Dreadful Americanisms

I once worked in a newspaper office where the grande dame of the editorial department had a particular dislike for what she termed “dreadful Americanisms”.

Particular bugbears were having people live on a street, instead of in it, loose talk of the latest movie, rather than film, on to as one word onto, and if you mentioned trainers in the sense of footwear, she would look at you in a puzzled way for several long seconds, before saying, “Oh…plimsolls.

These distinctions caused much jocularity among the younger, more with-it staff members. It was obvious that to them, this was the Voice of Fuddy-Duddyism: after all, she wrote the widely-read local history column, and the general thinking was her extensive knowledge of the subject stemmed from the fact she’d lived through most of it.

But I always thought that she sometimes – not always, but sometimes – had a point. After all, if you are writing for the general media, whether newspaper, radio, TV or online news sites, you should be aware of the wide range of your readers’ backgrounds, and that includes age. And younger journalists, particularly if they’re working in a newsroom of similarly-aged journalists from a similar background, are too prone to lapse into neologisms, slang and fad phrases that baffle readers who don’t share neither their age or background.

Who are journalists supposed to be writing for: other journalists?

That said, I have no objection to new words or phrases – whether from the US or elsewhere – if they add a liveliness and conciseness otherwise lacking from what they replace. And, it must be said, many words and phrases we think of as dreadful Americanisms are actually British English which fell out of use here, only to be revived with the arrival of American films and TV shows. Among these are fall for autumn, mad to mean angry, progress as a verb, trash for rubbish (used by Shakespeare), hog for a pig, quit as in the sense of resigning a job, even maybe, which the original Oxford English Dictionary described as “archaic”, and I guess, which the same venerable tome termed “obsolete”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge condemned talented as a “piece of slang from America”, whereas it had actually existed in British English since 1422. Similarly, many UK newspaper style guides round upon normalcy, snootily telling their writers that “it’s best left to the Americans who coined it”. In fact normalcy is a British coinage. As are maximise, minimise and input, also often condemned; the first two were coined by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century, while input appears in John Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible in the 14th century.

That said, there is no doubt America has had a great influence on English and other languages around the world. Many Americanisms have been readily absorbed into UK English, settling in so well we probably don’t even realise their origin: cold spell, gimmick, baby-sitter, teenager, bucket shop, department store, blizzard, commuter, to hold up a bank, to hold down a job and even to maintain a stiff upper lip.

The borrowings have not all been one way: we gave the Americans radar, smog, gay in the sense of homosexual, gadget, miniskirt and of course weekend (also borrowed by the French – and almost everyone else).

Despite the ceaseless borrowings back and forth, British and American English still maintain their distinct flavours and there are probably about 4,000 words and phrases where we differ. We say a house is in a road, not on a street, we have skivers where they have goldbrickers, we have estate carsrather than station wagons, our kids play on a see-saw rather than a teeter-totter, we meet people on Tuesday rather meet up with them Tuesday (though both of these are increasingly creeping into our copy and should be ruthlessly excised) and we go up buildings from the ground floor in a lift, rather than from the first floor in an elevator. Some more examples follow at the bottom of this page, perhaps going to prove the old joke that the US and UK are countries separated by a common language.

There is, however, a more insidious Americanism which is creeping into British English and which must be resisted at the gates at all costs: the pompous inflation of perfectly adequate words with the addition of suffixes such as “-istic”, “-ation”, “-ology”, “-ness” and the like. It was trend noted by George Orwell among pro-USSR apologists in the 1930s in his Politics and the English Language, received a tremendous boost in the US military during the Vietnam War, was allowed to escape and infect US politics, where it is now endemic, and has since been carried across the Atlantic, no doubt nestling in the fur of the “special relationship”, into British politics.

Thus, we have the unedifying sight of the then UK Secretary of Defence Des Browne talking about conditionalities in Iraq (he meant conditions). Today you hear similarly clumsy constructions from politicians at every level, international, national and local. Worse, in a perverse linguistic variation of Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good money”), the sickness has afflicted those who should be in the frontline defending clear, simple and concise English: journalists. It is too common these days to pick up any paper, national, regional or local, or visit any news website, and find phrases such as “in generalistic terms, what’s happening is”, “the linkage between the events is” and “the taxation on alcohol”. In each of those cases, the words general, link and tax would have served just as well and have the virtue of brevity, too.

At the time of writing, the Americanism du jour is impact. Nothing affects us, moves us, makes us angry or happy or sad or just plain makes us stop and think for a moment: it impacts on us. Thus two words are called upon to convey a less concise meaning than one word would.

As for “-ologies”, they are breeding at a rate that would make Maureen Lipman’s famous BT character’s head swim. The glossy supplement of a national paper recently had a recipe in which the “what to do” section was grandly headed Methodology. No, the way you boil an egg or grill a steak is the method. Keep methodology for the next time you’re swapping recipes with Des Browne.

Three questions to ask before using Americanisms

  1. Is it concise?
  2. Is it apt, or are you just trying to show off?
  3. Is it intelligible – to all your readers?
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