Susie Dent is known as the authority in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner
Take ‘sidewalk’, for example. For many, the mere use of the word conjures up images of star-spangled banners and yellow taxi cabs. A sketch by British comedian Michael McIntyre lists ’sidewalk’ as one of the many words in the American lexicon that oversimplify the language, pedantically stating the obvious about the exact meaning of a word when ‘pavement’ would do the job just fine. ‘Waste paper basket’ in place of ‘bin’ and ‘horseback riding’ in place of simply ‘horse riding’ are given as further examples of apparent American oversimplification gone mad (a word itself more often used in the sense of ‘angry’ in America rather than the more common British sense of ‘insane’). As Susie describes, Americanisms seem to favour “transparency over the classic British understatement”. This statement took me by surprise a little. Seen from this perspective, it becomes quite difficult to determine what the ‘problem’ of American transparency – versus apparent British opaqueness – in fact is. Surely language that is clear and lucid has more chance of being understood and well received by its readers or interlocutors than language that conceals – or, indeed, distorts – meaning? After all, our British ‘bread bin’ is not in fact a ‘bin’, while an American ‘bread box’ does exactly what it says on the, well, box. Our ‘black pudding’ euphemistically conceals the nature of the dish itself as anything but a sweet dessert, while America’s ‘blood sausage’ provides a much more accurate (if less semantically appealing) description. The US transparent/UK opaque dichotomy itself, though, is far from stable. While some complaints against American English focus on its ‘obviousness’ as a source of irritation, others lament the fact that American usages are apparently in fact making the language less clear by being too concise. For instance, a BBC article of 2011 on some of the most noted Americanisms being used in British English included the following complaint: “Using 24/7 rather than ‘24 hours, 7 days a week’ or even just plain ‘all day, every day’”. While we Brits seem to dislike American overstatement, we’re apparently not too fond of American understatement, either.
Another complaint often lodged against American English relates to spelling, apparently also regarded as ‘oversimplified’. According to linguist and fervent opponent of Americanisms, Matthew Engel, “American spellings derive entirely from the opinion of one man” – namely, lexicographer Noah Webster. In his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language of 1806, Webster introduced changes now widely recognised as some of the fundamental differences in spelling between the US and UK variants of the language, including ‘color’ in place of ‘colour’, ‘honor’ in place of ‘honour’ and ‘center’ in place of ‘centre’. Simply dismissing these variants as ‘oversimplified’ – and, indeed, branding them as definitively ‘American’ at all – however, fails to take into account some fundamental facts. For one, as Susie attests, ‘honor’ appears over 500 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, along with frequent occurrences of ‘center’, ‘humor’ and ‘rumor’, bringing the very notion that such variants have their origins across the Atlantic into question. Additionally, it is important to consider the context in which Webster’s dictionary was compiled. In 1776, after years of fighting and a great deal of bloodshed, America finally declared itself independent of Britain. Change was in the air, and ways were being sought for America and its people to distance themselves from their former rulers. Webster’s moves to reject the King’s English were therefore akin to a rejection of the King himself – and, subsequently, continued British influence. Linguistic patriotism, then, found very fertile ground at the time Webster was introducing his new spellings. In this sense, Brits’ rejection of American influence in the language today is not all that different from Americans’ rejections of perceived ‘British’ linguistic variants almost 250 years ago.
Are these arrows centred or centered?
As we have seen, some of the words assumed to be of American origin were often in fact born on British soil. To go back to our ‘sidewalk’ example, as Susie points out, the ostensibly ‘obvious’ American variant was in fact originally used right here in Britain. The Economist’s language expert Lane Greene confirms that ‘sidewalk’ was already being used in the early 1800s to describe the footpath along Westminster Bridge. ‘Faucet’ and ‘diaper’, staples of the ‘American’ lexicon, also have their origins in late Middle English. In some ways, then, and somewhat ironically, a ‘foreign takeover’ of British English by its American counterpart would see some of the UK variants of the language brought closer to their origins rather than taken further away. The groans elicited by phrases such as ‘Can I get a coffee?’ – which, as Susie points out, is in fact no different from a grammatical standpoint to “What did you get for Christmas?”, a perfectly acceptable and accepted phrase in British English – and so-called verbings like ‘solutioning’ and ‘flip-charting’ – a trend possibly also started by Shakespeare himself, who was ‘friending’ in his writings long before Facebook (“Disorder, that hath spoil’d us, friend us now!”, Henry V, 1599) – are in fact a continuation of the same gripes about the ‘decline of the English language’ pundits and pedants across Britain have been lamenting since at least the 1600s. In the 18th century, the likes of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson all called for the English language to be fixed, purified and preserved from ‘foreign’ influences. Such writers often failed to acknowledge that English has been shaped by other tongues for centuries, with ‘lilac’ stemming from Persian, ‘enthusiasm’ from Greek and ‘coleslaw’ from Dutch to name only a handful of examples. English – both British and American – in fact never has been ‘pure’, and wouldn’t be as rich and varied as it is if it weren’t for the continuous influx and influence of foreign words – including those popularly thought to ‘belong’ solely to one of these two variants themselves.
Susie Dent’s talk was at least partly aimed at convincing us that the distinction between American and British English is by no means clear, and that our overlaps and differences are something to be embraced rather than repelled. For my part, I can certainly say ‘I’m good’ with that.
Susie Dent is the winner of this year’s David Crystal Trophy for outstanding contribution in the field of languages: https://www.ciol.org.uk/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=114
Michael McIntyre on American words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wSw3IWRJa0&vl=en-GB
Lane Greene and Matthew Engel on Americanisms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-WJVDDZTFY
Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14201796