What It All Means

Slate, the online magazine, asked me to write a piece about my experience doing Not One-Off Britishisms. I had been thinking I should really weigh in on What It All Means, so this gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the matter. It was a bit challenging, since in this and most cases, I’m a lot more interested in observing that and how than in speculating about why or (even worse) weighing in on whether the phenomenon is good, bad or somewhere in between.

But I wrote the piece and you can read it here.

Just a couple of things to add. First, while the headline (“The Britishism Invasion”) is spot-on, I did not write an am not pleased with the subtitle, “Language corruption is a two-way street.” “Corruption” is such a harsh word.

Second, the comments–342 at last count–are a trip. A few are dopey, but most are right in the spirit of this enterprise, adding interesting comments and suggestions for future entries. (Shag seemed to keep coming up.) Also, not a few pointed out that I made an embarrassing mistake–I had the plural of corpus as corpi, which apparently is not a word, rather than corpora. Hey, I don’t know Latin and I’m not a linguist. I don’t even play one on TV.

I heard directly from quite a few people with interesting things to say. One of them was Helen Kennedy, the first journo, according to my unscientific investigation, to use go missing to refer to Chandra Levy’s disappearance. Her e-mail had the subject line “You made my day!” and began:

I always knew I would amount to something, and having some small part in the downfall of American English – well, could one be more subversive? No, one could not.

I’m half-American and half Irish, raised in England and Italy. I am CONSTANTLY having to turn to my colleagues to ask if “advertizing” has a Z here, etc… I genuinely had no idea that “gone missing” was not regular Ammurican.

So “go missing” was (arguably) blown to these shores, like some exotic seed, by someone who learned it in the U.K. As has been observed before, the Internet sure is something.

8 responses to “What It All Means

  1. “Corruption” editorializes the headline, and tells the reader what he doesn’t want to know; that the copy editor who handled the story thinks that the inclusion in BrE of American words or phrases, or the inclusion of the same in AmE, leads to the diminution of the respective languages through the biological process of decay. I would have used a more value-neutral word such as “change,” or rewritten the subhed to reflect the process of cross-fertilization which is the intent and thrust of your article. Good article. Bad subhed.

  2. This is a great blog. I personally hate creeping Britishisms, so whenever it’s pointed out I use one I try to stop.

  3. I loved reading this article- as a Brit who was a bit put out by the original BBC article, it was great to read a counter.

    I do have to ask about bumbershoot, though – is this genuinely a BrE? I’ve never heard the word before!

    • Several British people have questioned “bumbershoot,” and as I told them, I always thought of it as the stage Englishman’s (in the U.S.) word for umbrella. But I have done some looking into it and I’m not so sure. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “originally and chiefly U.S.” slang and gives a first citation (in “Dialect Notes”) in 1890, but as early as 1940, it seems to have acquired a British connotation, as in this quote: “To many upper-class Americans there was nothing so thrilling as having an Englishman around the house, complete with Oxford accent, school tie, and bumbershoot.” My sense of this as a word-that-Americans-think-Brits-use is furthered by a 2010 New Yorker article about a lecture on Laura Ashley (apparently) attended by Anglophiles and Anglos. The author, Lauren Collins, writes that “twenty or so people showed up, many of them wearing damp woollens. They seemed to be the kind of people who call their umbrellas ‘bumbershoots.’” Now, “brolly” is another story.

  4. The expression “gone missing” is perfectly acceptable English in Canada. I was surprised that this is perceived as a foreign expression in the US. For the most part the English in Canada is closer to common English in the US, however, as in many things, we often fall in between.

  5. Found my way here via Slate and would just like to compliment you on a very interesting (to this Brit) blog! But to be fair to the Slate subtitle, your ‘About’ section here does describe the increase in Britishisms as “alarming”…

    One Britishism I only recently noticed might be a Britishism was the phrase ‘made redundant’. Some commenters at the Onion AVClub discussion of the British ‘Office’ thought it sounded unbelievably harsh, but to me it was just normal. An Ngram search seems to show it increasing in AmE from the ’50s, but still not nearly used as much as phrases like ‘laid off’ or ‘let go’.

    • But when I said “alarming” I was being ironic! On “redundant” (to mean layoff), my sense there has been no penetration at all in the U.S., and the Ngram hits refer to redundancy in language.

  6. So whose idea was the word “corrupting” in the first sentence of that article? After all, if we think (which we probably do, rightly or wrongly) you’re corrupting our language, you’re entitled to feel that we’re corrupting yours too.

    That said, I hate the idea of being able to deplane momentarily.

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