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Old World, New World

(from "About Language” by William H. Roberts)

Bill Bryson 

The United States, a nation of immigrants, enjoys a language that also has arrived here, piece by piece, from many places. In this delightfully detailed overview,  Bill Bryson,  an American journalist living in England, examines the process that turned the English of the Pilgrims into American English. He shows how many clamorous influences from around the world have created a variety of English uniquely American (and not always appreciated by the British).


JOURNAL PROMPT One of the points Bryson makes in the following selection is that differences between American and British English were more significant fifty years ago than they are today. How can this be possible? What do you imagine when you think of British English?


1.         The first American pilgrims happened to live in the midst of perhaps the most exciting period in the history of the English language – a time when 12,000 words were being added to the language and revolutionary activities were taking place in almost every realm of human endeavor. It was also a time of considerable change in the structure of the language. The 104 pilgrims who sailed from Plymouth in 1620 were among the first generation of people to use the s form on verbs, saying has rather than hath, runs rather than runneth. Similarly, thee and thou pronoun forms were dying out. Had the pilgrims come a quarter of a century earlier, we might well have preserved those forms, as we preserved other archaisms such as gotten.

2.         The new settlers in America obviously had to come up with new words to describe their New World, and this necessity naturally increased as they moved inland. Partly this was achieved by borrowing from others who inhabited or explored the untamed continent. From the Dutch we took landscape, cookie, and caboose. We may also have taken Yankee, as a corruption of the Dutch Jan Kees ("John Cheese”). The suggestion is that Jan Kees was nonce name for a Dutchman in America, rather like John Bull for an Englishman, but the historical evidence is slight. Often the new i9mmigrants borrowed Indian terms, though these could take some swallowing since the Indian languages, particularly those of the eastern part of the continent, were inordinately agglomerative. As Mary Helen Dohan notes in her excellent book on the rise of American English, Our Own Words, an early translator of the Bible into Iroquoian had to devise the word kummogkodonattootummooetiteaonganunnonash for the phrase "our question”. In Massachusetts there was a lake that the Indians called Chargoggagomanchaugagochaubunagungamaug, which is said to translate as "You fish on that side, we’ll fish on this side, and nobody will fish in the middle.” Not surprisingly, such words were usually shortened and modified. The English-sounding hickory was whittled out of the Indian pawcohiccora. Raugraoughcun was hacked into raccoon and isquonterquashes into squash. Hoochinoo, the name of an Indian tribe noted for its homemade liquor, produced hooch. Some idea of the bewilderments of Indian orthography are indicated by the fact that Chippewa and Ojibway are different names for the same tribe as interpreted by different people at different times. Sometimes words went through many transformations before they sat comfortably on the English-speaking tongue. Manhattan has been variously recorded as Manhates, Manthanes, Manhatones, Manhatesen, Mahattae, and at least half a dozen others. Even the simple word Iowa, according to Dohan, has been recorded with sithty-four spellings. Despite the difficulties of rendering them into English, Indian names were borrowed for the names of more than half our states and for countless thousands of rivers, lakes, and towns. Yet we borrowed no more than three or four dozen Indian words for everyday objects – among them canoe, raccoon, hammock, and tobacco.    

3.         From the early Spanish settlers, by contrast, we took more than 500 words – though many of these, it must be said, were Indian terms adopted by the Spaniards. Among them: rodeo, bronco, buffalo, avocado, mustang, burro, fiesta, coyote, mesquite, canyon, and buckaroo. Buckaroo was directly adapted from the Spanish vaquero (a cowboy) and thus must originally have been pronounced with the accent on the second syllable. Many borrowings are more accurately described as Mexican than Spanish since they did not exist in Spain, among them stampede, hoosegow, and cafeteria. Hoosegow and jug (for jail) were both taken from the Mexican-Spanish juzgado, which despite the spelling, was pronounced more or less as "hoosegow.” Sometimes it took a while for the pronunciation to catch up with the spelling. Rancher, a term borrowed from the Spanish rancho, was originally pronounced in the Mexican fashion, which made it something much closer to "ranker”.

4.         From the French, too, we borrowed liberally, taking the names for Indian tribes, territories, rivers, and other geographical features, sometimes preserving the pronunciation (Sioux, Mackinac) and sometimes not (Illinois, Detroit, Des Plaines, Beloit). We took other words from the French, but often knocked them about in a way that made them look distinctively American, as when we turned gaufre into gopher and chaudière into chowder. Other New World words borrowed from the French were prairie and dime.

5.         Oftentimes words reach us by the most improbable and circuitous routes. The word for the American currency, dollar, is a corruption of Joachimsthaler, named for a sixteenth-century silver mine in Joachimsthal , Germany. The first recorded use of the word in English was in 1553, spelled daler, and for the next two centuries it was applied by the English to various continental currencies. Its first use in America was not recorded until 1782, when Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on a Money Unit for the United States, plumped for dollar as the name of the national currency on the ground that "the [Spanish] dollar is a known coin and the most familiar of all to the mind of the people.” That may be its first recorded appearance, but clearly if it was known to the people the term had already been in use for some time. At all events, Jefferson had his way: In 1785 the dollar was adopted as America’s currency, though it was not until 1794 that the first dollar rolled off the presses. That much we know, but what we don’t know is where the dollar sign ($) comes from. "The most plausible account,” according to Mario Pei, "is that it represents the first and the last letters of the Spanish pesos, written one over the other.” It is an attractive theory but for the one obvious deficiency that the dollar sign doesn’t look anything like a p superimposed on an s.

6.         Perhaps even more improbable is how America came to be named in the first place. The name is taken from Americus Vespucius, a Latinized form of Amerigo Vespucci. A semiobscure Italian navigator who lived from 1454 to 1512, Vespucci made four voyages to the New World though without ever once seeing North America. A contemporary mapmaker wrongly thought Vespucci discovered the whole of the continent and, in the most literal way, put his name on the map. When he learned of his error, the mapmaker, one Martin Waldesmüller, took the name off, but by then it had stuck. Vespucci himself preferred the name Mundus Novus, "New World”.

7.         In addition to borrowing hundreds of words, the Mundus Novians (far better word!) devised many hundreds of their own. The pattern was to take two already existing English words and combine them in new ways: bullfrog, eggplant, grasshopper, rattlesnake, mockingbird, catfish. Sometimes, however, words from the Old World were employed to describe different but similar articles in the New. So beech, walnut, laurel, partridge, robin, oriole, hemlock and even pond (which in England is an artificial lake) all describe different things in the two continents.

8.         Settlers moving west not only had to find new expressions to describe features of their new outsized continent – mesa, butte, bluff, and so on – but also outsized words that reflected their zestful, virile, wildcat-wrassling, hell-for-leather approach to life. These expressions were, to put it mildly, often colorful, and a surprising number of them have survived: hornswoggle, cattywampus, rambunctious, absquatulate, to move like greased lightning, to kick the bucket, to be in cahoots with, to root hog or die. Others have faded away: monstracious, teetotaciously, helliferocious, conbobberation, obflistcate, and many others of equal exuberance.

9.         Of all the new words to issue from the New World, the quintessential Americanism without any doubt was O.K. Arguably America’s single greatest gift to international discourse, O.K. is the most grammatically versatile of words, able to serve as an adjective ("Lunch was O.K.”), verbs ("Can you O.K. this for me?”), noun ("I need your O.K. on this”), interjection ("O.K., I hear you”), and adverb ("We did O.K.”). It can carry shades of meaning that range from casual assent ("Shall we go?” – "O.K.”), to great enthusiasm ("O.K.!”), to lukewarm endorsement ("The party was O.K.”), to a more or less meaningless filler of space ("O.K., may I have your attention please?”).

10.       It is a curious fact that the most successful and widespread of all English words, naturalized as an affirmation into almost every language in the world, from Serbo-Croatian to Tagalog, is one that has no correct agreed spelling (it can be O.K., OK, or okay) and one whose origins are so obscure that it has been a matter of heated dispute almost since it first appeared. The many theories break down into three main camp:

1. It comes from someone’s or something’s initials – a Sac Indian chief called Old Keokuk, or a shipping agent named Obadiah Kelly, or from President Martin Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook, or from Orrins-Kendall crackers, which were popular in the nineteenth century. In each of these theories the initials were stamped or scribbled on documents or crates and gradually came to be synonymous with quality or reliability.

2. It is adapted from some foreign or English dialect word or place name, such as the Finnish oikea, the Haitian Aux Cayes (the source of a particularly prized brand of rum), or the Choctaw okeh. President Woodrow Wilson apparently so liked the Choctaw  theory that he insisted on spelling the word okeh.

3. It is a contraction of the expression "oll correct,” often said to be the spelling used by the semiliterate seventh President, Andrew Jackson.


11.       This third theory, seemingly the most implausible, is in fact very possibly the correct one – though without involving Andrew Jackson and with a bit of theory one thrown in for good measure. According to Allen Walker Read of Colombia University, who spent years tracking down the derivation of O.K., a fashion developed among young wits of Boston and New York in 1838 of writing abbreviations based on intentional illiteracies. They thought it highly comical to write O.W. for "oll write,” O.K. for "oll correct,” K.Y. for "know yuse,” and so on. O.K. first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post. Had that been it, the expression would no doubt have died an early death, but coincidentally in 1840 Martin Van Buren, known as Old Kinderhook from his hometown in upstate New York, was running for reelection as president, and an organization founded to help his campaign was given the name the Democratic O.K. Club. O.K. became a rallying cry throughout the campaign and with great haste established itself as a word throughout the country. This may have been small comfort to Van Buren, who lost the election to William Henry Harrison, who had the no-less-snappy slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

12.       Although the residents of the New World began perforce to use new words almost from the first day they stepped ashore, it isn’t all clear when they began pronouncing them in a distinctively American way. No one can say when the American accent first arose – or why it evolved quite as it did. As early as 1791, Dr. David Ramsay, one of the first American historians, noted in his History of the American Revolution that Americans had a particular purity of speech, which he attributed to the fact that people from all over Britain were thrown together in America where they "dropped the peculiarities of their several provincial idioms, retaining only what was fundamental and common to them all.”

13.       But that is not to suggest that they sounded very much like Americans of today. According to Robert Burchfield, George Washington probably sounded as British as Lord North. On the other hand, Lord North probably sounded more American than would any British minister today. North would, for instance, have given necessary its full value. He would have pronounced path and bath in the American way. He would have given r’s their full value in words like cart and horse. And he would have used many words that later fell out of use in England but were preserved in the New World.

14.       The same would be true of the soldiers on the battlefield, who would, according to Burchfield, have spoken identically "except in minor particularities.” [The English Language, page 36] Soldiers from both sides would have tended not to say join and poison as we do today, but something closer to "jine” and "pison.” Speak and tea would have sounded to modern ears more like "spake” and "tay,” certain and merchant more like "sartin” and "merchant.”

15.       It has been said many times that hostility towards Britain at the end of the Revolutionary War was such that America seriously considered adopting another language. The story has been repeated many times, even by as eminent an authority as Professor Randolph Quirk of Oxford, but it appears to be without foundation. Someone may have made such a proposal. At this remove we cannot be certain. But what we can say with confidence is that if such a proposal was made it appears not to have stimulated any widespread public debate, which would seem distinctly odd in matter of such moment. We also know that the Founding Fathers were so little exercised by the question of an official language for the United States that they made not one mention of it in the Constitution. So it seems evident that such a proposal was not treated seriously, if indeed it ever existed.

16.       What is certain is that many people, including both Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster, expected American English to evolve into a separate language over time. Benjamin Franklin, casting an uneasy eye at the Germans in his native Pennsylvania, feared that America would fragment into a variety of speech communities. But neither of these things happened. It is worth looking at why they did not.

17.       Until about 1840 America received no more than about 20,000 immigrants a year, mostly from two places: Africa in the form of slaves and the British Isles. Today immigration between 1607 and 1840 was no more than one million. Then suddenly, thanks to a famine in Ireland in 1845 and immense political upheaval elsewhere, America’s immigration became a flood. In the second half of the nineteenth century, thirty million people poured into the country, and the pace quickened further in the early years of the twentieth century. In just four years at its peak, between 1901 and 1905, America absorbed a million Italians, a million Austro-Hungarians, and half a million Russians, plus tens of thousands of other people from scores of other places.

18.       At the turn of the century, New York had more speakers of German than anywhere in the world except Vienna and Berlin, more Irish than anywhere but Dublin, more Russians than in Kiev, more Italians than in Milan or Naples. In 1890 the United States had 800 German newspapers and as late as the outbreak of World War I Baltimore along had four elementary schools teaching in German only.

19.       Often, naturally, these people settled in enclaves, John Russell Bartlett noted that it was possible to cross Oneida County, New York, and hear nothing but Welsh. Probably the most famous of these enclaves – certainly the most enduring – was that of the Amish who settled primarily in and around Lancaster County in southern Pennsylvania and spoke a dialect that came to be known, misleadingly, as Pennsylvania Dutch. (The name is a corruption of Deutsch, or German.) Some 300,000 people in America still use Pennsylvania Dutch as their first language, and perhaps twice as many more can speak it. The large number is accounted for no doubt by the extraordinary insularity of most Amish, many of whom even now shun cars, tractors, electricity, and the other refinements of modern life. Pennsylvania Dutch is a kind of institutionalized broken English, arising from adapting English words to German syntax and idiom. Probably the best known of their expressions is "Outen the light” for put out the light.

20.       Pennsylvania Dutch speakers also have a tendency to speak with semi-Germanic accents – saying "chorge” for George, "britches” for bridges, and "tolt” for told. Remarkably, many of them still have trouble, despite more than two centuries in America, with "v” and "th” sounds, saying "wisit” for visit and "ziss” for this. But two things should be borne in mind. First, Pennsylvania Dutch is an anomaly, nurtured by the extreme isolation from modern life of its speakers. And second, it is an English dialect. That is significant.

21.       Throughout the last century, and often into this one, it was easy to find isolated speech communities throughout much of America: Norwegians in Minnesota and the Dakotas, Swedes in Nebraska, Germans in Wisconsin and Indiana, and many others. It was natural to suppose that that the existence of these linguistic pockets would lead the United States to deteriorate into a variety of regional tongues, rather as in Europe, or at the very least result in widely divergent dialects of English, each heavily influenced by its prevailing immigrant group. But of course nothing of the sort happened. In fact, the very opposite was the case. Instead of becoming more divergent, people over the bulk of the American mainland continued to evince a more or less uniform speech. Why should that be?

22.       There were three main reasons. First, the continuous movement of people back and forth across the continent militated against the formation of permanent regionalism. Americans enjoyed social mobility long before sociologists thought up the term. Second, the intermingling of people from diverse backgrounds worked in favor of homogeneity. Third, and above all, social pressures and the desire for a common national identity encouraged people to settle on a single way of speaking.

23. People who didn’t blend in risked being made to feel like outsiders. They were given names that denigrated their backgrounds: wop from the Italian guappo (a strutting fellow), kraut (from the supposed German fondness for sauerkraut), yid (for Yiddish speakers), dago from the Spanish Diego, kike (from the –ki and –ky endings on many Jewish names), bohunk from Bohemian-Hungarian, micks and paddies for the Irish… The usual pattern was for the offspring of immigrants to become completely assimilated – to the point of being unable to speak their parents’ language.

24. Occasionally physical isolation, as with the Cajuns in Louisiana or the Gullah speakers on the Sea Islands off the East Coast, enabled people to be more resistant to change. It has often been said that if you want to hear what the speech of Elizabethan England sounded like, you should go to the hills of Appalachia or the Ozarks, where you can find isolated communities of people still speaking the English of Shakespeare. To be sure, many of the words and expressions that we think of today as "hillbilly” words – afeared, tetchy, consarn it, yourn (for yours), hisn (for his), et (for ate), sassy (for saucy), jined (for joined), and score of others – do indeed reflect the speech of Elizabethan London. But much the same claim could be made for the modern-day speech of Boston or Charleston or indeed almost anywhere else. After all, every person in America uses a great many expressions and pronunciations familiar to Shakespeare but which have since died out in England – gotten, fall (for the season), the short a for bath and path, and so on. The mountain regions may possess a somewhat greater abundance of archaic expressions and pronunciations because of their relative isolation, but to imply that the speech there is a near replica of the speech of Elizabethan England is taking it too far. Apart from anything else, most of the mountain areas weren’t settled for a century or more after Elizabeth’s death. H.L.Mencken traced this belief to an early authority, one A.J.Ellis, and then plunged the dagger in with the conclusion that "Ellis was densely ignorant of the history of the English settlements in America, and ascribed to them a cultural isolation that never existed.” Still, it is easy to find the belief, or something very like it, repeated in many books.

25. It is certainly true to say that America in general preserved many dozens of words that would otherwise almost certainly have been lost to English. The best noted, perhaps, is gotten, which to most Britons is the quaintest of Americanisms. It is now so unused in Britain that many Britons have to have the distinction between got and gotten explained to them – they use got for both – even though they make exactly the same distinction with forgot and forgotten. Gotten also survives in England in one or two phrases, notably "ill-gotten gains.” Sick likewise underwent a profound change of sense in Britain that was not carried over to America. Shakespeare uses it in the modern American sense in Henry V ("He is very sick, and would to bed”), but in Britain the word has come to take on the much more specific sense of being nauseated. Even so, the broader original sense survives in a large number of expressions in Britain, such as sick bay, sick note, in sickness and in health, to be off sick (that is, to stay at home from work or school because of illness), sickbed, homesick, and lovesick. Conversely, the British often use ill where Americans would only use injured, as in newspaper accounts describing the victim of a train crash as being "seriously ill in hospital.”

26. Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan English that died in English were fall as a synonym for autumn, mad for angry, progress as a verb, platter for a large dish, assignment in the sense of a job or task (it survived in England only as a legal expression), deck of cards (the English now say pack), slim in the sense of small (as in slim chance), mean in the sense of unpleasant instead of stingy, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog as a synonym for pig, mayhem, magnetic, chore, skillet, ragamuffin, homespun, and the expression I guess. Many of these words have reestablished themselves in England, so much so that most Britons would be astonished to learn that they had ever fallen out of use there. Maybe was described in the original Oxford English Dictionary in this century as "archaic and dialectal.” Quit in the sense of resigning had similarly died out in Britain. To leaf through a book was first recorded in Britain in 1613, but then fell out of use there and was reintroduced from America, as was frame-up, which the Oxford English Dictionary in 1901 termed obsolete, little realizing that it would soon be reintroduced to its native land in a thousand gangster movies.

27. America also introduced many words and expressions that never existed in Britain but which have for the most part settled comfortably into domestic life there. Among these words and phrases are – and this really is a bare sampling – commuter, bedrock, snag, striptease, cold spell, gimmick, baby-sitter, lengthy, sag, soggy, teenager, telephone, typewriter, radio, to cut no ice, to butt in, to side-track, hangover, to make good (to be successful), fudge, publicity, joyride, bucker shop, blizzard, stunt, law-abiding, department store, notify, advocate (as a verb), currency (for money), to park, to rattle (in the sense of to unnerve or unsettle), hindsight, beeline, raincoat, scrawny, take a backseat, cloudburst, graveyard, know-how, to register (as in a hotel), to shut down, to fill the bill, to hold down (as in keep), to hold up (as in rob), to bank on, to stay put, to be stung (cheated), and even stiff upper lip. In a rather more roundabout way, so to speak, the word roundabout, their term for traffic circles, is of American origin. More precisely, it was a term invented by Logan Pearsall Smith, an American living in England, who was one of the members in the 1920s of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English. This lofty panel had the job of deciding questions of pronunciation, usage, and even vocabulary for the BBC. Before Smith came along, traffic circles in Britain were called gyratory circuses. (Smith also wanted traffic lights to be called stop-and-goes and brainwave to be replaced by mindfall, among many other equally fanciful neologisms, but these never caught on.)

28. Of course, the traffic has not been entirely one way. Apart from the several thousand words that the British endowed Americans with in the first place, they have since the colonial exodus also given the world smog, weekend, gadget, miniskirt, radar, brain drain, and gay in the sense of homosexual. Even so, there is no denying that the great bulk of words introduced into the English language over the last two centuries has traveled from west to east. And precious little thanks we get. Almost from the beginning of the colonial experience it has been a common assumption in Britain that a word or turn of phrase is interior simply by dint of its being American-bred. In dismissing the "vile and barbarous word talented,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed that "most of these pieces of slang come from America.” That clearly was ground enough to detest them. In point of fact, I am very pleased to tell you, talented was a British coinage, first used in 1422. Something of the spirit of the age was captured in Samuel Johnson’s observation in 1769 that Americans were "a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” A reviewer of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) entreated Jefferson to say what he would about the British character, but "O spare, we beseech you, our mother-tongue.” Another, nothing his use of the word belittle, remarked: "It may be an elegant [word] in Virginia, and even perfectly intelligible; but for our part all can do is to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” [Quoted by Pyles, Words and Ways of American English, page 17] Jefferson also coined the word Anglophobia; little wonder.

29. As often as not, these sneerers showed themselves to be not only gratuitously offensive but also etymologically underinformed because the objects of their animus were invariably British in origin. Johnson disparaged glee, jeopardy, and smolder, little realizing that they had existed in England for centuries. To antagonize, coined by John Quincy Adams, was strenuously attacked. So was progress as a verb, even though it had been used by both Bacon and Shakespeare. Scientist was called "an ignoble Americanism” and "a cheap and vulgar product of trans-Antlantic slang.”

30. Americans, alas, were often somewhat sniveling cohorts in this caviling – perhaps most surprisingly Benjamin Franklin. When the Scottish philosopher David Hume criticized some of the Americanisms, Franklin meekly replied: "I thank you for your friendly admonition relating to some unusual words in the pamphlet. It will be of service to me. The pejorate and the colonize… I give up as bad; for certainly in writings intended for persuasion and for general information, one cannot be too clear; and every expression in the least obscure is a fault; The unshakable too, the clear, I give up as rather low. The introducing new words, where we are already possessed of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong …I hope with you, that we shall always in America make the best English of this island our standard, and I believe it will be so.” And yet he went right on introducing words: eventuate, demoralize, constitutionally. This servility persisted for a long time among some people. William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the New York Evening Post and one of the leading journalists of the nineteenth century in America, refused to allow such useful words as lengthy and presidential into his paper simply because they had been dismissed as Americanisms a century earlier. Jefferson, more heroically, lamented the British tendency to raise "a hue and cry at every word he [Samuel Johnson] has not licensed.”

31. The position has little improved with time. To this day you can find authorities in Britain attacking such vile "Americanisms” as maximize, minimize, and input, quite unaware that the first two were coined by Jeremy Bentham more than a century ago and the last appeared more than 600 years ago in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible. Loan as a verb (rather than lend) is often criticized as an Americanism, when in fact it was first used in England a full eight centuries ago. The stylebook of the Times of London sniffily instructs its staff members that "normalcy should be left to the Americans who coined it. The English [italics mine] is normality.” In point of fact normalcy is a British coinage. As Baugh and Cable put it, "The English attitude toward Americanisms is still quite frankly hostile.”

32. Indeed, it occasionally touches new peaks of smugness. In 1930, a Conservative member of Parliament, calling for a quota on the number of American films allowed into Britain, said: "The words and accent are perfectly disgusting, and there can be no doubt that such films are an evil influence on our language.” [Quoted by Norman Moss in What’s the Difference, page 12] More recently, during a debate in the House of Lords in 1978 one of the members said: "If there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what is.” (We should perhaps bear in mind that the House of Lords is a largely powerless, nonelective institution. It is an arresting fact of British political life that a Briton can enjoy a national platform and exalted status simply because he is the residue of an illicit coupling 300 years before between a monarch and an orange seller.)

33. Even when they have not been actively hostile, the British have often struck an aloof, not to say fantastical, attitude to the adoption of American words. In The King’s English (1931), the Fowler brothers, usually paragons of common sense in matters linguistic, take the curious and decidedly patronizing view that although there is nothing wrong with American English, and that it is even capable of evincing occasional flashes of genius, it is nonetheless a foreign tongue and should be treated as such. "The English and American language and literature are both good things; but they are better apart than mixed.” They particularly cautioned against using three vulgar Americanisms: placate, transpire, and antagonize.

34. Putting aside the consideration that without America’s contribution English today would enjoy a global importance about on a par with Portuguese, it is not too much to say that this attitude is unworthy of the British. It is at any rate an arresting irony that the more dismissive they grow of America usages, the more lavishly they borrow them – to the extent of taking phrases that have no literal meaning in British English. People in Britain talk about doing something on a shoestring even though the word there is shoelace. They talk about the 64,000-dollar question, looking like a million bucks, having a megabucks salary, stepping on the gas (when they fuel their cars with petrol), and taking a raincheck even though probably not one Briton in a hundred knows what a raincheck is. They have even quietly modified their grammar and idiom to fit the American model. Ernest Gowers, in the revised edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, noted that under the influence of American usage the British had begun to change aim at doing into aim to do, haven’t got to don’t have, begun using in instead of for in phrases like "the first time in years,” and started for the first time using begin to with a negative, as in "This doesn’t begin to make sense.” And these changes go on. Just in the last decade or so, truck has begun driving out lorry. Airplane is more and more replacing aeroplane. The American sense of billion (1,000,000,000) has almost completely routed the British sense (1,000,000,000,000).

35. American spelling, too, has had more influence on the British than they might think. Jail instead of gaol, burden rather than burthen, clue rather than clew, wagon rather than wagon, today and tomorrow rather than to-day and to-morrow, mask rather than masque, reflection rather than reflexion, and forever and onto as single words rather than two have all been nudged on their way towards acceptance by American influence. For most senses of the word program, the British still use programme, but when the context is of computers they write program. A similar distinction is increasingly made with disc (the usual British spelling) and disk for the thing you slot into your home computer.

36. Although the English kept the u in many words like humour, honour, and colour, they gave it up in several, such as terrour, horrour, and governour, helped at least in part by the influence of American books and journals. Confusingly, they retained it in some forms but abandoned it in others, so that in England you write honour and  honourable but honorary and honorarium; colour and colouring but coloration; humour but humorist; labour and labourer but labourious. There is no logic to it, and no telling why some words gave up the u and others didn’t. For a time it was fashionable to drop the u from honor and humor – Coleridge for one did it – but it didn’t catch on.

37. People don’t often appreciate just how much movies and television have smoothed the differences between British and American English, but half a century ago the gap was very much wider. In 1922, when Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt was published in Britain it contained a glossary. Words that are commonplace in Britain now were quite unknown until the advent of talking pictures – among them grapevine, fan (in sense of a sports enthusiast), gimmick and phoney. As late as 1955, a writer in the Spectator could  misapprehend the expression turn of the century, and take it to mean midcentury, when the first half turns into the second. In 1939, the preface to An Anglo-American Interpreter suggested that "an American, if taken suddenly ill while on a visit to London, might die in the street through being unable to make himself understood.” [Quoted in Our Language, page 169] That may be arrant hyperbole, designed to boost sales, but it is probably true that the period up to the Second World War marked the age of the greatest divergence between the two main branches of English.

38. Even now, there remains great scope for confusion, as evidenced by the true story of an American lady, newly arrived in London, who opened her front door to find three burly men on the steps informing her that they were her dustmen. "Oh,” she blurted, "but I do my own dusting.” It can take years for an American to master the intricacies of British idiom, and vice versa. In Britain homely is a flattering expression (equivalent to homey); in America it means "ugly”. In Britain upstairs is the first floor; in America it is the second … Presently means "now” in America; in Britain it means "in a little while.” Sometimes these can cause considerable embarrassment, most famously with the British expression "I’ll knock you up in the morning,” which means "I’ll knock on your door in the morning.” To keep your pecker up is an innocuous expression in Britain (even though, curiously, pecker has the same slang meaning there), but to be stuffed is distinctly rude, so that if you say at a dinner party, "I couldn’t eat another thing; I’m stuffed,” an embarrassing silence will fall over the table. (You may recognize the voice of experience in this.) Such too will be your fate if you innocently refer to someone’s fanny; in England it means a woman’s pudenda.

39. Other terms are less graphic, but no less confusing. English people bathe wounds but not their babies; they bath their babies. Whereas an American wishing to get clean would bathe in a bathtub, an English person would bath in a bath. English people do bathe, but what they mean by that is to go for a swim in the sea. Unless, of course, the water is too cold (as it always is in Britain) in which case they stand in water up to their knees. This is called having a paddle, even though their hands may never touch the water.

40. Sometimes these differences in meaning take on a kind of bewildering circularity. A tramp in Britain is a bum in America, while a bum in Britain is a fanny in America, while a fanny in Britain is – well, we’ve covered that. To a foreigner it must seem sometimes as if we are being intentionally country. Consider that in Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post, not the mail, while in America the Postal Service delivers the mail, not the post. These ambiguities can affect scientists as much as tourists. The British billion, as we have already seen, has surrendered to the American billion, but for other numbers agreement has yet to be reached. A decillion in America is a one plus thirty-three zeros. In Britain it is a one plus sixty zeros. Needless to say, that can make a difference.

41. In common speech, some 4,000 words are used differently in one country from the other. That’s a very large number indeed. Some are well known on both sides of the Atlantic – lift/elevator, dustbin/garbage can, biscuit/cookie – but many hundreds of others are still liable to befuddle the hapless traveler. Try covering up the right-hand column below and seeing how many of the British terms in the left-hand column you can identify. If you get more than half you either know the country well or have been reading too many English murder mysteries.


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