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Totally awesome: Seven ways you use Americanisms every day

Why do Americans say eggplant and highway, rather than aubergine and motorway?

Why does your spellchecker keep insisting it's color not colour?

Michael Rosen was joined by writer Matthew Engel and linguist Dr Lynne Murphy to discuss the Americanisation of English.

Which American-English words have been adopted into British-English and what have we given back?

1. What are the key differences between American-English and British-English?

  • Spellings: have you ever been driven mad by your spellchecker constantly suggesting you actually meant to type color? The UK has kept the letter u in words like colour because it is preserving French aristocratic spellings. If you go back to the 16th century however, we didn't use to include the letter u. Shakespeare wrote honor rather than honour!
  • Pronunciation: it's said that the American accent is closer to Shakespearean English than modern day English. This is because Americans didn’t forget to pronounce the h in herb; its pronunciation in Britain is a fairly recent product of class warfare. Bruvva, invent’ry, bahth — changes in British pronunciation have been happening across the regions and social classes of the UK, and they have nothing to do with Americanisms.
  • Usage or meaning: biscuits and chips are words that are in use in both countries, but with different meanings.
  • Terminology: motorway and highway, for instance. The motorway was only invented after we separated our languages and American-English developed. So therefore anything to do with modern transport is likely to have different words. Eggplant and aubergine were both new to English in the mid-18th century. Americans use the slightly older English compound word, whilst the English looked to the French for aubergine. More people say zucchini in America because of the Italian influence. The Italians invented, or first grew, the zucchini. In British-English we use the French equivalent word courgette because English chefs tended to look to France for inspiration. There are a lot of American-English words that come from the influence of different cultures living in America, for example Americans say rutabaga from Swedish rather than swede, and arugula from an Italian dialect, rather than rocket.

2. The heavy influence of pop culture

Anything on film, TV and popular music is overwhelmingly influential and a lot of the entertainment we consume has been made in America. When you take the fads, crazes and catchphrases out of the equation, you are left with the words that stick in our language. Many fear that the accretion of American words means that we lose our own. The use of fortnight in the British language is being slowly replaced with the use of two weeks. Fortnight is not said in America whereas two weeks is. When the TV programmes and the films we’re watching aren’t using the word fortnight, we aren’t being exposed to it on a regular basis and therefore we’re now using the word less. Examples like this suggest that the country that has the dominant cultural force is the one that is influencing the language. But remember that even without new words coming in from other languages, old words can easily slip out of favour. Long ago the British used to say sennightseven nights, or weekly.

3. Staycation, wonk, bake-off: American words we've embraced

Dr Lynne Murphy has been looking at some of the most popular words that travel across the Atlantic in both directions in her blog Separated by a Common Language.

Bake-off is such a British institution now, but the term was actually invented by an American company.
  • Staycation was a word picked up by the British after the economic downturn. British candidates included holistay and home-iday and Broliday (British + holiday). The American coining staycation proved more popular, but again the meaning shifted. Americans (who have much less time off work) tend to use staycation for taking a break without leaving your own house, while Britons tend to use it for taking a holiday without going abroad.
  • Wonk made the headlines because Ed Miliband in 2012 proudly declared himself “a policy wonk”, a claim that needed translation for many British newspaper readers. Its meaning lies somewhere between the British words swot or boffin. The newspapers tended to use another Americanism to define it: geek.
  • Bake-off is such a British institution now, but in the U.S. it is called The Great British Baking Show. Not because Americans don't know the term bake-off, but because the term was invented by an American company, which still owns the trademark.

4. Ginger, gutted and some crude words: what have we given Americans?

  • Ginger as the colour of human or cat hair is new to American English. Partly popularized by a redhead-intolerant episode of South Park, its American success is broader because of the effect of Harry Potter’s friends, the Weasleys.
  • Gutted to mean ‘emotionally devastated’ is quite new to Americans, who use the more literal meaning ‘eviscerated’ and, by extension, physically emptied out (a gutted building). But it came in very handy for Democrats in the wake of the 2016 elections.
  • They're too rude to list here, but there are some rather crude British slang words that have been picked up by Americans because of their unique sound. However, for Americans they are a bit bleached of some of their crudeness because they are such fun to say.

5. Americanisms most frequently complained about

One of the most complained about Americanisms that has entered the English language in recent decades is: “Can I get…” For example: “Can I get a cinnamon bagel?” A lot of people blame the American TV series Friends for this, but Dr Lynne Murphy has worked out it appears only 30 times in more than 200 episodes. Another favourite bugbear for the British is management speak. Dr Lynne Murphy looked at a list of 20 most hated management terms and discovered that a quarter of them were originally British terms. 360-degree thinking and singing from the same hymn sheet – both British. Sorry. There is a tendancy to see what you look for with American-English and point the finger of blame in the wrong direction.

Nobody uses 'groovy' anymore. Words like this go through trend cycles - one generation will say it to death, the next will only use the word in deep irony.

6. Awesome trends

Some words are destined to change more than others. Euphemisms, for example: the way you talk about bodily functions is going to tend to change with the times. When you are using a euphemism too much, it starts to get dirtied, so you look for a new euphemism. Also, evaluative adjectives – nobody uses groovy anymore, not many people use marvellous, people are saying brilliant a lot less - are the kinds of words that go through cycles. The cycles tend to follow the pattern that what one generation strongly takes up, the next generation will only use in deep irony. Some American words become intertwined with trends in certain years, for example the word groovy was in heavy use back in the 1990s but has subsequently fallen out of use, or is used in an ironic way. Meanwhile, imported terms like Black Friday are picked up because of American trends adopted in to British culture.

7. Should we be totally worried?

Is America dominating the rest of the world with its language? The country certainly has a huge cultural clout worldwide. With a larger population and greater economic size it had a great influence throughout the 20th century. The future of the British language is bright though; it does still make its own new words. As we look to the future, British-English may be neither British nor American, because the language is used by so many people in so many countries worldwide. Dr Lynne Murphy talks about how the American Century is over and the World English century may be upon us in her blog.

For more information on Americanisms and Dr Lynne Murphy's work, read her blog: Separated by a Common Language.

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