Are you guilty of using British words and phrases? If so, some of your associates may one day accuse you of being traitorous or uppity. “If you cain’t speak old-fashioned Amurrican, then whah doan you jes move to London and live with them fancy-pants?!!”
It’s unlikely anyone will actually say that to you. For one thing, most Americans aren’t snobs, of either the standard or reverse kind. It’s rare that you meet anyone who cares how you speak, or how anyone speaks. After all, most of our communication takes place on Facebook or Twitter.
However, a recent magazine article said that Britishisms are creeping into our language faster than we might think. Examples: snogging. If a boy and girl engage in exuberant kissing, they are snogging. If they then go off to bed together, they will shag. If they do it only once, then the interlude may be regarded as a one-off.
I’m not as conscious of a British invasion of our language as I am of British people appearing on TV as news reporters, commentators or interviewees. On some days the Brits seem to have taken sole possession of the networks. A large proportion of foreign correspondents these days are British; most of them wade into war zones without blinking.
I have mixed reaction to Brits on the TV screen. I take delight in the half-hour news programs of BBC World News, in which world headlines are presented by well-spoken, level-eyed, quietly sexy women who avoid the china-doll cuteness typical of so many of America’s female newsreaders.
My least favorite British news celebrity is Piers Morgan, who jabbers on during a chunk of CNN news time each evening. His manner of speech I can only describe as pinched, as if he were squeezing out each word through pursed, semi-paralyzed lips.
The article I referred to above (The Week Magazine for Dec. 7) cites a number of British crossover terms that I had not before heard of. One example is “gastropub,” a drinking spot that also serves good food. Another is “ginger” applied to anyone with red hair. The article says that the British are guilty of anti-ginger prejudice, while Americans are not.
Have you recently made an earnest effort to engage a person in conversation? In the USA this is simply called “talking” to someone. In England, it’s “chatting up.” As in, “I spotted this lovely woman alone at the bar, so I sat down and chatted her up.”
To check on the freshness of many food products, Americans look for the “expiration date” on the side of the package. In England this is called the “sell-by date,” and it’s supposedly becoming more common in our country. Nobody is quite sure how Briticisms creep into our language, but indications are that it’s more common with the “educated elite” – journalists, advertising workers and others who traffic in words more than other elements of life. Another source of British invader-terms is the many well-received TV programs such as “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs Downstairs” and my favorite, the long-running “As Time Goes By.”
I can remember a fad of 30 years or so ago in which upward-striving firms sought out well-educated British women as secretaries and receptionists. The theory was that when a prospective client was greeted by a nifty Brit lady a much more favorable reaction would occur than if the welcomer hailed from Kansas City or Atlanta.
I disagree with that way of thinking. One accent seems as good as another to me, perhaps because of my proletarian background. My working-class family lived in a series of obscure Pennsylvania towns whose inhabitants’ speech patterns were sometimes just this side of unintelligible. We quickly developed a tolerance for off-the-wall twangs, utterances and enunciations. You really can’t judge a person simply by his/her style of speech. And you shouldn’t try.
One expert cited in the article said the word “trousers” (for pants) and “fortnight” (for two weeks) have dropped out of American English use, while being retained by the Brits. I hope that’s not so, at least with regard to trousers, which is valuable because it is specific. “Pants” is not. A pair of pants can refer to half a dozen types of garment, worn by both men and women.
If we owe a debt to any foreign language for enriching our own lingo, it’s Spanish. Just boot up a few appropriate websites and you’ll find dozens of Hispanic words and terms. We’ve been using them for many years, and not just since the Hispanic immigration waves of the past 40 years or so. Mi casa, su casa. Vaya con dios. Taco. Bonanza. El Nino. Que pasa? Adios, mi amigos!
Bob Driver is a former columnist and editorial page editor for the Clearwater Sun. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.