In his classic book The American Language (published in 1919 and periodically revised through 1936), H.L. Mencken has a chapter called “Briticisms in the United States.” I don’t know what’s taken me so long but I’ve just now read it carefully, and was struck, among other things, by the number of early NOOBs he mentions that I didn’t realize were such.

Take “smog.” It sounds American as American can be, and that was certainly the case in 1970, when Joni Mitchell, in her song “Woodstock,” declared, “I have come here to lose the smog.”

But it definitely is English in origin. In July 1905, the newspaper The Globe helpfully reported its apparent creation: “The other day at a meeting of the Public Health Congress Dr. [H.A.] Des Vœux did a public service in coining a new word for the London fog, which was referred to as ‘smog’, a compound of ‘smoke’ and ‘fog’.” The same year the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the development and commented: “London is undoubtedly the proper place for its coinage, for it is said to surpass all other places in the opacity of its smog, but so far as mere darkness is concerned some other British and American cities would afford ample justification for the use of the term.”

The U.S. Weather Bureau picked up the word in 1914, causing a wag to comment in the Kokomo Tribune: “But why end there? Let’s call a mixture of snow and mud ‘smud.’ A mixture of snow and soot ‘snoot,’ and a mixture of snow and hail ‘snail.’ Thus we might have a weather forecast: ‘Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow, smoggy with smud.’”

But the term was still unfamiliar enough in America in 1921 for a New York Times reviewer of a book by C.W. Saleeby to comment, “America has no counterpart of that strange mixture, thick as pea soup, the color of faded green, sticky and smutty against the human skin and the facade of buildings, with a taste something like stale beer, which serves much of the time as atmosphere in Edinburgh and London. It acts like smoke and looks like fog. Dr. Saleeby has at last found a name for it, a name that is a positive inspiration. It should be in the next edition of all dictionaries. The name is Smog. The adjective is ‘smoggy.’”

Things soon changed as American cities (notably Pittsburgh and Los Angeles) developed the problem, and Americans adopted the word. Indeed, Ngram Viewer shows that since the early ’20s, U.S. use of “smog” has surpassed that in Britain — most dramatically during the environmental movement of the 1960s and early ’70s. That is, right when Joni Mitchell was writing “Woodstock.”

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