“Americanisms are ruining the English language”

As a slight aside from politics, there has been much discussion on the BBC web site over the past month about the apparent scourge of Americanisms entering British English.

My own position is that this battle has been lost – my stepdaughter, age 8, already speaks fluent General American, she “goes to the bathroom”, eats “cotton candy”, complains about “long lines” and all sorts (some of these genuinely threw me, age 34, when she first used them). However, in the majority of cases (though not all), my own position is that it is a battle not worth fighting; in many cases, it’s even the wrong battleground.

The BBC itself made the point that words such as “lengthy” were Americanisms which entered British English even at the height of the British Empire. More recently, where would we be without catch-all, originally American terms such as “commute”? In fact, such borrowings enrich our language, making it more wide-ranging, expressive and demonstrative.

However, the BBC’s original article, by Matthew Engel, also highlighted another point – many so-called “Americanisms” aren’t “Americanisms” at all. To me, that is an even more interesting matter than which genuine Americanisms happen to irk us or otherwise.

Thus, for a bit of fun if nothing else, it is worth going through the original “unecessary” items in Matthew Engel’s article, and then the 50 “most irritating” Americanisms raised by (mainly British) readers to ask, genuinely, what is the problem with them.

Unnecessary?

Faze: What is unnecessary about “faze”? How would this be expressed otherwise? Its use really doesn’t faze me!

Hospitalize: Far from Engel’s description of this as a “vile word”, I find it useful (leaving aside the fact its use in Britain appears to pre-date its use in America). Why say “The accident meant I ended up in hospital” when you can just say “the accident hospitalized me”? If this is so wrong, why allow realize, institutionalize, etc?

Wrench: I’ve honestly never heard this for “spanner” (I’ve only heard it metaphorically), so I can’t comment.

Elevator: I am with Engel here – British “lift” is the faster word and perfectly appropriate, and is even the word borrowed into German (which, for inside lifts anyway, has “der Lift”, not “der Elevator”; mind it also has the perfectly appropriate and native “der Aufzug”).

Rookie: Again, I fail to see the problem. “Newcomer” doesn’t quite offer the same detail – a newcomer is new to the game, but a rookie is specifically first-season, I would have thought. “Rookie” thus allows for more specificity, rarely a bad thing.

Guy: Doesn’t trouble me either, seems to work alongside “bloke” and “fella” perfectly well!

Outage: I have never heard this either, and it doesn’t strike me as particularly American (where I have heard only “black out”, though I promise to consult my stepdaughter!)

The 50 worst?

A selection, anyway…

“Can I get a…” – doesn’t strike me as particularly irritating or “wrong”, and if it was imported from Friends then so, essentially, was the coffee culture of which it was part; that said, “Can I have…” strikes me as more precise (and also is the likelier original, equating to German).

“Least worst option” – I’m with the commenter here, it makes no sense!

“two-time” – what is wrong with this? If a pile-up involves three cars, it’s a “three-car pile-up”; if Harrington wins a major three times, he’s a “three-time major winner”. “Double” and “triple” have nothing to do with it!

“24/7” – again, what is the problem? Saying or writing “24 hours, 7 days a week” or “all day every day” takes far longer; if the meaning from the shorter phrase is clear, why not say it? Presumably the commenter insists on saying “influenza” all the time rather than “flu”, or “United Kingdom” rather than “UK”?

“deplane” – admittedly strikes me as comical, but not “wrong” as such; I see nothing wrong with the simpler “get off” anyway.

“wait on” – this is another one which doesn’t strike me as an “Americanism”; it would be normal usage in Northern Ireland (in preference to “wait for”) and many other parts of the British Isles; it also corresponds with the German “warten auf”.

“touch base” – I’m not keen on this one, as it does indeed refer to a game we don’t play. However, I find it odd that no one mentioned “selling like hotcakes“, referring to a product by a name we never otherwise use.

“physically” – “physically” is a real word, of course; its overuse does not strike me as an “Americanism”.

“transportation” – I agree that “transport” is perfectly good, although I’m not aware of “transportation” being used that often in the British Isles.

“leverage” – I am not familiar with the word in daily use. It’s pronunciation is at least debatable – the alleged “American” pronunciation would be nearer to the original French, of course, so perhaps it is the British who have it “wrong”?

“turn” (an age) – again, why on earth go to all the trouble of “celebrating a birthday” when you can simply “turn”? Germans simply “werden”! I see no problem, and again am not aware of “turn” being particularly American.

“shopping cart” – I haven’t heard this used in the British Isles, but again, strictly speaking, it’s faster than “shopping trolley”.

“gotten” – this is considered standard in Scotland and Northern Ireland anyway, and is of course the older form: “broken” has remained “broken” but only in England has “gotten” become “got” – others would consider “got”, therefore, as the cause for shuddering!

“I’m good” – I do find “I’m good” a bit confusing (as there is no certainty it applies to health).

“a half hour” – well, “a quarter hour” is faster than “a quarter of an hour”, and by analogy that would be “a half hour”; again, I fail to see the problem.

“heads up” – must confess I’m with the commenter there, I don’t understand this one either, but it’s another one I wouldn’t associate with America, but rather with general Officespeak.

“train station” – Translink in Northern Ireland has, of course, long yielded to this one (again, is it really “American”?); and it strikes me again as perfectly sensible. If you have a “bus station”, why not a “train station”, especially when it’s quicker than “railway station”? 

“alphabetize” – like “hospitalize” above, a superb word, much quicker than saying or writing “put in alphabetical order”!

“normalcy” – this one grates a little – if it is “specialty” why is it not “normalty”?! At least British is consistent in each case. That said, I find “resiliency” worse, an example where the British, not the Americans, leave out the redundant syllable – what is wrong with “resilience”?

“burglarize” – entirely, fully, totally and completely with the commenter on this one, this is one Americanism I find very irritating and, far from being allowed into British English (not that I have ever heard it in the British Isles), it should be expunged from American! One who “burgles” is a “burglar” – the spelling is a little old fashioned, but it is a normal and short agent noun from a normal and short regular verb. What next, “builderize” instead of “build”?! Horrid!

“oftentimes” – I haven’t heard this in the British Isles either; although “oftentimes” makes sense analogically with “sometimes”, as ever I don’t like redundant syllables and in this case the British are the ones avoiding them!

“eaterie” – I haven’t heard this one either, but it sounds like quite a clever word. I never liked the idea that somewhere like McDonald’s qualifies as a “restaurant”, but I could live with “eaterie”!

“bi-weekly” – another one I haven’t heard, and not one I would like to hear I confess as I would be unsure as to whether it meant “twice a week” or (as the correspondent suggests) “fortnightly”. I do know the Americans rarely use “fortnight” to start with – on my own terms, it’s a good word and I commend it to them!

“alternate” – another assumption that “Bad English” equates to “Americanism”; I am not aware that the confusion between “alternate” and “alternative” is a particularly American thing – it’s just poor use of English, wherever it is used.

“going forward” – again, strikes me more as “management speak” (or even the dreaded “Civil Servantese”) than an Americanism.

“deliverable” – another one which does not strike me as particularly “American”, and what is wrong with it anyway? It is clear – if people choose to use it lazily, that is another matter.

“You do the math” – I think this is just a saying, borrowed into British English in almost the same way as “deja vu” or “status quo”.

“Regular” – I don’t mind this, with regard to coffee (as noted above, a largely imported culture, and thus set of linguistic terms more often based on Italian than American, in itself). However, “regular” in general speech does have a different meaning from “normal” to me, one which may be eroded over the next generation.

“expiration” – I haven’t come across this on a British credit card (or anywhere else), but it’s a fair point if ever it does appear – “expiry” is the quicker word, and perfectly apt!

“that’ll learn you” – this has nothing to do with America whatsoever! My great aunt (born 1900) regularly used it to me in Armagh!

where’s it at?” – I’m with the commenter there – “where are you going” and “where is it” are clear as they stand, without prepositions.

“winningest” – a great word! Again, why say “Michael Schumacher was the most successful driver or all time in terms of total number of races won” when you can just say “Michael Schumacher was the winningest driver”?

“issue” – I hadn’t thought of this one and I suspect it is an “Americanism” – instinctively I am with the commenter, I wouldn’t regard an “issue” as necessarily a “problem”.

“zee” – the commenter is right, it is indeed “zed” (as it is in German “zett”).

“(to) medal” – again, as the meaning is clear I fail to see the problem, why must we “win a medal” rather than simply “medal”?

“get for free” – again, I’m not aware this is an “Americanism”, is it not just a redundant preposition thrown in by speakers of all forms of English (presumably by analogy with “for nothing”)?

I could care less” – I’m with the commenter, I don’t see how this means what it presumably is supposed to mean!

Summary

From the above, the examples given seem generally to fall into three categories:

– Americanisms which will in fact enhance the language (in the same way as “commute” did);

– terms assumed to be “Americanisms” because they seem to be bad or lazy English, even though there is no evidence that they are; and

– Americanisms which are genuinely unnecessary.

Of all the examples, however, it seems fewer fall into that third category than either of the first two. In fact, there is little wrong (and often quite a lot right) with most “Americanisms”, and many examples weren’t “Americanisms” to start with.

So why do Americanisms (actual or assumed) cause such ire? I would suggest two reasons:

– linguistically, throughout human history, people have had trouble accepting language change, even though language change is a constant and serves, almost always, to regularize language rather than complicate it (as well as simply to ensure language use keeps up with modern cultural and technological norms); and

– culturally, there is an instinctive nervousness about one country getting “too powerful” (or simply “too big for its boots”), which is why many examples were opposed not on any linguistic grounds, but simply because they were (or were at least perceived to be) “American”.

If the assumption is that “Americanisms” are such bad things, it is time we did something about it: Britain produces far fewer quality children’s television programmes than it once did, for example; also, the standard (or, more to the point, quantity) of language teaching has declined drastically and should be reversed. However, I make no such assumption (even if there are many other reasons for improving language teaching).

“Candy floss” is still instantly preferable to “cotton candy”, of course…

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9 thoughts on ““Americanisms are ruining the English language”

  1. Steve Parsley says:

    An entertaining read, so thank you… There are some phrases which grate and I’ll always do my best to stand up for the good old English version – but then i get the sense I’m swimming against the tide. After all, you don’t hear many people using “thee” and “thou” these days ….

    But don’t get me started on “gansta” speak. That’s something different which needs strangling at birth … 🙂

  2. I think they’re complaining about the use of “leverage” as a verb in corporate jargon.

  3. […] “Americanisms are ruining the English language” As a slight aside from politics, there has been much discussion on the BBC web site over the past month about the apparent scourge of Americanisms entering British English. My own position is t… Source: ianjamesparsley.wordpress.com […]

  4. […] “Americanisms are ruining the English language” As a slight aside from politics, there has been much discussion on the BBC web site over the past month about the apparent scourge of Americanisms entering British English. My own position is t… Source: ianjamesparsley.wordpress.com […]

  5. Seymour Major says:

    There are a certain group of people who think that a language ought to be fixed in a certain way, to a certain standard. That point of view is based upon vanity and conceit.

    A language, by itself never stands still. It evolves according to how people decide to communicate.

  6. Redbeard says:

    Actually, many of the words you cite as Americanisms are really archaic British-isms. ‘Normalcy’ was how we in the UK said it in the late 16th century. ‘Oftentimes’ is another one. ‘Math’ and ‘Fall’ are others. “Gotten” is another good example – this was a word used by British English until the 19th century.

    It has been British English that has changed and morphed over the past few centuries and the terms we deem as American neologisms are really dusty old relatives who have come back for a linguistic visit!

  7. Redbeard says:

    We still use ‘forgotten’

  8. […] As a slight aside from politics, there has been much discussion on the BBC web site over the past month about the apparent scourge of Americanisms entering British English. My own position is t…  […]

  9. […] fact, the complaints often concern things which are not Americanisms at all, but general developments in […]

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