Thursday, December 16, 2010

Americanisms, Britishisms, and History

Randall Stephens

I approve Jefferson's word 'belittle' and hope it will be incorporated into our American DictionariesWe ought to have an American Dictionary: after which I should be willing to lay a tax of an eagle a volume upon all English Dictionaries that should ever be imported. -John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 1812

Jan Freeman recently wrote about British vs. American usage in the Boston Globe. "Just last month," she noted, "the Guardian’s David Marsh devoted his Mind Your Language blog to readers’ complaints about 'ugly Americanisms.' 'Recent examples include pony up, mojo, sledding, duke it out, brownstones and suck,' said one correspondent." I'd throw in dude as well.

Over at the Daily Mail, others complained about creeping Americanisms like "autopsy for post-mortem; burglarized instead of burgled; filling out forms instead of filling them in; fries for chips; chips for crisps; and food to go as opposed to take away." A tetchy lot, that.

It goes both ways, says Freeman. "Some Americans, it’s true, dislike some Britishisms — go missing and gobsmacked leap to mind—but few complainers, in my experience, object to (or even recognize) these terms as British. It’s their novelty or illogic or 'ugliness,' not their origin, that annoys."

I like Americanisms. I'll never say that so and so went "in hospital." I'll probably also never utter phrases like: "He’s doing my head in, he is"; "Know what I mean?"; or "Take a pew."

All this talk about British and American usage made me reach for my old worn copy of Americanisms: A Dictionary of Selected Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford Mathews (Chicago, 1951, 1966). Language tells us something about the patchwork, polyglot quality of American history. America's peculiar words also shed light on westward expansion, national conflicts, political struggles, subcultures, and pastimes. (An interesting history class exercise might involve compiling a long list of words that are commonly used in the United States, which first appeared in dictionaries in the 19th century. Students could then track down the origins of the words.)

Mathews' dictionary includes Africanisms like "tabby," and a range of Native American and Mexican American words: tamale, incommunicado, schenectady, scuppaug . . .

Here's a collection of interesting entries.

Now I just have to figure out how to slip "skunkery" into a casual conversation with a Brit.


Unknown said...

Cool! And then there's "ABSQUATULATE, to run away, or to abscond; a hybrid American expression, from the Latin ab, and "squat," to settle." Fron Hotten's Slang Dictionary, 1865. ( )

Lisa Clark Diller said...

In the spirit of the Daily Mail, I have had fun with my friends from NZ, Australia and the UK with thinking about the little quirky differences--we say sports (plural) and they say it 'sport' singular. We say 'math' (singular) they say it 'maths' plural.

Not so much fun as the entire creation of new words--but is there anyone better than the Australians for that??? Surely the Daily Mail can bemoan the demise of the English language more vociferously when analyzing the incredible way the Australians chop up, rearrange, and pseudo-invent words.

Chris Beneke said...

Good stuff. Thanks Randall. This might also be of interest: