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 3 — Our American Cousins: British attitudes to American expressions
This part of the paper is based on a search of the OED2 database.
You will have noticed that several of the quotations in Part 2 didn’t simply refer to Americans or their activities in general; they referred specifically to the way Americans talk, or are thought to talk.
Notice especially the later quotations in Part 2, 1888 for THIN and 1890 for MAKE.
The apology is a very lame one—what our American cousins call ‘thin’.
Suppose..that I am a man, as our American cousins say, ‘on the make’—suppose that I have parliamentary ambitions.
They effectively say ‘I would never normally use an Americanism but it’s good enough for being abusive’.
This led me to search the OED database for other examples of similar expressions, not using our American cousins but doing a similar job. Here’s a list of the phrases searched:
What / as our American friends call / say
What Americans call / have called / would call / term / style
Which Americans have taken to using / call
As Americans would say / call / put it
Termed in America
The Yankees: as / what ~ call / say
What the Americans call / term
Americans..as they call it
As the Americans…
Looking at the gap between the word’s first appearance in the US and the first British comment, apart from the 31 cases where the British comment is the first use, the average gap, both for ones now assimilated into the common core and those not assimilated is 30 years. If you add in those of the ‘first use’ cases that are now assimilated the gap comes down to 25 years.
A Of US origin but not now felt to be US (33), average gap 30 years
B still felt to be US (24) average 29 years
C asserted to be US but not (10)
D assertion of US origin is the first or only quotation (like canoodle) (31)
E more complicated cases (7)
F terms limited to specific US use (8)
G rare, obsolete, historical terms still not felt to be British (23)
A. Of US origin, but not now felt to be US (subjective judgement)
Gap in years
Leaning over backward
Take the back seat
Contacts (= people one gets in contact with)
0 (= 1st US)
Junkets (= free trips)
A mixer (drink)
On the ball
Average gap in years
B. Familiar terms, still felt by British speakers to be US (where sufficiently familiar)
Gap in years
A lead-pipe cinch
A line (= a queue)
Caught with one’s pants down
Strictly for the birds
Rocks (= ice)
How the cookie crumbles
The big drink
With a punch
Quite a place
To reach (REACH v.1 12f: jump to a conclusion)
Up a tree
C. Not of US origin, according to OED2, but asserted to be so in quotation
First date in OED2
A good time of it
Chintz / chinch (= flea)
We had to do it
Researched (of a book)
D. Where the quotation asserting US origin is the first or only quotation
Spoiling for a fight
Trouble (= festivities)
Frame (= thin animal)
A Mr Fixit
Try it on a dog
A whale of a good time
On the back burner
A trifle previous
E. More complicated cases
vulgar / dialect
not felt to be US
dialect or U.S.
not felt to be US
dialect, reintroduced from U.S.
Rare (of meat)
e19c Brit, l19c US
felt to be US
Sick to my stomach
not US in 19c
felt to be US
not originally US
now felt to be US
Not labelled US, but 1st quot. US
not felt to be US
*1868 in Sat. Rev. (1869) 30 Jan., I gave her what some American friends call ‘a spanking’, sharp, short and effectual. 1885 G. A. Sala Let. in Queen 26 Sept. 307/3 The American lady doctor‥suggested ‘spanking’ all round as a cure for the evil.
F. Terms limited to specifically US fauna, institutions, etc.
Jumbo (= lifting gear)
Barber (= cold wind)
G. Rare, obsolete, historical terms that would still be felt to be alien or nonstandard, and are of US origin
Cop a plea
A jump off
Freezing to him
Get (= move fast)
Agony piled high
Keep myself ‘posted up’
Let’s now consider who some of the commentators are. The noticers and borrowers include some prominent names from Byron to H. G. Wells and of course Winston Churchill. So for example:
1812 Southey in Q. Rev. VIII. 320 That, to borrow a trans-atlantic term, may truly be called a lengthy work.
1827 Scott Chronicles of the Canongate Introd. Ii, The style of my grandsire..was rather lengthy, as our American friends say.
1831 Scott Jrnl. Progressing, as the transatlantics say.
1814 Byron Diary ‘I guess now’ (as the Yankees say).
1826 Scott Jrnl. I guess (as Mathews makes his Yankees say).
1969 E. Ambler Intercom Conspiracy (1970) ii. 46 He has what our American friends call a drinking problem. Not an alcoholic, but certainly a heavy drinker.
What does this show?
We need to be careful with the evidence: OED editors would be expected to be seeking out references to US English. But nonetheless there is a notable dearth of US quotations referring to British usage.
- A process of borrowing and highly successful assimilation of US expressions into British English
- British writers have been very aware of US language at all times.
- Ambivalence about whether to make use of the lexical wealth of the nouveau-riche self-made cousin (see more below)
- They sometimes got it wrong!
We don’t seem to find a reciprocal awareness across the Atlantic. Searching OED2 for the following phrases produced some results but none showing Americans describing British locutions:
What the British
Which the British
What in England
As the British
Termed in British
In Britain near called
Here’s one example of Americans’ ideas of British usage:
1975 L. Trilling in Times Lit. Suppl. (1976) 5 Mar. 250/4 Was she [sc. Jane Austen] perhaps to be thought of as nothing more than a good read?‥ Now that we have before us that British locution, which Americans have lately taken to using, the question might be asked why the phrase should have come to express so much force of irony and condescension.
But in fact this expression was well established in America and used, e.g. by Lowell:
1870 Lowell Stud. Wind. 39 A good solid read‥into the small hours.
So perhaps American awareness and adoption of Briticisms is at altogether a lower pitch?