Hating Americans and their Americanisms

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I will say only two brief things about the list of 50 alleged Americanisms that British people hate just published by the BBC, and the hundreds and hundreds of supportive comments and new examples that are flocking in minute by minute. First, people don't check the origins of the words and phrases they cite; here on Language Log Mark Liberman found a rate of just 20% correct geographical attributions in the article that has provoked this latest tsunami of prejudice and peevery. (I checked number 10 on the new list of 50, the word physicality, and found that the earliest potentially relevant OED citation is from an 1827 book published in London.) And second, the clear hostility displayed toward us Americans in the statement of these linguistic grudges is not evinced in the streets.

As a Scottish-born long-time American citizen working in Edinburgh among numerous fellow American friends and colleagues, with an American wife until two months ago, having often visited London and other UK cities, I should have seen it somewhere by now; but I have never encountered hostility to America, Americans, or Americanisms in ordinary everyday interactions in Britain. I mistakenly ordered a bagel to go yesterday (I should have said "to take away"), and nobody snarled. The furiously anti-American minority that the BBC has tapped into seem to keep their hatred of us and our speech tightly suppressed, letting it out only in blog comments and letters to the editor (particularly the Daily Telegraph, which is famous for its letters expressing how "appalled" people are by purported grammar errors, neologisms, etc.).

[Comments are closed because the British would start posting more of their hate speech here, and Language Log doesn't allow that.]

Added later: My friend Fritz Newmeyer, an American linguist who has often spent time in Britain, agrees that the hostility is not present on the street, but points out that he does encounter it in social situations, particularly among the politically engaged:

I have never encountered hostility to America, Americans, or Americanisms in ordinary academic interactions in Britain. Nor in shops, restaurants, and the like. But in social situations (dinner parties, pubs, the person seated next to me on a train) I have had very different experiences and have been repeatedly shocked by the level of overt anti-Americanism (and anti-Americanismism) in the UK. A level that I have not experienced anywhere else in the world. It usually starts by their snickering about linguistic differences and carries on from there. In general, it is the most politicized Brits who are the most anti-American. For leftists, it is the strength of the right wing within the US, and US foreign policy. For rightists, it is the US having undermined British world superiority (and British English) that is the most distressing. But it is very in-one's-face.

Consider the portrayal of Americans in British films and novels. We are almost always the boorish, loud, jingoist of the stereotype. By contrast, Americans are generally portrayed quite positively in French films and books.

In other words, the attitudes that emerge in forums like the BBC's tell-us-what-you-hate piece on Americanisms will also emerge in conversation once you get into a group of people who know each other well enough to really get into political stuff. I guess I can believe that. I don't know about the portrayal of Americans in films, though: that's an empirical claim, and and could be validated (in principle) through study of corpus of British films and a control corpus of French ones. Go for it, film students: research project!

Steve of the amazingly erudite Language Hat blog also agrees that it isn't too bad for an American in Britain, on the whole. But there was just one time he remembers:

On my first visit, in 1971, when I was wandering around Victoria Station trying to figure out where to spend the night (I wound up following the example of other late-night arrivals and sleeping in a left-luggage locker, with my feet sticking out), I was making my way among the drunks, vagrants, and other ne'er-do-wells sprawled out on the floor when one of them looked up at me and said blearily "You a Yank?" "Why, yes, I am," I said perkily, thrilled about this first hands-across-the-sea moment of cultural contact. He frowned, said "I don't like Yanks," and turned over on his side. I was momentarily deflated.

I love that "Why, …" at the beginning of his answer. It makes him sound so naive and bright-eyed and innocent, doesn't it? I hope Steve wasn't deflated for too long.

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