Commenters on Mark's post about my remarks to the BBC about Briticisms asked if I really had it in for Briticisms in general, and in particular, what was I found so objectionable about "spot on." For the first, the answer is no; as I told Ms Hebblethwaite, some loans are quite useful, like "sell-by date" and "one-off." And I like "twee," with its evocation of Laura Ashley preciosity, though it seems to have lost some of those associations in its application to a genre of indie pop.
But there are others which add nothing more than the fact of their Englishness—what I think of as "motorcar" words. "I liked the funny bits"—what does that convey that "the funny parts" doesn't, other than to say that the speaker is familiar with how the English talk? And given that Anglicisms generally flow to us via a narrower pipe than the one that pours Americanisms into British speech, and one that with some exceptions tends to deposit its effluvia into the cultural upper stories, the practice often suggests a whiff of pretension. But with "spot on," there's something else going on. I don't think I would have called it ludicrous, as Ms H reports me as saying. But I might very well have said "awfully silly."
In British English, "spot on" very often signals stereotypical upper-class twittery. Take a commenter's response to a Guardian column by Julian Glover that calls on the government to "rise above the left's howl against budget cuts and explain its attempt at a fair distribution of pain… Turn away from the mob. Ignore the angry brigade. Let their spittle run down the walls." The commenter says:
"Julian, you're spot on old chap. You see, you're right: they're like CHILDREN, you know? Emotional, prone to violence, don't understand what's good for them, express themselves with bodily fluid (ugh: spittle…).
You can hear those associations on other .uk sites, where "spot on" is often paired with other Woosterisms:
Absolutely spot on old chap. I am a Yorkshire fella through and through, born in Harrogate (a private nursing home, of course.) pip pip.
A cynical spoof on an old British documentary film. Indeed it is quite hilarious. The narrator's voice is spot on. Pip-pip old chap. Cheerio….
I say. Spot on. Good Show. Pip pip.
Those Ian Carmichael/Terry-Thomas associations are occasionally present when Americans use the expression, but it's most often just a way of sounding "smart" and well-traveled. Certainly Romney had nothing of the kind in mind when he defended his advertising by saying "We've been absolutely spot on. And any time there's anything that's been amiss, we correct it or remove it."Now for all I know, Romney might not even know that the expression is originally British English. But it's for sure that most of the people he learned it from did. Americans might not hear the phrase as twittery, but it betrays the attitudes of the sort of people who think it's smart to sound like the English upper classes. I don't think you'd be likely to hear from Paul Ryan, say; it's a white-shoes country-club or upmarket journo locution. That's what makes it a bit absurd. It's one thing to go to England and return wearing a pair of shoes you had custom-made on Jermyn Street (naturally you'd refer to them as "bespoke"). It's another, much more comical, to show yourself off in your newly acquired Bertie Wooster-style spats.