Nunberg on NOOBS

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.”

He named one off as a useful addition to the American lexicon, and dab hand, spot on and gobsmacked as having “a whimsical appeal.”

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.

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23 responses to “Nunberg on NOOBS

  1. Couple of thoughts. BBC news on your local public TV station and BBC news all night on your local public radio station are also pipes that lead BritEng to us here in the States. And, courtesy of ESPN 2, we get a nice amount of football Brit style on TV, complete with indigeneous announcers that 1) actually know the sport and 2) use their native vernacular. Another set of pipes. Not to mention GB authors in our public libraries. So there are really more pipes than Mr Nunberg mentions. Still, not a threat to our culture (as our language is not a threat to theirs).

  2. Steve – actually there is an argument to be made that Americanisms (not just linguistic ones) are a threat to British culture – indeed how could they not? They change things, so by definition they are a threat to “how things were”.

    I think a second point is that the language is called “English” – again anecdotally I think therefore we generally regard it as “ours”. Also it does not help – and believe it or not I have had this experience myself – when an American (in my case in Massachussets) complimented me on how well I had “learned the language” after learning I was from Britain. (this is not a dig at Americans being stupid – people are stupid all the world over – but this particular foible is a very American expression of universal idiocy).

    Put it another way, I suspect in the early-mid nineteenth century we British probably felt we were not a threat to American culture. American contemporaries of course disagreed. When one is dominant, it is often very difficult to see how you appear from the outside :D

  3. Re. “Plenty of food for thought there.” Spot on. I’m going to have to return to this later, after having slept on it, as several of his points escaped me.

  4. I’ve never known any of my fellow Britons to have conniptions over foreign words. However, I have known a few to get their knickers in a twist about it.

    • I accidentally voted you down when I meant to vote you up and I can’t undo it. Sorry!

      Conniptions are an operation to stop animals breeding, aren’t they?

  5. Whether you’re eating bangers and mash or sausage and mashed potatoes, it’s nice to have alternatives. When your bail and chain starts having a go at hoovering the carpet, making her speciality for tea, and planning for the hols, then we might have to take a turn at checking the nationality on our passports. I think the whole discussion is spot on; nothing daft about it. As Churchill famously said, “Jaw-jaw is better than waw-waw.”

  6. Churchill said ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.’

    • Peter:
      Churchill said “war, war,” but he pronounced it non-rhotically. “Waw, waw” is the closest approximation I can come up with wirhout using the IPA.

  7. The truth is, a great many Americans admire the English, their culture, music, et cetera. It’s a kind of flattery, that some people like you so much that they want to look and sound as much like you as possible. Of course, it’s also true that America is unique in that we assimilate so much of the world into our “melting pot,” so it should be no suprise that an American would have a tea at a sushi bar a block away from Little Italy. But I do understand that some people in the UK feel as though their culture is slipping away, and I can understand why we beastly Americans can largely be blamed- Morrissey crooned twenty years ago, “We are the last truly British people you will ever know,” and he may have been right. But you know what? Things change that way everywhere. Besides, I still say we got a lot more from you than you get from us. If you disagree, just compare Webster’s to Oxford.

  8. From my British (but once married to an American so a shameless user of American words and constructs without thinking about it) point of view, what is annoying about American phrases like “touch base”, “step up to the plate” or “out of left field” isn’t that they don’t usefully fill gaps but that they are metaphors drawn from a game that isn’t familiar to most British people. There surely ought to be corresponding cricket metaphors like “make the crease”, “come out to bat” or “in from midwicket” (in from cow corner, the part of the field that properly-played shots seldom go to so that cows may safely graze there, would be better).

    • In cricket you ‘take the crease’ not ‘make’. But cricket is a strange world with people fielding at ‘silly point’ and ‘fine leg’. The ‘square leg umpire’ refers to his position on the field of play and not his anatomy.

  9. From a British and purely nostalgic point of view, it does feel like the generation of kids now growing into teenagers speaks a hybrid of the English we grew up with and American English.

    It’s hardly surprising – in the 1970s, children’s TV was mostly British-made or at least artistically foreign with British voices dubbed on top. In the 1980s original American (e.g. Hannah Barbera) and dubbed American (e.g. Battle of the Planets) programmes were mixed in, which was no great. (Except Scrappy Doo, but our common suffering bonds us, right?)

    But since cable and satellite TV became ubiquitous and kids could watch Nick, Trouble, and other imports in preference to home-grown kids’ programming, often exclusively, children are growing up with a much more American vocabluary than we did. Just as an example, when I was about six years old, my class all knew that in an emergency you pick up the phone and dial 999 (on a big old rotary-dial bakelite telephone in my day, but I digress). These days most kids are more familiar with 911, and have to be taught that doesn’t work here, at least not on landlines.

  10. The lingering annoyance I have with the words and expressions that are the stock-in-trade of this website is that occasionally I’ll encounter Britishisms I don’t consider British — or, if they were originally British, that they’re somehow newly minted in American usage. One example, “keen on”, appears in the Geoffrey Nunberg piece quoted above.

    I don’t dispute for a moment that “keen” is a word the British are far more keen on using than Americans. However, my mother — now nearly 92 — routinely used keen in the negative (and only in the negative) when I was growing up in the sixties to describe anything she didn’t particularly enjoy. (“I’m not keen on lima beans.”) And no, as a native of Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, where she was born in 1920, she wasn’t particularly cosmopolitan.

    Indeed, to my mind for Americans to be judged to have adopted “keen” they’d have to use it only in the affirmative and in contexts wherein I judge it to be entirely unknown. (“I’m keen on the New York Yankees, aren’t you?” or “I’m keen to visit Alaska!” Utterances you’ll never hear from American lips.)

    Similarly, I flatly contest the claim that “spot on” has entered American usage. I heard it used *once* in the American TV sit-com “Mad About You” perhaps 10 years ago (where it stood out so blatantly I committed it willy nilly to memory) and, aside from pretentious usage by high-brow American media, don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone actually say the words in conversation.

    Which is a cranky way of saying this website is a bit of a parlor game, where the domestic NOOB sightings appear almost exclusively in print, while in Britain I suspect the same words and phrases are actively (and widely) used in everyday speech.

    Obviously there’s quite a difference between the two.

  11. I’ve never heard anyone here use “faucet” instead of “tap”, if they said it to my face I think I’d have to slap them around theirs. Totally pretentious.

    See, it works the same on both sides of the atlantic.

  12. David Armstrong

    Nunberg, like many American linguists who pontificate on British attitudes, is wrong. Here in England we continue to enrich our vocabulary with words from all over the world – from other varieties and dialects of English (and we have many of our own) as well as other languages. It’s a process that’s happened over a period in excess of 1300 years, and has resulted in a language that has a vast vocabulary, honed over the centuries to precision, as a meticulous tool of expression. I use the words “wrench” and “sweater” for types of spanner and pullover, without prejudice, as I use words from Australia, India and even France, to add nuance, to try to develop finer shades of meaning – as we all do.

    British objection to Americanisms is at root, I think, a reaction to a blunting of this precision, and accusations of linguistic corruption have some foundation. Look at the commonest Americanism, “OK”. It’s not a word, it’s imprecise and it’s a linguistic corruption, standing as it does for “orl korrect” – as Nunberg should confirm. The end product of America’s cultural hegemony has been the ubiquitous “hey-you-guys” mentality, now sadly prevalent on British children’s television programmes and even more sadly in the classroom, bringing in its wake a palpable national “dumbing down” (significantly a much-used Americanism over here).

    A moment’s thought will tell you that the expression “Britishism” is an absurdity. Most of the language used in the United States is from the British Isles; General American is a dialect of a mother tongue, as is Mexican Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Québécois French. Of course, there have been many useful words and expressions which have come from America – “skunk”, for example, in its early history, “hamburger” a little later, as well as many, many more recent (and often colourful) ones such as “hijacking”, “loan shark”, “ghetto blaster” and so forth, which have their uses. But even including unhelpful American coinages (“gas” for petrol, “burglarize” for burgle, “rest room” for toilet and so forth), they constitute but a fraction of the language.

    So where does the term “Britishism” come from? The 2008 updated Oxford English Dictionary gives the first citation from the U.S. in 1853, referring to that “poisoned” British attitude and “moral disease” – the wish to abolish slavery. Much use of it was made by American linguists when Britain lost hegemony after the Second World War, in what might be considered an attempt to hijack the language, giving a word redolent with prejudice and propaganda credence by its use in a pseudo-scientific context.

    I have to say that reading this blog has caused me to consider how poor – how utterly poor – the American language is, because of an apparently intransigent insularity of mind. Despite all the wealth of English, all its vast treasure-house, a kind of Puritan conservatism perhaps unchanged since 1692 seems to make Americans regard any word that is a little unfamiliar as unAmerican, suspect, affected – almost pornographic – and a threat to the country’s culture. It’s a special kind of inverted snobbery, akin to narrow-mindedness, a seriously limiting factor for a nation which has – at least for the time being – world dominance.

  13. Off-topic, from a casual visitor, but I’m quite baffled about the thumbs-up or -down ratings here. Or rather, by why there are so many down-votes around (not just on this thread, but a few I’ve just read). People are not expressing controversial opinions (I like to think all right-thinking people would merrily thumbs-down a comment saying, ‘Gay marriage will lead to the destruction of society, and those who think otherwise will burn in hell’, but this is not that kind of site). People are not being rude or offensive. So who on earth is voting down comments like this friendly explanation by marc leavitt?

    Churchill said “war, war,” but he pronounced it non-rhotically. “Waw, waw” is the closest approximation I can come up with wirhout using the IPA.

    Or this from Peter?

    To correct myself you can indeed ‘make’ the crease when you are almost, but not, ‘out’.

    I mean, do they think he’s wrong? (He’s not. He’s right. A batsman running between the wickets who suddenly realises the ball has been fielded quicker than he expected and has to race to safety struggles to make his crease before the ball knocks the bails off.) Or do they think he shouldn’t have corrected himself? Perhaps they simply dislike the name ‘Peter’. Or they would have punctuated the comment differently if they’d written it. Or they make a point of thumbs-downing any comment consisting of an even number of words. In any case, mystery thumbs-downers, there’s absolutely no way to tell what it is you object to or disagree with if you don’t actually engage in the discussion.
    Perplexing.

  14. I voted down Marc Leavitt’s comment (“Waw” vs “War”). Starting to try to imitate the speech patterns and pronunciations of Brits (or Americans) on this blogs is going to get really tedious really fast, unless someone is making a specific point about pronunciation (which Mark was, originally, not). Now, just because I voted down his comment doesn’t mean that I hate him, or that comments like that should be banned, or that the comment was offensive, or ill-mannered or any such thing – it just means that I happpen that I disagree with something about it (actually that element of his original comment, rather than the response). No biggie, and not something I wanted to make a specific comment on). As for the cricket comment, well, personally I think that cricket is the most boring game in the entire world (I once went to a cricket match to check whether it was any better in real life than on the telly, and it wasn’t), so I have almost no knowledge of cricket, and can’t help you out on that one.

  15. Thank you for taking the time to make that courteous and enlightening reply, simhedges. (I’m even going to give you a thumbs-up, despite our diametrically opposed views on cricket.)

  16. Sweater, fine. Touch base, OK. Wrench, acceptable. Faucet? F*** off.

  17. Being an American, I’ve never heard it called anything other than a faucet. Anything that comes from a tap is beer or something like it.

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