Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
American English is Getting on Well, Thanks
Two weeks ago, the British writer Matthew Engel set off a trans-Atlantic ruckus by writing an opinion piece for the BBC online magazine entitled, "Why Do Some Americanisms Irritate People?" Engel's piece, along with a followup of reader peeves, attracted the attention of American language watchers. Lexicographer Grant Barrett had some pointed criticisms for Engel, which the BBC ran in diluted fashion. Here we present Barrett's unexpurgated response to Engel.
Using English in one's work no more qualifies one to write about the English language than having hair qualifies one to be a barber. It seems Matthew Engel has had a go with the pinking shears.
Let's get the provable, unquestionable facts out of the way: Most Americanisms that Engel names aren't particularly American or original to American English. Most of the ones submitted by readers aren't, either. Simple research using well-known trustworthy websites would have discovered that.
Also, his personal dislike for a handful of terms doesn't make them ungrammatical or contrary to good English. He simply has personal preferences as to how and when to use certain words, as we all do.
Engel has two main points. First, Americans are ruining English. "Overwhelming manifestation of American cultural power"! Americanisms are spies! They come in battalions! It's enough to puff a Yank up with pride.
We Americans lead at least two staggeringly expensive wars elsewhere in the world but with a few cost-free changes to the lexis we apparently have the British running in fear in the High Street. Soon we'll have Sainsbury's to ourselves! Our victory over English and the English is almost complete.
"The original version," is what Engel calls British English, which is like calling one's firstborn "the original child."
English is, in truth, a family: American English and British English are siblings from the same parentage, neither the parent of the other. Two siblings among many modern-day varieties.
But his complaints about American English don't matter. Despite the headline and some of Engel's framing, his second point is his main one.
"What I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe. ... We are letting British English wither."
The "our," in my opinion, is best thought of as the scribbling class that includes Engel.
Somewhere along the way the writing and thinking folks (on both sides of the Atlantic) have ceded most of the public conversation about language to the carpers, whiners and peevers. Worse, many of the scribbling class have become whingers themselves.
I know the complainers well, as they are among the listeners who direct more than 10,000 phone calls and emails a year to the national show about language I co-host here in the United States. We treat the complainers, a small but keyboard-happy minority, with tenderness and some concern. They're afflicted.
There's a remedy for that affliction.
It uses gut feelings about language as a point of enquiry rather than as an end. "I hate this word" is not productive but "Why do I hate this word?" is extraordinarily so.
Engel and the other elite complainers should be asking "why?" and then explaining what they discover. Why does it seem like someone's language is wrong? Why does the other person think it's right? Why does it seem it's being used more? What do the real linguists and lexicographers say about it? What do the aggregate data show?
In other words, they should be explaining what's happening in language instead of bitching about it.
On the radio show we encourage this tactic in our listeners. Some now do what amounts to basic fieldwork when they're annoyed by language. They ask themselves: Can I find more data about this? Are there patterns? Can I draw conclusions about the data and patterns? Some even keep a journal of their linguistic enquiries, much like one might keep a word list when reading.
Instead of peeving about supposed incorrect usage, they find themselves using better dictionaries, consulting better usage guides, and looking at cost-free high-quality online materials — such as language corpora — to figure it out.
At the very least, Mr. Engel, if you try this new approach, you'll find yourself double-checking your word origins.
If you had, you'd have found that in some cases the terms you warn against predate Americans and American influence. In others the history is so muddled that it can only be said that both Englishes conspired.
In closing, Dear Britain:
The mongrel bitch you gave us as a parting gift is getting along quite well. She seems to be fond of bringing every kind of critter home with her, raising them up as if they belonged, and turning them into the sort of good company that'll keep your feet warm on cold nights. Motley bunch, though! You wouldn't think a bulldog-husky-poodle mutt could train up a brood of raccoon kits and opossum joeys, but she's such a one.
She's now gravid to the point of collapse, so we'll likely have a few more pups to set aside for you soon. We think the daddy's a Chihuahua.
Sorry that last litter didn't work out to your liking. You can always refuse delivery on the next bunch. We'll be glad to take them back.
Grant Barrett is a radio announcer, editor and lexicographer. He co-hosts and co-produces an American public radio show about language, A Way with Words, http://waywordradio.org/. He's been a lexicographer for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Collins, and compiled and edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, as well as the Official Dictionary of Unofficial English. He is an officer of the American Dialect Society and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes online, and the Malaysia Star, and now works as an editor for voiceofsandiego.org. He lives in San Diego, California, with his linguist-lexicographer wife and their son.