The British Are Invading (Again) And This Time They Want Their Language Back

The Union Flag

Thanks largely to the influence of TV, music, cinema and now the internet, the general assumption among a certain (and rather huffy) segment of the British population is that the English language is becoming swamped with Americanisms, and that this is a bad thing. However, no two countries that share a common language can ever truly claim to be independent from one another, especially during periods of huge cultural exchange, and so now there are American academics who have begun measuring the amount of British idioms that have entered American use, and apparently, they’re on the rise too.

As an further twist, some of those academics are claiming that these idioms are diluting American English, in an act of bewildering tit-for-tat cultural priggishness.

BBC News has a very detailed report on this very thing, with spluttery quotes from the University of California linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, who has a particular bee in his bonnet about certain terms: “Spot on, it’s just ludicrous! You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on.”

Well, maybe if you say it while wearing tweed and smoking a pipe.

He continued: “Will do – I hear that from Americans. That should be put into quarantine.”

However, other commentators, such as Ben Yagoda of the University of Delaware, think differently. He has even set up a blog devoted to British terms that have snuck into American use, these include sell-by date, do the washing-up, ginger (meaning a person with red hair) cheeky, and chat-up.

And other expressions, like gastropub, twee and metrosexual, that began in British use, have become so commonplace they have even made their way into the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

However, do not be alarmed, you won’t have to learn the London glottal stop and start to pronounce tomato with an ah instead of an ay anytime soon, the increased useage of these terms is only relative to their not being used at all in the past, and in the case of ginger, specifically related to a single cultural event (the Harry Potter books). And it’s not as if American idioms aren’t still rolling into British, Australian and Canadian homes every day.

The difference in this case lies in the way each country views the other. As Americans tend to view the British as posh and stuffy, using British idioms is a form of linguistic social climbing, as Geoffrey Nunberg is quick to point out: “It sounds trendy – another borrowing we could use without – to use a British term. It just sounds kind of Transatlantic.”

The same cannot be said of Brits talking like the cast of The Wire, which only reinforces the idea that the Brits are stuffy in the first place.

Kory Stamper, of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, says this is less new than it may seem: “America has always welcomed words from all over. If it doesn’t look conspicuously foreign, I don’t think anyone questions – it’s just English at that point.”

Yeah, so don’t get your trousers in a tangle, dude.

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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