Letters from the linguists: Americanizms in the UK
by Joe Franck
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” This was written by Oscar Wilde, way back in 1887. Since then, it seems that American English has been seeping its way across the Atlantic. Run – don’t walk from… the Americanisms! Here’s a very brief look at a few of the most common ones in the UK today and where they came from. Disclosure: for the purposes of the theme, I’m breaking some cherished Phrasee style guidelines and writing in good old-fashioned British English (sorry, ed.).
We’ll start with everyone’s favourite location: the office! If you want to “table something” in a meeting, you might mean you’ll talk about it at a later date. In the UK, however, it means something ever so slightly different – and by ever so slightly different, I mean the exact opposite. Putting something on the table here means it is immediately up for discussion, while that’s covered by “taking it off the table” in the USA. The prevalence of American English in international business means one should exercise extreme caution when using this phrase. The British sense is the earliest recorded, and there’s no definitive answer as to why this change occurred, so I’ll just say ’Murica!
Other Americanisms are somewhat easier to trace. “Riding shotgun” is uniquely American, as it harks back to the Wild West. A stagecoach travelling through dangerous territory would be protected by a man sitting up front next to the driver, on constant alert with shotgun in hand. Today, calling shotgun is used, by adults and kids alike, to reserve the front passenger seat of a car (firearm optional).
Similarly, the origin of “touching base” certainly isn’t British – it comes from baseball (the name’s a clue), where a runner must touch the base for a legal run. In this sense, it captures the supposed brevity of the meeting. It’s so ubiquitous here that it was voted the UK’s most annoying office jargon in 2018 for the second consecutive year.
And it’s not just the workplace that’s been linguistically invaded – we guzzle up Hollywood “movies” and TV shows with 26-episode “seasons”, so it’s no wonder many people now use “ATMs” rather than cash machines while “spilling the beans” about their recent “staycation” (which is admittedly better than ‘holistay’ or ‘home-iday’).
But this exchange isn’t completely one-sided. Thanks to popular British exports, such as Downton Abbey, James Corden and Gordon Ramsey, wonderful words like “bespoke” and “dodgy” are gaining traction in the US (especially in the north-east). It looks like we won’t be the only ones having to keep a “stiff upper lip” – a phrase which happens to be a 19th century American invention.
It’s quite popular to bemoan the Americanisation of English in the UK, but why? It’s language – it evolves, it changes. There’s no point being a stick in the mud about it, because you’ll inevitably get left behind. One of the greatest English writers of all time, William Shakespeare, invented literally hundreds of words. It’s what makes English such a rich and interesting language. Except for “I could care less”; that’s just plain wrong.
‘Letters from the linguists’ is a collection of thought-provoking articles about language and new technologies, contributed by Phrasee’s team of AI language technicians.
Phrasee’s language technicians program language generation frameworks to produce marketing copy that’s authentic to a brand’s voice. By combining art with science, and linguistics with artificial intelligence, they build custom language models that optimize marketing performance and drive more revenue for global brands.
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