There's something special about a good British expression, which can help one stand out from the yammering crowd of American English words and phrases far more common to the ear in these parts. Why say "good job!" when you can say, for instance, "brilliant"? Why say "how nice" when you can say "lovely"? In this writer's opinion, such rather (rather!) vanilla Britishisms are only enhanced with a bit of a subtly produced accent, though it gets far more plummy at the bar, once one is in his or her cups. But some people hate with fervid passion all the Britishisms that are flooding into American speech. Some people want to stop it! After all, we crossed the pond, we won the war, we shunted off the tea in favor, mostly, of a hell of a lot of coffee, and that's a good thing. Why go back to the Queen, if only in language and a certain obsession over Kate Middleton, once we've come this far?
Alex Williams considers the wave of—let's call them Britspressions—hitting the U.S. as we speak and asks why in The New York Times. Why are so many American writers using expressions like bumbling toff, fortnight, and lovely piece of kit—why, possibly worse, are words like crikey, loo, cheers (I do despise cheers, unless you're clanking glass against glass in the moment preceding a sip), brilliant, flat, twee, ginger, whinge, sot, rubbish, and so on "Anglocreeping" their way through our country's vernacular? This cannot all be the fault of Downton Abbey, can it?
Williams quotes Ben Yagoda, a University of Delaware English professor, who says this is a real thing, a "linguistic phenomenon that shows no sign of abating." Yagoda keeps track of the American media's offenses on a site called “Not One-Off Britishisms” (even snarky is a "NOOB" as he dubs it). If you use any of the words he mentions, you may be an Anglocreep. Williams wanders deeper into the meaning of all this, though: Is it reflective of larger cultural shift, a move toward (my words not his) a kind of Pangaea of language, where we're all one again, in words if not in geography? After all, Americans read The Guardian! Or, is it pretension? Is it parody? Is it just a scourge among the trendy? Fashion people are doing it to sound posh, and we all know what that means. Madonna talks this way. British is all the rage. "No worries," but ... should we be worried? Williams confers with Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex in England who runs a blog called Separated by a Common Language. Hold tight: "She generally notices the tendency among Northeastern media types" who do this for "a subtle professional and social benefit." We are the problem. We are the bloody problem.
But are we? I checked in with American linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, who explained that "the use of British English as a prestige model has come in waves over the course of American history." In the old days, though, the accent was the source or reflection of the prestige (that to some extent explains why rs were dropped in certain Boston, New York City, and Southern dialects, and also is part of why old Hollywood stars had that affected way of speaking we call the mid-Atlantic accent—oh, dahling!). But we've moved from accent to word: "The British influence that Ben Yagoda and others have been discerning lately is strictly lexical," he says. "British pronunciation rarely enters into it. These Britishisms, like the older pronunciation patterns, do serve as status markers to delineate an in-group. The nature of the prestige may have changed: it's not so much about sounding aristocratic as sounding 'smart,' perhaps."
Like any word choices, we pick them for a reason, because we want to sound a certain way. For those using them—i.e., "Northeastern media types"—Britishisms happen to be the preferred flavor of the language day for bolstering our status, intellectual, or savviness cred. They're also, as I said earlier, a way of standing out from the crowd, of getting people's attention in a slightly different way than the norm. (The built-in safety mechanism there is that when the habit becomes too common, those using it will move on to something else.)
Interestingly, our adoption of Brit-speak appears a highbrow to lowbrow language move, points out Zimmer: "British importations tend to enter American usage in a top-down fashion, unlike the bottom-up percolation of Americanisms into British English," he says, explaining that there are exceptions, like Susan Boyle's mainstream use of the word gobsmacked to describe her reaction to her viral appearance on Britain's Got Talent. "I think Boyle did a lot to introduce that vivid British expression to an American audience," says Zimmer. "She also said she was "poleaxed," but that didn't catch on in the same way."
Zimmer added, "I have to say I love gobsmacked, and I'm not particularly offended by other recent British imports. (Check out the winners of Best UK-to-US Word of the Year competition on Lynne Murphy's Separated by a Common Language blog: baby bump, vet, go missing, ginger, and kettling. None of these make my skin crawl.) But I admit that I find it mildly irritating if a New Yorker says he'll "ring me up." That just seems gratuitously Anglophilic."
Pepper your languages with some British if you must, but don't be an outright Anglocreep, seems to be the general message here. Cheerio!
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.