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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Damn Yankees

It infuriates me. My pulse rises. I can't stand it. It makes me cringe no end. Thoroughly disgusted. It makes me shudder. My teeth are on edge. I don't know how anything could be as annoying and lazy. It really irritates me. Makes me shiver with annoyance.  My worst horror. I can feel the rage rising. Hideous.

These are comments that recently appeared on the BBC's website. What is it that has so many British knickers in a twist, arousing such outrage and indignation? The phone hacking scandal? Some really significant injustice? No, it's the fact that people use the verb "turn", as in "He's turning 90", in reference to the celebration of a birthday. Or, even worse, shock horror, that people use the word ... I can hardly bring myself to type it.... "alphabetize". "Alphabetize"!! I mean really! What are they thinking??? "Put in alphabetical order" is so much more elegant and efficient. And as for... gasp... "train station"? Who could possibly prefer that to the superior and oh-so-snappier "railway station"? It's not as if we have "bus stations" and "car parks"... oh, wait a minute...

I am not kidding. These were three of the BBC's top 50 list of Americanisms (out of thousands) submitted by their audience, along with the seething comments of disparagement I listed. Whether they were in fact Americanisms or not didn't seem to matter. There is one law in linguistic fascism across this fair Commonwealth, and that is: if you dislike a word or phrase, it MUST be American. The corollary of this, equally strong, is:  if it's American, you MUST dislike it, and indeed your prejudice is something to wear proudly.  Unless of course it's a word like, oh I don't know, "computer", which maybe we'll put up with in spite of its undeniable nefarious US origin, for lack of something British (and better, it goes without saying).

What, you say that the first recorded evidence of someone using "turn" in reference to a birthday is Samuel Johnson's pal Hester Thrale in 1789? Never mind, I'm too busy grinding my teeth to hear your mild-mannered objection to my intemperate dislike.

Do not confuse me with facts, or even worse, history. I don't want to know that "oftentimes" dates, like "often", from the 14th century (not too many English-speaking Americans around then!), and that both supplanted "oft", which, oddly, no one is trying to assert is the "proper" word.  That "transportation", first used in a law passed under Henry VIII (that famous Yank), is older than "transport", and "expiration" -- used by Shakespeare --predates "expiry" by a good two centuries. "Period" and "full stop" both originated in the 16th century. These are just more examples of the well-documented phenomenon of words surviving in American English while British English has lost them.

"What kind of word is "gotten"?" asks Shuddering in Warrington. Well, actually, it's an older past participle of "get" (sort of like "forgotten", notice?) and you have no more right to be indignant about it than someone in Poughkeepsie has to upbraid the British about being so lazy as to shorten the past participle to "got".

"The one that always gets me is the American need to use the word bi-weekly when fortnightly would suffice just fine" is one condescending statement. Well, perhaps fortnightly would suffice.... if North Americans actually used the word "fortnight" and knew what it meant!!

It's really amazing, in view of this airy assumption of superiority and stream of vituperation, that the British have a reputation for, how can I put this delicately, arrogance. All the nice British people I know and love are clearly not writing to the BBC. Those who are should just accept the fact that the 61 million residents of their sceptred isle do not have a monopoly on English, and that 300 million Americans have just as much right to use the language as they do. And, news flash, there will be differences. How would the British react if an American broadcaster published comments like "I grind my teeth in fury when I hear someone say they were taken to hospital instead of to the hospital"? Some American usages will inevitably make their way across the pond. Saying "train station" instead of "railway station" is not the end of the world or of British civilization as we know it. Vive la différence!


  1. I had a Scottish girlfriend who used to say, 'My hair's needin' washed'. I found this strange ---- I didn't grind my teeth, however, but thought she really should have said, 'My hair needs to be washed.

  2. Ms. Barber,

    Such an interesting notion to freeze a language--a moving, living entity adapting to a changing world and to a changing human condition--by stringent "rules." I think that is the way to characterize such comments as those who get upset about "train station," et al. Yes, we have to have a central core of understanding of words and parts of speech but.... I think language is more...plastic, if you will, and malleable. As are people.

    I would love to see those folks in the American South where we have a dialect with cross currents of generations of English settlers [see David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed,] where we will run across Indian [First Nation] words daily, where you might could run across double modals [Scottish usage...8th century?], and your house and your neighbor's house sit "side by each." And so on.

    Anonymous's girlfriend might well have said around here: "My hair needs washed."

    Oh...do check out Pittsburghese.com: Yinz, there his girlfriend would have said her hair needs "warshed."

    Yinz? Is that English? Makes me want to grind my teeth. Any educated person would say "you all!"

    We have a wonderful language and we might would enjoy these little oddities. 24/7. IMHO.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.