P.G. Wodehouse’s language is as American as it is British
P.G. Wodehouse’s most famous characters, patrician bumbler Bertie Wooster and his suave Shakespeare-quoting valet Jeeves, turn 100 in a few weeks with the September anniversary of Wodehouse’s 1915 short story “Extricating Young Gussie.” For many American readers, Bertie and Jeeves are two essentially English characters, with books like “Right Ho, Jeeves” and “The Code of the Woosters” encapsulating the entire American fantasy of Edwardian England: country homes, club life, the occasional paddle to the rear, unsuitable romances thwarted by dragon-lady aunts, cold lobster luncheons, and noblemen who are bizarrely obsessed with their collections of antique cow-shaped tea-sets.
Looking at Wodehouse’s many, lasting contributions to the English language, though, a different picture emerges. “Extricating Young Gussie” is set in America, where Wodehouse was living at the time, as he did on and off for much of his adult life, and it draws on contemporary theater slang as well as New York dialect. Working to appeal to a trans-Atlantic audience, and with his unique ear for dialect, Wodehouse ended up leaving a lexicon that is just as American as it is British.
Wodehouse was born in Surrey, England, in 1881, and educated at a series of boarding schools, most happily Dulwich College, in the South London suburbs, where he spent his teenage years. He never went to university (his banker father, with three other sons, wasn’t able to afford tuition), and instead tried clerking at a London bank before launching his career as an extremely prolific writer. All of these early English influences are well represented in Wodehouse’s language, which was rich with London clerks’ slang like “give me the pip” (irritate), “restore the tissues” (drink), and “off his onion” (unbalanced), Robert McCrum writes in his biography, “Wodehouse: A Life.”
In 1904, however, Wodehouse made a short trip to New York City, and discovered paradise. “Being there was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying,” he wrote. He spent the rest of his life as a quasi-American citizen, and much of the Englishness in his best-known work may be a response to what he discovered were American tastes. “In many ways, he’s one of the most American writers of the 20th century,” McCrum told me.
Wodehouse’s portrait of America was just as fantastically cliche as his portrait of England — but faithfulness to the spoken language anchored him in reality. In “Extricating Young Gussie,” Bertie, dispatched to Manhattan to bring his cousin Gus back home to the fold, meets Mr. Riesbitter, a vaudeville manager who is supposed to secure Gus a job that will help him win the heart of the actress he’s fallen for. Riesbitter speaks in a very familiar New Yawk accent: “Now, let me tell ya something,” he says to Gus. “You lizzun t’me. . . . What it comes to is that I can fix you up in the four-a-day, if you’ll take thirty-five per. . . . Take it or leave it. What do you say?” Two aging vaudeville actors (Gus’s mother and his beloved’s father) also use a sprinkling of American slang terms like “put it across,” meaning “succeed mightily,” and “kid.” But even Bertie uses some American slang in this story (as well as classic Anglicisms like “tosh,” a cricketing word for “rot”) when talking about an excellent vaudeville show: “altogether, the act was, broadly speaking, a pippin,” Bertie says — “pippin” being, according to the OED, a slang term originating State-side.
As Wodehouse became more immersed in American culture, and words (“all I want to do is to get back and hear the American language again,” he wrote in 1923 during a stay in London), he drew on it more in his writing. And just as his novels set in England nosed in on local slang, his novels and stories set in America, or with American characters — frequently Bowery toughs and their fast-talkin’ molls, Pinkerton thugs, or clean-shaven millionaires — often helped record language changes overseas as well.
The OED cites Wodehouse in 1,500 entries; in about 150 of these, he’s credited as the first known source for the word (or new meaning of a word). These include some extremely English terms, and other words and phrases that transcend all national categories: “between you and me and the lamp-post”; “cuppa”; “loony-bin”; and “zippiness.” But they also include many American words. The OED describes a number of words that first pop up in Wodehouse as being of US origin: “bone-headed”; “fifty-fifty”; “ritzy”; “sweetie-pie”; “bubble” (for car); “cheaters” (for glasses); and “gentlemen’s agreement.” As an American vaudeville performer says to a young English girl in the 1920 novel “Jill The Reckless,” “So our talk sort of goes over the top, does it? Well, you’ll learn American soon, if you stick around.”
“It’s not an uncommon occurrence when you’re working on a really characteristically American term to find one of the earliest examples is from Wodehouse,” said Katherine Connor Martin, head of American dictionaries at the OED. She pointed out Wodehouse’s love of classical American cliches like “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” or “cracker jack.” Wodehouse’s America was a mongrel of Broadway and Hollywood stock characters and situations, and so was, frequently, his language. Maybe that’s why, even after 100 years, so much of it still rings so familiar and true.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jeeves’s job. He was a valet.