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Yet in the course of my own lifetime, countless routine British usages have either been superseded or are being challenged by their American equivalents.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.
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.
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.