The Corner

Divided By A Common Language

A feature on the BBC website — “Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples” — publishes the most popular, well… unpopular, Americanisms according to the sort of people who write in to these things. “Thousands” of such people wrote in, and were largely “infuriated,” “sickened,” and “appalled” by American phrases that are ostensibly entering the English language in the U.K. Being interested in language, and exposed every day to the little differences, it is disappointing that the whole thing is a thinly-veiled excuse for a little anti-Americanism, an outlet for what Jonathan Freedland cleverly called a “reverse oedipal complex.” The piece should really have been titled, ”An open invitation to have a go at America.”

A while back I pitched a one-off radio broadcast to an independent production company in London. As part of my research, I interviewed a panoply of Brits about their attitudes toward the United States. I was particularly interested in people who had never been to America. One woman to whom I spoke–a teacher at a school in Cambridge–was virulently anti-American: “They all have big white teeth and they say ‘have a nice day’!” she told me, indignantly.

“There could be worse things,” I suggested, helpfully, “than big white teeth and regular instructions to enjoy yourself.”

“No, no, no,” she continued. “‘Have a nice day’ is just rubbish! I mean, we don’t say it over here!”

And there you have it. It doesn’t happen here, ergo it is wrong. For many of the Americanisms on the BBC’s list, their only crime is their difference. Why, for example, is Graham Nicholson from Glasgow so deeply vexed by ‘shopping cart’ instead of ‘shopping trolley’? There are a ton of different words between the languages–’lift’ for ‘elevator,’ ‘sofa’ for ‘couch,’ ‘holiday’ for ‘vacation,’ ‘motorway’ for ‘freeway,’ ‘television license’ for ‘tax.’ So what? None of them seem to me to be sufficient to drive anyone to be “thoroughly disgusted” with themself. One presumes that, when in a French supermarket, Mr. Nicholson is capable of using the word “chariot” without being impelled to self-flagellation.

Among the words on the BBC’s list that fall into the Just Different category are: ‘bangs’ for fringe,’ ‘take-out’ for ‘take away,’ ‘period’ for ‘full stop,’ ‘season’ for ‘series,’ and ‘math’ for ‘maths.’ Michael Zealey from London is very concerned with the last on that list. “Math?” he asks. ‘It’s MATHS.” Why? They are both short forms for “Mathematics.” There is no right word. Surely it’s no different than having both “Katie” and “Katy” as nicknames for “Katherine”? It cannot be argued with a straight face that any of these are better or worse than their counterparts unless you also intend to take a ferry to France and start explaining to the French that all their words for things are wrong. (This sounds as if it should be straight out of a Waugh satire: “Can you BELIEVE that they said ‘bonjour’ this morning? It’s not ‘bonjour,’ it’s ‘HELLO”…)

And the rest? An interesting mix of actual errors, urban or ghetto slang, Southern slang, a couple of Britishisms that are mistakenly ID’d as Americanisms (“waitin on a friend” is the Stones’ fault) and American words or phrases that may actually be preferable to the Brit equivalent. Let’s get real and acknowledge that idioms exist. Go to East London and you will find a treasure trove of phrases that make no real sense outside of their internal logic, and have sometimes been twice or thrice removed from the original intent. In Cockney, a sixpence was called a “Tartan Banner.” Why? Because another nickname for a sixpence was a “Tanner.” Thus we have a piece of rhyming slang that is referring to an existing nickname. Occasionally, the operative part of the rhyme is removed from the phrase, leaving a word which makes no obvious sense: Again in the East End, to “take a look” at something is “to take a Butcher’s.” The original phrase was a “Butcher’s Hook,” which, obviously, rhymes with “look,” but makes much less sense when the second word is removed.

I am not an anarchic language advocate. Language has to have rules, but this is not the issue here. Language evolves, and unless we want to institute an equivalent of the farcical French Académie française, and decide what will be allowed and what won’t, then we should accept it with alacrity. We should also accept that two countries divided by 3000 miles of ocean at the nearest point are going to have some minor diversions in language. But this article wasn’t about language, it was about reinforcing the notion that American influence is pernicious.

British anti-Americanism upsets me deeply, as it did my namesake Alistair Cooke. Those who know me will by now, no doubt, be rolling their eyes, but I think this is worth repeating one more time. Anti-Americanism is, to me, the strangest phenomenon, and for two reasons. Firstly, because America is a nation of immigrants and has people from every one of the world’s countries. To hate America, therefore, is not too far away from hating the world. But second, because of the way in which reflexive anti-Americanism is tolerated in Britain and beyond. I have been at many a dinner party in Europe at which it has been stated, without embarrassment, that Americans are “all fat” or “all stupid,” or… choose your own negative epithet. And there is general agreement, or at the very least indifference. Qui tacit consentire. I always point out that if you were to replace the word “American” in the sentence with, say, “Indian,” or “Nigerian,” you would be frowned upon, and possibly asked to leave. Try it for yourself, and see how uncomfortable it feels.

The BBC’s former Washington correspondent Justin Webb complained that the United States was given “no moral weight” by the organisation. His complaint fell on deaf ears. It is little surprise.

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