Style Q. & A.: Is British English Conquering America, or Vice Versa?


You’ve also got the ones in front of the camera, like James Corden or John Oliver, and Britishness is part of their brand. CBS reportedly tried to manage that a bit with Corden, approving of him using words like “squiffy” (to mean tipsy) or “shag” — the kinds of words that sound a bit Austin Powers, but not ones that they said might confuse.

What are the hot Britishisms of the moment on these shores?

I see “dodgy” quite a bit where you might once have seen “fishy” or “sketchy.” Another one is “gutted,” to mean emotionally devastated. This week, people have tweeted photos of “lift” for elevator on signs directing you to American ones. What’s funny about that one to me is that “elevator” is an Americanism that some Brits feared was taking over in the 1960s. But no, “lift” is still around, and it’s trying to make American hotels and shopping centers sound cool or cosmopolitan now.

Is Anglocreep largely a New York thing?

New York definitely has it bad, but there’s a fair amount of it in Washington and Boston too. One of the “lift” elevators was in North Carolina. Historically, New England and the genteel South had a lot of interest in emulating England, which ties into the class system in those parts of the country — the rich would send their children “back” to England for education. As you go more westward, there’s more distance from Britain and fewer cultural ties to it, except in Utah, where the odd Britishism crops up because of British Mormons migrating there in the late 19th century. So, like the British, a Utahan might say “if needs be” instead of “if need be.”

What about the flip side? Are the British howling about “Americreep”?

They sometimes talk about “creep,” but they’re more likely to talk about a “flood.” British people generally don’t go out of their way to adopt Americanisms; they tend to feel that Americanisms are thrust upon them. You have to remember, Brits watch a lot more American television and hear more American music than vice versa, so they hear a lot more American English than vice versa.

The top annoyances seem to be “can I get,” as in “can I get a cappuccino?” and anything that can be classed as American management-speak. People are starting to complain about “reach out” meaning “to contact,” and I can’t blame them on that one. Of course, in the 1930s, they were complaining about the Americanism “to contact,” and now no one notices it’s an import.

So nothing’s changed since “My Fair Lady,” I take it. Britons still think American English is a foreign language.

The fear of American English taking over the world has been a constant theme in British society since the late 19th century. Sometimes it’s couched with a worry that language in Britain is not as “creative” or “vital” as American — Virginia Woolf wrote about that.


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