Bloody Hell

Growing numbers of Americans — Northeasterners, mostly — are affecting British slang, reports Alex Williams in The New York Times (10/11/12). These Brit-isms include cheers, brilliant, loo, mate, ring, mobile, flat, queue, and holiday, for instance. Several theories suggest the source of the trend, starting with the “age of BBC live-streams” and “televised imports like ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares‘ and ‘Doctor Who‘.” Newspapers such as The Guardian are “now considered must-reads for many Northeast Corridor influencers, via their iPad apps over ‘a coffee’.”

Then there are pop-culture figures like Ricky Gervais, Simon Cowell, Russell Brand and Adele, who somehow have infiltrated American vernacular in a way that the British Invasion bands of the 1960s did not (perhaps because the invaders were “too busy aping American rockabilly and blues artists”). Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter has his own theory: “We have a generation of, essentially, adults who grew up on Harry Potter … The British accent is just in our ears. We can hear Great Britain in a way that we couldn’t hear it even 10 years ago.”

Whether Brit lingo is a fad or an evolution of American English remains to be seen. Jesse Sheidlower, the American-born editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, says some words, like “twee” can transcend trendiness, for example, since no “suitable American synonym exists.” The thing is, Americans don’t always get it exactly right. "Americans say ‘cheers’ like Dick Van Dyke in ‘Mary Poppins,’ with too much enthusiasm," says Euan Rellie, an investment banker. "It must be delivered laconically,” he says. And then there’s the language barrier. Lynne Murphy, a linguist, notes that “chat up” means “flirting with the intention to bed” in Britain but “is used in the US to mean ‘talk to.’” Roger that.

1 comment

1 Peter Altschuler { 10.19.12 at 11:23 am }

Americans have a centuries-old inferiority complex about their language, and British accents (even lower class ones — the Geico gekko comes to mind) are seen as somehow better than any regional dialect we have. It’s nonsense, of course. American usage is far more concise than our UK counterparts — “Curb your dog – $25 fine” vs “Any person in charge of a dog who fouls the footway is liable to a fine of £5″ or “Duck!” as opposed to “Mind your head.” At its worst, we’ve adopted virtually nonsensical British idioms like “go missing” (“missing” is a state of being, not an action — you are missing; you don’t go there). Yet the English language is highly absorbant, soaking up words and phrases from everywhere. That explains why the average Romance language has one-third the number that English does. Still, there’s nothing wrong with our own terminology. If nothing else, we tend to know what it actually means.

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