Britishisation of American English

Posted on by Mike Evans

There is little that irks British defenders of the English language more than Americanisms, which they see creeping insidiously into newspaper columns and everyday conversation. But bit by bit British English is invading America too.

This quote from Cordelia Hebblethwaite writing for the BBC today, touches some very touchy spots. I know I have many American readers and I also spend a lot of time reading American English because it dominates the tech world. And unlike many of my fellow countrymen I actually welcome new ways of saying things if they add to the language.

After all, English is a mongrel language which grows exponentially. Not only do we have American English but Indian English, Australian English, even Scottish English, Irish English and Welsh English. All differ and all conspire to entrench our tongue as the world's language.

Chattering classes

It isn't often, though, that we are reminded that British expressions are creeping into American speech, thanks to Harry Potter, the BBC and popular culture. I probably wouldn't even recognise them as émigrés because I don't think of them as particularly British: Spot on, will do, the chattering classes, cheeky, chat-up, sell-by date, do the washing-up, keen on (someone), to book (an hotel) or to move house. So far, though, I am glad to see "innit" hasn't appeared at the end of every American sentence, innit?

Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware, and author of the forthcoming book, How to Not Write Bad, has a website dedicated to spotting Britishisms.

Most of the time I just don't notice all this because British English has already moved much further towards American English than was the case in my youth. In some instances, though, British English is less formal than American English. I am more prone to write "can't" and "don't" in this blog, for instance, when Americans tend to use the stronger "do not" and "cannot".

Still and all, in common with many British English speakers, I find some American expressions bewildering. What, for instance, is "reaching out"? My tech support friends at Squarespace are always thanking me for "reaching out" to them, even though I only sent them an email. I know they mean well and are being polite, but it does sound ridiculous to my Anglo ears.

Excuse me, Sir

On the subject of politeness, I am always impressed by the exceeding politeness of Americans, even among strangers. I am not used to being being called "Sir" by all and sundry as happens in USA. I find it almost impossible to call anyone "Sir", and certainly not a stranger in the street. Americans probably think me rude because I cannot utter "Sir" or "Ma'm" when asking directions. I just can't, and probably cannot.

In Britain we might grudgingly use "Sir" if we were introduced to Prince Charles, or we might "ma'm" The Queen, but we wouldn't consider using such titles for anyone else (other than a soldier to an officer, a child to a schoolteacher or a waiter to a customer). I certainly wouldn't address David Cameron as "Sir" if I met him in the street. You would have thought we British would be more likely to use such titles but it isn't so. No, it is not so.

by Mike Evans, 27 September 2012

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