If you don’t mind, darling, we’ll keep on improving the English language

Language in Britain is evolving and Americans are being blamed for what many consider to be abuses of the English language. But I have created a list of words and phrases that suggests Brits don’t always know best when it comes to their native tongue.

I have met many people during my career who have complained about “Americanisms” in the English language.

As a Canadian living in the UK, I am often corrected by my British peers when I use certain phrases. There are language choices that seem to annoy Brits, particularly writers. One lives “in” a road, not “on” it, I’m told, and one does something “at” the weekend not “on” the weekend.

I often describe going somewhere “a few blocks away”, when blocks are not really a feature of the British city. Like many people from North America, I line up for things instead of queue, use periods, not full-stops and go to the movies, not the cinema.

A BBC magazine story revealed that some of these “Americanisms” are getting under the skin of thousands of Brits. The story was prompted after a column by Matthew Engel about Americanisms became a hit with readers. But as many Americans, including Mark Liberman, have subsequently pointed out, some of the “American” phrases used in the column actually originated in the UK.

Writers of an Economist blog pointed out that Brits will use any excuse to take a shot at Americans,  and picking on language usage is one way to do this. The post, in the magazine’s vocabulary-themed Johnson blog, coined a new term - “anti-Americanisms”. The noun describes someone using false Americanisms to take a cheap, but ill-aimed transatlantic shot  at Americans.

Here, I’d like to return the favour, and take a good-natured shot at British parlance. Perhaps the following words are counter-anti-Americanisms?

1. One of my pet peeves is the British tendency to say: “He is sat over there.” I have found myself adopting the phrase, although I haven’t lost my hatred for it. It should be either “he is sitting over there” or, if you want to say something in the past tense, “he sat over there”.

2. If there is a show or gig, journalists tend to write that tickets are available “on the door”. Why not say “at the door”, surely the tickets are not physically on top of the door?

3. Washing-up liquid. I can’t believe this phrase exists. We don’t do “washing up” in North America, we do the dishes. The North American phrase probably sounds rotten to Brits, but at least we’re concise about it. We use “dish soap” to “do the dishes” and don’t have to mess around with the mouthful that is “washing-up liquid”. (On a related side-note, washing up without rinsing the soap off the dishes would be a clear faux pas in Canada, but it is acceptable here. My natural laziness has allowed me to adapt to this practice with some degree of ease).

4. Y’alright? I will occasionally use this phrase as a greeting, as it’s pointless to fight something so ingrained in UK culture, but I always feel like a phony. North Americans tend to say “are you alright?” if they believe something is genuinely wrong with someone, so it carries the weight of real concern. On the other hand, British people say “y’alright?” as a way of saying “hello” but they’re not genuinely asking if you’re OK. Incidently, my British husband found an equal degree of insincerity from Canadians asking “how are you?” when we lived in Canada. (Although I strongly believe Canadians are more likely to stop to hear the answer).

5.  Dual carriageway. I have a love-hate relationship with this phrase. It’s delightfully quaint, but it’s also seriously out-of-date. Brits don’t ride around in carriages any more than Americans ride around on horseback conquering the Wild West. It’s a two-lane road, or, at best, a two-lane motorway.

6. Fancy dress. I used to always associate the phrase “fancy dress” with an evening gown of some description. Brits, of course, associate the phrase with what in North America we call “dressing up”. (Many Canadians will remember Mr Dressup, I’m sure). It would make a lot more sense to me if the British phrase was “fantasy dress”.

There are hundreds of other phrases that I have come to know and love, of course, but that is for another post.

This particular post is just a reminder that just as some Brits think Americanisms are horrible, there are Americans and Canadians who wish some British phrases had died with Dickens.

A very thorough list of British phrases that are not well known in North America has been compiled by the wonderful folks at Wikipedia.

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2 Responses

  • Georgina Walker January 1, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Hi Rebecca

    This is wonderful. Born and lived in England all my live I cannot believe how strange the British language can be. I first came across Y’alright eight years ago. Our new neighbours always said it. Totally threw me. Why they couldn’t just say hi or hello. At least you don’t respond to a question and then realise they are not listening – or have even continued walking away. I still haven’t got used to it. I have noticed most people will respond when you greet them with a hello in the street or on a walk, but not so often when I say hi.
    When working at the star I could never get my head around tickets on the door. This just did not make sense and as for other Americanisms, well, we get so much American TV, films etc over hear I’m surprised they haven’t become quite natural to us.
    Unfortunately, the Brits are becoming very lazy in their speech and grammer.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Connop Price January 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks Georgina! I think it’s probably fair to say that influences from all over are changing the language here. But I didn’t realise that “Y’alright” was a fairly recent addition to the language. I wonder where it came from?

      Reply


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