Bits of Books - Books by Title

The Prodigal Tongue:

The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English

Lynne Murphy

(NY Times)

More books on Words

It's not a vacation, but a holiday; not an apartment, but a flat. It's ring my mobile instead of 'call my cellphone,' cheers for thanks, or brilliant instead of great!

In recent years, so-called Anglocreep, the subtle adoption of British phrases into everyday American speech, has become a tic (or some might say an annoyance) among star-spangled strivers, particularly coastal creative types - otherwise known as the 'chattering classes', to invoke another Britishism.

Is it a shameless bid for status or just a sign that Americans are suffering a collective 'Downton Abbey' hangover?

Lynne Murphy, an American professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex in England, tackles this in her new book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. Here is her takeaway (and no, Anglophiles, we're not talking about takeout dinner!).

Question: Is Anglocreep a sign that some Americans still suffer from an inferiority complex?

There's this rumor among English people that if you go to America, you'll be granted 15 extra I.Q. points just by talking in your English accent. That's not quite how it works, but using British words, even slang, can make Americans feel or sound more sophisticated or cosmopolitan, because they're marking themselves as people who see or know the world beyond the U.S.

Is it pretentious for Americans to throw around words like 'toffs' and 'fortnight'?

Some Britishisms are self-consciously adopted because they sound fun or cool or maybe give a new, cute way of saying something crude - like saying bum or bloody instead of more familiar words. But those are a visible minority of the Britishisms that come in.

Americans now 'vet' candidates and 'stand' for election and go on 'gap years' and 'book' tables at restaurants and buy 'bespoke' suits. Are Americans who say those words aware that they are British? I'm not sure they always are.

In recent decades there have been a lot of British writers and editors in East Coast journalism and in Hollywood. Those British words are then read out in American voices, and so can slip into American English more naturally, without that feeling of affecting 'Britishness.'

Where do you see the big influx of Britishisms lately?

A big one was Harry Potter. The first book was famously translated into American, but after that the fans demanded as little Americanization as possible. And I think that opened the door for new American fandoms of things like the revamped Doctor Who and Sherlock.

You've also got the ones in front of the camera, like James Corden or John Oliver, and Britishness is part of their brand. CBS reportedly tried to manage that a bit with Corden, approving of him using words like 'squiffy' (to mean tipsy) or 'shag' - the kinds of words that sound a bit Austin Powers, but not ones that they said might confuse.

What are the hot Britishisms of the moment on these shores?

I see 'dodgy' quite a bit where you might once have seen 'fishy' or 'sketchy.' Another one is 'gutted,' to mean emotionally devastated. This week, people have tweeted photos of 'lift' for elevator on signs directing you to American ones. What’s funny about that one to me is that 'elevator' is an Americanism that some Brits feared was taking over in the 1960s. But no, 'lift' is still around, and it's trying to make American hotels and shopping centers sound cool or cosmopolitan now.

Is Anglocreep largely a New York thing?

New York definitely has it bad, but there's a fair amount of it in Washington and Boston too. One of the 'lift' elevators was in North Carolina. Historically, New England and the genteel South had a lot of interest in emulating England, which ties into the class system in those parts of the country - the rich would send their children 'back' to England for education. As you go more westward, there's more distance from Britain and fewer cultural ties to it, except in Utah, where the odd Britishism crops up because of British Mormons migrating there in the late 19th century. So, like the British, a Utahan might say 'if needs be' instead of 'if need be.'

What about the flip side? Are the British howling about 'Americreep'?

They sometimes talk about 'creep,' but they're more likely to talk about a 'flood.' British people generally don't go out of their way to adopt Americanisms; they tend to feel that Americanisms are thrust upon them. You have to remember, Brits watch a lot more American television and hear more American music than vice versa, so they hear a lot more American English than vice versa.

The top annoyances seem to be 'can I get', as in 'can I get a cappuccino?' and anything that can be classed as American management-speak. People are starting to complain about 'reach out' meaning 'to contact,' and I can't blame them on that one. Of course, in the 1930s, they were complaining about the Americanism 'to contact,' and now no one notices it's an import.

So nothing's changed since My Fair Lady, I take it. Britons still think American English is a foreign language.

The fear of American English taking over the world has been a constant theme in British society since the late 19th century. Sometimes it's couched with a worry that language in Britain is not as 'creative' or 'vital' as American - Virginia Woolf wrote about that.

One of my amusements is looking up variations of the phrase 'As the Americans say' in the U.K. parliamentary record to see which things Brits mark as usefully American ways of saying things. They're usually metaphorical expressions like 'wake-up call' or 'where the rubber meets the road' or 'mom and apple pie' to mean wholesome. They seem to enjoy the color that such phrases bring.

But there's a real worry about American words displacing good-old British words. Often, they don't remove British words, but create more nuances. Brits now talk about 'fries,' but they do so to mean skinny ones like you get at American fast-food restaurants. The traditional ones there, which are thick, are still called 'chips.'

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress