British English “in rude health”

I started this blog in large part because its topic–British words and expressions becoming popular in America–runs counter to the far more popular narrative of Americanisms taking over British English. This supposed subjugation, which has been lamented for a couple of centuries, is the subject of a new book by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way It Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. In it he argues that so many Americanisms have taken hold in Britain — including “cookie” instead of the traditional “biscuit” — that within a century, quite possibly, American English will “absorb the British version completely.”

When he was researching the book, Engel decided to interview me, as the NOOBs phenomenon was obviously relevant to his thesis. In the book, he describes me as “an affable and hospitable man” but dismissed the blog as more or less inconsequential, with the subjects of many entries  either “passing fads” or “so well camouflaged that their ancestry is largely forgotten.” (The latter would seem proof of the influence of British English in the U.S., but never mind.)

“When comparing the indignities with those heaped on British English,” Engel writes of me, “he can sound a bit like a White House spokesman threatening nuclear retaliation for an outrageous and provocative attack launched by the armed forces of Rutland.” (Rutland being a county in England.)

No comment on that analogy. I’ll just move on to observe that the reality is rather more complicated than Engel’s jeremiad suggests. As “Johnson” (Lane Greene) observed in The Economist:

It is true that America is influencing British usage. “Smart” is increasingly describing the intelligent as much as the well dressed. (Never mind that “smart” first was used this way in Britain in 1571.) Many Britons prefer “movies” to “films”. And “fries” and “cookies” are now appearing alongside “chips” and “biscuits”. But are they always replacing them?

No: “smart” is savvy, whereas “clever” is swotty. “Fries” are thin and crispy, and “cookies” are American styles like chocolate-chip, notes Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at Sussex University writing her own book about the relationship between British and American English. “Movies” tend to come from Hollywood; “film” is still preferred for the latest gritty cinema from Europe. In other words, these Americanisms are not an impoverishment of British English. They are additions to it.

Johnson concluded that British English is “in rude health.”

I’ll add that when I was in London recently, I found that a common menu item was “skinny fries,” emphasizing the distinction from the fatter, still thriving “chips,” as in fish and.

A new academic study that crunched 30 million tweets and 15 million digitized books published between 1800 and 2010 found that, in the worldwide use of English, spelling and vocabulary are indeed trending toward American versions. However, the trend is most pronounced in countries where English isn’t the primary language, and, in all the world, is seen least in Britain.

The Guardian did a nice graphic illustrating these findings, and suggesting that Americanisms are just slightly more prevalent in Britain than Britishisms are in America. The green bar indicates spelling and the blue bar vocabulary. A score of -1 means thoroughly British, and +1 thoroughly American.

Screen Shot 2017-10-30 at 9.29.37 AM

That’s consistent with what I found in a book I just finished reading, Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head Is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett, published in London in 2016. Burnett, a neuroscientist at Cardiff University, in Wales, is a sort of poster boy for the survival of British English. On page 1 alone, he does these distinctively British things:

  • Spells the words “apologise” (American: “apologize”) and “behaviours” (“behavior”).
  • Refers to a little boy “dribbling” (the more common American word word is “drooling”).
  • Uses logical punctuation and single quotation marks (the American practice is double quotes) when he refers to ‘something people say’.

Page 1 is not an aberration. From beginning to end, the book is packed with Britishisms. Most apparent are the different spellings, including “sceptical” (U.S.: “skeptical”), “aeons” (“eons”), “”travelling” (“traveling”), “tyre,” “pyjamas,” “foetal” (“fetal”), “centre” (“center”) and “hippy” (“hippie,” as in the flower child of yore, not an adjective meaning wide around the middle. If you’re skeptical or sceptical on the British-American difference see this Google Ngram chart). Burnett probably somewhere wrote “programme,” but I didn’t catch it.

As far as vocabulary goes, in this 302-page book, I counted 44 distinctively British terms, including “dribbling.” Here are the others, in order, with American equivalents in parenthesis. For ease of reading, I’ve dispensed with quotation marks except where Burnett uses them. And the links are to Not One-Off Britishisms posts, indicating that term has had at least some penetration in the U.S.

Without any bother (without any trouble), petrol (gas), worrying (troubling), mum (mom), crisps (chips or potato chips), she used to live in the street next to us (on the street), well done (good job), “Not now, mate” (buddy), here’s the clever bit (smart part), massive (not exclusively British but used massively more often there than here), turning up drunk (showing up), at university (in college), row (argument), chap (guy), knock-on consequences (no real equivalent, hereafter abbreviated NRE), queue (line), maths (math), have a look (take a look), “you were crap” (NRE), boffin (NRE), sport (sports), daft (crazy), games consoles (game), trainers (sneakers), estate agent (real-estate agent), check your emails (email), goal-orientated (oriented), different to (from), a bit of fun (some fun), cut you up (cut you off, in the motoring sense), down to you (up to you), waiting staff (wait staff), I went to the shops (I went shopping), shop (store), forecourts (NRE), noughts and crosses (tic tac toe), heard it from some bloke down the pub (heard it from some guy at the bar), carry on (continue, go on), messes about (messes around), lift (elevator).

And how often does Burnett use American lingo? I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, since presumably I wouldn’t necessarily recognize an Americanism as such; it might just seem normal to me. So bear that in mind when I say I counted only four terms that appear to be Yank imports: “up for grabs,” “fans” (in a sports context — the more common British word is “supporters”), “smart” (Burnett alternates it with “clever”), and the cowboy-movie “pronto.” (There were a few others that initially struck me as Americanisms but turned out not to be: “hubbub” came from Ireland, as early as 1555: “a big ask,” meaning a large or important request, is an Australianism, according to the OED; and the dictionary’s first cite for “the middle man,” meaning an intermediary, is from Edmund Burke in 1797.)

I would guess there’d be about the same number of Britishisms in a comparable American book, most likely coming from a relatively short list of the most popular NOOBs: “bits,” “clever,” “go missing,” “one-off,” “kerfuffle,” and a few more.

And that’s the way the biscuit crumbles.

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46 responses to “British English “in rude health”

  1. It’s complete nonsense to suggest that ‘cookie’ is replacing ‘biscuit’. We only use the former when describing imports like Oreos or chocolate chip cookies. In other words, as you say, the US word is enriching our version of English, not replacing it.
    Although the Oxford dictionary says that ‘fan’ was originally US, it came into British English in the 19th century so it’s as much a part of our English as it is US.

  2. “heard it from some bloke down the pub (heard it from some guy at the bar)”
    While in UK idiomatic use, the definite article “the” is used in this kind of structure, I doubt it’s referring to a specific establishment previously mentioned. (Same with “I went to the shops”.) So I believe a more correct translation into USian would be “heard it from some guy in a bar” with the indefinite article “a” (what preposition to use is a whole other kettle of fish).

    Any investigation / posts on UK vs US use of “the” for general, not specific, items/places etc?

    As for Matthew Engel, from comments and anecdotes from those who’ve encoutered him in person (his whinging about how about everything is changing for the worse is not limited to the English language; cricket also endures his wisdom), perhaps the less said the better. One sample http://www.metafilter.com/170110/Sticky-wicket#7202741

    • The counter example, of course, is “in hospital.” (AmE: “in the hospital.”)

      • I would say that’s a different issue: whether or not to have an article. And I don’t think anyone in either idiom would say “down pub” or “in bar”.

        I’m thinking about structures where both kinds of English would use an article, and the difference in *which* article would be used.

        I think for these rather unspecified places, in informal UK usage, the definite is normal (“some bloke down _the_ pub”).

        In comparison, in US usage “some guy in _a_ bar” sounds right, but “some guy in _the_ bar” sounds like it would only be used for a bar previously referred to in the conversation/piece of writing or whose identity is obvious/known to both parties, as per standard formal grammar re definite vs indefinite articles.

      • I see what you mean and think you’re generally right. There are some U.S. exceptions that come to mind: “the opera” (“we see each other at the opera”); “the street” (Springsteen lyric–“when I’m out on the street, I walk the way I wanna walk”); “the movies” (“I love to go the movies”); the races; the park.

  3. You know, it never once occurred to me that this blog was tracking “indignities” against American usage, never mind threatening nuclear retaliation for them. It seems to me that his bias has informed his view: ‘since this person is interested in Britishisms, he must be mad about them.’ Either that, or NOOBs is a far more nationalist project than I had ever conceived.

    • You’re absolutely right. Early on, I think I made a couple of comments in the mode of mock indignation, which Engel has cherry-picked (an Americanism?).

      • The tone of “mock indignation” is still quite prominent. Just the other day you said there was “no excuse” for using “university” rather than “college”, in a certain context, in an American publication.

        It’s quite natural for a reader looking at your site to conclude that you really are a usage purist trying to protect the precious bodily fluids of the American language from pollution by horrid foreignisms.

      • Point taken, Cameron. I should probably take a duvet day (Britishism that has not reached here) to figure out how indignant I am. Overall, not very, but I suppose I do like to poke fun at American journalists who use a British term when there is a precise American equivalent.

  4. In Aus, dribbling and drooling are different things… my non-scientific classification would be that you drool things you produced yourself (saliva) and you dribble things you’ve put into your mouth (water, soft drink).

    • And, of course, in the UK you can dribble a football. 🙂

      • When I played Basketball at School (in the UK) we used to “dribble” the ball by bouncing it and running forward (equivalent to dribbling in football). I didn’t realise it was British usage. What do Americans call it?

      • Except I imagine Americans don’t dribble footballs, they dribble soccer balls. I’m sure trying to advance an American football with one’s feet is very difficult, due to its shape, and probably against the rules. (I’ve never seen it done in over 30 years of watching the NFL.)

    • How often does the topic come up over there?

  5. The Guardian’s graphic ranks nations by the use of correct spelling (as opposed to US English), but the ranking of nations would be much different if the rank was based on vocabulary. Of particular interest were differences between USA and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, England and Ireland. Which leads me to wonder how much of the variation in vocabulary could be attributed to the influence of the Irish emigration? Or to the Britishness of the school systems?

    • Vocabulary as well as spelling is included in the chart.

    • Presumably the “UK” was south east England? I wonder what results it would give if it included Scottish and English regions? There’s quite a bit of difference in vocabulary between, for example, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and London.

  6. Rutland is the smallest county in England. Often referred to in a comic context. Extremely proud of its reputation.

  7. Meanwhile here in New Zealand, there are a small minority of old school students, born in the 50’s and 60’s, who reference their bible the English Oxford dictionary on a frequent basis, and will more than likely do so for life. Fries are only to be found at McDonalds, and are not a substitute for good old fashioned fish and chips, preferably smothered with vinegar or Worcestershire sauce. I repeat, we are in the minority, but firmly entrenched in our habits, and standing strong, despite the efforts of our children to weaken our resolve. 😉

    • Last I looked, the Oxford English Dictionary still used -ize endings for a number verbs, spellings that would now be branded Americanisms in the UK.

      Some years ago at work I was called in to settle an argument between two colleagues. One of them was from Bosnia and English was not her native language. She had been using a battered old Oxford dictionary and had used an -ize ending. The other was trying to convince her that this was an Americanism.

      My explanation that both -ize and -ise used to be acceptable in UK English and many publishing houses such as OUP who publish the OED still used the -ize endings did not seem to satisfy either party.

      • Robynne Black

        Oh dear, Paul. The Oxford English dictionary I consult is in my minds eye, and as it is a late 1960’s version, the only acceptable ending is ‘ise’, as in ‘exercise’ and ‘excise’. Have a visual memory for words and an automatic spellcheck.

      • As I used to work for OUP, I can explain that they use -ize spellings because they have always done since the Press was founded some 500 years ago. It was the original British spelling. The -ise spelling became prominent in British English much later, due to the influence of French. As the OED itself is descriptive rather than prescriptive, both spellings are given, though, with precedence given to the -ize version, cf here in the definition for recognise/ize: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/recognize
        Personally, I still prefer the -ise to the -ize!

      • Certainly the 1984 edition of the Oxford dictionary I have has recognize, realize and pressurize, to take just three at random, and no -ise alternatives given. As I recall, some words entered English from the French, and therefore had -ise endings from the start. I presume exercise and excise are two of them. They are spelt that way in this dictionary.

        In the big 1991 complete OED, the head word is recognize.

      • Alastair, my memory is that at school in the north of England in the sixties, we were taught that both endings were acceptable, and I tended to use the -ize ending, just because I liked doing the loopy zed we were taught to do in cursive script.

        It was only when I started work in the seventies that I was told that the -ize ending was American and I shouldn’t use it for documentation. (I was a computer programmer for the Central Electricity Generating Board at that time.)

      • Tracing the use of “realize” and “realise” in British books in Google Ngram Viewer suggests that “-ise” was more popular from about 1870 to 1925, with “-ize” ruling before 1870 and since 1925. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=realize%3Aeng_gb_2012%2Crealise%3Aeng_gb_2012&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Crealize%3Aeng_gb_2012%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Crealise%3Aeng_gb_2012%3B%2Cc0

      • Interesting, Ben. I tried putting other -ise/-ize words in and they all gave more -ize even though I’m sure most people I know take that to be the American spelling.

      • I also went to school in the north of England and was told the same. We also had it drilled into us that collective nouns were singular unless you were referring to members of the “collection”. Singular collective nouns now seem to be regarded as an Americanism.

      • steve, where you also taught the singular they, as in, “If someone comes to the door, ask them what they want.”? I know many people, all southerners, who tell me that’s not correct, but I’m sure that’s what I was taught.

    • I was in Salamanca Spain very recently and in the hotel restaurant, the waiter asked me if I wanted “chips” with a steak. Yes…he meant “crisps!” … seriously!
      I would like to make an appeal for standardization of terminology for fried potato shapes.

      • Also spellings; When I was at Med school in Scotland in the 70s, Gray’s Anatomy 35th edition changed the spelling of Foetus to Fetus. Interestingly, Oesophagus and Oestrogen were not altered. Some drug names were also spelled differently e.g. Sulphonamide became Sulfonamide. I’m not certain if these changes were universally accepted in the U.K.
        My own specialty, Anaesthesia, remained spelled the same but my cousin’s husband in Canada recently told me the spelling there was now Anesthesia and he became an Anesthesiologist (previously Consultant Anaesthetist) to differentiate him from a Nurse Anesthetist(Not medically qualified.) This was to prevent confusion at joint American and Canadian meetings. My Canadian Anaesthetist uncle was not impressed!
        As far as definite articles are concerned, in the SW of England (Plymouth,) patients were referred to “The” Hospital. There was only one! We were however instructed to offer a choice, so patients could elect to go to Torbay (20 miles away,) or Exeter (40 miles away,) or Barnstaple (?70 miles away.) Few patients elected for the more distant locations.
        I have mentioned before, but in this part of England, many people dropped the article completely saying “He has to go Hospital.” or “I need to go toilet.” Not that there is a connection between these two expressions!

  8. Paul, what do they contend is the correct usage? It seems a bit of a mouthful to say: “…ask him or her what he or she wants”.

    • More likely, they’d rephrase it. “… find out what the person wants”, say.

    • And last night I was at a concert of music by Luciano Berio and some of his Sequenzas were played. In an introduction some of Berio’s words were read out. “When writing for a soloist in my sequenzas, my aim is to extend his or her instrument.” Now, Berio was Italian but he spoke good English, so I don’t know if that was his words or a translation, but I would say “their instrument.”

      • On this singular “they” point, it is definitely far more commonly used in U.K. than U.S. edited prose. (In speech, and informal writing, such as Facebook posts, emails and tweets, it’s very common on both sides of the Atlantic.) In the book I wrote about in this post, “The Idiot Brain,” Burnett uses singular “they” >90% of the time, with “he or she” or “him or her” the rest. He never uses “he” (as the custom used to be) or “she” (as is popular in the U.S. now).

    • Just say “ask him what he wants”. Keep the language inclusive.

  9. In what context was “down to you” used? I think “up to you” means “it’s your responsibility to decide” in both UK and US whereas “down to you” means “it’s your responsibility” (with hints of blame). Translating “down to you” as “up to you” feels like a lossy translation.

    • I don’t have the book in front of me but I think it was “it’s your responsibility”–not sure if there hints of blame. Sort of like current slang, “it’s on me.”

  10. Ahh, ‘I’ just had a thought. Microsoft’s inability to recognise New Zealand/English may account for all those mistakes on the internet. After all, most people use spellcheck now, so would accept the spellcheck version as correct, so only people that refer to the original dictionary in their minds eye, (which refuses to change even when faced with evidence to the contrary) would be affected. Even now, the wiggly red line underscoring my word ‘recognise’ is mildly irritating me. By way of explanation, my mother was born in London, so her version of spelling words may have also influenced early phonetic formation and learning. 😉

    • Usually, you can choose between various varieties of English in MS products. Certainly, in MS Word it will underline recognize but not recognise in my set-up. Interestingly, I’m typing this using Edge, and it seems to allow both spellings but not color, to pick a word at random.

      New Zealand English is given among the options in the language settings in Window 10.

  11. Well I never.. just checked, and there it is: English (New Zealand). Thank you for the tip!

  12. Uncle Ben consistently serves up appetising linguistic titbits for us to enjoy but this time he has produced a veritable feast. Webster declared that US and UK English would become mutually unintelligible eventually, but he wasn’t prescient enough to anticipate telephones, radio, TV, films or the Internet. Without these inventions he might well have been proved right – it is said that when Hollywood first produced ‘talkies’ British audiences had a problem understanding the American actors (although they could, of course, understand the British actors like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel)
    When we look at what has happened to French in Quebec, Dutch in South Africa or Portuguese in Brazil we realise how similar English has remained in the many countries in which it is an official language. The accents of London and Los Angeles are far closer to each other than the dialects spoken in Hamburg and Munich or Milan and Naples.
    One of the great strengths of the English language is that it has always relentlessly ‘borrowed’ words from just about every other language it has come into contact with (raised eyebrows in Paris) so cross fertilisation within the Anglosphere is hardly surprising.

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