April 22, 2018


Americanisms are not a "corruption": the false superiority of British English: When we try to be more British we frequently end up sounding more French.  (SOPHIE MCBAIN, 4/22/18, New Statesman)

Lynne Murphy, an American professor of linguistics who has lived in the UK for almost 20 years, has decided to investigate this curious phenomenon. Her book, The Prodigal Tongue, offers an entertaining and sometimes gleeful riposte to the countless stories she has read complaining of the "creeping", "invading", "pointless" and "annoying" Americanisms that are corrupting British English.

Murphy has yet to find a list of supposed Americanisms or Britishisms that isn't at least partly poppycock (a word that sounds silly enough to be thought of as British, but in fact originated in North America). Our attitudes towards accents reflect our underlying prejudices, and don't hold up to rational scrutiny.

When Americans think of British English, they tend to think of received pronunciation, which conjures up images of sprawling country estates and bumbling eccentrics. The British actor and TV presenter James Corden was reportedly encouraged by the US television network CBS to use "charming" British words and to avoid "confusing" ones. "Willy", "shag", "bonkers" and "squiffy" were in; "bladdered" and "dodgy geezer" were out.

Brits often dismiss words they don't like as "Americanisms" and have a tendency to tie themselves in logical knots while trying to explain why Americans are "wrong". Murphy singles out Simon Heffer, who contributes to a "well-populated genre of writing guides by people who don't know a lot about language", for asserting that in saying "maths", rather than "math", Brits have "maintain[ed] the plural of the original word". In fact, mathematics is singular. Math is a clipping, like "lab" instead of laboratory, while "maths" is a contraction, like "attn". Both are grammatically correct.

We Brits often have ourselves to blame for the worst "Americanisms". Writing "might of" instead of "might've" is sometimes mislabelled an Americanism, but it's a grammar mistake - and one that occurs twice as often in British texts than in American ones. The US may have embraced management speak with gusto, but that awful phrase "blue-sky thinking" appears six times more frequently on British websites than on American ones.

Our shared language is demotic.

Posted by at April 22, 2018 7:33 AM


« | Main | YEAH, BUT, THE FBI! »