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That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.

By Dennis Baron


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 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.”

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, 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.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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6 Responses to “That ugly Americanism? It may well be British.”
  1. In this exciting, jet-car-filled 21st century, opinion is cheap. Anyone with access to an internet-linked device can create a blog and become a critic. Anyone. But this also leads to there being more content out there than there is time to read it. So in order to make your own opinions stand out amonsgt the cornucopia of viewpoints, you have to avoid vanilla and invent new, tarty flavors.

    Enter Linguistic Chauvinism. Here’s a topic guaranteed to rankle the rabid prescriptivists, the dogged descriptivists, and the man (or person) on the Clapham omnibus checking the RSS feed on his (or her) iPad.

    The “my-language-is-better-than-yours” position soon degenerates to the web-based equivalent of all out war, with the original topic degenerating into comments of such racism and vitriol that we can only be thankful there is no “send-poster-an-electric-shock” button available.

    I’m sure Engel realized that he was lighting the blue touch paper before retiring and that a little hyperbole in his comments is to be expected. On the other hand, not checking some of the origins the “Americanism” is bad form and shame on anyone who doesn’t do a little research before publishing.

  2. lynneguist says:

    If readers are interested, an item-by-item response to the BBC’s post-Engel ‘50 Americanisms’ piece is available at:

    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2011/07/anti-americanismism.html

    http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2011/07/anti-americanismism-part-2.html

    Quite a few of those are not particularly American.
    There have been other responses to this piece on Language Log, the BBC (by American lexicographer Grant Barrett), Macmillan Dictionary blog, the Economist’s Johnson blog, etc.–many of which are linked-to at the above links.

  3. Aubrey says:

    Funny…the people of Britain don’t like Americanisms invading their country. Guess that must have been how we felt some 200-odd years ago, no?

  4. [...] a final word on “irritating” Americanisms from Dennis Baron at the Oxford University Press blog. Professor [...]

  5. toby says:

    wow, “the Six Counties”? i haven’t heard that in so long i forgot which political bias it’s supposed to represent.

    The country/pseudo-state (choose) is called Northern Ireland officially, Norn Iron, or sometimes the North of Ireland if you’re really stubborn, but I haven’t heard The Six Counties in a long long time. And I’m from there :)

  6. [...] And why do we get so uptight about Americanisms? A lot of what we think of as Americanisms came from Britain in the first place anyway. [...]

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