Americanisms in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman
Pete Makkonen, Fall 2009
FAST-US-1 (TRENPK2) Introduction to American English (Hopkins)
The FAST Area Studies Program
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere
This paper analyses Americanisms in Arthur Miller's 1948 play Death of
a Salesman. First, the spelling differences between the British and
American editions of the play will be compared, after which attention will
be given to various lexical items, phrasal verbs, and significant cultural
references. The concentration will be on those features of the English
language that are distinctively American in style.
Overview of the play
Arthur Miller's 1948 play Death of a Salesman tells the story of
the Loman family. Willy Loman is a 63-year-old travelling salesman; he has
a wife (Linda) and two sons (Happy and Biff). Despite having had a lengthy
career as a travelling salesman, Loman has been demoted to working on a
commission instead of a regular salary. This has resulted in Willy
becoming gradually depressed, and he has attempted to take his own life on
several occasions. On top of that, he has become senile and frequently
engages in lengthy monologues that take place in his past.
In his daydreams, his now-grown-up sons Biff and Happy are still great
future prospects; his older brother Benjamin, who is portrayed as the
archetype of a successful man, is still alive to consult him. These
sequences give the reader an insight between Willy's past, and his hopes
and dreams and expectations. Unfortunately, these dreams and expectations
do not meet in this play. Willy's ultimate belief is that personality and
being well-liked is what will get you ahead in life. He has rooted his
beliefs in his sons (Biff particularly), but neither son has managed to
achieve success or upward mobility.
The American Dream has not been fulfilled for the Loman men. The final
nail in Willie's coffin is the realization that he is in fact worth more
dead than alive; through his life insurance policy, his elder son Biff
might have a chance to finally make the grade.
Differences in spelling and punctuation between British and American
editions of the play
The following list shows a number of notable spelling and two minor
punctuation differences between the US and UK versions of the play. The
American words appear first, followed by page number from the US version
of the play, published by Penguin Books New York in 1998. The British
equivalents followed by their page numbers are taken from the UK version
of the play, published by Penguin Books London in 2000.
- behavior (2)- behaviour (8)
- caliber (50) - calibre (53)
- carburetor (23) - carburettor (28)
- center (1) - centre (7)
- check (103) - cheque (102)
- color (8) - colour (14)
- favor (57) - favour (60)
- harbor (56) - harbour (59)
- honor (100) - honour (100)
- humor (10) - humour (15)
- mold (48) - mould (52)
- mustache (30) - moustache (34)
- neighborhood (6) - neighbourhood (12)
- pajamas (28) - pyjamas (32)
- self-centered (91) - self-centred (92)
- self-centeredest (91) - self-centredest (92)
- somberly (109) - sombrely (108)
- Christmas time (41) - Christmas-time (44) [The UK version has
inserted a hyphen]
- Mr. Birnbaum (20) - Mr Birnbaum (25) [The UK version has
removed the period in "Mr."]
Differences in vocabulary between British and American English editions of
Following is a list of notable American lexical items present in
the play and their British equivalents. The cited page numbers hereafter
refer to the version of the play published by Penguin Books Ltd in London
- apartment houses (7) - blocks of flats
- beets (99) - beetroot
- bum (11) - tramp
- business suit (50)1 - lounge suit
- check (91) at a restaurant - bill
- cord (electrical) (65) - flex, lead, wire
- drummer (63)2 - commercial traveller, salesman
- elevator (47) - lift
- flashlight (99) - torch
- front stoop (110) - front porch
- football (80) - Refers to American football. In Britain,
football refers to soccer.
- math (86) - maths
- mom (19) - mum
- nightgown (41) - nightdress
- store (24) - shop
- sneakers (25) - trainers
- subway (16) - underground, tube
- vacuum-cleaner (27) - Hoover
- vacation - (holiday)
- washroom (90) - public toilet
- windshield (9) - windscreen
- yard (7) 3 - garden
- zero (53) - nil
Notable American phrasal verbs in the play
- dime a dozen (105) - Basically a figurative way of saying that
something is abundant, cheap and common (Spears 153). This phrasal verb
occurs twice in the British National Corpus, whereas it occurs 84 times in
the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
- comes with the territory (111) - Used figuratively to describe
events or things that are to be expected under prevailing circumstances
(Spears 116). This phrasal verb occurs three times in this form in the
British National Corpus, while occurring a total of 107 times in the
Corpus of Contemporary American English.
- knock for a loop (57) - A figurative way of expressing
shock, amazement or the act of physically striking someone (Spears 378).
Used within the play to express amazement or shock. Various forms of the
phrasal verb are found within the Corpus of Contemporary American English,
the search "for a loop" results in 110 closely matching occurrences. The
phrasal verb is not found within the British National Corpus.
Vernacular language and colloquialisms in the play
The play is set in New York and Boston and the depicted characters are
mainly of a lower middle-class status. Both regional and social variation
is depicted in the language of the play through the vernacular language
spoken by the characters. A vernacular is a non-standard variety of
language, usually spoken by a lower-status group (Yule 212).
One of the features frequently found within the text is the dropping of
the final -g in -ing endings of words. This reduction is evident within
the play in words like goin', dreamin', tellin' (9), getting' and makin'
(16). According to Finegan and Rickford (26), middle-class residents in
New York pronounce the final "g" more often than working-class residents.
As Yule (213) points out, another typical feature of a vernacular is the
absence of forms of the verb "to be" (are, is). An omission of such forms
is present in sentences such as "You gonna wash the engine, Biff?" (20),
as well as in phrases such as "That funny?" (13), "You smoking?" (14) and
"You crazy?" (82).
Other notable phrases that depict a low-variety include the erroneous
use of is instead of has as in "A salesman is got to dream" (111), "The
average young man today - is got a calibre of zero" (53) and the use of
the double negative construction as in "Nobody's worth nothin' dead" (77).
In addition to vernacular language, colloquial expressions and words are
frequent within the play. These include exclamations such as gee (22), gee
whiz (57), words like Pop (22) for father and flunk (25) for failing an
examination. The following list contains common colloquial expressions
from the play followed by their standard American English equivalents.
- `cause (20) - because
- coulda (13) - could have
- gonna (20) - going to
- oughta (17) - ought to
- shoulda (39) - should have
- ya (9) - you
- y'know (9) - you know
Other highly American features in the play
There are numerous references to American culture within the play.
References to American football are made with sporting terminology such as
touchdown (24), and a football team - the New York Giants (80). Baseball
is naturally mentioned (69) and played at Ebbets Field (54), a [former]
Major League Baseball park in Brooklyn, New York, which also used to serve
as a venue for football games.
The exam Biff has to take is a Regents (25) state exam, taken under the
supervision of the New York State Board of Regents. And if Biff had
managed to graduate high school, he would have attended the University of
Virginia (25) in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Notable references to consumer culture include Chevvy or Chevy (25),
short for Chevrolet; and Studebaker (9), both of which were brands of
popular cars at the time. Brand names such as General Electric and
Hastings refrigerators (56) are also mentioned. References to American
institutions and activities related to institutions include the United
States Military Academy at West Point (80), the U.S. Supreme Court (75)
and jury duty (89).
There are also numerous references to American geographical locations,
including states such as Florida (9), Nebraska (16), Arizona (16), and
Texas (17) among others; places within the State of New York such as Long
Island (17), Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn (15), and Albany; as well as nearby
communities such as Hackensack, New Jersey (78)
References to famous Americans include such people as inventor Thomas
Edison (13), industrialist B. F. Goodrich (13), boxer Gene Tunney (22),
comedian Jack Benny (69), American football player Harold Edward "Red"
Grange (70), and financier J. P. Morgan (77).
Summary: The Main Differences Between the Two Versions Were in
Spelling, Punctuation, Vernacular Expression, and References to American
Although the versions of the play printed in the UK and the US are
otherwise identical, the UK version had a number of words that were
spelled differently in British Standard English from their original
American English spellings. There were also minor differences in
punctuation between the two versions. The use of vernacular language and
colloquial expressions within the text served to portray the characters
and their working class background, as well as them being natives of New
York. The use of American English language and the numerous American
cultural references reveal that Death of a Salesman is essentially an
- In the United States, a lounge suit would refer to a "woman's
pyjama-type suit, suitable for relaxing and lounging about in" (Darragh
- A drummer, noun, colloquial. A salesman, especially a commercial
traveller. (Darragh 86).
- Americans use the term yard to refer to cultivated areas of flowers,
vegetables, herbs or fruit, whereas this term is used by the British to
refer to the area surrounding the house, whether grass or concrete.
- The British National Corpus. URL: https://bnc.uta.fi. Viewed 18
- Darragh, Glenn. A to Zed, A to Zee - A Guide to the Differences
Between British and American English. Cheltenham: Stanley, 2000.
- Davies, Mark. Corpus of Contemporary American English. Brigham
Young University. URL: http://www.americancorpus.org/. Viewed 18 November
- Finegan, Edward and John R. Rickford. Language in the U.S.A:
Themes for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Cambridge University Press,
- Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. London: Penguin Books Ltd,
- ---. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books Ltd. 1998.
- Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Idioms
and Phrasal Verbs. Chigago: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
- Yule, George. The Study of Language. Third edition. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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Last Updated 22 November 2010