Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg weighed in on NOOBs a couple of days ago on the public radio program “Fresh Air,” graciously crediting this blog. He had a nice metaphor for the whole phenomenon: “Adding a foreign word to your vocabulary is like adding foreign attire to your wardrobe. Sometimes you do it because it’s practical and sometimes just because you think it looks cool.”
One the other hand, he went on:
…other words are imported just for effect. “I’m not very keen on it, but I’ll have a go.” People claim to discern some useful nuances of meaning there, but who are they kidding? It’s like explaining that you bought that $800 Burberry plaid tote bag because it gives you a better grade of vinyl.
And Nunberg had a good innings on the difference between Not One-Off Britishisms in the U.S. and Not One-Off Americans in the U.K.:
Actually, the British are the ones who have conniptions over foreign words. Whenever the British media run a piece on Americanisms, it gets hundreds or thousands of comments, most of them keening indignantly over the American corruption of English: “I cringe whenever I hear someone say ‘touch base.’ ” “Faucet instead of tap??? Arrrrrrrghhh!”
That might seem a little over the top for a race that’s not known for its demonstrativeness. But the Brits have had to endure an inundation of American popular culture that has saturated every corner of their vocabulary with Americanisms — probably including the word “Brits” itself….
We react very differently to Britishisms. To the British, our words “wrench” and “sweater” are abominations; to us, their words “spanner” and “jumper” are merely quaint. To Americans, after all, Britain is just a big linguistic theme park. The relative handful of Britishisms that do find their way here may raise some eyebrows, but they’re hardly a threat to American culture. After all, British English comes to us through a much narrower pipe than the one that floods Britain with our words. They pick up our language from Friends and The Avengers. We pick up theirs from Downton Abbey and Inspector Morse. And when they do send us an occasional blockbuster like Harry Potter, they’re considerate enough to Americanize “dustbin” to “trash can” and “pinny” to “apron.”
No doubt some of the newcomers will wind up as naturalized American citizens. After all, “tiresome” and “fed up” were considered affected Britishisms when they made their American debut in the 19th century. My guess is that “spot on” is already on the way to becoming everyday American. But it will be awhile yet before it reaches the cultural outer boroughs.
Plenty of food for thought there. As for me, I’m planning to have a go at have a go.