least partly historical; most of them reflect attitudes about what’s good or correct English; most consider to whom words “belong”; most rely on more than one type of evidence and more than one mode of analysis. Taken together, they introduce readers to the state of lexical research on American lexis now. A forthcoming collection, about the lexical studies that Allen Walker Read published in American Speech, will be a companion to this one.

“What Is Africa to Me?”: Language, Ideology, and African American

Geneva Smitherman
American Speech (1991) 66 (2): 115–132

Smitherman argues that the choice of name by which we call Black folks is far from incidental but participates in the construction of American social reality — Black words matter. She charts the movement from Negro, to Black, to African American as semiotic markers of an American racial identity — the social life of a cultural value, so to speak — and concludes with results of a survey that endorses, especially among young African Americans, the shift to African American. Few scholarly articles project similar humane significance. Reading this one, I think, can lead, not just to a better understanding of the cultural importance of words — or, at least, some words — but to becoming a better American, perhaps even a better person.

Steady: Progressive Aspect in Black Vernacular English

John Baugh
American Speech (1984) 59 (1): 3–12

In a sentence like “Ricky Bell [the football player] be steady steppin’ in them number nines,” steady indicates intensity and figures in conveying progressive aspect in African American speech, though its use is constrained by rules that Baugh outlines briskly and memorably — it works exceptionally well in the classroom. White speakers don’t easily grasp the functions and meanings of steady because it’s what Arthur Spears called a “camouflaged” form, in an article on semi-auxiliary come, a classic unfortunately NOT published in American Speech. Because steady in African American speech is close to general American steady and steadily, White speakers — and White linguists — incorrectly assumed they knew what it was all about. For evidence, Baugh relies on recorded interviews and responses to a questionnaire. The article proposes to describe contemporary use of steady, but as an aspect marker unique to African American speech, Baugh observes, it may reflect Creolized components of that variety, yet another feature of the article that makes it an indispensable reading on any syllabus that touches on the history and structure of American speech.

The Story of Chester Drawers

Allison Burkette
American Speech (2001) 76 (2): 139–157

Chester drawers is a variant of chest of drawers, but, drawing on questionnaire responses from the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States, Burkette shows just how many different terms for the sort of furniture represented by Chester drawers populate American speech, as well as frequencies of their historical use. The frequencies are often low — that is, few people use or ever used some of the furniture terms in question — but that doesn’t make them any less important to the speakers who use them, so Burkette’s argument is historically enriching. In addition, she spends time distributing subtle variations in meaning among the terms by examining the material culture — chests for storing clothing and personal items — to which they refer. Burkette has extended her approach to other intersections of culture and lexis — case furniture, cornbread, rooms of a house, fire-starting — in subsequent American Speech articles.

Spitten Image: Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics

Laurence R. Horn
American Speech (2004) 79 (1): 33–58

Is it spitting image or splitting image, gooseberry or gorseberry, Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit, and how do we know, and does it matter which is the correct form with the correct etymology? Horn deftly marshals evidence from English and analogues in other languages to expose just how complicated such questions are. His commentary is subtle and written cleverly — I chuckle all the way through reading it. Horn quotes George Wakeman, in an article titled “Wrecks of Words” (1869): “The common people are all amateur etymologists, and they like to put into any word some familiar glimmer of sense.” And what could be more human than that? The lexicographers — including me, on occasion, I must admit — dismiss so-called “folk etymologies,” but etymythology raises the discussion of word origins, word forms, and word meanings to a more foundational cultural story, in which ordinary people quite naturally try to make sense of the language they speak and hear. Come to think of it, given its respect for speakers and their motives, this article might lead you to become a better person, too.


Scott F. Kiesling
American Speech (2004) 79 (3): 281–305

Though he starts with a brief history of dude, Kiesling quickly moves into its social uses, starting with its stance of cool, masculine solidarity, and into its values as a discourse marker — dude is used much less as a referential noun — including exclamation, expressions of affiliation, and a mechanism of repair in confrontational conversation. Whereas Burkette relies on Linguistic Atlas data, and Horn and Considine operate, albeit impeccably, in a more traditional, textual mode, Kiesling’s approach is attractively multi-modal: he administers surveys, embeds himself in a fraternity, and relies on his intuitions as a self-proclaimed “dude-user.” And it has the advantage of discussing a word that current students use, which makes it ideal for college and university courses. It has, for some time, been among the most read and most cited articles in the journal.

Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact from Fiction

Alexandra D’Arcy
American Speech 2007 82 (4): 386–419

D’Arcy’s article, besides disentangling fact from fiction about the various uses of like in English — “It was, like,” “She was, like,” “Don’t, like, even go there,” etc. — serves as an excellent case study in just what the title announces, the ideological bases for our evaluation of all kinds of words. For a long time, many older American speakers were convinced that like emerged from Valley Girl speech to plague them and infest American English, but D’Arcy’s evidence shows that all of the likes except the quotative — “She was like, quotative like so comes from the Valley” — have been around much longer than Valley Girls; indeed, they are firmly rooted in Anglophone speech of the nineteenth-century worldwide. Of all the articles listed here, D’Arcy’s is the one best aligned with variationist sociolinguistic methods, though Kiesling’s is implicated in variationism, too.

Parkade: One Canadianism or Two Americanisms?

John Considine
American Speech (2017) 92 (3): 281–97

Parkade is an iconic Canadianism, except that it isn’t, exactly. Considine tracks its origins through the thickets of American and Canadian newspapers, winding along trails of various meanings to show that, while primarily in Western Canadian usage now, parkade originated in the United States. While focused on parkade, the article brings to mind bigger questions, such as what exactly counts as a PLACE-ism, and whether we ought to acknowledge North Americanisms among the other -isms. In its careful collection of data and its scrupulous argument — he even accounts for parkade as a typographical error — the article reminds me of the best of Allen Walker Read, driven, too — as are the pieces listed here by Horn and D’Arcy — by a similar skepticism about conventional wisdom.


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