Why we're speaking British

Blame Harry Potter and Tina Brown for our infatuation with Britspeak

Daniel Radcliff as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
(Image credit: Facebook/Harry Potter)

SPOT ON — IT'S just ludicrous!" snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. "You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on." And don't get him started on the phrase "chattering classes," with its overtones of a distinctly British class system.

But not everyone shares his revulsion at the drip, drip, drip of Britishisms, to use an American term, crossing the Atlantic. "I enjoy seeing them," says Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book How to Not Write Bad. "It's like a bird-watcher. If I find an American saying one, it makes my day!"

Last year Yagoda set up a blog dedicated to spotting the use of British terms in American English. So far he has found more than 150 — from "cheeky" to "chat up," via"sell-by date" and the "long game" an expression that appears to date back to 1856, and comes not from golf or chess but the card game whist. President Barack Obama has used the phrase in at least one speech. Yagoda notices changes in pronunciation too — for example, his students sometimes use "that sort of London glottal stop," dropping the T in words like "important" or "Manhattan."

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Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster, whose dictionaries are used by many American publishers and news organizations, agrees that more and more British words are entering the American vocabulary. Stamper is one of the powerful few who get to choose which words are included in the dictionary, as well as write their definitions.

One new entry into the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2012 was "gastropub" (a gentrified pub serving good food), which was first used, according to Stamper, in London's Evening Standard newspaper in 1996, and was first registered on American shores in 2000.

"The British pub is a very different critter from an American bar," she says, but bars with good beer and food are springing up in many cities in the U.S., and the British term is sometimes used to describe them.

"Twee," meaning excessively dainty or cute, is another "word of the moment," says Stamper, as is "metrosexual" — a well-groomed and fashion-conscious heterosexual man — which "took off like wildfire" after it was used in the American television series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. There was even a backlash against it — a sure sign, she says, that the word had "absolutely made its way into the American vernacular."

There has also been "a huge uptick," says Stamper, in the use of "ginger" as a way of describing someone with red hair. She sees this as clearly tied to the publication in the U.S. of the first Harry Potter book. Unlike in the U.K., there is no anti-ginger prejudice in the U.S., she says. Americans think of warm, comforting things like gingerbread. Dozens of words and phrases were changed for the American market, but "ginger" slipped through, as did "snog" (meaning "to kiss amorously"), though that has not proved so popular.

There are other Britishisms that have now become common, like "sell-by date." Americans use "expiration date" for the British "sell-by date," the date by which supermarket food must be sold. But sell-by date is increasingly used in the U.S. in a figurative sense; e.g., "That idea is well past its sell-by date."

Then there's "chat up," referring to flirtatious conversation, which really began to take off in the 1990s, says Stamper. Often you can't pinpoint why a word or phrase gets picked up, she says. "Chat up" is a good example of a Britishism that has "snuck in on cat's feet."

WE ARE NOT seeing a radical change to the American language, says Jesse Sheidlower, American editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary — rather a "very small, but noticeable," trend.

Bill Kretzschmar, professor of English at the University of Georgia, makes a similar point: that while the spike in use of some British terms may look dramatic, it is often because they are rising from a very low base. Most are used "very infrequently," he says.

And it is not so much the masses who use these terms, says Nunberg, as the educated elite. Journalists and other media types, like advertising agencies, are the worst offenders, in his view.

"The words trickle down rather than trickle up," he says. "It sounds 'trendy' — another borrowing we could use without — to use a British term. It just sounds kind of trans-Atlantic."

But the line between trendy and pretentious is a fine one, says Sheidlower.

Anyone who says "bespoke," as Americans sometimes do when referring to a custom-made suit, is just "showing off." But some British terms can be useful, he adds, filling in a gap where there is no direct equivalent in American English. He cites "one-off" — something that is done, or made, or that happens only once — as an example.

"To go missing" is another useful term, says Yagoda, as it is more nuanced, conveying a greater sense of uncertainty than the standard "to disappear." Its use climbed significantly in 2001, with the high-profile case of the missing intern Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C.

British TV shows like Top Gear, Doctor Who, and Downton Abbey may be another reason more British words are slipping in, says Yagoda, as well as the popularity (and easy access via the Internet) of British news sources such as The Guardian, The Economist, The Daily Mail, and the BBC. He also points to a number of British journalists who have risen to influential positions in the U.S., including Tina Brown — who has worked as editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek — and Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue.

"English for everybody is becoming more international," says Kretzschmar, who is also editor in chief of the Linguistics Atlas Project, which tracks spoken English. The use of "university," rather than "college" or "school," for example, may be favored by Americans to make sure they are understood outside the country. The same thing might be influencing a trend that Yagoda has spotted of Americans using the day, month, year format for dates — 26/9/12, rather than 9/26/12.

There is not so much an "on and off switch" between versions of English, says Kretzschmar, but more of a continuum, with the same words in existence in different places. Some words, often the more formal ones, were once common on both sides of the Atlantic, but dropped out of American English usage while remaining popular in Britain, says Yagoda: "amongst" (instead of among), "trousers"(instead of pants), and "fortnight"(two weeks) are examples.

And some words that Brits regard as typically American, including "candy," "the fall," and "diaper," were originally British, but dropped out of use in Britain between about 1850 and the early 1900s, says Stamper. "America has always welcomed words from all over," she says. "If it doesn't look conspicuously foreign, I don't think anyone questions. It's just English at that point." The word "gormless" (the best American equivalent is probably "clueless") is on the rise in the U.S., for example, says Stamper, but no one thinks of it as a British word. For some reason it sounds Southern to many American ears.

THERE WOULD HAVE been no difference between British and American English when the Pilgrims first crossed the Atlantic. It took time for the two to go their separate ways, a process given a jolt by Noah Webster, who published the first dictionary of American English in 1806, 30 years after the Declaration of Independence. Webster introduced the distinctive American spellings of words like "honour" (honor), "colour" (color), and "defence" (defense); he also included American words like "skunk" and "chowder."

"He wanted very much for this budding new nation to have its own language," says Stamper, whose Merriam-Webster dictionary is the modern-day version of Webster's work. "If [we were] not British, but American, we needed to have an American language as well."

These days, the "balance of payments" language-wise is very much skewed the other way, with Americanisms used far more in Britain than the other way around, says Nunberg. And though a few people do take umbrage at the use of British words in American English, they are in the minority, says Sheidlower. "In the U.K., the use of Americanisms is seen as a sign that culture is going to hell. But Americans think all British people are posh, so, aside from things that are fairly pretentious, no one would mind."

By Cordelia Hebblethwaite, BBC News. Reprinted with permission.

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