Horrible Americanisms?

Posted by on November 30, 2009

© Stephen Coburn - Fotolia.comOne of our readers – Trauma Queen – made a good point about global Englishes when commenting on Sarah McKeown’s recent blog about the expression “I’m lovin’ it”. Her question:

Who decides what is “good” or “correct” English when the way it is spoken differs from country to country?

raises some tricky issues about the perceived status of the different varieties of English in the world. Not so long ago, there was a notion that “real” English (aka “Oxford English”, “BBC English” or “the Queen’s English”) was what British people spoke – and preferably middle- or upper-class Brits at that. Anything else was not quite “correct”. In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, some words from outside the UK were actually labelled Colonial. Among linguists and lexicographers, this idea is largely discredited, though even now the OED website can refer to “regionalisms”.

But as so often, the views of language experts and of the general public don’t necessarily coincide, and there are clear signs that linguistic imperialism is alive and well in the UK. Interestingly, though, very few people get worked up about the Englishes of India, Australia or West Africa. No: what British speakers love to hate is “Americanisms”. To quote one of the 450 or so examples of this word in our corpus:

What could have been a gripping tale about … the history of the Loch Ness legend was ruined for me by my literary pet hate : Americanisms.

The corpus also shows that, in a surprising number of cases, the word Americanism is modified by a disparaging adjective. The list includes:

absurd, awful, barmy, bloody, corrupt, disgusting, horrible, insidious, meaningless, nasty, unacceptable and vile

And a Google search for “horrible Americanism” yields a pretty good haul, including gems like this (discussed in an earlier blog post by Susan Jellis):

He … pulled me up for saying “Can I get an apple juice?” at Pizza Hut this afternoon. Leaving aside the “can” / “may” question, the whole “get” thing is yet another horrible Americanism which has insidiously crept into our beautiful language.

Err … whose beautiful language is that? The point, surely, is that – as a global language – English can’t really be said to “belong” to any one group of speakers, and denouncing American English (one of the largest and most influential varieties) as if it is some sort of aberration makes no sense at all.

The Macmillan Dictionary, by the way, has a set of 12 labels (such as AMERICAN, AUSTRALIAN, INDIAN, CARIBBEAN – and BRITISH) which it applies to words used mainly or exclusively by speakers from one particular part of the English-speaking world. Our coverage of World Englishes isn’t bad – but there’s no question that it would be even better if readers let us know about what we’ve missed. So please send in your ideas, or if you prefer, you can add any missing words to the Open Dictionary.

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Comments (22)
  • I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that American English is “one of the largest and most influential varieties” of English. That’s why we British English speakers love to hate Americanisms – because they are so pervasive.

    We especially love to hate them when they are found in an otherwise British context – “a gripping tale about … the history of the Loch Ness legend”, for example. It’s not so much linguistic imperialism as linguistic defensiveness (or insecurity?) – and it’s part of a broader cultural defensiveness. That’s my opinion, anyway.

    Posted by JD (The Engine Room) on 30th November, 2009
  • The Native Canadian peoples have a saying ‘Who can own a tree?’. The basic meaning being that a tree exists, it is simply ‘of the world’ and ownership is a moot point. Ownership means nothing to the tree, it will still continue to grow in whatever way nature determins.

    Of course someone can come along and chop it down, saw it into planks and claim ownership of the planks but then, it’s no longer a tree.

    Posted by Shane on 30th November, 2009
  • i love that. it’s so true! and it’s a perfect analogy for this dialogue.

    Posted by bunny on 30th November, 2009
  • There is a part in my that wickedly cries out to reintroduce that category of “Colonial,” if only because the “English” language is one of the last vestiges of empire. But the truth is that it is precisely the adaptability of English that has made it what it is, and folks forget that it truly is a bastard tongue made up from bits of Greek, Latin, French, German, Danish, Dutch, and so on. Why, it now contains American! The seeds of empire are sprouting nicely – linguistically speaking.

    Posted by Russell Cross on 30th November, 2009
  • Can anybody explain again why “get” in the phrase: “Can I get apple juice” sounds awkward to British ears?

    From the Compact OED
    get 1 come to have or hold; receive. 2 succeed in attaining, achieving, or experiencing; obtain.

    Posted by JPersico on 30th November, 2009
  • As an ex-pat who’s lived in the US for 15 years now, I think the answer is that in the UK you are more likely to ask for something using the phrase “Do you have…” or “Could I have…” rather than “Can I get…” I think I am now more likely to go to a bar and say “Can I get a beer?” than “Can I have a beer?” which may be a sign that I have finally gone native. So, in summary, I think it sounds odd because there is a “get/have” difference between US and UK English.

    Posted by Russell Cross on 30th November, 2009
  • I was born in Canada and lived there (and in the USA) for the first twenty-odd years of my life. Never once have I ever said ‘Can I get…(something)’. It has always sounded rude and wrong to me.

    A British thing that sounds wrong to my sensative North American ears is referring to someone thus-‘I think she is called Sue’. The use of ‘called’ here sounds wrong to me. ‘I think her name is Sue’ is how I would approach the same situation. However, the legendary Johnny Cash had a song titled ‘Boy Named Sue’. Even that sounds better than ‘called’. IMHO

    Posted by Shane on 1st December, 2009
  • Paul Simon wrote the song “Call me Al,” which did pretty well for him – and Chevy Chase, who appeared in the video that accompanied the song. For me, “called” sounds OK whereas “named” comes across as more formal. Still, I’m a Brit so maybe that’s the problem 😉

    Posted by Russell Cross on 1st December, 2009
  • @Russ

    Yep but that was a snippet of ‘When you call me, you can call me Al’. Different to saying ‘I think he’s called Al’.

    I love both PS and CC however. Christmas Vacation about to get its annual 20 viewings ’round my gaff. 😉

    Posted by Shane on 1st December, 2009
  • Hello,

    I know the insatiable ubiquitousness of ‘get’ can make u addicted to this verb, as a main verb (just get) or as a phrasal verb (the many sides of get: ‘get up, get over, get on, get of etc.). However I do feel that ‘get’ somehow saves us from the many downsides of ‘have’..

    cheers,

    raffaella

    Posted by Raffaella on 2nd December, 2009
  • My mother is British : I was taught “English English”. I am also French, live in France and teach English to French students. I must say that I, myself, have of course had to accept a change in the language as years go by. But being constantly in touch with people of different nationalities, I must acknowledge that most of them love the English traditional accent which they understand better and like to listen to. Also, there is something to say about spelling ; for instance the American tendency to cut out some letters (ex.colour vs color). This is getting worse with today’s “text messaging” habit. What will remain of the language in a hundred years ? I am just asking, not criticizing….

    Posted by Odile Lombard-Pelletier on 3rd December, 2009
  • I’m a teacher of English, not a native speaker of it. That should set the background for what I would like to say here. Refering to the most pervasive, influential and the largest version of English, maybe one explanation could be offered to be a minor part of the occurence. Some of us, learners of the beautiful language, may “get” the impression that some, or many, British people are rather intolerant or disproving when in contact with us, timid and humble, learners. Which in turn might put the Americans in our “favor” for their being generally more appreciative of one’s efforts.
    For me, any kind of variation is just wonderful material to be molded into what we need to convey our message. The problem lays in mastering it to a sufficient level… 🙂
    Greetings to all!

    Posted by Norbert Dąbkowski on 3rd December, 2009
  • When I was a kid my dad used to tell me about how much he loved Elvis. To him Elvis was on fire with talent and artistry and power. He said his dad used to block his ears and shake his head and say: What is that noise you’re listening to? That’s not music. His dad pretty much banned Elvis from being played in the house.
    As I got older and started blasting my own favourite tunes from my bedroom, I could just feel my dad holding back on his desire to say: Do you call THIS music? Sometimes he couldn’t contain himself he had to say it. I wonder at what point I will say the same thing to my kids.
    Anyway. I guess my point is:
    I wonder when in the 15th century the Middle English speakers started saying to each other: What is becoming of our language? (Except it would have been written differently). They would have seen: His soote shoures maken melody, and asked: ‘What happened to the ‘e’ in melodye??!! Oh here we go…’ (Except it would have been said differently).

    [The sweet showers making melody]

    Posted by Laine Cole on 3rd December, 2009
  • I`m from Canada and I teach English in China.
    I often point out to studetss that language is always in a state of flux. That is, that it is always changing. We don`t speak English now the way we did 500 years ago (Where art thoust from?) and we probably won`t speak English 500 years from now the same way we do now.
    With the concept of globalization and the rapid development of China, as an example, I`m sure we won`t. I even find myself talking “Chinglish” sometimes .(You come from where?) After being here for so long I sometimes question as to whether there is anything wrong with some of it since afterall the object of language is communication. Losing my kneejerk use of prepositions is also another corker.
    BTW. The use of “You come from where?” is short for “Where did you say you come from?” when asking for confirmation. In an initial exchange the correct sentence would be, “Where do you come from?” since in English we usually put the question words at the front of a sentence. It all has to do with front loading the important information at the start of a sentence.
    What really messes things up is variations. When you add “Where are you from?” what more often than not comes out is Q “Where are you come from?” A ” I am come from China.”
    The beat goes on.

    Posted by DJ on 3rd December, 2009
  • I want to thank the British for giving us a great language. We’ve improved it and modernized it for them.

    Posted by Mark on 4th December, 2009
  • These topics make me feel really good =)

    “In Canada we have enough to do keeping up with two spoken languages without trying to invent slang, so we just go right ahead and use English for literature, Scotch for sermons and American for conversation.” – Stephen Leacock

    artofwordsbiz.wordpress.com

    Posted by Viviana on 7th January, 2010
  • Canada must be strange – in most of the world ‘Scotch’ is a drink, not a language. Edward Drohan

    Posted by Edward Drohan on 6th March, 2010
  • One Americanism I love is Fall, a simpler and more evocative word than autumn.

    It’s worth stressing that Standard English is a dialect, albeit a very widespread and influential one. Its success stems from historical circumstance rather than inherent superiority. Moreover, there is no standard Standard English (as I recently wrote elsewhere).

    While it’s easy to denounce Americanisms (or Britishisms or Irishisms or any other foreign linguistic variety), it’s also a waste of time. For the most part, people can and will use whatever form of language they want. English belongs to everyone and to no one, and it’s all endlessly interweaving. “Hating on” certain geographical forms of it would seem to indicate, as JD remarks above, a kind of cultural defensiveness.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 10th March, 2010
  • The expression “I am come,” would actually have been the correct form a number of years ago, rather than “I have come” – just another example of how living languages change.

    Posted by ciaran moss on 15th August, 2010
  • What riles me is not so much Americanisms, but when American English is seen as the de facto standard.

    I work on a webapp for a startup based in Switzerland (webdoc.com). I write text for the interface of the editor. When I write ‘colour’, it always gets changed to ‘color’ before it goes out, because American English is perceived as the standard. We’re a European company, for ****’s sake!

    Anyyyywayyyy…

    Posted by stephband on 20th July, 2011
  • It sounds as though you need to tweak that program, to switch the default language from American to British English…. The topic of Americanisms has been in the news this week quite a bit – this BBC article from last week http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/14130942 – stirred up discussion (well, criticism really) amongst linguists,cf http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3271.
    With English becoming a lingua franca for more and more people around the world, differences between British and American English seem to be less and less important in my opinion.

    Posted by Kati on 20th July, 2011
  • […] and see if it was really a word. That probably doesn’t make sense as a speaker of American English, since we have no shame about such things, and anything you can render in print and put on the […]

    Posted by Quaffable - Beer I Drank on 3rd September, 2014
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