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Brit is it

Blimey, this is supposed to be America!

By Jan Freeman
April 11, 2010

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So you despise the phrase went missing? You think spot on is pretentious, at the end of the day is meaningless filler, and all such British vocabulary invaders should be deep-sixed in Boston Harbor?

Well, take heart: We are giving as good as we get these days, annoying our British cousins right back by exporting heaps of everyday Americanisms, along with a garnish of slang. The latest flurry of objections was touched off by BBC radio presenter Martha Kearney, who in a recent broadcast called on politicians to “fess up to” the need for spending cuts.

“Slack, lazy language,” said one listener. “What is wrong with just saying ‘confess’?” asked another. The Telegraph labeled the listeners’ response “outrage,” solicited a few more complaints, and ran a story about the threat of “creeping Americanisms.” And right on schedule, commenters queued at the paper’s website to unload their own peeves, both foreign and domestic. “Come on BBC — get back to using the term Railway Station, not the American Train Station.” “What about the latest word, ongoing. What is so wrong with continuing?” “What about all those BBC reporters and commentators, who wrongly say ‘different to’ when they mean ‘different from’?”

In fact, ongoing and different to are not Americanisms — but when peevologists are on the rampage, the details can get fuzzy. Till recently, when a locution seemed iffy, both Americans and Brits often assumed it was the work of Colonial yokels. Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century American wit, thought mad for “angry” was homegrown slang; actually Samuel Pepys had used it in 1663. H.W. Fowler thought brainy was a Yankee coinage, but the Oxford English Dictionary’s first example comes from an English poet. And H.L. Mencken, in 1921, wrote of a woman who berated the London Times for printing the word hick, a barbarism (so she said) from the American West. But hick, too, is purebred English, from the 16th century.

The blame-America reflex has weakened, but both sides still seem to think of British English as the grown-ups’ dialect. Americans who adopt Britishisms are accused of affectation (or trying to sound posh); Brits who use American language — even something as mild as “fess up” — are charged with trying to appear hip.

Why, a reasonable person might ask, do these small differences in idiom inspire such hostility? Nobody in London is forcing us to order a pint instead of a beer, or to watch the telly; nobody in Boston cares whether Brits say nappies or diapers. Our words bob back and forth across the Atlantic like so many messages in bottles; we’re under no compulsion to fish them out and take them home.

But as some language bloggers are pointing out, we might have more fun if we did. Last month John McIntyre, a fan of British detective fiction, asked his readers at You Don’t Say to nominate British words they’d welcome to our shores. He likes whingeing (whining, only more annoying), suss out, and twee — and he has no quarrel with gone missing. Among his readers’ suggestions are knackered (exhausted), gobsmacked, and wanker (which, as Hugh Grant once pointed out, is less rude in this country than in its homeland).

And Lynne Murphy, an American linguist teaching in England, has a blog devoted entirely to the delights of British-American dialect differences — no whingeing allowed. At Separated by a Common Language, Murphy holds an annual contest for best imported words (British to American and vice versa); recently we’ve taken baby bump and vet (the verb) to our hearts, while sending muffin top and cookie to woo the UK. More recently, on Twitter as Lynneguist, Murphy has also been posting a “difference of the day” — Popsicle vs. ice lolly, macaroni and cheese vs. macaroni cheese.

Surely, among all these offerings, everyone can find a Britishism to cherish. How about Thursday week, meaning “a week from Thursday,” which would instantly cure our chronic confusion about whether a meeting or dinner is scheduled for “this Thursday” or “next Thursday”? I’ve always been fond of fortnight, too — I suppose it doesn’t catch on here because our vacations (their holidays) are rarely two weeks at a stretch. And surely sell-by date is sleeker and more precise than expiration date.

I also have a weakness for the British bit — as in “would you like the toasted bits?” — though it really has no advantage, beyond its compactness, over the usual American part or piece. (Well, it has a certain notoriety, thanks to Monty Python’s “naughty bits,” but that’s not necessarily an advantage for an otherwise virtuous word.)

Maybe our two great nations could declare a truce and give the invading words a chance to prove their worth. No doubt we’d sound silly if we suddenly started calling our Oreo Double Stufs biscuits and talking about bank holidays. But run-up, dodgy, one-off, over the moon — the day may come when one of these borrowed words is just the ticket. Or, if you prefer, spot on.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).