Whether it’s a Health Secretary’s tussle over the Oxford comma or the assertion that millennials find the full stop aggressive, language continues to be a battleground for many. There was another wordy brouhaha earlier this month, when the Cambridge Dictionary announced an unlikely choice as their Word of the Year: “homer”, meaning a home run in baseball.
Before you sigh a “Doh” and move on, the dictionary’s selection of an Americanism – one which attracted the most look-ups in their dictionary over the last 12 months – has illuminated once again a language bugbear that never quite goes away: the unwelcome “infestation” of American English.
The reason for the volume of dictionary searches for “homer” was entirely down to its inclusion in the online word game Wordle. This was no friendly hunt for a definition, however, for the choice of an American word for the wildly popular puzzle had caused many a British player to lose their carefully accumulated winning streak. The result was an outcry over the use of a word players considered unguessable and unfair. In fact the level of disgruntlement was rivalled only by the inclusion, by the same game, of “favor” many months before, when the side-eye towards American English and its apparent takeover of the “proper” kind was just as glaring.
Josh Wardle, the creator of Wordle, is Welsh by birth, but a resident of New York City. It is entirely natural then that Wardle chose US English as his starting point, even if you might reasonably argue that once the game took off globally – as it did in style during lockdown – more neutral choice of word targets might have been sensible. Nonetheless, Wardle must have been as blutterbunged (overwhelmed by surprise) by the response to his US English choices as he was by his game’s success.
Such resistance has a long history. The break-up between the US and Britain, culminating in a bloody war, fuelled the desire for linguistic independence on both sides. For the Americans, rejecting the King’s English was another way to reject the King, while the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson famously declared “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American”. Nearly 250 years later, our anxiety over the encroachment of Americanisms has abated little, but today it may be less rooted in patriotism and more down to false assumptions of what was “ours” and “theirs” to begin with.
Take American spelling, with its “aluminum”, “honor”, “color”, and “center”, all taken as proof that Americans drop their vowels willy-nilly. And yet the very versions that provoke such horror amongst Wordle lovers were common in British English long before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail. If you search Shakespeare’s First Folio, for example, you’ll find that “honor” outscores “honour” by a 100-1, just as “humor” surpasses “humour” and “center” trounces “centre” with ease. As for “aluminum”, this was our original spelling too, following the pattern of “platinum”. Only later did we decide that such names as “magnesium” were a more elegant and classical model, and “aluminium” was born.
I am equally taken to task every time I write “realize” instead of “realise” in a document or tweet. “But that’s the American way!”, I’m instructed. Well, yes, but it’s also the Oxford way, preferred because -ize is closer to the Greek from which many such verbs sprang.
Our vocabulary bears similar footprints. The season of mellow fruitfulness was originally known in British English not just as “harvest” but also “fall” – short for “the fall of the leaf” – just as spring is short for the “spring of the leaf”. It was only when the Norman conquerors exerted their power upon our language as well as our lands that we decided “autumn”, from the French l’automne, was far more de rigueur.
Eighteenth century pavements were “sidewalks”, and rubbish was “garbage”, while “transportation” (as opposed to the simple “transport”) was alive and well long before we blamed the Americans for supersizing their words as well as burgers. “Wow”, so quintessentially American you might think, was popular in Scotland in the 1500s. The famous British “stiff upper lip”, on the other hand, first belonged to the Americans.
Let’s not forget verbing, the much-hated “actioning” (18th century) of nouns that we also dismiss as inelegant Americanisms. Yet Shakespeare created verbs with abandon: “Within my mouth you have enjailed my tongue/Doubly portcullised with my teeth and lips” (Richard II). And that “ugly” American past tense “gotten” can be found in the King James Bible – for me, “gotten” has always given a sense of progression, as in “I’d gotten cold”.
I am also quite partial to a strong verb – one that changes its stem in the past tense to give a very different look: “buy” (bought), for example, or “teach” (taught). To my eyes there is beauty in “dove” instead of “dived”, and “snuck” instead of “sneaked”. Yet we seem to like our verbs as weak as our tea, adding an -ed to every modern version without a second thought. “I texted you yesterday” is surely all wrong – I always think it should be “toxt” instead.
Clearly the talk-to-the-hand attitude towards US English isn’t disappearing any time soon. As long as our sense of identity is enmeshed with our nationality, we will seek to retain the wedge between our respective Englishes. But, as Lynne Murphy rightly says in her excellent book on US English, The Prodigal Tongue, “we don’t have to devalue one to value the other”.
We might all be speaking like Americans if we weren’t so worried about sounding American, and the same holds true in reverse. To cherish English is to let it breathe, not to insist upon a single version of it. It may be a long time before Americanisms hit a homer over the heads of the doubting outfielders, but it may just be worth the wait.
Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple