Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

    Matthew Engel is a British journalist who doesn't like Americanisms. The Financial Times columnist told BBC listeners that American English is an unstoppable force whose vile, ugly, and pointless new usages are invading England "in battalions." He warned readers of his regular FT column that American imports like truck, apartment, and movies are well on their way to ousting native lorries, flats, and films.

    Engel’s tirade against the American “faze, hospitalise, heads-up, rookie, listen up” and “park up” got several million page views (or page impressions, as the Brits seem to call them), along with thousands of comments, when it appeared in the BBC News Magazine.

    But like many critics of Americanisms, Engel got some of his facts wrong. True, the U.S. may be influencing the spread of English as a world language today, but it was British imperialism, not American, that set English on the path to world domination.

    Plus, a few of the words Engel complains about aren’t even Americanisms. The first OED citations for hospitalize (so spelled), heads up, and rookie are British, not American, and if the OED and Google are any indication, “park-up,” unheard of stateside, seems to be solely a Briticism, an unnecessary alternative to simply saying park, as in “Park-Up.com finds the cheapest parking for you” in London and Brighton.

    As is fitting for a Financial Times writer, Engel acknowledges that there’s a kind of linguistic marketplace where languages trade words the same way that their speakers trade goods and services, but he sees the balance of trade as seriously tipped in favor of the ugly Americanism.

    Engel also praises the English for encouraging “the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic—even Cornish is making a comeback.” But the status of Welsh and Gaelic is still bitterly contested, not just in England but also in Wales and the Six Counties, and although some Brits grudgingly accept diversity when it’s home-grown rather than imported, Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent assertion that British multiculturalism has failed and the new government policy that requires immigrants to prove they can speak English before coming to England reveal, not a sense that English is a big tent with room for all, but a growing strain of linguistic nativism.

    It should surprise no one that the Brits have been complaining about Americanisms since they first came to America. The word Americanism was actually coined in 1781 by John Witherspoon, a Scot who relocated to New Jersey and became the first president of Princeton.

    Witherspoon coins and defines  

    Americanism, the word coined by John Witherspoon in 1781, was one of the first Americanisms. According to Witherspoon, even “persons of rank and education” used Americanisms.

    Witherspoon intended his new word to be neutral: an Americanism was simply “an use of phrases or terms, or a construction of sentences” that differed from British usage. He coined it on the analogy of Scotticism, a term of insult that goes back to the 17th century. Witherspoon tried to treat Scotticism as a neutral term as well, though as he did so he acknowledged that “the Scottish manner of speaking came to be considered as provincial barbarism; which, therefore, all scholars are now at the utmost pains to avoid.”

    Witherspoon on Scotticisms as barbarous

    Witherspoon notes that Scotticism shouldn’t be a negative term, though he also says that Scotticisms have come to be considered barbarous, even by the Scots.

    Some of Witherspoon’s best friends were Americans, and he saw that in light of American independence, and in the course of time, American English could be expected to diverge from the language of England and develop its own standards. But while he waited for this to happen, Witherspoon found many American errors and improprieties to complain about.

    Witherspoon on Americanisms as improprieties 

    Witherspoon published his essay on the errors and improprieties of Americanisms in the Pennsylvania Journal on May 9, 1781. Some 19th-century usage critics pointed out that the word journal literally refers to a “daily” publication. The Pennsylvania Journal in which Witherspoon attacked Americanisms was a weekly.

    Witherspoon, like Engel, objected to a number of so-called Americanisms that turned out to be British:

    • He disliked the American use of notify: “In English we do not notify the person of the thing, but notify the thing to the person.” But notify had been used in the transitive sense since the mid-1400s, long before the New World was a glimmer in Sir Francis Drake’s eye.
    • Witherspoon found the American phrase “fellow countryman” to be a tautology, though the “tautology” was in use in Engand well before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
    • Witherspoon objected to the way Americans used certain with a proper name, as in “A certain Thomas Benson,” because certain is indefinite while the name is very specific. But this use was certainly English before it was American (OED, s.v., II.7.f).
    • Witherspoon seemed to think that Americans used clever only in a positive sense, while the Brits used it simply to indicate the ability to do something, whether that something was good, bad, or indifferent. But his contemporary, Alexander Pope, was one of many Old World writers to use clever positively to mean ‘nice, likeable, convenient, or agreeable.’
    • And Witherspoon joins the general 18th-century chorus decrying those who use mad for ‘angry’ instead of what he thinks it should mean, ‘rabid, crazy, nutso, bonkers.’ It’s a classic American error that Witherspoon finds particularly maddening, although it’s not particularly American: according to the OED, mad was first used to mean ‘angry’ in the 1300s, and after the decline of Middle English wroth it became “the ordinary term for ‘feeling anger’ in many dialects in Great Britain (and later in North America).”

    Witherspoon’s 1781 essay on Americanisms sparked a long tradition of attacks on Americanisms, mostly by Brits (and of course the French). Some of the expressions in question did turn out to be American. And certainly some of them were ugly, or illogical, or redundant. But many of them were British. Much language is ugly, illogical, and redundant; and not all objectionable phrases are American.

    Just as Witherspoon’s essay on Americanisms struck a chord, Engel’s critique prompted other like-minded Brits to bombard the BBC with examples of unwanted and pernicious Americanisms, and the Beeb published a follow-up list of the 50 most maddening ones. But there were objections to Engel as well, not all of them from Americans. To his critics Engel replied that he had been treated more civilly and sensibly by members of the National Rifle Association after a column on gun control than by “this lot,” his dismissive characterization of the linguists and lexicographers who questioned his under-researched data and his off-the-wall conclusions.  

    As a parting shot, Engel warned that the English love of Americanisms, if unrestrained, will lead to “51st statehood,” and he counseled his fellow countrymen to maintain “the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version—the original version—of the English language.”

    But as English grows as a world language, more and more speakers of English aren’t native speakers of English and don’t live in English-speaking countries. As a result, the importance of the “original version” of the language will continue to decline, and the question of who owns English will ultimately become irrelevant.

    But until that happens, and speaking as Engel did of 51st statehood, it might be appropriate to note that the first OED citation for statehood back in 1868 shows that word to be—you guessed it—an Americanism.

    New York Times first use of  

    First OED citation of the word statehood, from an article on the impeachment of Pres. Johnson and the nomination of Gen. Grant, in the New York Times, June 8, 1868. 

nppm@illinois.edu Jul 31, 2011 9:36 am
I loved Dennis' comments on this issue. He is of course absolutely right about the uninformed nature of Matthew Engel's opinions (maybe Engel should stick to economic issues, about which he presumably knows more - let's hope so, at least), but I want to comment on two other issues: 1) Dennis's comment that "it was British imperialism, not American, that set English on the path to world domination;" and 2) the notion of attitudes to language in general (i.e., not just toward English). 1) As somebody who holds dual British and American nationality, who (still) speaks with a British accent after living in the US for over 25 years (god knows why!) and who uses American spelling conventions, I would like to make the following comment. Yes, Dennis is quite correct that we Brits "set English on the path to world domination." But I would also like to point out that we Amicans have our own inglorious colonial/imperialist past in the 19th century. Remember: 1) Manifest Destiny; 2) the war(s) with Mexico in the 1840s which eventually resulted in the annexation of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California; and 3) the Spanish American war. All of these events resulted in the dramatic spread and use (whether partial or dominant) of English from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. In a same vein, major reasons for the continuing status of English as the world's leading lingua franca include the post 1945 process of British decolonization (starting with India and Pakistan in 1947 and going on through the 1960s), and the not accidental parallel rise of the US as the leading economic, military, scientific, pop cultural (and neo-imperialist?) super power of the 20th century and early 21 century. So, linguistically speaking; the geopolitical language torch was passed on from the UK to the US. Of course, in light of of the ongoing rise of China, Brazil, India, etc. by, say 2050, the question arises how long English will maintain its status as the main international lingua franca becomes an interesting question. For various complicated reasons, I'm betting on the continued use of English an increased role for Spanish as the two main lingua francas. In short, I'm arguing that Dennis' initial point (which is well-taken) can be usefully extended as suggested above. 2) Attitudes toward language are deeply embedded in culture (however we define this term), and there is nothing funnier than other people's linguistic prejudices. But we all have them! Let me make a true confession: I am, for various reasons we needn't go into, a native speaker of Geneva (Switzerland, not Wisconsin) French. I use this variety with francophone family members, but with all other native speakers of French, I have a Parisian accent (arguably still the highest prestige variety of French). I have great affection for the Geneva dialect, but am totally mystified by rural Qubequois French, which in extreme cases I don't understand and frankly find rather comic (yes, I know, this is despite the fact that I am a linguist and ought to know better; but then, native speakers of Parisian French think the Geneva dialect is also spoken by country bumpkins). So, just to dig my own hole deeper, when I went on vacation to France last year, I was hugely amused by a post card (a French example of the "what the world looks like as seen from x" genre) in which the Qubeq was inhabited by "nos cousins incomprhensibles." (PS: In the spirit in which this post was written, if anybody wishes to respond to this, please start with your own true linguistic confession first!). Now, this particular example of linguistic prejudice may or may not be harmless. Personally, I'm mainly struck by the fact that I have different attitudes toward different dialects of English and French depending on which language I'm speaking. Basically, it seems I am far more tolerant of different dialects of English than I am of different dialects of French, which seems weird. In any case, switching the focus of these meditations slightly, there are domains of language use in which linguistic prejudice is clearly harmful: just to give a particularly clear instance, in racist discourse. Going back to American English, this reminds me of Dennis Preston's fascinating sociolinguistic work on where people think the best American English is spoken, and it usually turns out that one's own regional dialect is of course the best. I think that's fine, but what Preston's research shows is that things really get complicated when bi-dialectal speakers of Standard American and Latino or Black English phone landlords twice (using Standard American in one call and whatever ethnic variety they also speak in the other) to inquire about renting a flat (sorry! apartment). Guess which persona/ dialect is the most successful ... My overall conclusion: what a pain (linguistic) nationalism turns out to be!
samharker1@netscape.net Sep 10, 2011 1:37 pm
It's tough work, forcing all those Brits to speak and write with Americanisms.

additional blog information