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How ‘Trolloping' Became a Word

In this excerpt from "Splendiferous Speech," you'll learn why Frances Trollope disliked American words such as “fix,” “reckon,” “calculate,” and “varmint.”

By
Mignon Fogarty,
The cover of Splendiferous Speech

The Englishwoman Frances Trollope, who spent two wretched years in Ohio in the 1820s, took a less good-humored view of frontier speech habits. Like almost everything else that she found in America, they affronted her taste. In her 1832 book, “Domestic Manners of the Americans,” she writes, “I very seldom during my whole stay in the country heard a sentence elegantly turned, and correctly pronounced from the lips of an American. There is always something either in the expression or the accent that jars the feelings and shocks the taste.”

Fanny Trollope, mother of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, arrived in the United States in 1828 with her two young daughters and her teenage son, Henry. (Anthony, another brother, and their father remained at home in England.) Like many others who traveled to the frontier, she was hoping to make her fortune—her barrister husband had squandered most of his money on bad investments in land. Trollope believed she could recoup some of their losses and give Henry a start in life by going into business in a place with fewer economic and social restrictions than London.

Like many others who traveled to the frontier, Trollope was hoping to make her fortune.

Trollope’s original plan had been to join a Utopian community founded by a friend in the Tennessee backwoods. When she arrived, she discovered that the community consisted of a few unfinished cabins, so she fled with her children to Cincinnati. By the 1820s, the town was no longer exactly a frontier outpost. Ohio had been a state since 1803, and Cincinnati, with nearly twenty thousand inhabitants, was booming. Exports including whiskey, pork products, and various manufactured goods were shipped by steamboat from its bustling wharves. The town boasted a medical college, libraries, churches, schools, newspapers, and a theater.

Still, the place came as a shock to someone from London. Trollope describes the town as “an uninteresting mass of buildings” and as having “only just enough of the air of a city to make it noisy and bustling.” Only the main street was paved. Garbage was disposed of by dumping it in the middle of the street and letting the freeroaming pigs help themselves. There were no gutters, so every rain shower washed detritus from the higher to the lower streets, where it collected in unpleasant mounds. Even the hills surrounding the town were devoid of shrubs and flowers.

The Trollopes never really found their footing financially. After one or two unsuccessful attempts to earn money, they hit on the idea of presenting mechanical exhibits at the Western Museum, a natural history and antiquities museum. Their exhibit “The Infernal Regions,” portraying scenes from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” was very popular. They also presented theatrical performances in their home. The Trollopes (encouraged by Trollope’s husband, who briefly visited) overreached when they decided to build an enormous entertainment center that would have space for a theater, exhibitions, a lecture room, a coffeehouse, and commercial stalls. The Bazaar, an exotic-looking building modeled after the Egyptian Hall in London, cost a fortune to build. Once open, it steadily lost money. The final blow came when Trollope and her son both contracted malaria. The family abandoned their American project and began making their way east and finally home.

Trollope took notes throughout her trip with the idea of writing a book. Back in England, still in a foul mood from her business losses, she settled down to compose “Domestic Manners of the Americans.” The book was a thorough indictment of the American character, way of life, and, not least, speech habits. Published in 1832, it was a runaway hit in on both sides of the Atlantic. On the English side, it reinforced the negative views that many people held of the United States. On the American side, it inspired outrage but made for compulsive reading.

Back in England, still in a foul mood from her business losses, Trollope settled down to compose 'Domestic Manners of the Americans.'

Trollope had at last discovered a way to make money from Cincinnati. The book is full of direct and indirect comments on American language use. Trollope was appalled by what she heard, but she had an excellent ear. Her quotations are full of striking words and expressions. Names for American baked goods that she records include “hot cake,” “hoe cake,” “johny cake,” “waffle cake,” and “dodger cake.” She notes that stores where bread is sold are called “bakeries,” rather than the “baker” or “bakeshop,” as in England. She also records the term “grocery store,” which the English would call a “grocer” or “grocer’s shop.” (Bartlett doesn’t mention bakeries but does list “grocery” as an Americanism.)

Like other English visitors, Trollope noticed Americans’ expansive use of “fix.” A young woman explained that she was always fixed in her best when attending church. Trash was fixed into the middle of the street. Plucking and cleaning chickens was called fixing them. Trollope heard stories of people finding themselves in an unhandsome fix or an ugly fix.

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