Posted by: christinelaennec | August 23, 2011

Americanisms

I’ve been interested to see a flurry of debate on the BBC website recently about Americanisms entering British English.  They asked people which Americanisms annoyed them most.  Some of the answers were very funny.  The top two most e-mailed were:

1. When people ask for something, I often hear: “Can I get a…” It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the 90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really.” Steve, Rossendale, Lancashire

2. The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option“, tell them that their most best option is learning grammar. Mike Ayres, Bodmin, Cornwall

Many of the Americanisms are phrases that have come into being since I left the States 19 years ago.  24/7, deplane, “I’m good,” heads up… none of these existed in my own American language and I would never use them today (I don’t think!).  Two of the more recent Americanisms that grate on me are:  “I’m loving it” and “it’s my go-to [fill in the noun]” (“It’s my go-to scarf” meaning when I want a scarf, I reach for that one).  I’m also deeply suspicious of the use of “issue” instead of “problem”.

So I, too, find some Americanisms annoying.  However, I thought some of the responses betrayed a British sense of linguistic superiority over American English that I must say I have never encountered in Scotland, but have often been met with in England.  For example:

My worst horror is expiration, as in “expiration date”. Whatever happened to expiry?

Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS.

Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished?

These are all examples of differences between American and British English.  They are equivalents:  expiration date (US) = expiry date (UK) and so on.  You could make pages of lists of such things.  There’s no need for cultural supremacy.  The “have they been punished?” attitude displayed by some of the BBC respondents reminded me of something that happened long ago in Illinois, when Michael and I were both in our first teaching (US) / lecturing (UK) jobs(US) / posts (UK).  One of his students wrote on the end-of-term evaluation form:  “Good teacher but GET RID OF THAT ACCENT!”

In my job helping university students with writing, I’ve learned a great deal about British English, for that’s the language we work in.  However, I love American English and am happy to use it in my non-essay-writing life.  I’ve made a concerted effort (failed, say some) to retain my American accent.  I like being multi-lingual and having both American and British English to draw on.  The Dafter has been annoyed with me, as I’ve written here, for my mid-Atlantic English (“how was I supposed to know it was ‘dressing gown’ and not ‘bathrobe’?!).  But generally I consider we have a wealth and a richness.  No one in our house will be punished for saying ‘train station’.

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Responses

  1. I think most of it came via American programmes on the t.v. And the Aussie ones too. From whence came the manner of speaking and making every sentence sound like a question. This one personally drove me mad with my four going through puberty. Probably as I was having my own tussle with hormones at the same time!
    Language is so rich, as the song says, “Just let it all hang out…”

  2. great post, Christine! Language is an interesting thing … i mean topic. 🙂

  3. The one that annoys me is ‘so fun’, but that may not be an Americanism.

  4. Language is certainly being corrupted here in the States! The ‘Catchy Phrase’ is all the rage. As I get older, I find myself unable to understand some of these new sayings. I heard that some school districts are not teaching cursive writing anymore. Communication is becoming laced with symbols and abbreviations. Christine, move back here and help us! xx

  5. There was a discussion just like this on Dutch TV just a week ago, but about Belgian Dutch and Dutch Dutch.

    For what it’s worth, I think language evolves as much as anything else. There was never any golden age for grammar. But I could do without evolving into L33t 5p34k.

  6. Very interesting. I’m afraid I don’t always know whether certain words and expressions are English or American. Here we debate whether our language will survive (less than 100,000 speak it), and how it is being changed via words from Danish, English and Icelandic.

  7. The one I really can’t stand is when people say somebody ‘passed away’, when they mean that they died. But on the whole I think American expressions tend to enrich English. I sometimes find myself asking for the ‘train station’, and I don’t think there’s anything really bad about that. Language is always changing.

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  9. Dear All,

    Thanks so much for all your interesting comments!

    Jill – Now, I’d always thought that the question inflection was an Americanism. I’ve heard Ph.D supervisors complain of reading writing where everything ended in question marks? Which I guess must be how the writer speaks? And: FOUR children going through puberty!?!?!?!

    ajb – thanks for the laugh! I mean chuckle.

    Martin – Ah yes, I see what you mean. I think I would say, “that was so much fun” – but who knows? I might even say, “How fun was that?!”

    Karen – How sad that cursive writing is no longer being taught! Handwriting amongst the younger generation is often quite appalling, but that’s no surprise given that the average person handwrites about half an hour total per year these days. I agree language is becoming more of a shorthand nowadays, here in the UK as well in the US. Your faith in my abilities to stem the tide is very touching! 🙂

    Mags, I agree on both points. Grammar is much more contentious than people think. Two days ago I learned about the “Oxford Z” – the correct UK spelling is “emphasize” if you are a follower of the Oxford Z. Now you know! And agreed about the use of #s and abbrevs.

    Dorit – I hope your language does indeed survive, and continue to change. There is a huge debate here about how many speakers of Gaelic there are, and what that means.

    Flora – I’m not surprised you come down on the side of linguistic richness, as you’re so knowledgeable about North American literature. Your comment about “passed away” had me running for the Chambers dictionary, which says that “passed” “passed away” and “passed on” are all UK terms for “to die”. The next day an older member of my church used “passed away,” so at least it is at use in Scotland. (All too often, in my congregation!) But I, too, have always been puzzled by this particular euphemism, and wonder if there is any subtle difference between the three? (Edited: I don’t think you can have a difference between three things, only between two?!)

  10. As an English major who switched to NURSING as a college senior, I found this post particularly interesting. I’m not sure what is wrong with the expression “train station” for that is exactly what it is called here in the states – also “bus station”. Many years ago, I spent four DAYS and three NIGHTS on a train traveling from Memphis, TN, to Portland, OR, and each stop along the way was referred to as a “station”!

    Although I have read dozens (probably hundreds) of novels in various “English Literature” classes and enjoyed the works of many English and Scottish authors over the years, I am always amused at and entertained by their expressions. (Had my ancestors not immigrated here from the highlands of Scotland, no doubt, I would use those in my daily speech!)

    One thing that the “culturally supreme” English do not understand is the term “colloquialism”. As you know, American citizens from each part of the U.S.A. have different patterns of speech. (Most likely, there as well.) I “can be” a grammar snob at times, but take me home to the SOUTH and I can “ya’all” and “bless your heart” with the best of them! I absolutely refuse to lose my Southern accent! Granted, I cannot bring myself to say “ain’t” but that’s okay. It’s STILL a colloquialism. Trust me, most everyone using it knows better! Prior to moving to the Pacific NW, I had NEVER heard the expression “these ones” anywhere! Now, THAT grates on my nerves! Here in the Pacific NW is also where I first heard the expression “I seen”. Grrrrrr….

    Personally, if I were living in Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales today…I would still be wearing a ROBE – or perhaps a “housecoat” – but NOT a dressing gown! *big grin here*

    Blessings,
    Dianne

  11. Oh, and I had to chuckle at the word “expiry”. There is an “expiration” date! I must also agree with Flora on the words “passed away”. That’s hard for a nurse to say. A patient died or, for charting purposes, “expired” at such and such time & hour. I have used the words “passed away” in talking with family members of patients but only because it seemed a little “softer”. I still don’t like it.

  12. I’ve been aware for some time of ‘pass away’ being used a bit in the UK, but it seems to me to be becoming much more common, and I’ve been assuming it was transatlantic influence. Nobody said it when I was young, as far as I can remember. It has hit me quite forcefully on visits to Canada that my Canadian relatives, being originally British, say ‘die’ but their longer-established Canadian friends always say ‘pass away’. And I thought it was extraordinary when, while I was once in the US, John F Kennedy Jr was said by TV stations to have ‘passed away’ when he flew his plane into fog and crashed it. That seemed to me an absurd use of language.. In general I react negatively to the indirectness of ‘pass away’, rather in the way that I really hate it when people say ‘lady’ when they mean ‘woman’.

  13. Loved this and wrote a little bit about it over on my blog. I am a Northerner raising children in the Deep South. This is not quite the same as raising children in another country, but it makes for a laugh every now and then.

  14. Dear Diane, Flora and Kelly,

    (Apologies for taking a week to reply!) Thanks for all these interesting comments. Language is so emotive, isn’t it? I suppose it’s particularly so when it comes to heavy things such as death. Flora, your comparison (“pass away” / “lady”) made me laugh! I think when my children were small, I would have said “Give that back to the lady,” rather than “woman”. Kelly, thank you so much for the mention! What you and Dianne say about linguistic displacement within the US is so true. I think we all should try to keep our native speech and accents.


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