Americanisms vs. Britishisms

Sep 29, 2011 by

In a recent posting, I’ve looked at the journalist Matthew Engel’s BBC piece on Americanisms in British English and discussed some of the fallacies found in that article. One of the points I made there is that

“rather than being the opening act in the drama of foreign cultural invasion, vocabulary migration is a mere symptom or side-effect of that invasion. Americanisms penetrating British English is a result — not a cause of — cultural penetration.”

But what about the reverse migration of culture and language, from Britain to America? Unlike the American culture, which is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web, British culture — and consequently, British ways of speaking — crosses the Atlantic in more subtle ways. For example, in America we don’t watch many original British films or TV shows (except for some sitcoms and mysteries on PBS); other films and TV shows are more often remade than shown in the original. For example, the British sitcom Coupling has been famously remade as Friends (there was also an attempt at a more authentic remake, as Coupling, but it didn’t seem to work out). Other US remakes of British shows include ABC’s Dancing with the Stars (based on the British series Strictly Come Dancing), TLC’s What not to wear, and a recent remake of BBC’s Prime suspect (starring Helen Mirren).

But while we don’t often hear British English “on the telly”, we do read it in newspapers and in online blogs. It is these sources that have been “blamed” for the penetration of Britishisms into American English, for example, by Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, in his article in Slate.

For example, he claims that the expression go missing came into American English through Helen Kennedy’s May 18, 2001 New York Daily News article on the disappearance of Chandra Levy. Another journalist, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is identified as the person who fueled the use of the run-up to in American English, by his use of this Britishism in September 2003, in connection with the US invasion of Iraq.

The British origin and the time of borrowing into American English can be deduced from Google Ngrams, which can measure the relative frequency with which a given word or phrase appears in various — British or American — corpora of books and periodicals. For example, the chart below shows that while the expression the run-up to has been used quite frequently in British English, its use in American English increased about 1,000 percent, with the sharpest rise between 2003 and 2005.

While many journalists contribute to the penetration of Britishisms into American English, they are not the only ones to blame. For example, the Spice Girls have been instrumental in popularizing posh (‘upper class’) and ginger (‘redhead’). The latter word has become even more popular in America because of the Harry Potter onslaught (because one of the main characters, Ron Weasley, is a ginger). The Harry Potter mania served as a conduit for a number of other Britishisms, documented on the Harry Potter Lexicon site.

Some Britishisms entering American English are vogue words and catchphrases, such as kerfuffle (‘disorder, confusion’), plonk (‘cheap wine’), twee (‘nauseatingly cute or precious’) and laddish (OED: ‘characterized by enjoyment of social drinking, sport and other activities considered to be male-oriented, by engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behavior regarded as irresponsible, sexist or boorish’); these words will probably not stay around for long.

Other words and phrases — including the run-up to and go missing, as well as one-off and chat up — made their way into American English because there was no American word/expression with just that very meaning. Yet other Britishisms cross the Atlantic even though they seem to have an exact U.S. equivalent: advert (=advertisement, ad), bits (=parts, as of film or text), called (=named), presenter (=a television host), chat show (=talk show), queue (=line) and full stop (=period, as in the punctuation mark).

Similarly, the existence of both appetizer and hors d’oeuvre (not to mention the amuse-bouche, with a slightly different meaning) has not prevented the borrowing of the word starter with the same meaning: ‘a dish or a drink taken to whet the appetite’. In fact, the use of starter in American English has soared: in 2008 it was used twice as often as appetizer, as can be seen from Ben Yagoda’s Google Ngram:

As for the meanings of appetizer and starter, according to Ben Yagoda:

“There exists in our country a perfectly good word for the smaller dish that is consumed before the main dish, and it’s appetizer. Starters are for people who wear hunting jackets with Turnbull & Asser ascots, which really isn’t appropriate dress at Famous Dave’s.”

However, a quick examination of my collection of (American-published) cookbooks and culinary magazines, as well as some restaurant menus, reveals that appetizers and starters may be developing a slight difference in meaning: the latter but not the former may include soups (although at least one book I found to have a category “Soups and Starters”, where the starters include dishes like gnocchi and hot sandwiches).

One way or another, it is pretty clear that Britishism have wormed their way into the American lexicon as much as the other way around. So there you have it.


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