Friday, 30 December 2016

Our American Cousins and their Lingo Part 4

This four-part posting is a more or less word-for-word version of a talk that was given on two relatively unacademic occasions, in July 1989 and (in a revised version) May 1990. It was written partly to entertain American visitors and partly to demonstrate the hitherto undreamt-of possibilities of searching the OED (OED2) electronically. It is now posted in response to a request. There are a few biographical and lexicographical inserts not in the original talk. The examples, searches, and numbers have not been corrected with reference either to OED Online (OED3) or to the vast range of other online resources which were not then available. Some of the opinions advanced might well be revised after 27 years.

Part 4 — Our American Cousins and the other cousins

The Geography of lexical growth in the English Language

An overview of the English vocabulary

OED—290,000 main entries; 616,500 word forms; even more lexical items. Quite a proportion of this is obsolete. Much of the remainder is a common central stock inherited by all varieties of English.


1891—a well-defined centre—no regions recognized—only ‘dialects’. One common core.

1991—No single centre—federation of regional Englishes.

It is difficult to gain a clear picture of the relative importance of regions from the OED because the well-defined centre approach meant making a distinction between British-English-only and common English including British English!

However, in the OED database, if you ask ‘how many words / senses labelled by particular regional labels are there?’:

13,809 are U.S. or N. Amer.

17,174 Scots
1,884 Austral.
564 N.Z.
474 S. Afr.
14,129 English dialect
23 Brit. (!)

We don’t know how many ‘British-only’ there really are, but are there likely to be more than 13,000?

But what about lexical spread?

Of the 13,000 or so US / N. Amer. items 3,271 are ‘orig. U.S. / N. Amer.’—i.e. they now have more general currency. (Compare ‘orig. Sc.’ = 104.)

Let’s get it clear. All regions innovate in vocabulary. The UK is as innovative as anywhere. But the US has 5x the population of the UK. I can’t prove it here and now but evidence seems strong that the common language’s main source of new vocabulary is US English, exported to the UK, Australia, etc.

The British ambivalence

The trouble is—we don’t like it! Many Brits were brought up with ‘American = bad’; ‘Oh, that’s American’ = enough said; verb. sap.; and nowhere more so than in language. Many would associate slang with American usage.

In fact of course there’s plenty of non-US slang about in Britain, e.g. ‘got a lot of bottle’, ‘that’s naff’, ‘up your chuff’, ‘bonking’ (or ‘being bonkers’).

This attitude isn’t a new one:

1836 Fraser’s Mag. XIII. 653 Guilty of all those Yankeeisms which distinguish the lout from the gentleman.

The British are dogged by a terrible ambivalemce. You can hear it over the years.

1793 Brit. Critic Nov. 286 We shall, at all times, with pleasure, receive from our transatlantic brethren real improvements of our common mother-tongue: but we shall hardly be induced to admit such phrases as that at p. 93—‘more lengthy’, for longer, or more diffuse.

It can be ironically put:

1873 C. G. Leland Egyptian Sketch-bk. 71 Their ‘hen-fruit’, as it is elegantly termed in America.

Here are some other examples:

1880 Spectator 3 Nov. 1437 The Americans have invented, and Englishmen are slowly adopting into their political vocabulary, a new word, intended to account for the otherwise unaccountable popularity of some politicians. They say they are ‘magnetic’.

1907 Westm. Gaz. 28 Aug. 2/3 ‘A Conservatively Cooked Green Vegetable’‥is one more example of the growing fashion, largely owing to American usage, and not least that of Wall Street, of employing the word ‘conservative’ in many relations to which politicians are‥unaccustomed.

1963 Guardian 8 Oct. 9/1 The Liverpool Sound‥put expressions like ‘it's the gear’ into the mouths of debs.‥ How long has it been since a native expression ousted a transatlantic jargon import like gear did to crazy and judy to chick?

1959 Times Lit. Suppl. 10 July 407/2 Here were the ‘better elements’ caught with their pants down, as Americans coarsely put it.

1965 Times Lit. Suppl. 25 Nov. 1059/2 The new American vulgarism of ‘cohort’ meaning ‘partner’.

1973   Listener 4 Jan. 7/3, I admire the brisk creativeness of American English. ‘Low profile’ is a perfectly vivid phrase for ‘conciliatory demeanour’.

But accuracy has varied:

1960   Aeroplane 99 145/2 Lately I've been collecting examples of dreadful Americanese. Such as unitized, retrofitted, heat treat, destruct button, [etc.].

[Unitized: is US, but first used in 1849; Retrofitted: the verb is US, but this is the first example; Heat-treat: the first example in OED2 is British; 1908 Destruct: is US (1958 in OED2).]

1871 D. G. Rossetti Let. 28 Oct. (1967) III. 1021  A little hamlet called Kelmscott, the nearest town to which is Lechlade,—that being however but a ‘one-eyed’ town as the Yankees say.

[This quotation is the first [still in OED3] for this sense, so there’s still no evidence that the use was originally U.S.]

The British have sometimes carried their prejudices a bit too far:

1892 Black & White 30 Jan. 135/2 President Harrison has at last ‘ultimated’ Chili, as the Americans will probably soon be saying

[This is the first example, and the only other example is from the Pall Mall Gazette (1898).]

1966 New Statesman 6 May 654/2 Gobbledygook is the defence of the American intellectual aware of the hostile mockery of the surrounding flatheads.

Max Beerbohm had a try at writing American English, and his attempt displays similar preconceptions; it shows English prejudices better than the real characteristics of American English. This is from Zuleika Dobson (1911; Penguin ed., 1952) viii. 98 (Mr Oover is an American who is studying at the University of Oxford):

Mr. Oover, during his year of residence, had been sorely tried by the quaint old English custom of not making public speeches after private dinners. It was with a deep sigh of satisfaction that he now rose to his feet.
‘Duke,’ he said in a low voice, which yet penetrated to every corner of the room, ‘I guess I am voicing these gentlemen when I say that your words show up your good heart, all the time. Your mentality, too, is bully, as we all predicate. One may say without exaggeration that your scholarly and social attainments are a by-word throughout the solar system, and be-yond. We rightly venerate you as our boss. Sir, we worship the ground you walk on. But we owe a duty to our own free and independent manhood. Sir, we worship the ground Miss Z. Dobson treads on. We have pegged out a claim right there. And from that location we aren’t to be budged — not for bob-nuts. We asseverate we squat — where — we — squat, come — what — will.

Tom Taylor did a better job!

The dilemma is this—we replenish our depleted linguistic stock from the overflowing bounty of our transatlantic benefactor, and we’re ashamed that we’re doing this instead of drawing on native resources.

Because this isn’t a very serious occasion I’m going to hazard a hypothesis, a sitting duck for those who are more learned than I am!
  1. British English—the literary variety—has been impoverished for a long time.
  2. The social and educational divisions prevent easy re-enrichment from the colloquial language—there’s an inhibition against using informal language, which is felt to be ‘bad’.
  3. American English has no such hang-ups about borrowing from folk usage; American English constantly enriches itself from folk and informal usage
  4. Hence, paradoxically, British English replenishes its vigour from folk roots via American English.

If I can stick my neck out a bit further. I think American literary English is far more vigorous than British because it can borrow without hangups and reproach from the informal language. British writing has to gather the rags of an outworn mandarin full-dress language that no longer works—it’s barred from a natural use of informal style.

Here is an example of tired, bookish British English prose and an example of vigorous, eclectic American prose. Both books published in 1965.

1. One rather fraught summer evening I persuaded Joe to take me to the pub : we were on very bad terms, being engaged in some fruitless dispute about a pound note that we had lent or not lent to a tiresome dud friend the week before. I was very annoyed with Joe, as I have a good memory, and I distinctly remembered the whole occasion: my temper, when we reached the pub, was not improved by the fact that George did not turn up. As the time for his usual arrival passed, I grew increasingly irritable, and in the end Joe flew into a rage and walked out and left me. I sat there grimly for five minutes, pretending to finish my drink, and then I got up to go. I cannot stand sitting in pubs by myself.

2. [His thesis] gave him the feeling that he was struggling uphill with a tremendous gray rock. Who the hell gave a damn about early Elizabethan trade policy and its social influences? It was so much easier to throw some records on the phonograph or look at a magazine, and a much better distraction from the thought of Ceci. Nevertheless he had written in letters to New England recently that he was finishing his thesis.
The metal desk-lamp hummed fluorescently as it shed its cold light on the stacks of index cards. Each one of them had been covered with scratches of ink by his own hand: words and numbers and bibliographical abbreviations. He stared at them through a mist of obsession.

Our own snobbery may have bankrupted our literary stock and caused us to depend on the wealth of our American cousins. I never tire of telling my compatriots that we can hardly speak a sentence without using what was once an Americanism.

Here are some ex-Americanisms in the letter R

Racketeer n. and v.
To rally round the flag
To be raring to——
To rate (= to be accorded)
Rat race
To rattle (= shake morale)
Rave (of a review)
Ready-mix adj.
Ready-mixed adj.
To go on record
Off the record
Ribbing (= teasing)
To take for a ride
Right now (= straightaway)
Ring (= commercial combo)
And here’s a classic example of a now universalized Americanism, commented upon by our friend George Augustus Sala:

‘To run is a term which is so purely a modern American locution, that I cannot let it pass without brief comment… You may ‘run’ anything—a railroad, a bank, a school, a newspaper,..or an administration. (G. A. Sala in Daily Telegraph (1864, 23 Dec.).

The first use of this is dated 1861 and labelled U.S. in OED2.

Our American Cousins: conclusion

Our American cousin has made his presence felt in our language. But what has happened to the phrase since the completion of OED2? A search of our paper quotation files yielded the information that ‘Our American Cousins’ has recently developed an ironically appropriate meaning. A collection of slips, beginning with John Le CarrĂ©’s Honourable Schoolboy (1977) gives evidence that ‘our American cousins’ or just ‘the cousins’, is used in British Secret Service jargon to mean: the CIA.

Linguistically speaking, Britain is not at the centre of the map any more. In the English-speaking family the cousins are perhaps (quoting W. S. Gilbert) to be reckoned up if not by dozens certainly by a dozen or more. I hope that the OED will soon rectify the picture by marking British-only uses. It will then be clearer that we are perhaps now the country cousins. However that may be, one thing is indisputable, as George Augustus Sala (again) said in 1880:

1880 G. A. Sala in Illustrated London News 18 Dec. 587 Surely the English language is the most receptive and most swiftly adoptive in the world.