Stewart Davis

Indiana University

Audio | Handout

Francis Lieber's Americanisms as an Early Source on Southern Speech

In 1848 John Bartlett published his Dictionary of Americanisms. Partially as a response to Bartlett, Francis Lieber, a professor of history and political economy at South Carolina College (present day USC Columbia), compiled a work he entitled "Americanisms, Anglicisms, etc etc" between 1849-1851. This unpublished work located today in the Huntington Library (near Los Angeles) consists of ten small notebooks (each about 6" x 5") with about 820 entries on 385 pages. Entries in Lieber's Americanisms include words and expressions that Lieber considered new or whose usage he considered novel or unusual. Lieber was interested in local vocabulary and slang and in distinguishing Americanisms from Anglicisms. While Lieber's work has been briefly discussed by Heath (1982) and Andresen (1990), most of the specific entries have never been published. Lieber's entries are particularly valuable because of his linguistic sophistication. One of Lieber's mentors in Germany before coming to America was Wilhelm von Humboldt. In this talk, I focus on the local words and expressions in Lieber's Americanisms. These include southernisms, the college slang of South Carolina College where he taught, and entries regarding black speech. With respect to southernisms, Lieber, writing around 1850, gave several entries that predate what is found in DARE or OED. For example, he gave the following entry for doty. "Doty is a very common expression here about (Columbia S. C.) for spongey rottenness inside a tree, among common white people and negros." This term is listed in both DARE and OED with similar meaning but the earliest date cited is 1883. Lieber gives the following entry for frenching. "[I]t is common in Florida to say a field frenches cotton or corn etc when the plant first promises well but at a certain period becomes poor and dies owing to the soil." DARE provides similar meaning but with 1889 as the earliest date. Another interesting entry is Lieber's entry for stake-and-rider fence. He gives the following, "the name given here in S. Carolina (and perhaps everywhere further south) to the fence called in Virginia and further North worm-fences". Carver (1987) cites stake-and-rider fence as a feature exclusive to the Lower North. Lieber provides entries and explanations for other southernisms found in DARE such as givey (humid), honing (longing for) and cracker. Regarding local college slang, Lieber gives such lost terms as rat-fresh (a freshman who enters mid-term) and chawcastic (being sarcastic about someone). Concerning black speech, Lieber makes frequent references to characteristics he believes common among blacks. Most noteworthy is his detailed grammatical explanation of perfective DONE which he regards as a feature of black speech and notes the following: "The lower white persons have much adopted this done, which is an amplification and still further fixing of the idea of the past, the completion of an action." Thus, Lieber sees the perfective meaning of DONE among whites as an adaptation from black speech. Consequently, Lieber's "Americanisms" provides a unique source of southernisms in the antebellum period.

Andresen, Julie Tetel (1990) Linguistics in America 1769-1924: A Critical History, London: Routledge, pp. 114-119.
Carver, Craig (1987) American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Heath, Shirley Brice (1982) "American English: Quest for a Model". In Braj Kachru (ed.) The Other Tongue: English across
    Cultures, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 237-249.