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American words sneaking into the Queen’s English

British journalist Matthew Engel complains about how American words–”Americanisms”– are contaminating British English:

Lengthy. Reliable. Talented. Influential. Tremendous.

All of these words we use without a second thought were never part of the English language until the establishment of the United States.

The Americans imported English wholesale, forged it to meet their own needs, then exported their own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated in the way we speak over here. Those seemingly innocuous words caused fury at the time.

The poet Coleridge denounced “talented” as a barbarous word in 1832, though a few years later it was being used by William Gladstone. A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described “reliable” as vile. . . .

American culture is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web. As our computers talk to us in American, I keep having to agree to a license spelt with an s. I am invited to print something in color without the u. I am told “you ghat mail”. It is, of course, always e-mail – never our own more natural usage, e-post.

As an ex-American resident, I remain a big fan of baseball. But 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.

In many respects, English and American are not coming together. When it comes to new technology, we often go our separate ways. They have cellphones – we have mobiles. We go to cash points or cash machines – they use ATMs. We have still never linked hands on motoring terminology – petrol, the boot, the bonnet, known in the US as gas, the trunk, the hood.

Yet in the course of my own lifetime, countless routine British usages have either been superseded or are being challenged by their American equivalents. We no longer watch a film, we go to the movies. We increasingly have trucks not lorries. A hike is now a wage or price rise not a walk in the country.

Ugly and pointless new usages appear in the media and drift into everyday conversation:

  • Faze, as in “it doesn’t faze me”
  • Hospitalize, which really is a vile word
  • Wrench for spanner
  • Elevator for lift
  • Rookies for newcomers, who seem to have flown here via the sports pages.
  • Guy, less and less the centrepiece of the ancient British festival of 5 November – or, as it will soon be known, 11/5. Now someone of either gender.
  • And, starting to creep in, such horrors as ouster, the process of firing someone, and outage, meaning a power cut. I always read that as outrage. And it is just that.

I am all for a living, breathing language that evolves with the times. I accept that estate agents prefer to sell apartments rather than flats – they sound more enticing. I accept that we now have freight trains rather than goods trains – that’s more accurate.

Many British people step up to the plate and have ideas out of left field

I accept that sometimes American phrases have a vigour and vivacity. A relative of mine told me recently he went to a business meeting chaired by a Californian woman who wanted everyone to speak frankly. It was “open kimono”. How’s that for a vivid expression?

But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic – even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.

Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version – the original version – of the English language.

via BBC News – Why do some Americanisms irritate people?.

He surely can’t be blaming us Americans.  We aren’t making the Brits talk like we do.    They are the ones contaminating their own language, if that’s what it is.  Which it isn’t.

Actually, what he complains about is the genius of the English language–a hybrid of Germanic Saxon, Viking Norse, church Latin, Norman French, and whatever the far flung colonists of the British Empire spoke–that being the way English has always incorporated other languages, which, in turn, makes it work so well as a world language.

Anyway, to an American, this rant is surely hilarious.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    This guy should be hospitalized.

  • Pete

    This guy should be hospitalized.

  • SKPeterson

    Oh, I don’t know Pete. I think he hit this one out of the park.

  • SKPeterson

    Oh, I don’t know Pete. I think he hit this one out of the park.

  • ChapsInAFG

    I don’t think this guy will be fazed by this, but two more strikes and he’s out.

  • ChapsInAFG

    I don’t think this guy will be fazed by this, but two more strikes and he’s out.

  • Helen F

    I do agree with his disdain of this one:
    “Guy, less and less the centrepiece of the ancient British festival of 5 November – or, as it will soon be known, 11/5. Now someone of either gender. ”
    I’ve wondered for some time why people talk this way in referring to mixed company. Does anyone know how this unfortunate application to both sexes evolved? I, for one, make it a point to NOT use it. If I’m talking to female ladies I refer to them as such, (or if to my granddaughters, “girls”) If referring to males, I refer to them as “guys” or “gentlemen”.

  • Helen F

    I do agree with his disdain of this one:
    “Guy, less and less the centrepiece of the ancient British festival of 5 November – or, as it will soon be known, 11/5. Now someone of either gender. ”
    I’ve wondered for some time why people talk this way in referring to mixed company. Does anyone know how this unfortunate application to both sexes evolved? I, for one, make it a point to NOT use it. If I’m talking to female ladies I refer to them as such, (or if to my granddaughters, “girls”) If referring to males, I refer to them as “guys” or “gentlemen”.

  • SKPeterson

    Helen @ 4 – My guess is that it has to do with the male pronoun being used as the generic, such that a group of men would be “guys,” a group of women “ladies” or “dolls”, and mixed company reverting to the masculine “guys”. It is a less adroit or formal means of address that substitutes for “ladies and gentlemen” or the even better “all y’all”.

  • SKPeterson

    Helen @ 4 – My guess is that it has to do with the male pronoun being used as the generic, such that a group of men would be “guys,” a group of women “ladies” or “dolls”, and mixed company reverting to the masculine “guys”. It is a less adroit or formal means of address that substitutes for “ladies and gentlemen” or the even better “all y’all”.

  • http://www.wordoflifelbc.org Pastor Ed

    SKPeterson @5
    Or the divine plural “you’z guys”

  • http://www.wordoflifelbc.org Pastor Ed

    SKPeterson @5
    Or the divine plural “you’z guys”

  • Joe

    Helen – I think it is the unfortunately mixture of laziness and an in crease in the number of mixed settings we encounter on a daily basis. Who wants to say “ladies and gentlemen” every time they need to call a group to attention when they can just say, “Guys, listen up.”

  • Joe

    Helen – I think it is the unfortunately mixture of laziness and an in crease in the number of mixed settings we encounter on a daily basis. Who wants to say “ladies and gentlemen” every time they need to call a group to attention when they can just say, “Guys, listen up.”

  • Eric Brown

    I find I actually will use some Britishism in my speech — and dimes to donut more kids will be using “bloody” as a mild epithet after Harry Potter. And “mate”. Ah, the richness of world English euphemism!

  • Eric Brown

    I find I actually will use some Britishism in my speech — and dimes to donut more kids will be using “bloody” as a mild epithet after Harry Potter. And “mate”. Ah, the richness of world English euphemism!

  • Dan Kempin

    Wait a minute. First, I pretty much think that all the words mentioned are an improvement over their British counterparts, though I cheerfully acknowledge that as a rule the British use English betterly than we do, but how did “ouster” get in there as an American word?

    Come on! I’m perfectly willing to take it on the chin for being an uncultured American, but I politely decline the word “ouster.” I have never heard another American speak that word in conversation. The only “Americans” (quotes intentional) I have EVER heard use that word are journalists–and I have always hated their use of it. It sounds pretentious and it sounds wrong. Tell me about the oust-ING of some leader in some other country, and I will let it slide by with all the rest of the news drivel that I barely notice, but tell me about his oust-ER (not referring to the person or thing ousting him, but to the gerund of his ousting) and I will pause long enough to glare for a moment at the pretentions reporter.

    “Ouster” indeed. That’s a load of bollocks. I mean, how thick can you be? Now bugger off, I’m knackered.

  • Dan Kempin

    Wait a minute. First, I pretty much think that all the words mentioned are an improvement over their British counterparts, though I cheerfully acknowledge that as a rule the British use English betterly than we do, but how did “ouster” get in there as an American word?

    Come on! I’m perfectly willing to take it on the chin for being an uncultured American, but I politely decline the word “ouster.” I have never heard another American speak that word in conversation. The only “Americans” (quotes intentional) I have EVER heard use that word are journalists–and I have always hated their use of it. It sounds pretentious and it sounds wrong. Tell me about the oust-ING of some leader in some other country, and I will let it slide by with all the rest of the news drivel that I barely notice, but tell me about his oust-ER (not referring to the person or thing ousting him, but to the gerund of his ousting) and I will pause long enough to glare for a moment at the pretentions reporter.

    “Ouster” indeed. That’s a load of bollocks. I mean, how thick can you be? Now bugger off, I’m knackered.

  • CRB

    Joe,
    I think you make a good point. However, I can’t imagine going into a nursing home to speak to those present and say, “Guys, listen up!”
    I think that what may be behind this kind of chummy, informal address is a kind of arrogance and also a lack of respect.

    Perhaps, given the narcissistic culture in which we live, this is what we are faced with and “there’s no going back”?

  • CRB

    Joe,
    I think you make a good point. However, I can’t imagine going into a nursing home to speak to those present and say, “Guys, listen up!”
    I think that what may be behind this kind of chummy, informal address is a kind of arrogance and also a lack of respect.

    Perhaps, given the narcissistic culture in which we live, this is what we are faced with and “there’s no going back”?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    It is hilarious.

    English is already such an incredibly convoluted mess in its grammar, spelling and usage, that it is very hard to criticize further changes.

    It is kind of like the joke about the animal designed by a committee.

    Ironic that arguably the worst and most difficult language is the world’s default language.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    It is hilarious.

    English is already such an incredibly convoluted mess in its grammar, spelling and usage, that it is very hard to criticize further changes.

    It is kind of like the joke about the animal designed by a committee.

    Ironic that arguably the worst and most difficult language is the world’s default language.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Fie, fie on prescriptivism!

    Reminds me of how the French like to constantly pass laws [1][2] in a vain attempt to stop people from being influenced by the English language. Hey, maybe you guys should have thought about that way back in 1066, huh?

    Anyhow, the author here is clearly just having a sook (that is, whinging) about the fact that, for whatever reason, people in his culture prefer aspects of our culture more. Just as they prefer chicken tikka masala over mushy peas, and good for them.

    I’m sure he’s equally upset by the blockbuster success that franchises like Harry Potter and the Beatles have had in our country over the years. Ha.

    No, really, this is what English is all about, as Veith notes. We English speakers will absorb anything and everything, and occasionally just make something up ex nihilo. We’ll even use untranslated Latin phrases. If the Brits didn’t want to be influenced from all parts of the world, they shouldn’t have tried to colonize it all, much less maintain strong ties with their now-ex-colonies, hmm?

    [1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toubon_Law
    [2] telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8492894/French-radio-stations-fall-victim-to-anglophone-artists.html

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Fie, fie on prescriptivism!

    Reminds me of how the French like to constantly pass laws [1][2] in a vain attempt to stop people from being influenced by the English language. Hey, maybe you guys should have thought about that way back in 1066, huh?

    Anyhow, the author here is clearly just having a sook (that is, whinging) about the fact that, for whatever reason, people in his culture prefer aspects of our culture more. Just as they prefer chicken tikka masala over mushy peas, and good for them.

    I’m sure he’s equally upset by the blockbuster success that franchises like Harry Potter and the Beatles have had in our country over the years. Ha.

    No, really, this is what English is all about, as Veith notes. We English speakers will absorb anything and everything, and occasionally just make something up ex nihilo. We’ll even use untranslated Latin phrases. If the Brits didn’t want to be influenced from all parts of the world, they shouldn’t have tried to colonize it all, much less maintain strong ties with their now-ex-colonies, hmm?

    [1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toubon_Law
    [2] telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8492894/French-radio-stations-fall-victim-to-anglophone-artists.html

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And if he gets to complain about “hospitalize”, then I get to complain about how they use the word “hospital”.

    My wife and I occasionally catch some BBC shows on PBS (New Tricks and Outnumbered, if anyone cares), and it always jars me to hear about how some person’s “in hospital” (not “in the hospital”). Ugh, drives me crazy. Don’t they know we’re only allowed to drop the definite article for things like school, church, and bed … but not hospital! And no, that’s not prescriptivism on my part, it’s pure logic … and aesthetics! “In hospital” is ethically and morally perverse.

    As for “ouster”, sorry Dan (@9), but that’s not our (American) fault. The OED (also not our fault, you’ll note) says it dates back to 1531, from “Law French ouster, oustre, use as noun (compare -er suffix) of Anglo-Norman ouster, oustre“. Because I love reading dead people misspelling things, here’s the quote, from St. German’s Secunde Dyaloge Doctour & Student:

    An ymmedyate puttynge out of the playntyfe, whiche in Frenche ys called an oustre.

    So it’s not surprising to see a Brit take out his French-loathing on us Americans. But how does he come to prefer “wrench” over “spanner”? After all, “wrench” comes to us from merry Old English wrencan (at least as far back as 1050), while “spanner” is a comparatively new (1639) loan word from German.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And if he gets to complain about “hospitalize”, then I get to complain about how they use the word “hospital”.

    My wife and I occasionally catch some BBC shows on PBS (New Tricks and Outnumbered, if anyone cares), and it always jars me to hear about how some person’s “in hospital” (not “in the hospital”). Ugh, drives me crazy. Don’t they know we’re only allowed to drop the definite article for things like school, church, and bed … but not hospital! And no, that’s not prescriptivism on my part, it’s pure logic … and aesthetics! “In hospital” is ethically and morally perverse.

    As for “ouster”, sorry Dan (@9), but that’s not our (American) fault. The OED (also not our fault, you’ll note) says it dates back to 1531, from “Law French ouster, oustre, use as noun (compare -er suffix) of Anglo-Norman ouster, oustre“. Because I love reading dead people misspelling things, here’s the quote, from St. German’s Secunde Dyaloge Doctour & Student:

    An ymmedyate puttynge out of the playntyfe, whiche in Frenche ys called an oustre.

    So it’s not surprising to see a Brit take out his French-loathing on us Americans. But how does he come to prefer “wrench” over “spanner”? After all, “wrench” comes to us from merry Old English wrencan (at least as far back as 1050), while “spanner” is a comparatively new (1639) loan word from German.

  • SKPeterson

    An interesting thing in the etymology of wrench and spanner is that each is descriptive of what the tool does, but each focuses on a different part of the action or characteristics of the tool: 1) ‘wrench’ refers to the twisting motion associated with loosening or tightening a nut, while 2) ‘spanner’ refers to the shape of the head of the wrench designed to fit around the nut.

    One of the amazing things about English is the variety of synonyms and antonyms that exist for so many of our adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns. Rather than bemoaning the fact that Americans (and Canadians?) use ‘wrench’ while the British use ‘spanner’ (and what do the South Africans, Aussies and Kiwis use pray tell?) I’m more amazed that we’ve settled upon two words to describe the same thing instead of five or more.

  • SKPeterson

    An interesting thing in the etymology of wrench and spanner is that each is descriptive of what the tool does, but each focuses on a different part of the action or characteristics of the tool: 1) ‘wrench’ refers to the twisting motion associated with loosening or tightening a nut, while 2) ‘spanner’ refers to the shape of the head of the wrench designed to fit around the nut.

    One of the amazing things about English is the variety of synonyms and antonyms that exist for so many of our adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns. Rather than bemoaning the fact that Americans (and Canadians?) use ‘wrench’ while the British use ‘spanner’ (and what do the South Africans, Aussies and Kiwis use pray tell?) I’m more amazed that we’ve settled upon two words to describe the same thing instead of five or more.

  • SKPeterson

    And was it Churchill who said the Americans and the English were one people separated by a common language?

  • SKPeterson

    And was it Churchill who said the Americans and the English were one people separated by a common language?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@14) said:

    ‘Spanner’ refers to the shape of the head of the wrench designed to fit around the nut.

    Sorry, but the OED does not concur. The original (ca. 1639) meaning of “spanner”, now considered obsolete, was:

    An instrument by which the spring in a wheel-lock firearm was spanned or wound up.

    This action was apparently considered similar to that of tightening a bolt or nut such that, by 1790, the word “spanner” was applied to the tool we know as a wrench.

    As for the meaning of “span” that “spanner” derived from, it goes back even earlier (1598) to this (now archaic) definition:

    To stretch, extend, make taut or tight; to draw (a bow).

    Regardless, the English are wrong to complain. They dropped their own, perfectly good word in favor of some Germanic concept that originally applied to a different concept. Meh.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@14) said:

    ‘Spanner’ refers to the shape of the head of the wrench designed to fit around the nut.

    Sorry, but the OED does not concur. The original (ca. 1639) meaning of “spanner”, now considered obsolete, was:

    An instrument by which the spring in a wheel-lock firearm was spanned or wound up.

    This action was apparently considered similar to that of tightening a bolt or nut such that, by 1790, the word “spanner” was applied to the tool we know as a wrench.

    As for the meaning of “span” that “spanner” derived from, it goes back even earlier (1598) to this (now archaic) definition:

    To stretch, extend, make taut or tight; to draw (a bow).

    Regardless, the English are wrong to complain. They dropped their own, perfectly good word in favor of some Germanic concept that originally applied to a different concept. Meh.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd – I was working from this definition:

    [German, winding tool, from spannen, to stretch, from Middle High German, from Old High German spannan; see (s)pen- in Indo-European roots.] Collins English Dictionary.

    I was looking at “to stretch” as the head stretching around the nut, i.e. spanning the distance from one side of the nut to the other.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd – I was working from this definition:

    [German, winding tool, from spannen, to stretch, from Middle High German, from Old High German spannan; see (s)pen- in Indo-European roots.] Collins English Dictionary.

    I was looking at “to stretch” as the head stretching around the nut, i.e. spanning the distance from one side of the nut to the other.

  • John C

    From an advertising jingle –
    ‘Ya canna handa man a granda spanna’
    Spanner for small nuts and wrench for the large stuff.

    Oz english takes from everwhere. I am surprised the language is not more Americanized considering the impact of American film, television and politics on the culture.

  • John C

    From an advertising jingle –
    ‘Ya canna handa man a granda spanna’
    Spanner for small nuts and wrench for the large stuff.

    Oz english takes from everwhere. I am surprised the language is not more Americanized considering the impact of American film, television and politics on the culture.