120. Americanisms

What do British people think of American English? Are they right?

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Hello listeners, how are you doing? Thanks for listening to Luke’s English Podcast. I’m fine here today and I finally found time to record another episode. This one is all about Americanisms, so stay tuned to find out more about that.

There is a full transcript to almost all of this episode on the website so check it out if you want to read what I am saying, use it to study the language, follow every single word that comes out of my mouth or use it for your own reading practice. If you’re a teacher you can use some of it in your lessons if you like or perhaps if you’re a learner of English and you really want to speak like me for some reason then you can use the script to perhaps record your very own version of this episode of Luke’s English Podcast, with you as the presenter. You could be me, you could be Luke. It could be, for example, ‘Jose’s English Podcast’, if your name is Jose, which it probably isn’t. Anyway, you can use the transcript for whatever you want. It’s there on the website – episode 120. on either Luke’s English Podcast or Luke’s English Blog. I spent quite a lot of time preparing this episode. I made more effort. You’re welcome. Feel free to add a donation if you appreciate my work. Click one of the buttons that says donate on my website. OK, let’s get started with this episode, which as I said is all about Americanisms. Let’s go!
So, my Dad recently sent me an article that was published by the BBC, and he thought it would be a good subject for an episode of Luke’s English Podcast, and he’s right of course, it’s a great subject. It’s a brilliant subject. In fact, I would say it is the greatest subject ever proposed for an episode of anything, ever!!! Not really, it’s not that great, but it is a good subject. The article was all about Americanisms, which are expressions used in American English which are increasingly being used in British English (and Australian English, New Zealand English and so on). Many British people don’t really like Americanisms. In fact, it’s quite surprising how passionate some British people are in their general hatred of American English when it is used by British people. I sometimes hear people in the UK complaining bitterly about how they hear young British people saying “Can I get” or ‘schedule’ or “a whole bunch of…”. So, do British people have the right to complain about Americanisms, or is it just cultural snobbishness?

In this episode I’m going to go through the list of Americanisms from the BBC article (you can read it below), explain what they mean and tell you if they really are incorrect or if the Brits are just being snobbish.

You’ll learn those Americanisms, but also we’ll look at the attitudes of the Brits towards American English, have a look at the whole idea of language change, and consider the relationship between language useage and culture, paying specific attention to the UK and the USA. We’ll find out what the Brits really think about American English!

Just to be clear, let me explain right now what an Americanism is. Basically it’s a word or expression of American origin, which is now being used in other countries too, for example here in The UK. The Cambridge Advanced learner’s Dictionary defines it as: a word or expression which was first used in the United States but is used by people in other countries, especially those where English is spoken. An Americanism can be a word (e.g. saying “daiper” instead of “nappy” or “can I get” instead of “can I have”), an expression (e.g. saying “give me a ballpark figure”), the spelling of a word (e.g. ‘theater’ for ‘theatre’) or the pronunciation of a word (e.g. the way we pronounce ‘schedule’ or ‘aluminium’). Basically, we’re talking about modern American influences on British English, and how British people feel about that (most of them are really pissed off about it). This episode will be useful for you because you’ll learn loads of vocabulary and it should help you to see the differences between UK and US English. It’s also pretty funny to see how hysterical British people can get when they feel their culture is under threat.

So, let’s look at this BBC list of Americanisms. Here’s what happened. The BBC website published an article about Americanisms. In that article, a British journalist called Matthew Engel (read it here: Matthew Engel in the article) explained how some American English expressions are useful, and yet some are unnecessary. He then went on to say how he thinks that British English should be protected. The article was quite well balanced at the beginning, suggesting that languages change and evolve and that English is no different, and that some American influence from 100 years ago was useful because it provided us with some new words. Ultimately though, the article became a passionate defence of British English and a suggestion that Brits need to fight to protect our language, that enough is enough – British English now must be preserved or it will die. That article received lots of comments from angry British people who used it as a opportunity to complain about their most hated Americanisms. The BBC received so many comments that in another article, the BBC published 50 of them in a list. That’s the list we’re going to look at in this podcast. You can read the list and the comments on my website (teacherluke.podomatic.com episode 120) as I talk about them.  Each item in the list is a comment by someone and contains an Americanism. I’ll read the comment to you, make sure you understand the expression which is being discussed and then I will give you my comments too. I’ll give my own personal judgement on each Americanism, from a linguistic point of view and just generally as a person. I’ll be using these criteria for my judgement:

1. Is the expression or usage gramatically wrong or correct? Let’s look at these expressions from a linguistic viewpoint.

2. Is the expression effective as a way of communicating a message? This is perhaps the most important aspect of language – that it is useful as a way of communicating. So, if a new bit of language is clear and communicates a message well, what’s the problem?

3. Is each complaint just an example of British snobbishness and fear of American cultural imperialism? Why do British people get so angry about Americanisms? Are they angry about incorrect English? Or are they angry about the dominance of American English over British English?

I also have a blog post here by someone called Grammar Man, who is actually a literature, linguistics and learning specialist from The University of Carolina. According to his blog, his mission is to “to direct us toward clarity, someone who can illuminate the joys of wordplay and the benefits of linguistic awareness.” Check out his blog post about 50 Americanisms here browsingthemind.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/50-americanisms-grammar-man-responds/ . I will be using Grammar Man’s comments on these Americanisms too, as a kind of backup source of expertise.

My transcript stops here but I am hopefully going to continue writing notes on the computer as I talk.

Ok, so let’s get started and have a look at this list!

Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples

The BBC Magazine’s recent piece on Americanisms entering the language in the UK prompted thousands of you to e-mail examples.

Some are useful, while some seem truly unnecessary, argued Matthew Engel in the article. Here are 50 of the most e-mailed.

1. When people ask for something, I often hear: “Can I get a…” It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the 90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really.” Steve, Rossendale, Lancashire. 

Grammar Man says: Can I get a TV Guide for this guy? Apparently, he has no pop culture references less than seven years old. Really.

2. The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option“, tell them that their most best option is learning grammar. Mike Ayres, Bodmin, Cornwall

Definition: the least worst choice is the best choice from a list of choices that you think are all bad

Grammar Man says: Excuse me, sir, that is an example of intentionally using language unconventionally to emphasize a point. Ironically, sometimes one’s most best option is unlearning some grammar.

3. The phrase I’ve watched seep into the language (especially with broadcasters) is “two-time” and “three-time“. Have the words double, triple etc, been totally lost? Grammatically it makes no sense, and is even worse when spoken. My pulse rises every time I hear or see it. Which is not healthy as it’s almost every day now. Argh! D Rochelle, Bath

Grammar Man says: Does that phraseology communicate a point unambiguously? Yes. There’s no problem then, except your blood pressure. Take some beta blockers.

4. Using 24/7 rather than “24 hours, 7 days a week” or even just plain “all day, every day”. Simon Ball, Worcester

Grammar Man says: When speaking and writing, brevity is a virtue.

5. The one I can’t stand is “deplane“, meaning to disembark an aircraft, used in the phrase “you will be able to deplane momentarily”.TykeIntheHague, Den Haag, Holland

Grammar Man says: Get over it.

6. To “wait on” instead of “wait for” when you’re not a waiter – once read a friend’s comment about being in a station waiting on a train. For him, the train had yet to arrive – I would have thought rather that it had got stuck at the station with the friend on board. T Balinski, Raglan, New Zealand

You might have a point. But constructing verb phrases is always a tricky business.

7. “It is what it is“. Pity us. Michael Knapp, Chicago, US.

Grammar Man says: That has become cliché, yes.

8. Dare I even mention the fanny pack? Lisa, Red Deer, Canada

Grammar Man says: Please don’t. We’re trying to get over that fad.

9. “Touch base” – it makes me cringe no end.Chris, UK

Grammar Man says: Missing prepositions make me cringe.

10. Is “physicality” a real word? Curtis, US

Grammar Man says: Yes.

A US reader writes…

JP Spore believes there is nothing wrong with English evolving

Languages are, by their very nature, shifting, malleable things that morph according to the needs and desires of those who speak them.

Mr Engel suggests that British English should be preserved, but it seems to me this both lacks a historical perspective of the language, as well as an ignorance of why it is happening.

English itself is a rather complicated, interesting blend of Germanic, French and Latin (among other things). It has arrived at this point through the long and torturous process of assimilation and modification. The story of the English language is the story of an unstoppable train of consecutive changes – and for someone to put their hand up and say “wait – the train stops here and should go no further” is not only futile, but ludicrously arbitrary.

Why here? Why not stop it 20 years ago? Or 20 years hence? If we’re going to just set an arbitrary limit on language change, why not choose the year 1066 AD? The Saxons had some cool words, right?

Mr Engel – and all language Luddites on both sides of the Atlantic, including more than a few here in the States – really need to get over it when their countrymen find more value in non-native words than in their native lexicon.

I understand the argument about loss of cultural identity, but if so many people are so willing to give up traditional forms and phrases maybe we should consider that they didn’t have as much value as we previously imagined.

11. Transportation. What’s wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US

Grammar Man says: The latter word sounds more like a verb.

12. The word I hate to hear is “leverage“. Pronounced lev-er-ig rather than lee-ver -ig. It seems to pop up in all aspects of work. And its meaning seems to have changed to “value added”. Gareth Wilkins, Leicester

Grammar Man says: Pronunciations are like opinions: every speech community has one (or two or three).

13. Does nobody celebrate a birthday anymore, must we all “turn” 12 or 21 or 40? Even the Duke of Edinburgh was universally described as “turning” 90 last month. When did this begin? I quite like the phrase in itself, but it seems to have obliterated all other ways of speaking about birthdays. Michael McAndrew, Swindon

Grammar Man says: In the linguistic wilderness, survival of the most efficient is the universal law.

14. I caught myself saying “shopping cart” instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I’ve never lived nor been to the US either. Graham Nicholson, Glasgow

Grammar Man says: Yes, I agree, there should be only one name for every item on the planet. In fact, the same goes for people. Let’s name all boys John, all girls Jane, and all hermaphrodites Joan.

15. What kind of word is “gotten“? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington

Grammar Man: That’s simple. It’s a verb conjugated in the perfect tense. Duh.