Americanisms in British English – get over it
Few things seem to incense the British more than Americanisms in ‘our language’. People rant about it, books have been written on the subject – but not only is this a lost battle, it’s one where language has, again, won.
- by Peter Labrow
Despite doing many things professionally, I’m someone who considers himself primarily a writer. Even when I’m making a video, the script usually comes first. Plus, I’m one of those annoying fussy people who frets about apostrophes and the like, so colleagues and friends expect me to rally around every language battle. I don’t.
For example, I don’t feel physically sick if I see, or write, a sentence beginning with and. If it’s good enough for Einstein, Amis, Wodehouse and Nabokov, then it’s good enough for me. I don’t want to even debate the validity of it. I know that, as a conjunction, it should be used to link elements within a sentence, but I also know that using it to begin a sentence can both help reader flow and create emphasis. More importantly, its use in this way is now common and, within a general readership, perfectly acceptable.
The use of Americanisms is one area where some people seem to get really hot under the collar. “It’s destroying our language,” they say, usually citing Shakespeare for some reason, as if that’s the way the British still actually talk. It’s ironic, too, because Shakespeare used words such as ‘gotten’ (in use since 1380), which is often wrongly assumed to be an Americanism.
Gotten is just one of a long list of supposed Americanisms. These words were all in use in England before America was colonised and the USA founded: fall (as a season); trash; faucet; diaper. Yet we can’t always claim them as ‘British’ any more than America can claim them for her own. Fall: Germanic. Trash: late Middle English, likely from the Norse, tros. Faucet: Old French. Diaper: Old French. And these are the earliest recorded forms; their real origins may run deeper.
Americans use the older English form of words such as realize; like many of these -ize words, this is actually correct British English and the use of -ise is the interloper – the -ize form is still the Oxford English Dictionary’s preferred version. Over time, common use of -ise has marginalised -ize to the point of it now being perceived as foreign.
Many changes between American English and British English were engineered by Noah Webster – such as dropping the u from colour. Webster made many changes, to give American English its own identity. He said, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics – as famous for arts as for arms.” And yet, things aren’t that simple. Both spellings were, at one time, in use in England, along with culur, cooler and coloure. Color came from Latin, colour from the Old French.
The flow isn’t just one way. We Brits forget that we’ve exported to America words such as arse, athletics, barman, brilliant, cheers, directly, journey, peckish – and many others.
Perhaps it’s less the individual words that people complain about, more the phrases. I used a commonly supposed Americanism, ‘get over it’, in the title of this article. The first recorded use of this was by an Australian, John Bechervaise (1839).
Why are we less bothered by ‘Frenchisms’? Perhaps because many of the French words incorporated into English are perceived as ‘posh’. When they invaded us, they replaced our upper classes with theirs, so many of the French words in English are upmarket versions of the old Saxon. Social divide meant that Saxon peasants continued to farm cows, sheep, deer and pigs, whereas the dinner-table equivalents are of French origin: beef, mutton, venison, pork.
The French are protective of their language and even replace Anglicised words with ones of their own.
And don’t get me started on words of German origin – rucksack and hamster anyone?
When most of our words originate from many places, and have been adjusted many times, it’s unrealistic to be too precious about how language is evolving now.
Society is now irrevocably international. Obviously, we're going to adopt the words and phrases of other countries. Of course, I’m not going to use flashlight instead of torch, or hood instead of bonnet unless I’m writing for a primarily American audience. But if those words drifted into British English use, then I’d consider them fair game.
(Incidentally, using flashlight allows Americans to distinguish between a light that’s electric and one with a flame: torch. We don’t have this distinction and in the British movie business ‘flambeaux’ is used when it needs to be made, rather than ‘torch with a flame’.)
I also don’t worry about Americans reading Britishisms, in general. Americans are exposed to our culture too. They know (for the most part) what our common words mean when we use them. Some care is needed: in England, suspenders are part of women’s lingerie. In the USA, men use them to hold up trousers; the American equivalent is garter – although that’s not actually American in origin. (1300–1350, Middle English from Old French gartier, itself from the Celtic garet.)
As much as I like the arguably more useful ‘Monday through Friday’, I’ll stick with Monday to Friday – and accept that even some Brits will ask: “inclusive?” The American phrase has its own elegance but it doesn’t sit easily with me and will jar with my primary audience.
Yet it’s not the real, rather than assumed, origin of a word or phrase that becomes my justification for using it. I simply don’t have the time to check the etymology of everything I write, interesting though it often is.
My role is to communicate. To tell stories. I’m a user of language, not a defender of its every foible. I use what works; what feels right; what tells the story best. I’m based in England, so I write in British English. It’s what I was taught. I mostly write marketing copy, website pages and articles, so a more relaxed and international vocabulary works well. That said, I’ve also written a novel and I’m working on a non-fiction book – I haven’t felt the need to be over-precious about informality in either.
Just as other languages have influenced, infiltrated and boosted our language, so do other languages today – primarily, by virtue of volume, American English. I’m no more affronted by someone ‘stepping up to the plate’ (which even us Brits understand) than I am by the (arguably more obscure) à la carte, which we’ve readily embraced. Goodness: grand prix, papier mâché, potpourri – the list goes on.
True, I don’t want to make mistakes or be footloose with language. Over-capitalisation and mixing inquiry and enquiry are pet hates. As I said, I’m also a fussy pedant. But I dislike the common accusation that being relaxed about one part of writing means I’ll throw the entire rulebook in the bin. Or trash.
As writers, our job is to communicate smoothly to our primary audience. Yes, that’s the language of that country, but it’s also the common terms which that country is adopting – you’re not in control of that, and it seems pretty pious to sit in judgement of it. Like it or lump it, language is the ultimate democracy.
If a word or phrase is useful, transports easily, is already accepted in our culture, then why not use it? If its use sits better with you, and tells a story better, go for it. Let others complain.