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There’s a phrase used in robotics – the uncanny valley – that describes the problem of building a robot and making it look human. Broadly speaking, the closer to reality you get, the ickier your robot becomes. There’s only so far you can go towards making it a lifelike representation of a real human before the tiny imperfections start to give everyone the creeps, whereas robots that look like, say, C-3PO can be positively cute.
A similar relationship occurs between Britain and America on the topic of communication. As far as the UK is concerned, you’ve got to a point where you can very nearly speak English properly, just like we do, except you keep getting it just wrong enough to give us the willies.
Here are five examples:
1: Pass-Agg Nonsense
For a nation that prides itself on being populated by good-hearted, scrappy people of strong character that are never afraid to speak their minds, there’s an awful lot of passive-aggressive terminology around confrontation in American idiomatic speech. By which I mean, how much protection can there be from the cruel thing you’re about to say, if you preface it with not for nothing, but… or end it with just sayin’? And is just sayin’ supposed to be short for “I’m just saying what everyone is thinking” or “this is just my opinion, deal with it,” because neither one will prevent a fist to the nose. Hope you’re enjoying that freedom of speech.
I can’t even work out what not for nothing, but… is supposed to mean. The sentence “It’s not for nothing that British theatre is considered among the best in the world” makes sense. The sentence “Not for nothing, but you look like a pig in that coat” does not.
2: Curious Sentence Structure And Missing Words
American: I love you. Will you write me?
Brit: Will I write you what, a prescription?
American: No, I mean will you write me?
Brit: A postcard? A poem?
American: I want you to write me.
Brit: You want me to write the word me?
American: No, will you WRITE me?
Brit: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO WRITE?
American: I just want you to write me!
Brit: GAAAAH! Et cetera.
3: Plurals And Collective Nouns
What’s all this Foo Fighters IS a band business? Who are you trying to impress by always singularizing a plurality of people like that? Socialists? Yes, the people in the band are collectively a band, and that’s singular (as in “the band is going on tour”), but when they’re all together, doing a thing, as the Foofs, they’re a plural (in British English, at least). So it’s perfectly fine to say “I love Foo Fighters: that band is dope,” in the same way you’d say “the army is my home,” but you can’t say “Led Zeppelin is my favorite group,” just as you wouldn’t say “the Michaelsons is the best family on the block.”
So, y’know, stop it.
4: Curious Sentence Structure And Additional Words
Brit: We need to meet the boss right now.
American: I’ve already met the boss.
Brit: No, I mean “meet the boss.” She wants to talk to us.
American: I know her well. She was at my bachelorette party.
Brit: You mean your hen do? I know, so was I! She wants to meet us right away.
American: I’VE ALREADY MET HER!
Brit: But she’s arranged a meeting! It’s on your calendar?
American: Oh you mean meet WITH her? Oh sure. Let’s go!
Let’s be honest, the British have been all over the world for centuries, and like all good despotic invaders, always insisted that everyone they conquered learn to speak English in order to communicate. This is not a healthy state of affairs. It’s irritating for everyone concerned (especially the invaded nations), and worse (far, far worse), humiliating to visit countries where most of the population are happily bilingual, trilingual, even quatrilingual, and you can’t even order coffee without feeling like a colonial toff. However, with the decline of the British empire over the course of the 20th century, and a few lessons learned the hard way, the one note of consolation was that this attitude was on the wane, and the Brits needed to man up and learn a language or two. Except now, caught between the twin pincers of Hollywood and the internet, everyone is back to treating English as the global language and treating anyone who can’t speak it as somehow mentally deficient. This does not aid our relationship to the continent on our immediate left.
Fraser McAlpine is British, this explains a lot.
Don’t start, OK, we’re going to state the inverse point of view very soon. But if you are feeling confrontational, please start your comments “not for nothing, but…” and THEN call us names…
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
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