Thursday, 5 February 2009

Sharp-eyed readers and Uncle Sam

To many users, a dictionary is the linguistic representation of a shared culture, one they not only witness but actively participate in. So it is natural that readers often wish to contribute suggestions or amendments to a dictionary that describes the language they use themselves. At Chambers we regularly receive letters and emails that prove to be interesting reading and often include comments that we take into account in future editions of our dictionaries.

Readers often notice the most specific intricacies of language, unearth fascinating facts or citations, and raise initially baffling queries that ultimately result in new discoveries for both parties. There are all sorts of linguistic curiosities that we explore as part of our regular correspondence with readers from all over the world.

One keen-eyed correspondent recently pointed out an interesting citation in James Fenimore Cooper’s tale The Prairie (1827) explicitly linking the name Uncle Sam with the US government. Chapter 10 of the story introduces Captain Middleton of the US Artillery, and describes aspects of his attire and belongings in great detail:

‘At his back he bore a knapsack, marked by the well known initials that have since gained for the government of the United States the good-humoured and quaint appellation of Uncle Sam.’

The correspondent raised a question about the origin of this expression, which is an interesting case of folk etymology versus documented fact.

Common folklore suggests that Uncle Sam initially referred to a real person, Samuel Wilson. A meatpacker from Troy, New York, Wilson stamped barrels of meat bound for American soldiers with the initials U.S., which were jokingly interpreted by the receivers as gifts from ‘Uncle Sam’.

However, historians and lexicographers dispute this derivation in favour of a more established theory. The first traceable written record of Uncle Sam to refer to the US government or its people is in the Troy Post of September 7, 1813, in which the editors declared: ‘Loss upon loss, and no ill luck stirring but what lights upon Uncle Sam's shoulders’. They explained that the term originated with the markings on US military supplies: ‘The letters U.S. on the government waggons, &c., are supposed to have given rise to it.’ This derivation is supported by the quotation supplied by our correspondent. The Cooper citation suggests that, rather than an appellation for a real person, Uncle Sam was indeed a nickname for the government of the United States, resulting from the markings on military equipment – in this case Captain Middleton’s knapsack.

Uncle Sam has continued to be used as a visual representation of America, changing over the years until being established in his current bearded form, complete with the patriotic stars and stripes of his top hat, tail coat and striped trousers. While he may not have ever existed as a real person, he certainly exists as an iconic American symbol, albeit one with exuberant fashion tastes!

Deborah Smith

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