Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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Americanisms in British English. Love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay. And we love them.


On Saturday 20 May 2017, the well-known British word buff (orig. U.S.)  Susie Dent presented an excellent and
engaging program(me) on BBC Radio 4 about Americanisms in British English.

Her angle (orig. U.S.) was that she personally (orig. Brit.) likes them, and she wanted to persuade people who don’t to change their minds and join her.

I suspect she won’t have succeeded; feelings run deep on this issue, and there are plenty of Brits (orig. U.S.) who dislike, not to say detest, Americanisms.

The program(me) was called Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a  Good Thing. (Note the playful alternation between the –ise and –ize spelling.)

As she put it, “I’ll be exploring why the use of American English seems to raise the hackles of so many speakers of British English.”

She raised the question of why, when English has “borrowed” so many words from so many other languages, some people object only to the import of U.S. words and phrases.

As she is a personality (orig. Brit) whose views on language might interest the general public, her endorsement of Americanisms grabbed a certain amount of media attention. (So much so, that Radio Scotland invited me to do a 15-minute slot on their morning program(me), an offer I turned down in favo(u)r of attending my regular yoga class. I missed my Warholian 15 minutes, but I managed my first ever headstand. Much more rewarding.)

Sadly, my attempt looked nothing like this. 😦

As a goodly proportion of visitors to this blog are American, let me tell you that a recurrent theme in Britain can be summed up as “Americanisms are destroying our language.” This is, of course, nonsense on stilts. (I do love that phrase. I wonder who first used it.)

  • You cannot “destroy” a language (except by making it extinct)
  • It is not “our” (i.e. British) language. Nobody “owns” a language to the exclusion of anyone else. Or, rather, or conversely, if you’re a linguistic socialist, everyone who speaks it “owns” it.

(And, if we’re using the ownership metaphor, I feel obliged to bring in Mark Twain’s “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”)

Ms. (orig. U.S.) Dent, or her guests, went on to highlight (orig. BrE literally, orig. U.S. figuratively) some other basic truths:

  • Many words perceived as Americanisms are not in fact such; e.g. trash, gotten appear in Shakespeare;
  • British English (BrE) speakers use many words of U.S. origin without even realising it;
  • As proof of which, the OED records 26,000 words and meanings of U.S. origin, of which 7,000 are now part of BrE;
  • Verbing is an ancient historical phenomenon, not a U.S. invention;
  • BrE is now merely one variety or dialect out of many.

For anyone who works in the field, these are self-evident truths, not to say truisms. But, presumably, for the rather conservative (with a small c) listenership of Radio 4,  they must, in their unexpectedness, be like Damascene revelations.

Rubens’s Conversion of St Paul. Busy or what! You have to really concentrate to find St Paul; and the angel of revelation, or whatever it is, looks like a Labourite with a grudge. Presumably, the thronged scene was how it was when you could get the staff and Rubens was painting.


One of her guests was the president of the Queen’s English Society, Dr Bernard Lamb. He is an academic who has published over 100 papers in his field. Sadly, that field is clearly not linguistics.

Among his more outrageous pronouncements we had “The argument that all forms of English are equally valid I don’t think is true. English comes from England, and I think we’ve got prior rights to it…and our form I much prefer. I’ve no objections to Americans using Americanisms, but I don’t really like them in this country.”

Sure, English comes from “England”, except for the thousands of words that come from other languages, or from Scottish, Welsh or Irish varieties of English. (That use of “England” and “English” when a wider area is meant gets right up my nose [BrE].)

And the “I don’t really like them in this country” said in a certain way is rather perturbing.

The “Lady of Countdown” also interviewed John Humphrys, anchorman (probably orig. BrE) of the premier (orig. BrE) BBC news program(me) Today. He reserved his most splenetic scorn for “reach out” in the meaning “contact”. This is a usage I also detest, but, hey, who cares?!? He also clings to and thus helps to perpetuate the myth that the –ize spelling is peculiarly American.

He was reacting to the idea that e.g. color is easier to spell than colour. I quote at length: “I’m slightly baffled by the idea that we should welcome something because it’s easy. The whole point of language is to communicate. If we know that we for years have spelt organise with an s, and that is the correct way to spell it, correct because there IS a right and wrong way to spell things. That’s necessary for children to learn how to write words…fairly obvious point to make, isn’t it?…in a way that everybody else can understand. Now if half the population uses an s and half the population uses a z, children are entitled to say ‘Which one is right?'”

(The answer, sweet British child, is that both are, but if you use the z spelling, teacher will probably mark it  wrong.)

Where to begin? In what other area of life would we not welcome something that makes life easier? On reflection, though, I agree. Hey! Let’s abolish refrigerators, radio, the internet, aeroplanes and antibiotics for starters.

How many years exactly is “for years”, and who exactly is this “we”? It sounds like “inclusive we” i.e. Humphrys and all his listeners, but isn’t it really the  ‘we who are in the know’ “we”? (As I’ve written at length elsewhere, many verbs first appeared in English with the z spelling, which is for many of them etymologically preferable.)

And, yes, the whole point of language is indeed to communicate. But note the misleading and mistaken equation of spelling with language. And, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to spell most words, but for quite a few words there are alternatives, in my judg(e)ment.

As I pointed out in Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, where I devoted a few pages to the topic (pp. 153-6), formerly it was the French who were often accused of besmirching “our” language. Nowadays, however, that poisoned chalice has passed to the Americans. There is a historical tradition going back to at least the sixteenth century of antipathy to “furrin” words; and nowadays, American English is perceived as the “furriner”.  Nobody objects to bruschetta from Italian, but, as Lynne Murphy has pointed out, to speak of cookies if you’re British is akin to sleeping with the enemy. Yet, almost inevitably, the word is first found in a British (specifically Scottish) source.

As I wrote in Damp Squid: “A possibly apocryphal story illustrates perfectly the mixture of jingoism, snobbery, and one-upmanship that can underlie prejudices against American usage. An American student let his tutor know he was in Oxford and would like to contact him, to which came the Olympian rejoinder: ‘I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb “to contact” has not.’”


That’s enough of my little rantette. To emphasize how much BrE owes to AmE, I’ve listed the 51 new words for the years 1900 to 1920 that I’ve been tweeting more or less daily.

After Susie Dent’s program(me), I wanted to see the country in which the first citation of the word was published, according to the OED.  You’ll see the totals when you get to the end of the list. There were some that surprised even me, such as lifestyle, OMG and bullshit being first cited in British sources, or U-boat and ponytail being American. Where a famous author is given as the first citation, I’ve put their name in brackets.

bold = U.S.; sloped bold = Britain

1900 television, hillbilly

1901 Ms., eatery

1902 number two (euphemism), airport

1903 racism, man on the Clapham omnibus

1904 hip, demo (Australian), telecommunication (unidentified)

1905 tantric, smog

1906 suffragette, teddy bear, psychoanalysis

1907 taxi, cornflakes

1908 art nouveau (Shaw), boy scout 

1909 neo-cortex, cinema

1910 Freudian, post-impressionism

1911 pie in the sky, pavlova (New Zealand), brassiere (Canadian)

1912 tweedy, vitamine (named thus by a Polish scientist)

1913 comic strip, piggy bank

1914 u-boat, crossword

1915 lifestyle, bullshit (Wyndham Lewis), America First

1916 ponytail, red giant, tank

1917 soviet, commonwealth, OMG

1918 dada, motherfucker, legend in one’s lifetime (Lytton Strachey)

1919 bagel, dunk, rocket

1920 T-shirt, deb(bie) (both Scott Fitzgerald), leotard (unidentified)

Total = 51

US = 27
Brit = 19
Unidentified = 2
Canada/Australia/New Zealand = 1 each

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