Spot off

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In an otherwise reasonably well-reported BBC piece on American adoptions of British — really English — expressions, Cordelia Hebblethwaite described me, accurately, as generally deploring the practice, but tricked out my remarks in a tone that made it sound unfamiliar to me or others, as Mark noted in his post.

"Spot on – it's just ludicrous!" snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

"You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on."

"Will do – I hear that from Americans. That should be put into quarantine," he adds.

Now, as Mark surmises, that report wasn't entirely spot on. For one thing, I wasn't snapping anything (at best, I was going for a crackle). To be sure, that could be the fault of it one of those cross-cultural misunderstandings arising out of intonational differences that John Gumperz explored in his research.

But I suspect that it was something more deliberate than that, particularly since Hebblethwaite later has me "quivering" with "revulsion" over British loans. Listen, when I quiver, I quiver, but the target is generally United Airlines, not some piece of English usage. But it's a weary cliché among the feature-writing classes that opinions about usage are made to sound more comical when they're rendered in the tone of operatic indignation that Lynn Truss has made a specialty of, even when that tone has to be spun from the writer's imagination. Indeed, it wasn't only my tone that Ms Hebblethwaite, well, misremembered.

"That should be put in quarantine," she has me saying of the repeated 'do' in verb-phrase ellipsis, as in in "I might have done." (She characterizes the offending expression as "will do," which was confusing to some commenters on Mark's post, since the latter does exist in American, of course, as an idiomatic acknowledgment of a request or command.) Now "put in quarantine" is commonly used metaphorically in the UK, where quarantine was historically imposed on travelers and shipments arriving from abroad, and where until just a few years ago, pets were quarantined for six months on arrival. (Americans of my generation may recall how Liz Taylor quartered her dogs on a rented yacht in the Thames so that she could visit them while on a shoot in London.) But I don't think I've ever heard "quarantine" used this way in American English — and in fact I think few Americans associate the word specifically with things imported from abroad. Oh dear, it's distressing enough to be misquoted deploring the wholesale adoption of Briticisms without having to undergo the further indignity of having one of them inserted into one's very own mouth by one of those journalists who feel impelled to embellish their stories with touches of, you know, writing.

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24 Comments »

  1. Alan Palmer said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:32 am

    I thought that the reactions she quotes seemed a little un-Nunberg-like!

  2. Marc Leavitt said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 2:51 am

    Her effort falls under the "I'd better make it cute, or they won't read past the first paragraph" species of journalism. The practice is applied to a broad range of subjects.

  3. Terrence Lockyer said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 7:17 am

    Minor point, but the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, etc., is Lynne (sic) Truss.

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    Did you really say "another borrowing we could use without"?

    And I guess the important question is whether the story misrepresented your statements overall. Do you really dislike hearing Americans say "No, but I will do." and "Spot on"?

  5. Sidney Wood said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    Growing up in SE England in the 1940s and 1950s, I learnt these two expressions from ex-RAF servicemen (spot on, will do).

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    Never mind. I see you hid your answer to my second question in plain words in the first sentence of your post.

  7. David said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    As an American Anglophile, I don't understand, at all, what is wrong with "impersonating an Englishman."

  8. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    I suspect that "put in quarantine" may be making a comeback in American English, because it's what antivirus software does to suspicious files — but for a US user who comes in with that association, the notion of importation from one country to another, and thus the wordplay of an (intangible) import being put into (physical) quarantine, ends up being lost.

  9. Andy Averill said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I would take exception to two of the examples cited in the article. "Trousers" has always been perfectly good idiomatic American English, even if it's less common today than "pants". The Google ngram viewer for American English in fact shows that "trousers" appears more frequently than "pants" from 1860 to 1968, sometimes by quite a large margin, (even allowing for instances of "pants" as a verb). According to the graph, the decline of "trousers" continues right up to 2000.

    And the use of the participial adjective "called" as an alternative to "named" is reasonably common in American English, although it often suggests a greater degree of formality. I'm thinking in particular of the book title "A Man Called Peter", but plenty of other examples can be found in Google Books.

  10. Jan Freeman said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:57 am

    Thanks for the clarification on "will do." I had read it as the response that parallels "wilco," but as soon as you say "I might have done" of course I get it. (And the writer could have avoided confusion by simply rendering it as "I will do.") I'm still a bit surprised at your deploring Britishisms in general; surely most people will absorb these at second hand without knowing their origin, just as we pick up any other language habit. Can a usage be pretentious if the speaker isn't aware that anyone thinks it pretentious?

  11. M (was L) said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    > Can a usage be pretentious if the speaker isn't aware that anyone
    > thinks it pretentious?

    Because it could be harrassing if the speaker isn't aware that anyone thinks it harrassing, I would have to say yes.

    Much is in the ear of the behearer.

  12. Mark F. said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

    I think it's important for us to adopt Britishisms periodically so that, when they complain about Americanisms, we can say "Hey, we don't complain about 'brilliant'."

  13. Jo said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    Clearly Geoff's just taking the piss here.

  14. dw said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

    In an otherwise reasonably well-reported BBC piece on American adoptions of British — really English — expressions, Cordelia Hebblethwaite described me, accurately, as generally deploring the practice …

    Why do you deplore it?

  15. dswift said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    Perhaps in an earlier draft she had you wincing, flailing and remonstrating. Nice eye, though, when you spotted you adding.

  16. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:28 am

    They knew there was a Geoff somewhere who did good rants about things ;-)

  17. Nan Erwin said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 8:46 am

    My undergraduate composition students are adopting British preferences — most likely from Internet sites (the names Thackeray, Dickens and Shakespeare being either unknown or anathema) including: "amongst," "whilst," "spot on" (as noted by others), "jolly," "learnt," and placing periods and commas after closing quote marks. I tell them they are free to do this, but must be consistent and also use "colour," "programme," "solicitor," and so on.

  18. Ron said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    Someone with a name like Cordelia Hebblethwaite should think twice before parodying anyone's British mannerisms.

  19. wally said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    "the further indignity of having one of them inserted into one's very own mouth by one of those journalists who feel impelled to embellish their stories"

    made me think of this story at the end of this article about Sammy Baugh
    http://www.statesman.com/news/lifestyles/his-passing-wasnt-the-point/nSD86/

    quoting:

    The jewel of this book, however, is its foreword, written by NFL star Peyton Manning. In it, Manning recalls spending a day at Baugh’s West Texas ranch as part of a Sports Illustrated photo shoot in 2000. The photographer thought it a good idea to stage a photo of Manning and Baugh pitching horsehoes. You know: Two passers, one young and one old, involved in the practice of precision.

    Baugh doesn’t like the idea, tells the photographer he doesn’t pitch horseshoes. But the photographer proceeds to set up the shot, to manipulate a contrived image.

    “Sammy aimed a stream of tobacco at the grass (not at the photographer),” writes Manning, “and looked up at the man. ‘I don’t know if you couldn’t hear me the first time,’ he said. ‘I don’t pitch horseshoes.’

    “That was the end of that.”

  20. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

    It clearly isn't the case that, quite generally, we use 'to X' when X is being used for its intended purpose – we don't, for instance, speak of going 'to shop' or 'to cinema'. It is just that, when 'to X' is used, this seems to connote more than movement to a place; the implication is that one is going there for a specific reason. This is compatible with the fact that it is a variable matter what words do take the 'to X' construction. As well as the BrE/AmE difference over 'to hospital', another example is that in older forms of British English people said 'to the University', although they said 'to school' and 'to college' – this distinction, however, has disappeared, and people regularly say 'to university' (or 'to uni').

    On the other hand, one form that does not seem to fit this pattern is 'to town'. When Yankee Doodle came to town, we don't know exactly what he came there to do.

  21. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 1, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    Sorry, wrong thread – the moderators may wish to delete that.

  22. Vanya said,

    October 2, 2012 @ 4:03 am

    This must all be connected somehow to the huge increase in popularity of EPL in urban America.

  23. Martha said,

    October 4, 2012 @ 11:15 pm

    I don't understand how using "quarantine" to refer to animals being held when going to other countries is a Britishism. What would be the American word for it? I'm American, and I don't know how else I would describe that situation.

  24. Joe1959 said,

    October 5, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    re: This must all be connected somehow to the huge increase in popularity of EPL in urban America.

    Ha, ha! I'm a Brit and I had to Google "EPL", despite the fact that I live in Scotland, where the Scottish equivalent is known as the "SPL".

    Eastpondians know the "EPL" as "The Premiership" or "The Premier League".

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