Speed Reads

quite right

Americans are ruining the British understatement

The English understatement is perhaps not quite as popular as it used to be, The Times reports. Linguistics professor Paul Baker of Lancaster University claims that after analyzing 80 years of American and British English, it is evident that Brits are expressing the degree to which something is good or bad more like their counterparts across the Atlantic — that is, more directly. "If anything marks out the British linguistically, it's their baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise," writes Baker. "So 'the worst day ever' is 'things perhaps aren't quite as wonderful as they could be.'"

Baker observed that "boosters" like "frightfully" and "downtoners" like "quite" and "rather" are becoming less frequent in modern British English, a phenomenon he chalks up to "the large amount of American language that British people encounter through different forms of media." In addition to being a general threat to British national character at large, the demise of these "gradable adverbs" could even have comedic consequences. For example, Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, described the whole ordeal as "rather a serious evening."

On the other hand, perhaps the end of the understatement is a good thing: "One of the darkest days of the Korean War was when a battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment faced a division of Chinese troops — 650 men against 10,000. Only 40 escaped," writes The Times. "Some believe their fate was sealed because the U.S. general who could have pulled them out got a British report saying things were 'a bit sticky.'"