In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Oscar Wilde wrote: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
I was reminded of this by a reader's letter this week:
"Your journalists are increasingly using ugly Americanisms, presumably in the belief that it is 'edgy' and trendy to do so. Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck, many of which are quite meaningless to me. If your journalists are unable to write in British English, then maybe you could provide a glossary [* see below] of American slang for your fuddy-duddy British readers like me? I am beginning to wonder whether you are aiming your publication at the USA rather than the UK, and whether the two newspapers are now American-owned. I am not anti-American, but I do not see why our language should be corrupted by sloppy writing, and why there should be so much emphasis on all things American."
Such complaints crop up fairly often. Another letter:
"Can you please ask your journalists and feature writers not to use American English in their articles? Whilst I appreciate that many are either American themselves, or have spent a long time in the USA, they are nevertheless writing for a British readership. Recent examples include clatch, rumbunctious, drag (for High Street), dweebish and schlep. I find myself constantly having to reach for the dictionary to find out what your journalists are saying when I am reading the Guardian or Observer because of these ugly and unnecessary Americanisms."
"Once again, I am driven to write and complain about the increasing use of American slang in your journalists' articles. Why can't they use British English which we all understand, instead of American slang which in my view spoils otherwise interesting articles? More examples include upscale, lickety split (what does that mean?) and double dipping. The ghastly schlepping has made another appearance as well. American English is fine when living in America, but please stick to British English when writing for a British readership."
Some go further. One reader referred to "the default Americanism required by the infamous [sic] Guardian stylebook" while another suggested we had changed "got" to "gotten" in a reader's letter, "to fit your style policy", adding: "This is far from the first example I have noted, not only regarding 'gotten' but several other Americanisms you deploy."
Other words to incur the anger of some readers include first lady (for the prime minister's wife), kindergarten (for nursery), lawmakers, upcoming, people being raised rather than brought up, authorities ("I regard the use of the term 'authorities' as an dreadfully ugly American import from the land without style"), scuzzy, a slew of, happenstance, and "the increasing use of vacation for holiday, quite apart from the ghastly staycation".
There is nothing new about such complaints. The 1950 Manchester Guardian stylebook gravely listed "Americanisms" to avoid, including "aim to do" (instead of "aim of doing"), "balding", "to call" (rather than "to telephone"), "to contact", "to date" (rather than "so far"), "to help him finish the job" (instead of "to help him to finish the job"), "high-ranking officer", "to pinpoint", "teen-ager" and many similar outrages that no doubt exercised letter writers of the time.
While you think about what we should call teenagers had the Manchester Guardian succeeded in banning the word, I will make two points.
First, we do not write for a British readership: 60% of Guardian readers live outside the UK. However, we do employ British English. When someone writes a headline such as "Knox back in court to appeal conviction", as happened a couple of days ago, I point out that omitting the preposition after "appeal" may be grammatical in American English, but not in British English.
Second, new words, whatever their origin, enrich language – I love "dweeb", for example, even more than I love "spod" – and a number of the words complained of are not actually, or exclusively, American: clatch appears to be a Scottish dialect word, lickety split may also be of Scottish origin, schlep is Yiddish, and gotten was exported to the United States from Britain (where it remains in such phrases as ill-gotten gains).
Brits who fret about US cultural imperialism should keep things in perspective: worry about Fox News and the Tea Party, rather than someone who regards "suspenders" as something to hold up one's trousers.
On the whole, I'm with the novelist David Lodge, who wrote in Changing Places (1975): "American idiom still, however, retained for him a secret, subtle enchantment ... There was a purely aesthetic appeal ... a subtle music of displaced accents, cute contractions, quaint redundancies and vivid tropes ... "cigarettes ... Swiss on Rye to go ... have it checked out ... that's the way the cookie crumbles ..."
I prefer lorries to trucks, and admit to bristling when someone ordering a drink says "can I get ..." instead of "may I have", although this doesn't seem to bother anyone under 40. But I reckon Mark Twain, jazz, The Producers, Terry Riley, Stephen Sondheim, Mad Men, Hadley Freeman and The Simpsons, to name just a few, are more than adequate compensation for being annoyed once in a while. I hope our American readers – irritated by our use of, say, estate car for station wagon – feel the same about Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python and The Office.
As George Bernard Shaw said: "England and America are two countries separated by a common language" (the title, incidentally, of a thoughtful, fascinating blog).
* As requested, here is a glossary of some of the terms mentioned above (with thanks to the Free Dictionary):
brownstone a house built or faced with brownish-red sandstone
duke it out to compete against someone or something
dweeb (slang) a person regarded as socially inept or foolish, often on account of being overly studious
lickety split without delay
mojo personal magnetism, charm
pony up (slang) to pay, money owed or due
sledding (informal) a specific kind of progress towards a goal
suck (vulgar slang) to be disgustingly disagreeable or offensiveTopics
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