The influence of the Gold Rush on American English

The book I Hear America Talking: An Illustrated Treasury of American Words and Phrases (Flexner) (pp. 174-79) gives a number of words and phrases that are related to the Gold Rush in the American West (1849 and later). Which some of these were mere "flash in the pans" (a gold rush term), others have "panned out" (another Gold Rush term) in American English.

  • It is strange that the term gold rush itself doesn't really occur until 1900 (GB 1869, OED 1893, COHA 1906), and doesn't really become common until the early 1900s -- two generations after the 49ers. Maybe just like the term Great Depression, it takes several decades of reflection and writing about something before it achieves critical mass.

  • Likewise, the terms forty-niner (COHA, GB), gold fever (COHA, GB), and prospector  (GB 1835, OED 1846, COHA 1857) don't become common until about a generation after the fact, nor the term tenderfoot (COHA, GB), which referred to a newcomer to life in the West

  • pan (v) for gold (COHA, GB). I would have guessed that this would have been common back in the 1800s, but it doesn't occur until about 1900, and then doesn't really increase much until about the 1940s. Strange.

  • References to California (COHA, GB) do increase steadily in the 1800s (and beyond), especially in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush and after California had become a state. The same is true with San Francisco (COHA, GB).

  • Gold mine (COHA, GB) does increase steadily through about 1900, which does make sense, since people were mining through the West (Colorado, Alaska, etc) up until that time.

  • nugget (COHA, GB) refers to the tiny bits of gold that everyone was looking for. It does occur starting in the early 1850s and increases steadily after that.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of words and phrases relating to the Gold Rush are those which have taken on metaphorical, figurative meaning since that time. Some aren't found when/where we'd expect in COHA, while others are. The more problematic ones are:

  • The book mentioned that prospect (COHA, GB) may have increased due to the Gold Rush, but COHA and Google Books don't show this to be the case. It has had a slow but steady decline since the early 1800s. In addition, the adjectives used with prospect don't really reflect an influence of the Gold Rush.

  • bonanza (COHA, GB) (from Spanish, referring to finding lots of gold) doesn't increase much at all at the time of the Gold Rush

  • stake one's claim (COHA) isn't found until about 1900, and then increases through the current time.

Words and phrases with a bit more evidence in COHA:

  • pay dirt (COHA, GB), i.e. "dirt that has gold in it" is found for the first time in 1853, and then is sporadic throughout the 1800s, but really only increases (with its use mainly in the metaphorical sense) in the 1900s.

  • (big/lucky) strike (COHA, GB): didn't occur until the 1860s/1870s, then highest use 1920s-1970s, and decrease since then

  • If something does last, then (just like gold) it pans out (COHA, GB). There are no occurrences in COHA before the 1870s, but it seems to be increasing steadily over time.

Words and phrases with the best evidence in COHA:

  • Flash in the pan (COHA) means "something that temporarily looks promising", but (like fools' gold) doesn't really last. In COHA, this actually predates the gold rush, but does increase a lot in the 1840s.

  • (mother) lode (COHA) "a rich vein of ore". Although the word lode doesn't really increase much in frequency in the 1800s, the words used with lode from the 1840s-1900s do reflect the mining sense: Comstock, petered (out), famous, silver, struck, mine, richest, and gold. It is also interesting that the figurative use of mother lode (e.g. 1988 Lee Iacocca is a veritable mother lode of charming self-contradiction) doesn't become common until well into the 1900s.

  • strike it rich (COHA): actually pre-dates the Gold Rush (1834: a great rush to the new fields ... who expected to strike it rich with less labor and expense, but no reference here to finding gold), but does increase a lot in the 1800s, when people were striking it rich in Colorado and Nevada.