Sunday, 24 July 2011

Divided by a common language

Did anyone read this on the BBC News website last week? Following on from a previous article about how US English is changing the way language is used in the UK (and elsewhere), and which included an invitation for people to comment on which words or phrases annoyed them the most, a list of 50 of the most noted Americanisms was produced.

It's a funny old business. Language evolves, and I like that about it, and yet there are still some elements of that evolution that I find annoying. (See below.) There are other aspects that are wrongly labelled as evolution. 'Gotten', for example, which puts in an appearance at number 15, was used interchangeably in both the UK and the US up to at least the 17th century. After that it seems that the US showed a preference for 'gotten' whereas the UK preferred 'got'. This isn't a new word being introduced, just an old one making a comeback. Is it fair to call it an Americanism and to get annoyed if folk start to use it again in the UK?

It's probably fair to say that railing against this is akin to parking a chair on the beach and shouting at the sea to go back: it won't make a blind bit of difference. And for me, the things that are introducing Americanisms into UK English - books, films, TV shows and music - are things I would not like to give up. It's just a shame that some of the best things the UK sends over to the US, for example Red Dwarf and Life on Mars, are apparently only acceptable if remade for a US audience (and when I say 'remade', I mean 'ruined', certainly where these two shows are concerned). Maybe if that wasn't so often the case, the tide wouldn't always seem to be one way.

P.S. The ones in the list of 50 that I hate the most: 12, 25, 26, 30, 36, 44, 50


  1. I find it a bit unfair that we're inundated with American literature, cinema and television, yet UK television is always "remade" for US audiences, and our cinema is persistently viewed as "quirky" or "eccentric", as opposed to having any intrinsic value of its own as a national cinema. I know a lot of Americans who enjoy UK telly when they get to see it, so why can't we just export our culture as is, and make it more of an exchange than a domination?

  2. I remember Ian Rankin saying in an interview that the title of his book 'Fleshmarket Close' was changed to Fleshmarket Alley' at the insistence of his US publisher, who said that American readers wouldn't understand it. Which is absolute rubbish. I wonder if a big part of the problem is that American TV companies and publishers underestimate their viewers and readers? Certainly my online US friends are sharp and smart and have a great interest not only in UK culture, but in the culture of other nations, too. Frustrating, though - especially when Gene Hunt was rewritten as a politically correct character! I mean, WTF? That's excising half the fun, right there. Mad!

  3. Speaking as a Yank, I agree with you both. Julie hit it on the head I think. Problem's not so much the viewers and readers as the distributors ( networks, publishers Most of the British and Scottish writers i read -- and Julie is one of my favorites -- can make me come out the other side of their stories and books thinking I understand all the forms of British slang. It's just that they are so good at including references to ground their non-Brit readers in the slang terminology references that, after a bit, none of the words get in the way.

  4. Damn distributors! I expect most US viewers/readers just do what I do when I don't 'get' a reference - Google it. And I sometimes do that for Scottish and Irish references too. :)

  5. I saw someone on FB the other day (an American), presumably in response to the BBC article, state how much Brit-isms (their word, not mine. Surely it's British-isms anyway?) annoyed them, which I found a bit surprising as the vast majority of my US friends feel the same as previous commenters. I had no idea Red Dwarf had been re-made for the US and am saddened to hear it, neither did I know about Ian Rankin's novel being re-titled; I had enough trouble coping with the re-titling of JKR's "Philosopher's Stone," or the Americanisms in the US version of Christopher Fowler's novel "Rune" (I mean is "pavement" such a difficult concept to grasp? I can only presume that for US publishers, it is).

    For my money, it's 22 and 42 that stick in my throat - it's a railway station, not a train station in the same way that it's a railway track and a railway locomotive (train locomotive sounds silly), and we refer to the railway network in general as "the railway," not "the train," don't we? I'll leave you to work out my objections to 42! BTW, I know it didn't make the list, but that's an exclamation Mark, not an exclamation point.

    Apologies, rant over. As you were.

  6. There are Americanisms that are now part of UK English that are great words and I think add to the language. And in fairness, UK vs US spelling or word choice doesn't cause me angst in the way that the misuse of words does, irrespective of where or by whom. (Sometimes by me, and that's the most 'angsty' experience of all.) But if enough people misuse a word or phrase, then the 'wrong' one becomes the accepted version - hence 'off your own back' (instead of 'bat') is now part of the language. That's the nature of the beast - when it comes to change, we have to take the rough with the smooth.

    (But it won't stop me ranting about it - you don't lend my pen, you borrow it, and I can't learn you to drive, only teach you. There are two of my most hated examples of misuse right there!)