Stephen McGinty: The case for US and them

THERE’S a long history of the guardians of the English language battling bravely against creeping Americanisms, but the reality is that it’s a two-way process, writes Stephen McGinty

“Cops?” My wife’s lip curled up into a smug little sneer. “Where do you think we are? Boston.” I could, at that moment, have pointed out that Glasgow does share a grid system of streets which makes it a convenient stand-in for the average American city, but figure this would only delay chastisement for a linguistic dalliance with my current “Americanism” of choice. For I’m shamed to admit that I have an unconscious habit of referring to the police by an American slang. Still, it is preferable to referring to them as the police “service” which has replaced the word “force”, probably on the grounds that it sounds friendlier. However, to my mind, a service is optional, you can either choose to make use of a service or not, and yet the role of the police is to enforce the law, obedience to which is not at all optional.

Why I refer to them as “cops” is the same reason that I say, and typing this makes me cringe a little, that I will “touch base” with someone or agree that an idea “came out of left field”. Now I’m reasonably comfortable with the use of American baseball terms, for in my youth I played short stop for the Dalriada Demons (no smirking at the back, please) which was set up in Lanarkshire once the locals discovered baseball bats had an alternative use to the one to which they were usually, and vigorously, applied. In fact, I was chosen to represent my country against England, but the promise of an international (baseball) cap floated away with the mound when the game was rained off.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

I don’t mind certain Americanisms, those words and phrases that wheedle their way into everyday usage such as “talented” and “reliable”. You weren’t aware that both words originally hailed from across the Atlantic? OK. Neither did I before I researched this column, but, apparently William Coleridge cast his disdain on “talented” which he described as a barbarous word in 1832, but Gladstone didn’t seem to mind as he was using it in speeches a few years later. The letter writers to the Times, like their counterparts in corresponding to The Scotsman, have always sought to protect the English language, with one writing in 1857 to describe the new American word “reliable” as vile.

It was a Scot who first coined the term “Americanism”. John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton College, first used it in an article published in the Pennsylvania Journal, in which he wrote: “The first class I call Americanisms, by which I understand a use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences, even among persons of rank and education, different from the use of the same terms or phrases or construction of similar sentences in Great Britain. The word Americanism, which I have coined for the purpose, is exactly similar in its formation and signification to the word Scotticism.”

When the Founding Fathers set sail for America, the English they spoke upon landing would have been identical to that spoken in Plymouth, but over the decades and centuries subtle differences have emerged. They were first codified by Noah Webster, a linguist from Connecticut who familiarised himself with 26 languages, and wrote An American Dictionary of English Language in 1828. It was he who struck out the “u” from colour and the extra “l” from travelled and sneakily swopped a “c” for an “s” in defence. But they wouldn’t let him have his way with women, which he wished to spell “wimmen”.

If the appearance of American words caused mild consternation to poets and letter writers to the Times in the early 19th century, it was probably just as well that they were long dead when the marshalled forces of the American English began to lay siege to our nation during our darkest hour. When movies (yes, that could be described as an Americanism, but is also, I would argue, accurate when used to describe an American film) developed sound and recorded dialogue in the 1930s American words and phrases poured from the cinema screen into British ears. Then, when hundreds of thousands of American GIs descended into English towns and villages the frottage between words was heated.

There are those who cannot stand “Americanisms”. A few years ago the BBC encouraged listeners to write in with their foulest examples which included “bi-weekly” instead of fortnightly (surely bi-weekly should be used for any occurrence whose frequency is twice a week?); “eaterie”, “hike” as in to raise prices, “going forward” and “you do the math” which, to my mind, is particularly callous, bullying the letter ‘s’ away from his friends m, a, t and little h. Others were enraged by the insertion of redundant words, as in “I got it for free” or the counter-intuitive “I could care less”, which in its literal meaning indicates that you do care a reasonable amount but that this could be lowered, when what the person actually meant to say is: “I couldn’t care less.” Clearly British people do not wish to have “an issue” but prefer to have “a problem” and then we come to aural and linguistic atrocities such as “my bad” for “my fault”. The utterances of a repentant three-year-old should never form the basis of an adult’s vocabulary. (A small aside which indicates that we, in Britain, are equally capable of mugging the English language and leaving it stunned in a ditch: since when did the cloying, saccharine phrase “little ones” become synonymous with “children” or “toddlers”? And, please, can anyone who uses it go immediately to the “naughty step”.)

Yet if I have a current pet hate among “Americanisms” it is the phrase “reaching out”. I recently sent an e-mail to a company in Los Angeles who said they could not be of assistance but thanked me for “reaching out”. Have you ever heard a more belittling collision of two words? To ask, in which both parties are on equal footing, has been usurped by a phrase which elevates one and reduces the other. I was the pitiful party drowning in a quicksand of my own ignorance but bravely “reaching out” as if towards the security of a branch or vine.

I accept, however, that there is nothing to be done about “Americanisms” other than to make a personal choice about which ones, if any, you are prepared to admit into your everyday vocabulary. Personally, I’m happy to take the lift over the elevator, but would prefer to live in an apartment rather than a flat. When it comes to my car, which is an American Chrysler, I’ll still remain British and swerve around the gas tank, hood and trunk, in favour of petrol, bonnet and boot. The English language will continue to evolve and it is impossible to build a fence around what has, over centuries, blended German, French, Dutch and Latin into its own rich stew of letters. It is, however, important to remember that words and phrases, like little linguistic cargo vessels, are constantly bobbing back and forth across the Atlantic.

This week Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster, whose dictionaries are used by the majority of American publishers, said more words were finding their way into American vocabulary. So while we shake our heads over people who use the term “the fall” instead of “autumn”, our opposite number, who happens in this case to be Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Berkeley, is curling his lip with disdain as a friend says that something is “spot on”. As he said this week: “ ‘will do’ – I hear that from Americans [as well]. That should be put into quarantine.”

There is even a blog, run by Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware, which tracks the appearance of British words in American English and highlights words and phrases such as “cheeky”, “sell by date” and “the long game”, which, according to the BBC, was used by Barack Obama in a recent speech and is derived from the British card game, whist.

Among the most prominent figures leading the fight back for British English is JK Rowling who bestowed upon that great nation the word “ginger” as a means to describe a redhead. While many words in her first Harry Potter novel were given an American substitute, a few “snuck” through including the quintessentially British word “snog”. Hopefully her latest book, The Casual Vacancy, with its portrait of an English parish council, will help redress the balance.