Fight Americanisms?

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The verbal civil war: We need to touch base on Americanisms

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

Ah, the humble spell check. It has admirable goals, to correct the wanton traveller straying from the path of grammatical balance.

However, the word "traveller" used above is both correct and incorrect in the English language - it depends on whether you reside in the birthplace of the native tongue, or if you are from across the Atlantic.

George Bernard Shaw famously said, "England and America are two countries separated by the same language."

While the word processor, with its 'American English' default, is admonishing this writer for the use of "traveller" with two l's, the single letter was the creation of Noah Webster. He was, The Conversation argues, the "most effective individual in creating Americanisms" with his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language.

As well as transforming traveller to traveler, he replaced gaol, mould, honour, humour, masque, publick, and centre with jail, honor, humor, mask, public, and center.

The latter was more traditionally English than centre, with wordsmith William Shakespeare using "center" ten times in his plays, compared to one and only appearance of "centre".

The move from British English to American English could also be attributed to a former US president and his classmates at Harvard University. In the 1870s, the president of the university complained about the lax in grammatical discipline from his students, including Theodore Roosevelt:

"Bad spelling, incorrectness, as well as inelegance of expression in writing, ignorance of the simplest rules of punctuation are far from rare among young men otherwise well prepared for college studies."

There are many Americanisms that are not quite Americanisms, and are actually more purist to the original lexis. There are some that suggest the use of "trash" should be binned, but it is a load of rubbish: Shakespeare used it in 1604. Fall is also an English export, according to the Independent, while Autumn is a French import, from automne, which did not become standard English usage until the 18th century.

While the "stiff upper lip" is associated with the Englishman, it is American in origin, first appearing in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1815.

Borrowing from the American language is not a recent phenomena. Bob Nicholson, a historian of Victorian pop culture, notes that "racy Yankee slang has long invaded our language", with even the stuffy Victorians enjoying "the odd American skedaddle".

Before Hollywood, American words and phrases started to infiltrate the British vocabulary through their appearances in Victorian newspapers in the second half of the 19th century. The most popular newspapers in Britain received a significant percentage of content from across the Atlantic.

While some Americanisms have not stood the test of time, including "given him the mitten" for women getting rid of an unwanted admirer or "seen the elephant" (an early "bought the T-shirt"), there are many that have remained; including "I reckon", "I guess", "to get the hang of", "struck oil", "lame duck", and "cocktail".

More recently, the Americans are continuing to add and eventually replace words in the English language. The popularity of "marvellous" has decreased as a result of the emergence of "awesome". The usage of "marvellous" has fallen from 155 times per million words 20 years ago to just two times per million today, while "awesome" is uttered, on average, 72 times per one million words, the Daily Express reports.

All is not lost in this verbal civil war. Researchers have found that British English is evolving at a faster rate than its transatlantic counterpart, according to the Daily Mail.

Jonnie Robinson, curator of sociolinguists at the British Library, said: "British English and American English continue to be very distinct entities and the way both sets of speakers pronounce words continues to differ.

"But that doesn’t mean that British English speakers are sticking with traditional pronunciations while American English speakers come up with their own alternatives.

"In fact, in some cases it is the other way around. British English, for whatever reason, is innovating and changing while American English remains very conservative and traditional in its speech patterns."

As our American cousins, and indeed our British peers, like to say: "awesome!" We'll touch base on this another time.

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A pedant's guide to annoying Americanisms

Whisper it among native English speakers, but America's greatest influence on the world is perhaps its most widely-spoken language.

Creeping Americanism are the scourge of the British pedant, but the country's impact on English is undeniable.

In his book Mother Tongue, the author Bill Bryson noted that the influence of English on the world would be similar in scale to that of Portuguese if it wasn't for its use in America, but that doesn't stop some phrases from across the pond grating.

But how much of what we believe to be Americanisms are in fact long-forgotten words from Old English, and how much of our distaste is down to our own patronising attitudes?

To mark this 4th of July, we're taking a look at some of the examples of the States' influence on British English - the truly irksome, the undeniably useful, and some of the most common misconceptions about Americanisms.

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