Published on November 22, 2012 | by Elspeth Merry


Beware of the NOOBS

A seashore with 'Mind the gap' spelled out in rocks

British English seems to be making its way across the pond [Flickr]

These days, you can not turn on your television without being inundated with a skewed version of the English language known as ‘American English’. Some Brits feel that righteous tingling when they hear their American counterparts hollering, “dude, that’s awesome.” How very ineloquent, brazen Brits may say.

But apparently we have been whining about ‘Americanisms’ since 1781, when the term was in fact coined.  Yet, like every supposed movement, along comes a new fashion, and the Teenies have brought with it a British takeover. From The Royal Wedding, The Diamond Jubilee, London 2012, and not forgetting Downton Abbey, it seems that British is having a moment, and our lingo is translating into America’s vigilant eye.

Ginger is for gingerbread

‘Britishisms’ are cropping up all over America, with blogs dedicated to citing the British words creeping in on the American vernacular. There is something quite humorous about picturing a group of American dudes in a bar yelling, “I snogged her, absolutely spot on mate.” Maybe soon it will be hard to distinguish between your local pub in Brent Cross to your local bar in Minnesota.

The BBC online magazine recently ran a feature entitled, Britishisms and the Britishisation of American English, which cites different British phrases and words clambering into American dialect. Since Harry Potter, the words ginger and snog have managed to sneak through. As a ginger myself, this slightly horrifies me, but the site firmly states that there is no anti-ginger prejudice in the US: “Americans think of warm, comforting things like gingerbread.”

Definitely more patronising and probably a worse thought is that more phrases like sell-by date and chat up have had a sudden increase since the turn of the century, and some are making it into Merriam-Webster Dictionaries – used by American publishers and news organisations. Kory Stamper, associate editor for Merriam-Webster Dictionaries, agrees that more and more British words are entering the American vocabulary.

“Some Americans think that by saying ‘bloody’ everybody will assume that they have four more IQ points than everyone else.” Marshall MaCorcle

Gastropub – a term apparently coined in the London Evening Standard as a pub that serves food – has made it into the dictionary, with bars in the US that serve good food and beer taking on the name. Twee has also manifested its cutesy self, as amusing as it may seem; the land of big is best surely can’t count on anything being twee?

The article also mentions British phrases which have been on the increase: “do the washing up”, British for “wash the dishes”; “keen on/ keen to”, a British way of saying to like or be eager to; and bit, as in the best bit of a film, when Americans would usually say part.

As small and insignificant as these phrases may seem – you might not have even noticed the difference before – Americans are indeed becoming aware in vast numbers of this invasion of the British tongue. In response to the original article, the BBC followed up with a feature called 30 of your British words used by Americans, in which Americans and amused Brits listed the words that have been garnering up around the country.

In the article Marshall MaCorcle from Dallas, Texas, says he has been hearing the word bloody on a regular basis, stating: “There have been several instances where I’ve heard the term ‘bloody’ in normal conversation. I understand the urge to say it in certain situations, but I react with a jolt when I hear it. It just seems so… indecent.

When Americans try to use it, I think they’re trying to sound like Michael Caine. I feel it’s a deliberate contrivance to associate themselves with some perceived prestige in sounding British. Some Americans think that by saying ‘bloody’ everybody will assume that they have four more IQ points than everyone else. It’s understandable. And completely true.”

Sitting on your butt and sitting on your bum

Also quoted on the BBC website Jim Boyd, from Iowa, states that he has been hearing the word bum often: “I have seen an increasing use of ‘bum’ for a person’s backside here, both from local friends and from Americans on the web. While I am still perfectly fine with sitting on my butt, everyone else is getting all fancy talking about their bums.”

Whilst Jeff Bagshaw states that the word chav is starting to catch on with thanks to YouTube, “I overheard someone say, ‘Nah I’m not buying those sneakers man, they are so chavvy’ at a sports retailer.” As a Brit, this all seems extremely humorous – words that come naturally to me causing people to pontificate and stir overseas opinion. Those bloody chavvy bums! How very indecent of me.

“While I am still perfectly fine with sitting on my butt, everyone else is getting all fancy talking about their bums.” Jim Boyd

Further words on the list which trigger a grin are cheeky, fancy, gap year, gobsmacked, loo, knickers, twit, and even the crude and incredibly British shag has crossed over the Atlantic to scorn another population’s ears.

Ben Yagoda, an American writer and professor of journalism, has created a blog named Not One-Off Britishisms, dedicated to citing so-called ‘NOOBS’ rearing their ginger heads up and down the country in the media and on the street. So far, Yagoda has found more than 150 – from cheeky to rubbish, cock-up to man-with-a-van, and even crisps. Yagoda shows examples of where these words are being increasingly used, from shop windows to advertisements.

He also uses Google Ngram to show mathematically how the use of British words has increased. Google Ngram measures the relative frequency that a word or phrase appears in various corpora of books and periodicals, and one example shows British phrase ‘the run up to’ increasing about 1,000 per cent in American use, with the sharpest rise between 2003 and 2005.

Yagoda has also noticed changes in pronunciation too. For example, he states that sometimes his students use “that sort of London glottal stop”, dropping the T in words like ‘important’ or ‘Manhattan’.

But why is this happening? Yagoda states that British TV shows like Top Gear, Dr Who, and Downton Abbey may be one reason more British words are slipping through, as well as the popularity of British news sources such as The Guardian, The Economist, The Daily Mail and the BBC.

Yagoda also states that it could be to do with the number of British journalists rising to influential positions in the US, including Tina Brown, who has worked as editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Daily Beast, and Newsweek, as well as Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue. Also, with the position of the internet in modern society, access has never been so easy.

“We Americans and Brits speak the same language – most of the time – and, David, let me just say that I am chuffed to bits that you are here, and I am looking forward to a great natter.” Barack Obama

But for those British snobs who still look on American vocabulary as a lesser English, the BBC article on Britishisms states that some words we regard as typically American, including candy, the fall, and diaper, were originally British, but dropped out of usage in Britain between 1850 and the early 1900s.

Indeed, some English words were dropped by Americans – often more formal ones like amongst, trousers, and fortnight, as well as the correct spelling of words like colour to color and that annoying overuse of the letter z – the next time my computer corrects ‘realise’ to ‘realize’ I’ll have to take it up with higher powers.

The dispute over the right way to talk will always be a contentious but amusing subject, and is sure to stay at the butt of British and American jokes. Causing a storm in a very British teapot, right now it is trendy – to use another British idiom – to speak ‘British’, however polarising Americans may find it.

As Barack Obama said in a speech to David Cameron: “We Americans and Brits speak the same language – most of the time – and, David, let me just say that I am chuffed to bits that you are here, and I am looking forward to a great natter. I am confident that together, we will keep the relationship between our two great nations absolutely top notch.” Couldn’t have said it better myself Obama. Spiffing.


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