This article appeared as a part of the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1996

Tom-Tom Tommyrot

William J. Bennetta

When the writing of history textbooks is left to charlatans and tricksters, two nasty results ensue. Students learn "history" that is fake, and they simultaneously lose their opportunity to learn real history -- real history that can illuminate the ways of mankind and can show how the past is linked to the present.

I have been reminded of these matters, frequently, during my reading of the West Publishing Company's new high-school book United States History: In the Course of Human Events, dated in 1997. West's writers continually try to manipulate students by feeding them "history" that consists of puffery, distortions and fantasies, evidently contrived to comply with current ideological fads. Not the least of these is the fad for hyping imaginary achievements and "contributions" of aboriginal Amerindians, as in this item that West's writers put under the heading "Indian Cultural Influences":

A great number of Indian words became part of the emerging American English language. Because English had no names for animals native to American soil, such as the moose, the skunk, and the chipmunk, colonists used Indian words usually from the Algonquian (al-GAHN-kwee-uhn) family of languages. The colonists also used Indian words for food such as maize, hominy, and succotash. They learned to call certain trees tamarack, or hickory, or pecan. [page 86]

The writers' very first phrase convinces me that they are bent on tricking students. I can think of no other reason why they would refer vaguely to a "great number" instead of telling the pertinent facts:

To put these facts into perspective, I point out that American English has more than 100,000 terms that are in everyday use; and the entire American English lexicon, including all its technical and professional terms, has more than twice that number. Manifestly, the "Indian Cultural Influences" upon American English have been trivial (to say the most), and the notion that American English has absorbed a "great number of Indian words" is tommyrot.

Much worse, however, is the claim that the English colonists adopted Indian names "for animals native to American soil" because there were no English names for such animals. Here the writers not only are peddling falsity but also are hiding some real history that provides insights into the behavior of immigrants.

The truth is that there were plenty of English names for New World animals, because the early English colonists (and the many Englishmen who came after them) invented such names at will. Instead of adopting Indian words, they almost always called New World animals by names that came directly from English.

If we look at the American English names for New World animals, we find many that are straightforward combinations of other English terms -- grizzly bear, rainbow trout, paddlefish, catbird, hognose snake, copperhead and so forth. But in other cases, the origins of animal names aren't so transparent. These include cases in which the Englishmen named New World animals after Old World animals. When they saw a conspicuous red-breasted songbird in America, they gave it the name of a conspicuous red-breasted bird that they had known in England; they called it a robin (though its resemblance to the English robin is far from compelling). They borrowed the name of an Old World falcon, the kestrel, and applied it to a different falcon that they found here. When they encountered small brown ground-dwelling birds, they named them after some small brown ground-dwelling birds that inhabited England; they called them sparrows. They gave the English name bass to dozens of different fishes, including both marine and fresh-water species. And so forth.

Nearly all of our thousands of common names for animals, then, are English through and through. Even bison and buffalo -- our two names for the animal that is most closely linked to Indians in our national lore -- are English. Bison is an English word derived from a German precursor, while buffalo is an English word whose origins lie in ancient Greek.

All this serves to exemplify a general phenomenon. All over the world, colonists generally have relied on their own languages to furnish vernacular names for indigenous animals and plants; and in doing so, they have created odd misnomers and, sometimes, real confusion. (Our meadowlark is not a lark; New World sparrows and Old World sparrows belong to different families; American blackbirds don't correspond to the English blackbird, which is a kind of thrush; and so on.) Yet we easily can understand why colonists have preferred to use familiar terms -- no matter how inappropriate those terms may seem in a biological context -- instead of using the strange words of the indigenes. I suggest that students in history classes would profit from giving some thought to this phenomenon. I also suggest that students in history classes should be protected from West Publishing's tricksters.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail