The Britishisms Are Coming! So Are the Americanisms! Is Any Language Safe?

November 27, 2012 § 8 Comments

In his new book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, British historian Stuart Laycock claims that Britain has attacked more nations than any other. In fact, according to Laycock, Britain has “invaded, had some control over, or fought conflicts in the territory of something like 171 out of 193 UN member states in the world today (and maybe more).”

Of course, Britain’s incursions aren’t limited to the military variety. Who hasn’t heard of the British Invasion, when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to American shores? And now those sneaky Brits are at it again.

It’s Enough to Get One’s Knickers in a Twist

This time they’re assailing something as personal to us Americans as our English language. (Yes, yes, we originally got it from them, but we’ve made it our own.) The headlines speak for themselves:

We have Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, to thank for keeping track of the incursions. Such is his acumen, his work is sourced in each of the articles above. Yagoda’s blog, “Not One-Off Britishisms,” keeps track of the invasion as it occurs, one word and phrase at a time. Britishisms such as spot oncheekychippy, and have a look have already taken up residence within our borders, and it looks as if there are more to come, what with Harry PotterDowntown Abbey, and Doctor Who helping with the assault.

American Offensives and Offenses

In all fairness, though, as an American, I must admit that my country has done its fair share of invading over the years, militarily and culturally. And evidence suggests that this most recent verbal offensive by the British might actually be a counter offensive.

Take, for instance, the following from Alistair Cooke’s 1984 radio broadcast, Letter from America. The host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater for 20 years, Cooke had one foot planted firmly on each side of the Atlantic, being born in Lancashire and later becoming an American citizen. Letter from America ran for 58 years, and the BBC has just recently put over 900 of Cooke’s audio installments online.

The “letter” of note is “Americanisms,” in which Cooke discusses American words that have made the jump across the pond. There’s caucus and pow-wow (both of which came initially from American Indians) and hunky-doryparolescientist, and awful.

French and Chinese under Siege

French has not been immune to the encroachment of English, as well. (Granted, this isn’t all the fault of us Americans. Maybe we should consider it a joint invasion from the US and Britain.) An article in Les Echos gives several examples of Franglais in the French business world, which now “has French people talking about ‘addressing’ problems, ‘delivering’ solutions, attending ‘meetings’ and ‘workshops’ and ‘conf calls.'”

Finally, we can’t ignore the awful things that American English is doing to the Chinese language. According to Jin Zhao, of the blog Things You Don’t Know about China, online Chinese have latched onto Oh my Lady Gaga!—a phrase from the TV series Ugly Betty and a variation on the globally ubiquitous Oh my God. (Now there’s a phrase I wish we could put a stop to.) And then there’s “Chinglish” like geilivable, a combination of the Mandarin gei li, meaning “give” and “strength,” and the English adjective ending able. The result means something like “cool” or “impressive.”

Chinese innovators have also created new words completely out of English, such as antizen (from ant and citizen) for “college graduates who share a small apartment with several roommates, working hard, yet making little money,” and smilence, meaning “smiling silently” to show mutual agreement.

Is the government of China taking this lying down? Of course not. Two years ago, China’s People’s Daily Online reported that the General Administration of Press and Publication had declared a ban in official publications on geilivable and other forms of “abuse of foreign languages, including arbitrary use of English words; acronym mixing in Mandarin and coined half-English, half-Chinese terms that are intelligible to nobody.” “All these have seriously damaged to [sic] the purity of the Chinese language,” says People’s Daily, “and resulted in adverse social impacts to the harmonious and healthy cultural environment.”

Maybe It’s Nothing to Be Gobsmacked About

So what are we to do? What is the world to do? Maybe we can learn from Alistair Cooke, who says, given time, it will all be OK. “The invasion of Americanisms into Britain is never a problem to any generation born after a particular invasion,” he asserts, “since they don’t know they were invaded, but only to the generation that can see the invaders offshore.”

So no worries. Carry on.

(Stuart Laycock, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round To, History Press, 2012; Alistair Cooke, “Americanisms,” Letter from America, BBC Radio, February 24, 1984; Philippe Bertrand, “Franglais: How English is Ruining the French of the French,” Worldcrunch, July 21, 2012, translated from “Le Français, l’Anglais et Notre Crise d’Identité” Les Echos, July 19, 2012; Jin Zhao, “‘Oh My Lady Gaga! This Is So Geilivable!': Chinglish Entering Globish?” Things You Don’t Know about China, June 4, 2011; Li Mu, “Authorities Ban Mixed English Words ‘Ungelivable’ in Publications,” People’s Daily Online, December 21, 2010)

Thanks to Chris WoolfClark Boyd, and Patrick Cox of PRI’s The World, whose stories pointed me towards much of the the source material above. Well played! I say. Well played!

[photo: "250th Fort Necessity," by ryanophilly, used under a Creative Commons license]

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§ 8 Responses to The Britishisms Are Coming! So Are the Americanisms! Is Any Language Safe?

  • JL Walker says:

    Quite right! Thanks for the analysis and the links, it’s an interesting topic. I live in Italy, so I have lots of exposure to Britishisms (even though I’m American) and I have noticed these kinds of expressions in American sources on the internet recently. Spot on, indeed!

    • Craig says:

      Thanks. I learned a lot putting this together. For instance, there are a lot of Britishisms that we don’t think of as coming from Britain, such as “baby bump” and “wait for it . . . “. Who knew? Ciao (Italianism?)

  • Ashley says:

    Love this post! Word sharing is such an interesting topic to me! It cracks me to hear Chinese people say “oh my Lady Gaga”, which they do quite often. And I’m with you on hating how common it is for them to say “oh my god”, because they don’t quite understand it. Thanks for all the information!

  • Jin Zhao says:

    Thanks for referencing to my blog post. Personally, I’m not too worried about it. I really don’t believe in any sort of “purity” in terms of language and culture. As long as language is used effectively in communicating ideas, and is appropriate for the context and the audience, it’s perfectly okay with me.

  • A thought-provoking piece – thank you. As an English teacher (from England…) I am always explaining to my students how language is not fixed – how it continually evolves. English has never been a ‘pure’ language – if such a thing exists – it’s a crazy, synonym-rich hotch-potch of Anglo-Saxon and Old German dialects, with plenty of Old Norse, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, German and Dutch all merrily mixed up together. And language flows both ways during an occupation… Plenty of our words come from the days of British Empire (pyjamas and bungalow are two of my favourite words from India, for example). I like the evolution of language – I find etymology fascinating – but I do object to ugliness. Ugly, clumsy, inelegant words and phrases upset me no matter where they come from, particularly when they usurp perfectly lovely words. In recent years the ugliest neologisms, in my opinion, have come not from a particular English-speaking country, but another realm altogether: the world of business.

    • I appreciate your input, especially since you’re an English English teacher. Interesting: I’ve never heard “hotch potch” before. On our side of the ocean it’s “hodge podge.” Thanks much.

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