The latest list of English words and phrases misappropriated by Americans is circulating in the British press. This happens about once a year and for stateside observers, serves as a curious reminder that while we imported English--or, actually, in a cultural history sense, simply carried it with us--as our native tongue centuries ago, we've also been exporting phrases back to the United Kingdom. It's fascinating, if somehow disorienting, to learn how phrases you never thought twice about are really, really upsetting amateur linguists across the pond. Who knew words like "hospitalize" and "faze" got Brits so worked up?
In papers like The Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the grammar rant beat is normally covered by a disgruntled editor or displaced American reporter, but this week, the BBC decided to crowdsource a list of the most reviled Americanisms. The process of collecting the language complaints comes on the heels of an article by Matthew Engel who describes the historical tradition of the British distaste for American words or phrases jumping back across the Atlantic:
The Americans imported English wholesale, forged it to meet their own needs, then exported their own words back across the Atlantic to be incorporated in the way we speak over here. Those seemingly innocuous words caused fury at the time.
The poet Coleridge denounced "talented" as a barbarous word in 1832, though a few years later it was being used by William Gladstone. A letter-writer to the Times, in 1857, described "reliable" as vile.
BBC asked their readers to send in similar examples, and they did by the hundreds. We would include some of their best, but the rebuttal from The Economist's New York office is much funnier. As an American outpost of a British publication, The Economist knows the challenges of reckoning with the English language's divergent vernaculars better than anyone. So one of their writers lists the original BBC reader complaints (in bold) alongside some rebuttals to the original list:
Transportation. What's wrong with transport? Nothing. What's wrong with transportation? Brits prefer "to orientate oneself", Americans prefer "to orient oneself". Not worse, just different.
What kind of word is "gotten"? It makes me shudder. It is the original past participle, from old Norse getenn, now obsolete in English English, but surviving in America. Participial "got" is the newcomer.
"I'm good" for "I'm well". That'll do for a start. That'll do what? Linking verbs including "am" take adjectives, not adverbs. "I'm healthy," not "I'm healthily." There's nothing wrong with "I'm well", since "well" is also an adjective, but nothing wrong with "I'm good" either.
The Economist response is refreshing if you're an American and you're proud of it. As we noted, these lists of Americanisms aren't new. In fact, this Americanism thing seems to be a bit of a crusade for the author of the original BBC article, Matthew Engel. Last year, Engel wrote basically the same piece for the Daily Mail. He even supplies something called "Engel's Terrible Ten," a list of words like "movies," "rookies," and "truck" that don't make sense to Brits. This sentence in that piece is especially confusing: "We need to distinguish between the normal give-and-take of linguistic development and being overrun - through our own negligence and ignorance - by rampant cultural imperialism."
Like Engel points out in his most recent piece on the subject, the British have hated having Americans messing around with English for centuries. It's obviously amusing to hear British people talk about American imperialism. But it's even funnier to see a British publication like The Economist stand up to defend Americanisms.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.