Thursday, 5 August 2010

Those pesky Americanisms...

Views expressed in this post are not intended to cause offence! I'm not saying Americans should change the way they speak...

I used to have no fear that my English would be, well, corrupted. I lived in England; read British novels; watched so few films that there was no way American would creep into my speech, much less my spelling - perish the thought.

These days, I spend a lot of time communicating online with Americans and click through to links on US websites. I read American novels. I listen to seemingly endless podcasts about American politics. My internet browser is stuck on "US English" spellcheck. I'm writing a book with two dishy Americans in it. (Take that, Safari spellcheck. Dishy is more or less what you guys would call hot.) I even hang out, face to face, with a few real life Americans. And then, of course, there is the West Wing.

This morning, I was thinking about the month of January (who knows why - this was in the not-quite-awake stage of my day) and I suddenly realised: why am I pronouncing it JanuAry? What has happened in my brain? Eek. This invasion must be halted.

And then a friend of mine sent me a link to this fab, if somewhat grumpy, piece by a newspaper editor, and for the first and hopefully last time ever I found myself nodding vigorously when reading a Daily Telegraph article. (I hope you will not judge me.)

"Some Americanisms keep slipping in, usually when we are given agency copy to re-write and do an inadequate job on it. There is no such verb as “impacted”, and other American-style usages of nouns as verbs should be avoided (authored, gifted etc). Maneuver is not spelt that way in Britain. We do not have lawmakers: we might just about have legislators, but better still we have parliament. People do not live in their hometown; they live in their home town, or even better the place where they were born."

Here's the thing: we all know about words like pants. (Even though in the episode when Josh asks Donna is she's wearing the same pants as yesterday, my first instinct is always to wince in disgust.) But there are other, way more insidious phrases and grammar differences that creep in. There was one, right there: way more. And another: right there. I'm not sure I would have written either of those before my West Wing obsession.

So I'm starting a little blogpost, to be updated as I go along, probably more for my own benefit than anyone else's, so that in ten years' time when I'm married to Bradley Whitford and living in California I will remember how I used to speak.

I guess - I suppose
A couple people - a couple OF people
I just saw him - no, no, no! I spend hours bashing my students over the head with the difference between the past simple and the present perfect. By definition, if you've just seen him, then you've just seen him. Present prefect.
Way to... - okay, I love that expression, and I don't think we have an equivalent, do we, unless it's "what a great way to..."
movie - film, people! If you're British, it's a film!
I could care less - I think, surely, you mean "I couldn't care less"? If you could care less, then surely you care a little bit to start with, which is the opposite of what you're trying to say, isn't it? And yet if even Aaron Sorkin makes this mistake, it can't be a mistake at all. It must be an Americanism.
come see - come and see
stay-at-home mom - didn't we used to have our own phrase for this? I can't for the life of me me remember what it was, though - can you?
Gotten - you'd have thought I would never, ever say that. And yet, I heard myself, loud and clear.
Psyched for... - two for the price of one here. What you really mean is "excited about". Although my public-school teacher friend justifies it thus: It's my favourite Americanism: it combines excitement and nervous energy with confidence and a generally positive mental attitude, and I don't think that any other single English word conveys exactly the same meaning. :) And I think that's a pretty good argument. Erm, sorry, I mean quite a good argument. How do you translate "pretty" into British anyway?
Awww - shame on me for this one. I didn't even realise I was doing it - which is precisely my point on these cheeky Americanisms. The British spelling is Ahhhh.
Ugh. I always, always used to say, yuk. I'm not saying I don't prefer ugh. But, still.


Anonymous said...

The first time I heard Toby say, "I could care less," I had the same rant as you going on in my head!

Claire said...

Me too - particularly as Toby is the least likely person to make that kind of mistake. Josh says it too, a bit later "I could care less about your indignation right now"... It's so unlike Aaron Sorkin to make this mistake that it baffles me every time!

casablanc said...

What's truly alarming is the ever-growing tendency of Americans to misuse subject and object pronouns, e.g., "For him and I;" "Because her and her husband;" "To you and I;" etc. etc. It must be happening because grammar isn't taught in schools any more, but now I see it happening on good live TV shows with people who are old and educated enough to know better. Love your blog, Clare. Sorry you missed the BW Washington Post chat!

Claire said...

Thanks for the sympathy! :)

I think in a lot of cases it's overcompensation - people have had it drilled into them as children that they should say "I" not "Me",without all the necessary caveats... Who knows?

Thanks too for the encouragement! That's really nice to hear... Do we know each other out there in cyberspace?

casablanc said...

No, we don't (at least, not up til now), but here's what we have in common: we are both avid WW fans; BW is our favorite actor; we both love languages (I speak Spanish pretty well and am fair to middling at Portuguese); and we have a connection to Cambridge! (I live in New York, btw). How about that? Anyway, have enjoyed your WW fanfic for a long time.