Culture Magazine

Brits Hate Americanisms, Americans Mildly Exasperated at Being Reminded of It

By Periscope @periscopepost
Brits hate Americanisms, Americans mildly exasperated at being reminded of it

America, at its most patriotic. Photo credit: Jim Capaldi,

A list of 50 annoying “Americanisms” submitted by irate Brits (as well as the odd Canadian and, interestingly enough, American) and compiled by the BBC was the most popular story on the broadcaster’s site this week, prompting some American media outlets to remember that Britain exists.

The Atlantic Wire highlighted the BBC list, which includes words like “transportation” and “shopping cart”, and explained to its American audience that the list “serves as a curious reminder that while we imported English – or, actually, in a cultural history sense, simply carried it with us – as our native tongue centuries ago, we’ve also been exporting phrases back to the United Kingdom. It’s fascinating, if somehow disorienting, to learn how phrases you never thought twice about are really, really upsetting amateur linguists across the pond.”

While British dissection of American English is a perennial favourite for story-strapped British journalists and grammarians, it is not the case that American writers waste pixels and ink on “Britishisms” that make them cringe. This is not unlike the whingeing about the “special relationship” that occurs in British newspapers every time an American official sets foot on British soil, but is remarkably absent from American papers pretty much all the time. And notice, we used the word “whingeing” – a good, old-fashioned British word that an American would define as “whining”.

  • American English is all well and good – just don’t import it to Britain. Matthew Engel, a British journalist who appears to be on the Americanisms beat, complained ahead of the BBC’s publication of the list that it’s not so much that America is forging its own version of English but that Britain appears to be adopting these made-up American words. “I accept that sometimes American phrases have a vigour and vivacity.… But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. We encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic – even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.” A year ago, Engel made a similar point in an op-ed for The Daily Mail, in which he compared the American phrase “from the get-go” to the grey squirrel, “destined to drive out native species and ravage the linguistic ecosystem.” Sure, he says, we have to be realistic and realize that languages change, but, “Nowadays, people have no idea where American ends and English begins. And that’s a disaster for our national self-esteem. We are in danger of subordinating our language to someone else’s  -  and with it large aspects of British life.”
  • The Economist responds. The trans-Atlantic magazine with a wonderful grip on language (the magazine’s style guide is a thing of beauty), The Economist, responded on its Johnson blog to the individual pet peeves raised by the list. Here’s a sample:

    The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option”, tell them that their most best option is learning grammar.  Besides the fact that the double comparative had a long life in English (“the most straitest sect of our religion”, Acts 26:5, KJV, for example), this is obviously playful, not ignorant.

    To “wait on” instead of “wait for” when you’re not a waiter – once read a friend’s comment about being in a station waiting on a train.  Yes, to “wait on” also means to be a waiter, but writers from Chaucer to Milton to George Eliot used “to wait on” in various senses including “to observe”, “to lie in wait for”, “to await” and more.

    Is “physicality” a real word?  Yes, first noted in a book published in London in 1827.

    Transportation. What’s wrong with transport?  Nothing. What’s wrong with transportation? Brits prefer “to orientate oneself”, Americans prefer “to orient oneself”. Not worse, just different.

  • Americans respond. Over at Death and Taxes blog, Matt Kiebus noted, “The British feel as though they are the authority on the English language, for obvious reasons. Americans are their outcast cousins who somehow defeated them with nothing other than pitchforks and militia.” Kiebus responded to several of the lists entries individually, including defending “train station”: To Chris Capewell of Queens Park, who said his “teeth are on edge” every time he hears it, Kiebus responded, “Chris, what the fuck do you call it then?”
  • Actually, Americanisms aren’t taking over. Engel can rest easy – the latest research, according to The Daily Mail, is that Americanisms aren’t actually smothering good British English. The paper reported, “New research by linguistic experts at the British Library has found that British English is alive and well and is holding its own against its American rival. The study has found that many British English speakers are refusing to use American pronunciations for everyday words such as schedule, patriot and advertisement. It also discovered that British English is evolving at a faster rate than its transatlantic counterpart, meaning that in many instances it is the American speakers who are sticking to more ‘traditional’ speech patterns.” So there.

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