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Lexical Research in American Speech: Allen Walker Read

Curated by Michael Adams

Indiana University – Bloomington

Charged with curating a list of important American Speech articles about words, I quickly realized I would need to assemble a list of Allen Walker Read’s works separately. Otherwise, no one else’s work would end up in the list. Read (1906–2002) was an astonishingly versatile scholar whose breadth of interests over a 75-year career generated some 500 books, articles, and conference papers, most of them accounted for in “A Bibliography of the ‘Special Studies and Publications’ of Allen Walker Read,” compiled by Michael Adams and Richard W. Bailey (2017). Read early established himself as the finest-toothed comb then teasing out the facts of American English. For most of his career, there was no World Wide Web. Instead, through indefatigable reading of newspapers, magazines, and ephemeral documents, he traced the origins and histories of words with astonishing accuracy and to surprising conclusions. And, it is worth noting, many sources from which Read culled evidence for his historical arguments aren’t digitized today. If you’ll settle for what’s on the Web, if that’s as far as your imagination takes you, you can’t write articles about words as good as those by Allen Walker Read. Usually, Read saw through the conventional wisdom about words like blizzard or O.K. and embarked on a quest to find the truth about them, slogging through texts until he found evidence that pointed true north. His compass wasn’t infallible — he might be off by a degree or two — but it reliably pointed in the right direction, word after word. He proved a lot about the words, but he also proved that a life engaged in lexical research, though a strain on the eyes, led, not only to knowledge, but to joy.

The Word Blizzard

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1928) 3 (3): 191–217

Is blizzard eighteenth-century British English, or does it rise, in the sense ‘snow squall’, in Iowa in the mid-nineteenth century? Never mind that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the attribution to O. C. Bate’s newspaper, the Northern Vindicator, on April 23, 1870, is off by a few years — this article otherwise provides a meticulous account of blizzard’s history. More evidence leads to a denser history, and “‘Blizzard’ Again” (1930) fills it in. If you are a young, ambitious linguist interested in historical lexis, note that Read wrote it when he was a graduate student, aged 25. With patience and a big enough library, you can do it, too.

An Obscenity Symbol

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1934) 9 (4): 264–278; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

In 1934, believe it or not, it was illegal to publish profanity — you could be arrested for writing about fuck and similar words, which is why 75 copies of Read’s magnificent book, Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy [that is, graffiti] in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, were published privately in Paris in 1935. Besides being an apt account of fuck, this article is important as a demonstration of how you could write about fuck without ever using the word — it’s a history of fuck that figures in the history of euphemism and so-called obscenity, too.

The Rebel Yell as a Linguistic Problem

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1961) 36 (2): 83–92

Is a yell even a word? Read points out that some yells are conventionalized and end up in dictionaries — hooray is an example. The Rebel yell, we learn from Read, was not conventionalized, which has kept it obscure. In this article, as in many others, Read relies on evidence of American speech recorded by British travelers. Confederate General Jubal Early was the first to note the yell, in an official report, on December 27, 1862; the term Rebel yell appeared a bit later, in a book published in 1864 by a British reporter who traveled with the armies during 1863. Thus, the article not only considers the yell and its linguistic status, but the early history of the term Rebel yell.

The First Stage in the History of “O.K.”

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1963) 38 (1): 5–27; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

Perhaps no one has spent as much time and trouble unravelling the history of a single word as Read on O.K., the subject of much mystification. Read’s articles on O.K. in American Speech constitute a short book on the subject. His methods honed by decades of work since his inquiries into blizzard, Read discovered that O.K. was a humorous abbreviation among a number of them used by journalists in 1838 and 1839, in a period rich with jocular words, so very in keeping with American speech at the time. He identified the earliest known citation for O.K., in the Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839 — 60 years on, no one has been able to improve on that date.

The Second Stage in the History of “O.K.”

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1963) 38 (2): 83–102; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

Having solved the problem of O.K.’s first origin, Read proposed its second, the use of O.K. as an abbreviation for Old Kinderhook, President Martin Van Buren’s nickname and much in vogue during the election of 1840. The journalistic use described in the previous article mingled with the political use, and the fortunes of an otherwise obscure word thus promoted. This article is especially important because, mostly in the footnotes, Read engages with Woodford A. Heflin, once, like Read, an assistant editor on the Dictionary of American English. Heflin dismissed the Old Kinderhook derivation under the old-fashioned etymological assumption that a word should have a single origin. Read’s meticulous and profusely illustrated account suggests the possibility of multiple or mixed etymologies.

The Folklore of “O.K.”

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1964) 39 (1): 5–25; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

No sooner had O.K. become a success than Americans forgot its origin and proposed others, from Andrew Jackson’s bad spelling — the subject of yet another of Read’s American Speech articles of the previous year — to love of Haitian rum from Aux Cayes, to terms of assent that resembled the sound of O.K. in German, French, Greek, Finnish, and Choctaw. Read realized that establishing the truth about O.K. wasn’t enough — he had to disprove all of the folklore that had gradually encrusted the word, a sound principle of lexical argument. Read put it memorably at the end of the article: “With little regard for the historical setting from which a word develops, they [the folk etymologists] have followed the well-established current of belief that the origin of a word can be determined by ingenuity. Much re-education is needed to replace that belief with a sound point of view. The history of O.K. serves well as a laboratory for observing linguistic attitudes” (25).

Later Stages in the History of “O.K.”

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1964) 39 (2): 83–101; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

In this continuation of the O.K. saga, Read maps its spread across time and space, through persistent nineteenth-century use and in England, especially, landing in the twentieth century to note its productivity, in forms like oke and okie-doke, in which O.K., an initialism, becomes an acronym.

Successive Revisions in the Explanation of “O.K.”

Allen Walker Read
American Speech (1964) 39 (4): 243–267; reprinted in PADS 86 (2002)

Whereas “The Folklore of O.K.” outlined mistaken folk-etymologies of the word, Read turns finally to disagreements among scholars of his own generation about O.K.’s origins and influence — it’s a case study in how a scholarly community argues its way to knowledge. Even Woodward A. Heflin, Read’s O.K. nemesis, gets a kind mention in the end.

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