“Can I get a mochaccino?”: a statement that, for many, is worse than any number of nails down a blackboard. Not on account of the coffee – most of us drink Ventis aplenty these days – rather it’s the “can I get?”, three words that regularly top the list of British bugbears. Bugbears that are seen, so often, as thoroughly unwanted gifts from our American cousins.
In all my years in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner, the subject most guaranteed to rankle with our viewers is the presence of Americanisms in the dictionary. It’s horrible, the emails cry, the wrong kind of English – an impure, degenerate impostor that should be banished from Oxford’s venerable pages for ever. The only answer to “Can I get?”, it seems, is a definitive “No”.
Groans such as these leave me baffled. My replies, once quiet and balanced, have become louder over the years, fuelled by my knowledge of a single fact. I love American English, not least because a lot of it was ours to begin with. Indeed, many Americanisms can be found in the works of William Shakespeare.
Counting down the table of the greatest offenders of British sensibility, I’ll start with spelling. The main differences are obvious – most will point to “honor” or “color” as proof that Americans drop vowels at the first opportunity. And yet the very versions that provoke such horror today were, more often than not, alive and well in British English long before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail. The spelling “honor” is found some 500 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, 100 times more than “honour”. In the same works, “humor” outscores “humour”, and “center” pips “centre” with ease (“rumour” does have the edge over “rumor”, to be fair, but only by a difference of two).
Those “American” versions were promoted by the influential lexicographer Noah Webster, who strove for simplicity – and it’s hard to deny that “center” makes more sense phonetically than “centre”. When so much of English orthography has been formed by serendipity (we owe the B in “doubt” to medieval scholars who wanted to show off their Latin knowledge; the H in “ghost” is down to the Flemish printers used by William Caxton), it seems churlish to argue that the British way is better. As for the spelling that invites the loudest snarl: realize rather than realise, I opt for the Z every time. It’s the Oxford way, preferred because -ize sits closer to the Greek in which these words are rooted. Americans, it seems, even know a thing or two about etymology.
I mention Shakespeare because, for so many of us, he is the shining example of English done well, and done properly. It may be a surprise then to find that in his works we find much of the phraseology that we today blame exclusively on American English – “All that Henry the Fifth had gotten”, for example, and “Gentlemen all, I do suspect this trash to be a party in this injury”. I’m not sure the Bard would be particularly averse to “can I get?” either, having himself used “get” in similar formulations more than once.
I must mention “verbing”, the turning of nouns into verbs that smacks of jargon, producing such (admittedly) ridiculous horrors as “podiuming”, “flipcharting” and “solutioning”. It’s a practice we automatically lay at the supersized feet of North America. Yet many of our greatest writers loved to spin a verb. Keats wrote of turtles that cooingly “passion their voices” – much to the horror of his critics – while Shakespeare again (“grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle”) came up with “friended” long before Facebook fancied a go.
But what about vocabulary that really is American? Most of us will have heard funny tales of mishaps with pants and fannies (linguistically speaking), but to focus on sidewalks and faucets, cookies and malls is to disregard some of the joyous verve of American inventions like “blizzard”, “skedaddle”, “finagle”, and “highfalutin”.
The million-dollar question is why we resent Americanisms so much. From the start, English has happily absorbed words from every tongue it’s encountered. No one today objects to “sugar” (Arabic), “anoraks” (Inuit) or “pyjamas” (Urdu). Is it a vestige of colonial imperialism, the result of a long-held grudge towards a superpower?
The voices thundering across the Atlantic at the moment are not to everyone’s taste. But it’s time to let our stiff upper lip relax a little, and revel in the capacity of our language to embrace new influences and emerge triumphant. “Stiff upper lip”, as it happens, that quintessentially British phrase, was another gift to our language from American shores. Perhaps it’s time to give up the fight.
Americanize! with Susie Dent is on Radio 4 at 10.30am on Saturday 20 May