Some American words just seem more glamorous. Who wants to live in a flat, when they could make their home in an apartment instead? (Credit: Getty Images)
It’s often pointed out that plenty of these Americanisms were British English to begin with – we exported them, then imported them back. A commonly made case in point is ‘I guess’, which crops up in Chaucer. When Dr Johnson compiled his seminal 1755 dictionary, ‘gotten’ was still in use as a past participle of ‘get’. But as Engel points out, good old English is not goodnew English. Moreover, his beef isn’t really to do with authenticity; it’s more to do with our unthinking complicity. Because it’s not just the cookies and the closets, or even the garbage, it’s the insidiousness of it all. We’ve already reached the point where most of us can no longer tell whether a word is an Americanism or not. By 2120, he suggests, American English will have absorbed the British version entirely. As he puts it, “The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted”.
By 2120, Engel suggests, American English will have absorbed the British version entirely
The new Esperanto?
For more than half-a-dozen years (I almost wrote ‘more than a half-dozen’), I was a UK book columnist for Bloomberg News. Despite the nature of my beat, my identity as a Brit, and the organisation’s proudly global nature, I was required to write in American English. A cinch, thought I, but even at the end of my tenure, I was still bumping into words my editors deemed Briticisms. (‘Charabanc’, sure, but ‘fortnight’? That one was a minor revelation, suddenly explaining the many blank looks I’d received over the years from American friends.) Which is fair enough – Bloomberg is, after all, an American company. And yet I can’t help feeling a little retrospective resentment towards my British editors for all the Americanisms that I’ve got past them unquestioned. Likewise, when I published a book in America, I was excited to find out how it would read after it had been ‘Americanized’, but I’ve noticed it’s fast becoming the norm for American works to make it into print over here without so much as having a ‘z’ switched for an ‘s’ or a ‘u’ tacked on to an ‘o’. And if we can’t rely on our publishers to defend British English…
Like some hoity-toity club, language seems to operate on a one-in, one-out basis
None of this would matter if these imported words were augmenting our existing vocabulary. It’s impossible to have too many words, right? But like some hoity-toity club, language seems to operate on a one-in, one-out basis. Engel quotes researchers behind 2014’s Spoken British National Corpus, who found that the word ‘awesome’ is now used in conversation 72 times per million words. Marvellous, meanwhile, is used just twice per million – down from 155 times a mere 20 years earlier. ‘Cheerio’ and, yes, ‘fortnight’, are apparently staring at the same fate.
Even so, you might ask, is this really such a bad thing? When my grandfather returned home from the front in World War Two, he became a firm believer in the unifying powers of Esperanto. Along with Volapuk, Ekselsioro and Mondlingvo, that idealistic tongue came to nothing. American English is succeeding where it failed. But it’s hard not to feel that diminishing linguistic variance isn’t shrinking the world. Engel rues the way in which our national character is going the way of London’s ‘Manhattanized’ skyline, reticence yielding to self-promotion.