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.”

Mignon Fogarty
6-minute read
The cover of Splendiferous Speech

Besides noting individual words, Trollope frequently quotes people to give a flavor of how they talked. She manages to illustrate several Americanisms at once with the speech of a man who congratulated her on having killed a copperhead snake during a walk. “My!” he exclaims, “If you have not got a copper. That’s right down well done, they be darnation beasts.”

She made a more extended effort to illustrate American speech—at least her version of it—with “a fragment” of a play about a Cincinnati family, attached to the fifth edition of her book. In the play, Trollope indulges in a frenzy of Americanisms. The first line is reminiscent of David Humphreys’s first line in “The Yankey in England”: “Come boys! up with ye! I wish I may be scorched if I don’t send ye both east of sunrise if ye don’t jump slick.” The dialogue is packed with stereotypical Americanisms like “fix,” “reckon,” “calculate,” and “varmint,” as well as new words like “bakery” and provincialisms like “spry.” Trollope also provides an early example of the expression “live high on the hog.” The play’s overload of Americanisms and nonstandard usages is probably not a very realistic representation of the language Trollope heard. Like earlier British critics of American speech, she showed her contempt for it by exaggerating its novelties. She also concentrated on its least educated speakers—people who said “comed” for “came," “be” for “are,” and other nonstandard usages. Nonetheless, most of the words she makes her characters say are also recorded elsewhere. The 1859 edition of Bartlett’s dictionary quotes Trollope for two Americanisms—“get along” meaning to get going, and “grave-yard,” an American variation on the English “church-yard.”

Like other English visitors, Trollope noticed Americans’ expansive use of 'fix.'

Of course American reviewers struck back at Trollope’s portrayal of all Americans as crude, primitive people who didn’t talk right. They pointed out an obvious shortcoming of the book—that she had spent nearly all her time in the United States among denizens of the Ohio frontier. What’s more, they were not of the highest class. The prominent families of Cincinnati had refused to receive her. A Cincinnati reviewer attributes this situation to her “singularly unladylike” air. He describes her as “a short, plump figure, with a ruddy, round Saxon face” and a “want of taste and female intelligence in regard to dress.” She is a “a first-rate talker,” he says. Then, using words she might have quoted herself as a sample of Ohio speech, he adds, “She went, as they say in the West, for quantity of that article.” Other reviewers pointed out that she was a “greenhorn” who allowed the builders of the Bazaar to cheat her. Says one writer with false sympathy, “She might innocently look sour at a country where she lost 30,000 dols.” About the only aspect of her commentary that everyone agreed with was her condemnation of the widespread male habit of chewing tobacco and spitting.

In the end, Americans got their revenge in a particularly American way—by turning the author’s name into a verb. A few years after Fanny Trollope’s visit, the English writer Harriet Martineau also made a tour of the United States, although with a more positive attitude. She remarks in the resulting narrative that an American publisher who was interested in the book encouraged her to “Trollopize a bit” and so make her story more engaging. An American commentator complains about travelers who “come Trolloping over our country, to seek what blemishes they may descry.”

Reprinted from SPLENDIFEROUS SPEECH by ROSEMARIE OSTLER with permission from Chicago Review Press. (c) Copyright 2018. All Rights Reserved.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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