The colonial strikes back

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Grant Barrett keeps the ball in the air — "American English is getting on well, thanks" BBC News 7/25/2011:

When Matthew Engel wrote here earlier this month about the impact of American English on British English, he restarted a debate about the changing nature of language which ended in dozens of suggestions from readers of their own loathed Americanisms.

Most of those submitted were neither particularly American nor original to American English.

But the point that Americans are ruining English is enough to puff a Yank up with pride.

We Americans lead at least two staggeringly expensive wars elsewhere in the world, but with a few cost-free changes to the lexis we apparently have the British running in fear in the High Street.

Soon we'll have Sainsbury's to ourselves! Our victory over English and the English is almost complete.

I like it. Hyperbolic gloating is a fitting response to ill-informed peevery.


Obligatory list of past LL coverage:

"Peeve of the week: 20% correct", 7/16/2011
"Hating Americans and their Americanisms", 7/20/2011
"More 'screaming and spluttering' from Matthew Engel", 7/21/2011

See also:
"Americanisms", The Economist (Johnson Blog) 7/20/2011
"Anti-Americanismism, part 1", Separated by a Common Language 7/20/2011

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36 Comments »

  1. Stan said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    I especially liked this line: "I hate this word" is not productive but "Why do I hate this word?" is extraordinarily so.

  2. Jason said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 8:25 am

    Never mind Australian English, Nigerian English, Black English, Philippine English, Indian English, South African English, Canadian English.

    The idea that anyone's English is superior is silly.

  3. Grant Barrett said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    You will not be surprised to learn that the hyperbole has not been sensed by some of the commenters.

    Also, for the record, the version I submitted to the BBC editors was much sterner. My original lede: "Using English in one's work no more qualifies one to write about the English language than having hair qualifies one to be a barber. It seems Matthew Engel has had a go with the pinking shears."

  4. Marc Leavitt said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    The people who wrote into the BBC with their peeves are the same type of people who join condo associations and pass rules stipulating that you must keep your car in the garage, and you must close the garage door — or else!

  5. Josh said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 9:30 am

    The comments are a predictable flood of ill-informed strident anglonormativity. My favorite:

    "I dislike the American word "smart" when used as a substitute for "intelligent" or "clever".

    Everybody knows that a smart person is one who is well dressed.

    And therein lies my problem with so-called "American English". It reduces, dumbs down, limits and therebye renders the English language less – not more – articulate. It is simply not suited to the highest of cultural expressions."

    Hey pal, the Oxford English Dictionary refers to the word "smart" being used in the so-called "American" sense in 1628 in England. Your own definition doesn't appear until 1789. Sorry to disappoint.

  6. Mark F. said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:44 am

    This made me go look at some of the British comments to Engel's original article, which brought home to me that British anti-Americanism-ism isn't the same thing as American objections to "haboob". A lot of the complaints about "haboob" were just xenophobia. But the British complainers seem to be lumping Americans in with teenagers as the source of all linguistic novelty. Well, I exaggerate, but I definitely see a pattern in which things that some Americans already complain about as being, say, illogical (e.g., "could care less"), some Brits complain about as being illogical and American. I personally find those complaints less objectionable than the anti-Arab linguistic objections because I don't see British objections doing much to produce a climate of real hostility.

    So, if you accept that the "haboob" objections aren't the same thing (if perhaps a worse thing), what about American objections to Britishisms? It seems hard to find Britishisms to object against. I think it would be fair to include word senses grew substantially in popularity in the UK first, and then as a consequence became more common in the US, notwithstanding the very first appearance of the sense. Are there many? I once read that "at the end of the day" was thought by some to be something you'd hear in London rather than New York, but I don't know. Certainly by now it is bi-pondal. It seems like "ginger" for "redhead" is starting to appear, which may be unfortunate. Anything else?

  7. Fritz said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

    There are a large number of originally purely British words and expressions that have been adopted by American speakers. Three that come immediately to mind are 'twit', 'to chat up' (e. g. a potential love interest) and to 'top off' (e. g. a tank of petrol/gasoline). I haven't done the research to establish that they were originally British, but I know that I heard them first in Britain and only much later in the U.S.

  8. Jan Freeman said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    Fritz, I think of "top off" as American and "top up" (a drink, say) as British. Are you hearing "top up" in the US too?

  9. Fritz said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

    Yes, I've heard 'top up' in the US as well.

  10. Ø said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    I'm pretty sure that way back in the "energy crisis" of the late 1970's gas stations in the US were posting "no topping off" signs to discourage excessively long waiting lines.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    The California Department of Motor Vehicles now uses roundabout, which I always thought of as a Britannicism, rather than traffic circle to designate "an intersection where traffic travels around a central island in a counter-clockwise direction."

    As for me, I have recently begun saying cheers as an alternative to thanks.

  12. Ø said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

    For many speakers, "roundabout", "traffic circle", and "rotary" are synonyms. I thought of the first as a British import and imagined that the others are native to different regions in the US. But it turns out that people in the business of roadway design and traffic regulation make technical distinctions between them.

  13. James said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    What with all the angst this series of articles have created I think a simple point has been missed.

    Just because British people say that are "disgusted" or that they think something is "terrible", "the worst thing ever" etc. Doesn't mean they are being genuine. In fact, they almost certainly are not at all annoyed. At best I would assume, as an English person myself, that they are mildly irritated, if that. Generally, when British people are actually annoyed their language is controlled, measured and considered. when it is hyperbolic, thats exactly what it is.

  14. Malti said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    @James

    I agree. "It infuriates me.", etc, do sound a little strong, but when the extent of their "fury" has been to send a brief comment to a website about it when the subject came up, you have to assume they aren't literally furious, so much as – as you say – at most mildly irritated. Whereas if people had written in "I find word-x mildly irritating.", then you'd know they're properly angry about it.

  15. Smith said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    Well, it sure woke up the blogosphere. Some excellent refuttals and squirmishes to be had out there…. Saw this today. http://oftensalubrious.blogspot.com/ . Guess the kids are alright.

  16. Peter S. said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    I don't know what distinction, if any, roadway designers make between the words traffic circle, rotary, and roundabout. But having lived in both the of following states, each of which has an abundance of these things, I can say that as far as the public is concerned, in New Jersey they are all traffic circles, and in Massachusetts they are all rotaries.

    [(myl) According to this page at the NY DMV site:

    A roundabout is not the same as the older-style rotary or traffic circle. [...]

    A roundabout normally has all of the following:

    * Yield entries – require that a driver about to enter the roundabout must wait for a gap in the traffic inside the roundabout before they enter the roundabout.
    * Traffic islands that separate the entries of the roundabout from the exits.
    * Designated crossing areas for pedestrians.
    * Designated speeds of 15 – 20 miles per hour.

    ]

  17. Rebecca said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

    A decade ago, I could introduce a lesson on "mental math" without a reaction. Now the term draws laughter and comments about "crazy math" from my students. Thank you, Harry Potter. I would guess that there are other usages that have entered the pre-teen lexicon from that source, but nothing springs to mind.

    [(myl) "Snogging"?]

  18. Ø said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    @Mark F.
    what about American objections to Britishisms? It seems hard to find Britishisms to object against.

    Some people find plenty.

  19. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    @Peters S.: I've noticed that roundabouts tend to vary a bit from region to region; for example, in some places the roads tend to be normal to the curve of the roundabout, whereas in others they tend to curve toward it (so that you merge into the roundabout rather than turning into it). The few circular roads in Cleveland, where I live, are nothing at all like the roundabouts I've seen in other places (New England, New Zealand, Europe). So people's terms for them might actually correlate with the technical names for whatever type they're most familiar with. (E.g., if they live in a place where most roundabouts are what are technically known as "rotaries", then they may be more likely to refer to roundabouts as "rotaries"; or rather, if people in a given region refer to roundabouts as "rotaries", then the kind of roundabouts that are common in that region may have been more likely to become technically known as "rotaries".) But I'm just guessing, and I wouldn't be shocked to find out that that's not the case.

  20. John Swindle said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

    Motorists arriving in the town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of the island of Oahu used to be greeted by two signs. The first, an official highway sign, said "rotary ahead." The second, and apparently older, at the nearby gas station, advertised "rotary mower blades sharpened."

  21. Nelida said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    I especially liked your (very apt) line: "ill-informed peevery". In Spanish (my native language) we have the same hullaballoo surrounding the superiority (??) of Castillian Spanish v. Latin American Spanish (the latter, my native variety). The fact that Latin America started out as a Spanish colony, does not render LatAm variety inferior. It is what it is, a different variety, spoken by huge numbers of people, and existing by its own right. I believe that a parallelism can be drawn here with the BrE v. AmE issue. IMHO.

  22. abby said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    In Washington state they're referred to as roundabouts both by official designation and common parlance.

    What is it about Americanisms that is so despicable to those across the Atlantic?
    If it's that they're new/different, they need to stop moaning and complaining and realize that the invention of words/phrases shouldn't be restricted to some old English blokes who died hundreds of years ago (e.g. Shakespeare, an avid coiner of words) and that Jingoism isn't the nicest philosophy.

    If it's that they rob language of beauty and grace (i.e. connotation), rendering it a flat and dull instrument with which to make oneself known, then I guess that's valid. But don't you have people who can't express themselves in the UK? Don't judge the tree by a few rotten apples.

  23. the other Mark P said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

    The California Department of Motor Vehicles now uses roundabout, which I always thought of as a Britannicism, rather than traffic circle to designate "an intersection where traffic travels around a central island in a counter-clockwise direction."

    Yelp!

    In my part of the world (New Zealand) heading into a roundabout in an anti-clockwise direction would get you into big trouble!

    Like the British we drive on the left, so go round clockwise.

  24. Stuart said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    @Jason – thanks for omitting NZE from your otherwise comprehensive list. Nice to know that one of the 5 "English as First Language" variants was too insignifcant to make the cut. :(

  25. Stuart said,

    July 26, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    Re Britishisms raising American ire, I've read complaints about Hindi film subtitles using "maths" not "math", "it's not a plural!". For this NZE speaker, "math" still sound awkward and non-euphonious

  26. Zubon said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    Stuart, clearly we all recognize NZE as the purest form of the language, of which all others are variants.

  27. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    A decade ago, I could introduce a lesson on "mental math" without a reaction. Now the term draws laughter and comments about "crazy math" from my students. Thank you, Harry Potter.

    "Mental" definitely meant "crazy" in my American youth, 30 years ago. Did the usage go out of style and then back in again?

  28. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    Also, is the very British-sounding "getting on well" in the title of the article part of the joke, or not?

  29. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    "Modern roundabout" is a term of art, and that sounds like the distinction that the NY DMV is making. But I agree with Peter S. that in common usage in Massachusetts, nobody is going to call them anything other than "rotary", and in other places in the US (definitely northern Virginia) they'll probably keep saying "traffic circle".

  30. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 8:45 am

    I associate "mental" for something approximating "crazy" with the (Canadian-born) comic Martin Short's Ed Grimly [sp?] character, which dates it back to the '80's if not the '70's. But maybe Those Darn Anglophilic Kids Today use it with a subtly different nuance that has not come to my attention? .

  31. Bathrobe said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    I think peeving about Americanisms is a laudable thing. It gives people something to fill their minds with.

  32. Ø said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    In Studies in Words, published in 1960, C. S. Lewis happens to mention that slangy sense of "mental"( in discussing a student's failed effort to guess at an outmoded sense of "physical").

  33. Elijah said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    There are a large number of originally purely British words and expressions that have been adopted by American speakers. Three that come immediately to mind are 'twit', 'to chat up' (e. g. a potential love interest) and to 'top off' (e. g. a tank of petrol/gasoline). I haven't done the research to establish that they were originally British, but I know that I heard them first in Britain and only much later in the U.S.

    Re your last two examples: Possibly, but don't forget how productive prepositions are as particles, especially up (e.g., eat up, slip up, talk up, etc). So just because you heard chat up more frequently in Britain, that doesn't mean it wouldn't be spontaneously coined elsewhere.

  34. James Kabala said,

    July 27, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    "It seems hard to find Britishisms to object against."

    Gone missing?

  35. Nathan Myers said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

    the other Mark P: I take it that when you wrote "on the left" you meant to write "on the wrong side". A minor slip, but worth correcting.

  36. dw said,

    July 30, 2011 @ 2:50 am

    Engel has fired back in the Financial Times:

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/b240ec06-b8ca-11e0-8206-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1TZSrKScP

    If you hit a paywall, try searching on "Time for Americanisms to take a rain check" in Google News.

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