Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Yankee invasion of British English


England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
—George Bernard Shaw

British journalist Matthew Engel, who lived in the US long enough to learn to love baseball, is nevertheless alarmed by the reverse imperialism of American English. “… I sit over here and listen to people who know nothing of the games talk about ideas coming out of ‘left field’. They speak about ‘three strikes and you’re out’ or ‘stepping up to the plate’ without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean. I think the country has started to lose its own sense of itself.”

Engel isn’t the first Briton to complain about Yankee locutions. According to H. L. Mencken,

The first Englishman to notice an Americanism sneered at it aloofly, thus setting a fashion that many of his countrymen have been following ever since. He was one Francis Moore, a ruffian who came to Georgia in 1735, and the word that upset him was bluff, in the sense of “a cliff or headland with a broad, precipitous face”. He did not deign to argue against it; he simply dismissed it as “barbarous”, and for nearly a century, when it was printed at all in Great Britain, it was set off by sanitary quotation marks.[1]

I’d simply content myself with noting that the imperialism isn’t all one way; more and more US cities are beginning to feature roundabouts in their street construction, and you see more office parks and buildings called Centres … which strikes me as unnecessarily snooty. Then there’s BBC America, and BP stations (which used to be Amoco); my mother has a credit card from — of all places — the Royal Bank of Scotland. And need I mention the ubiquitous Harry Potter?


Engel’s piece struck a chord with many readers of BBCNews.co.uk, who responded with their most-disliked examples of slang and idiom. In some cases, I could readily agree with them, especially when it comes to corporate and financial jargon. In other cases, though, I was left to wonder just how much the English really knew about their language.

For instance, Engel cites ouster as an invading foreign body, as a “horror”. In reality, it’s a long-naturalized citizen coming home after a long visit away. Ouster comes from the Anglo-Norman oustre, a legal term referring to the dispossession of a cotenant’s property by the other cotenant; as such, it came to America as part of English common law.

One respondent wrote, “What kind of word is ‘gotten’? It makes me shudder.” It’s a thoroughly English word, even more so than ouster. Gotten is, in fact, the archaic past participle of get, from the Middle English geten;  while geten is supposed to be derived from the Old Norse geta, the latter is a cognate of the Old English suffix –gietan, coming from the same Germanic root as –gessen (vergessen, to forget). Our reader must have forgotten where gotten came from.

Another reader grumps, “My favourite one was where Americans claimed their family were ‘Scotch-Irish’. This of course it totally inaccurate, as even if it were possible, it would be ‘Scots’ not ‘Scotch’, which as I pointed out is a drink.” That’s as may be, but the contraction of Scottish preceded the sailing of the Mayflower. And it wasn’t Americans who decided to call a light, steady drizzle a “Scotch mist”.

(“Scotch-Irish” was a humorous reference to settlers who came from the plantations of Northern Ireland, often not two or three generations after their fathers settled in Ulster as part of the British Crown’s half-hearted attempt at replacing the native Irish. Well, it was humorous to people other than the Irish.)

In many cases, we’re talking about words and pronunciations which weren’t standardized until after the US was colonized, even until after the Constitution was ratified. For instance, normal (L. normalis) is first attested around 1650; normality and normalcy, however, aren’t attested until 1849 and 1857 respectively. The only reason normalcy gained any traction over here is that Warren G. Harding used it in one of his over-alliterated campaign speeches, after which it became a favorite Republican campaign slogan: BACK TO NORMALCY WITH HARDING. But even in the US, it’s less common than normality.

As I said, some of the gripes I can empathize with. Like the tendency to add ize to a noun to make a perfectly vile word (burglarize) replace an odd but simpler verb (burgle), or to make a “California plural” by adding –age instead of –s (signage instead of signs). Businesspersons have a unique facility for obscuring meaning; when they say they’ve leveraged their equity, they mean they borrowed money against their equity … which to an accountant really means they reduced their equity by increasing their debt load.

But at other times, it seems the Brits are simply whining — oh, dearie me, I beg your pardon — whinging and effing over differences that are not only minor but shouldn’t even count as a matter of aesthetics. What, I ask you, is so bloody wrong with train station? Why is fortnightly so much better than bi-weekly, when gotten is just as archaic as fortnight yet causes a bellyache? How is takeaway better than take-out? And I insist that period has as good a case as full stop, if not better.

We’re not too far past the days when upper-class Englishmen patronized the United States as “the colonies”, and even pragmatic statesmen like Winston Churchill could dream of reuniting Britain with her long-lost, somewhat wayward daughter America. And in some ways, it still sometimes seems like some Britons never got the memo about the Revolution; it surprises them that we would go our own way with the language as we did with the law and representative government.

Most of us don’t even drink tea, unless it’s cold and poured into a glass with ice.

Language is an heirloom, as much as an old mirror or escritoire. You can leave it intact to your children, but you can’t expect to control what happens when it — and they — leave your house. If I were English, I would be much more worried about Islamization and the culture of death than whether you should say math or maths.

[1] Mencken, “The American Language”, The Yale Review, Spring 1936; reprinted in Peter Funk, ed., Word Power (New York: Berkley/Reader’s Digest Books, 1980), p. 206.