Americanisms

I have been playing among the variations in our common language.

Fall/ Autumn is fascinating. Wikipedia says Fall was, originally, the English word in England, and “Autumn” superseded it. It is the time the leaves fall from the trees. “Autumn” is clearly related to the French “automne”, so our linguistic nationalism may be misdirected: we have abandoned our Anglo-Saxon heritage. But The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) dates “Autumn” to late middle English, before 1500, and “fall” in this sense to the middle 16th century. So, perhaps, the US stuck with its linguistic nationalism, but the English reverted to our beautiful French word. Why should we not decorate our language with French? There is no shame in it, now, because we are no longer forced to.

Pavement/ Sidewalk. “Sidewalk”, the place where you walk down the side of the street, is etymologically more sensible. The “pavement” was that part of the street at the side paved with stone, or concrete, or tarmac, different from the middle of the street, which was bare mud for the carts. Now the whole road is “paved”. But our word preserves the link to the past, and no-one has difficulty understanding it.

Fortnight. 14 days, a useful word rarely used in the US. Like “Septante” in Français canadien rather than soixante-dix. We could learn from each other.

Elevator/ Lift. But, you know what a lift is- don’t you? More serious for failure of communication is the difference between the ground floor and the first floor, which may or may not be the same thing.

Butt, Ass/ Bum, Arse, the more embarrassing something is the more euphemisms and dysphemisms we create for it. Both butt and bum are late middle English- used here first; ass and arse are both Old English, before 1066. Being linguistically nationalist- oh, yes- I cling to “arse” and “bum” and would deride and object to someoneFile:Andrew Stevovich oil painting, Bus Stop, 2001, 24" x 24" .jpg here using the alternative. And “Fanny” is something else entirely, talking of a man’s fanny is just weird. But for this word, the Army Rumour Service might have a different name.

Durex- in the US, a roll of cellophane and adhesive, like Sellotape; in the UK, a brand of condom. Leave a comment if you knew that. Still, better to keep repeating it, to avoid embarrassment.

Bangs/ fringe. I heard the word “bangs” and had no idea what it meant. Fall/ Autumn everyone knows, “bangs” is a word which may fail to communicate meaning. That is a problem.

On the trains, I understand Americans go to “track 1” rather than “platform 1”. I would not want to wait for a train on the track, I might get run over.

Period/ full stop. This was one of the fifty most objectionable to the British, according to the BBC. Either might fail to communicate on the other side of the pond, but why “Objectionable”? Time magazine says Americans could not care less. Or could care less. Or something. Objectionable, because we feel weaker, and we wish to maintain our independence. Indeed. Some of the objectionable words seem to be neologisms rather than Americanisms- “the old is better”, people say. Er, why?

What is the best word? The word which communicates an idea most clearly and elegantly. It is probably better to avoid using an americanism if it will cause apoplexy in the hearer and divert the discussion to the proper manner of communicating rather than the idea expressed, or if it will be misunderstood- which is a shame, if it really is the most expressive word.

Second picture copyright Andrew Stevovich.

19 thoughts on “Americanisms

  1. most of Europe uses ‘track’ rather than Platform, and ‘road’ is used for what we would call ‘track’ … since the railway (railroad in USA) was track with iron Gide ways it seems appropriate.

    More interesting is the use of the word Lieutenant – pronounced ‘Lieu’ in American with its French antecedent clear, we say ‘Left…’

    My favourite is ‘route’ or ‘rout’ in some part of America.

    As Oscar Wilde said ‘… the thing that divides the British and Americans is a common language’

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  2. How about “pissed” which Stateside means angry – as in, “pissed off” in the UK. Would have to say “drunk” or inebriated, if that was what I meant, or the US would just call me bad tempered.

    What a wonderful post, Clare. I was just this minute thinking about Autumn leaves. Coincidence?

    XXXX :-))

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  3. I’ve always believed in creating my own personal dialect. I mix languages regularly.
    It was the Victorians who tried to strip away French from the English language. Division is an important tool for Empires.
    Have you heard of ‘Llanito’? It’s what they speak in Gibraltar- quite humorous. It’s neither quite English nor Spanish. They say things like “El sospen” meaning The Sauce pan. 😀

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  4. What’s interesting about the period/full stop is that when journalists (or anyone really) would read information coming off a telegraph for someone to dictate, they would say “full stop” rather than period to indicate that a dot should go at the end of a sentence. Otherwise, the dictator might well write the word “period.”

    Language is fascinating.

    And to your point about bans/fringe, I worked with a camp counselor from England once and had no idea what fringe was until she showed me. 🙂 I figured fringe was just the leather we used to cut and hang off our jackets in the 1980s to be cool…

    Cheers to your Friday!

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  5. Re: fall/autumn. Sounds interesting. Also sounds like everyone is guessing about what word was first used where.

    I like pavement. And actually it is paved these days. The road may have been earlier but now they are have tarmac or concrete, so pavement is appropriate. I have a gripe with sidewalk. Pavement to me implies something constructed specifically. You can walk along the side of a country road – does that make it a sidewalk? No.

    Fortnight in Spain is quince días. (fifteen days ie saturday to saturday to saturday).

    I can live with elevator although I would never use it. Lift and elevate are pretty similar in terms of meaning.

    Arse is quintessentially British. I won’t get into the fanny. So to speak.

    I worked out bangs some time ago and thought it was quaint. Not that I would ever use it – and no idea of the origen. At least a fringe is just that.

    Platforms are for people, tracks are for trains. That is a very silly description and one Americans should revisit.

    I tend to use full point – (and semi point) – but that is a throwback to my print journalism days.

    I couldn’t understand (I could understand?) ‘I could care less’. I thought people had missed out the not, or meant they did care. Either way I was well confused.

    From this you will have worked out that I am not into Americanisation of British English. See, I shouldn’t even have to call it that. Do we refer to Canadian or Australian English? No, just English (ie US) and British English.

    There is something about morphing everything into the same that makes me cringe. So I will stick with my pavements and my arse.

    That first painting by Millet reminds me of Lord Leighton.

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    • Very like Lord Leighton, to my eye, too. Vaguely classical, not quite photo-realist, pretty. Nice enough.

      You did have a lot to say. I am flattered that you found it worthwhile to say it here. Your point on homogenising: yes, absolutely, I want my language to be Beautiful, and language which is always the same loses its tang. I would expect “English” to mean “English English” as well as “All English”, and “AmE” or “American English” to mean specifically American English, but as Sharechair pointed out, there are variations there; and why should “owt” or “nowt” be worth less than “anything” or “nothing”? Perhaps it depends where you say them.

      Thank you. Better sticking with your arse than anyone else’s.

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      • I like hugely different, and pre-Raphaelites is one school (I am lumping Leighton in with them). I love the OTT and exuberance of them. I worked at an art gallery at one point and one of the permanent curators was so dismissive of them 😦

        I only comment on posts that interest me. I may read, but if I have nowt to say, I won’t. Incidentally I don’t like it when people use ‘owt, nowt’ or any other dialect in a patronising fashion. I don’t say ‘hinny’ which is a Geordie term, even though I lived there for years. Mainly because I really can’t bear people taking my local language/dialect and abusing it. It is totally cringeworthy to hear someone trying to take off a Yorkshire accent and dialect who doesn’t come from there.

        The only other accent I have successfully been able to achieve is a Lancashire one – but hardly surprising is it? Not exactly far away.

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        • But there are so many different Yorkshire accents! So says Ian Macmillan, anyway.

          Can I use “owt” in a non-patronising fashion? Using it unselfconsciously, perhaps. Using “ought” to mean “anything” is archaic in Greater Mercia, but it still has the same meaning, I would be using it for effect.

          The Pre-Raphaelites sought realism, which is what Leighton avoided. Think “Christ in the House of his Parents” or “Ophelia”- she floats and is pretty, but she is Dead, the shadow of the Cross is over the child. Leighton went for pretty-pretty classicism, afaik. PRB painting seems pretty to us now, after, say, George Grosz, but not at the time. I do love PRB, and Evelyn de Morgan.

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