Archive for June 20th, 2004

"What Language Do They speak in England?"

Sunday, June 20th, 2004

Language is a funny old thing. And the English language is about as funny as it gets. There’s a simmering resentment in Britain that “our” language seems to have been kidnapped by the US to such an extent that, when asked, few people around the world correctly guess that the English speak English.

Even my Mac, one of the most internationally linguistically-friendly computers around (if not the most) forces me to choose “British English” as my local language, and far too many web sites for my liking use a US flag as a quick means of choosing how I would like to view them. Germans have a German flag, French have a French flag, Spaniards have a Spanish flag. Note to all website owners: the English flag is white with a red cross, not 50 stars and thirteen stripes…

Oh well. That’s life and cultural hegemony I guess.

(I should say at this point that when Apple discontinued the British English localised version of the Mac OS there were lots of complaints over here. The strongest was the replacement of the “wastebasket” with “trash”. We don’t say trash over here – it’s “rubbish”. But trash isn’t an American word; it was used by William Shakespeare long before most of America had even been found).

Two of my favourite TV programmes are American – The West Wing and Law and Order (and its siblings). It’s always quite amusing how American programmes misrepresent Britain and the British. You might expect it in comedy shows (Friends won few admirers with its dodgy “London” episodes which were filmed over here but may as well have been shot in LA for all the accuracy of the sets, and the way that quite distinguished actors were forced to adopt fake British accents, presumably because their real ones didn’t conform to stereotypes) but in serious drama, I expect more.

The British ambassador in The West Wing constantly refers to “Her Royal Majesty” when talking about the Queen, for example, when it’s “Her Majesty” or “Her Royal Highness” (I forget the etiquette but I think it should be the former when not referring to her person – the latter is for introducing her. Like she needs introducing.)

The actor who plays the ambassador appears to be British, so you’d expect him to correct it, but maybe it’s one of those things. Otherwise The West Wing is quite good for its nods to British culture (Gilbert and Sullivan and a cricket bat all featured in one episode).

Law and Order rarely has to feature Britain, of course, though I sat through an uncomfortable episode recently in which a British nanny was wrongly accused of murder – cue “overdone” British accent and a badly disguised dig at us all for being posh and spoilt.

An American student confirmed to me recently that the British accent was viewed as pretentious in the USA but, as he admitted, he’d never actually heard one in all his time over here. In the same way that we forget the USA is effectively 50 different countries with different accents, cultures and traditions, I don’t think many Americans realise that a) Britain is four countries and several small islands and b) each of those countries is further divided into counties. Now these counties are not like American counties, but more analogous to states in many ways. Yorkshire and Sussex are two entirely different countries, believe me – I grew up in the former and now live in the latter. And there are huge differences in accent and language too. I often use words that aren’t understood down here, and have their roots in old Anglo-Saxon or even Norse, while the village next to where I used to live might have been 1000 miles away, so different were their idioms.

Small country, big differences, which is half the pleasure of coming here, I think. Want to see the real Britian? Avoid London. Go the the regions – York (my home town) and its surroundings have a lot to offer (and if you’re a New Yorker, you really should see the place that gave its name to your home).

No matter how much I watch American TV I can’t get away from the adage that we are two countries divided by a common language. Part of it is deliberate, in a sinister sort of way, with the half-finished attempt to simplify American spelling, for example, which seems more ideological than anything else. But other differences are more intriguing. Some words are different because the two languages named the same thing differently as it was “invented” – lifts and pavements become elevators and sidewalks, for example. Petrol and gasoline, cars and automobiles, estate agents and realtors (or “crooks, liars and thieves” as they are also known over here). I always think American English is more Germanic than “British” English in its preference for long or rhythmically difficult words.

My favourite of the moment is the American word “burglarised” when we would say “burgled”. Easier, straight to the point and a good active verb rather than an adjective.

People are burgled in Britain, but property is burglarised in the USA – a signifier of different priorities, perhaps? Law and Order is full of different ways of saying things, and I strongly suspect there are legal and even constitutional reasons for each word’s evolution.

But it is in idioms that I see the biggest differences – we go on holiday, Americans take vacations, for example. The British phrase tells it like it is. A holiday is an escape. The American version sounds like an exchange, a privilege rather than a right, a chore rather than a pleasure.

Languages truly reflect the culture that owns them, but I wonder if we could have English back as good old fashioned English, rather than British English?

Maybe we won’t need to. Judging from this article by Ben Yagoda, it’s the USA’s turn to start bemoaning the “Anglicisation” of American English. I don’t know if Yagoda is being facetious in his closing remarks but as he points out here, phrases like “go missing”, “sell-by date” and “move house” are far more logical, subtle and self-explanatory than “disappear”, “expiration date” and “move”. More poetic too, I would add.

American Idioms Have Gone Missing (from The Chronicle of Higher Education


One of Peter De Vries’s comic novels has a character who accumulates Briticisms. As I recall, he orders shrimp cocktail as a “starter,” refers to a friend “called” James (instead of “named” – that’s a subtle one), and fills his car with “petrol” for the ride home. Eventually, he winds up in hospital.

De Vries’s conceit, delicious as it was, was an exaggeration. Generally a Yank can get away with at most one such locution in his or her active vocabulary, for example the person I know who likes to refer to his time “at university,” the university in question being a large land-grant institution. Any more than that and he would be laughed out the door, like the professor who habitually shows up at faculty meetings in a bespoke suit, Turnbull and Asser shirt, and Liberty of London tie, done in a Windsor knot.

Lately, however, the American press has become that professor. What set the ball rolling, I believe, was use of the verb phrase “to go missing” to mean “disappear,” as in a person or object that at one moment is available and visible and subsequently is nowhere to be found. “Disappear” doesn’t perfectly convey this idea – it has too much of a Siegfried and Roy, presto-chango connotation – but, along with its slightly more melodramatic counterpart, “vanish,” it had to do the job for a long time. “Go missing” is better, but it was resisted, probably for the very reason that it sounds so British. Along with variants “went missing” and “gone missing,” it appeared in The New York Times not at all in 1983, and only twice in 1993.

In 2001, however, the formulation was employed 24 times. The reason was a major national story about a person who went missing: Chandra Levy. And that year was the tipping point. In 2003, the Times had precisely 50 “go missings,” and today even writers for USA Today and People use it with a straight face.

A slightly different process was at work in the case of “sell-by date.” That is the exact equivalent for what we call “expiration date,” only with better rhythm, two fewer syllables, and a strong British feel. From 1980 through 1994, Times writers used it only four times, always in reference to spoiled food. But starting in 1995, “sell-by” began to be used metaphorically, to refer to a person or idea past its prime. For example, Elaine Showalter wrote in the Times last December, “Intellectuals and professors who write for a general audience are always valuable, but the idea of the ‘public intellectual’ as a specific role is now well past its sell-by date.” That was one of eight metaphorical uses in the paper in 2003, compared with just two referring to foodstuffs. I would say that qualifies it as a cliché, and a fairly pretentious one at that.

Another phrase that started across the pond and is almost always used metaphorically is “at the end of the day,” an equivalent of the American “when all is said and done.” A couple of years of overuse sucked all the life out of it, and now no self-respecting American writer would perpetrate it. A LexisNexis search reveals that it’s still quite popular in the U.K., however.

“Go missing,” “sell-by date,” and “end of the day” paved the way for the Briticisms of the moment – ”run-up” or “lead-up,” meaning the period of time preceding a particular event. The length and awkwardness of my definition proves the utility of the compound nouns. But as with “go missing,” their widespread adoption had to wait for a news story that needed them. Such an entry point has come in the last few months, with a batch of stories investigating happenings in Britain and the United States in the run-up to the Iraq war.

That has given writers the license to use the terms in virtually any context, and they have proved up to the task. On the same day recently, the Los Angeles Times referred to Bill Bradley’s “run-up to the 2000 Democratic nomination fight,” and USA Today predicted that The Passion of the Christ “should do well during the run-up to Easter.”

I have noticed ever more recondite terms in the press. Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker recently talked about the time when Gertrude Stein “moved house” – ”move house” being an exact equivalent to the American “move,” with the advantage of removing any possible ambiguity, being more emphatic, and sounding more British. In his review of Jayson Blair’s recent book in the same magazine, Nicholas Lemann refers to “the bits we’ve all been waiting for.” What a Yank would traditionally say is “the parts we’ve all been waiting for.” (The online magazine Slate now has a regular feature called “The Juicy Bits.”) Several weeks ago on National Public Radio, a correspondent described Roy Disney’s assessment of the Walt Disney Corporation’s profitable year: “not a renewable resource, just kind of a one-off based on some box-office hits.” “One-off” is a very British noun meaning a one-time thing. I read a movie review last week in which a performance was referred to as “spot-on.” Writing in the Times in March, Bryan Miller broke a barrier when he referred to coming across a “brilliant new map.” The b-word had traditionally been used in the United States only in movie, book, and other arts reviews as a hackneyed alternative to “really, really good.” In Britain, it’s an all-purpose adjective for anything you like a lot.

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of the use of all these Briticisms. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is finally trickling down. But I wouldn’t underestimate the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious. The gathering storm of Briticisms would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.

At this point, the trend is moving beyond journalism, and to terms that (unlike “go missing” and “run-up”) have perfectly good American counterparts. In his campaign for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about having “a” (not “some” or “a cup of”) coffee. A visiting friend of mine talked of “booking” (not reserving) a hotel room. David Letterman recently made fun of Oprah Winfrey’s saying that she couldn’t appear on his show because she was “on holiday” – what was wrong, he wondered, with “vacation”? A friend has taken to saying, “I’ll ring you” instead of “phone you” or “call you up.” From various sources, I have heard repeated uses of “sack” (fire), “row” (argument), and “chat up” (talk to, usually in a flirtatious way). Briticisms all: Together they constitute a cultural equivalent of De Vries’s poseur.

I’m afraid I can’t resist the inevitable conclusion, so here goes: Briticisms have passed their sell-by date, and the odor (or should I say odour) is getting a bit rank.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and the author, most recently, of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, published this month by HarperCollins