Blog Excerpts

Trans-Atlantic Peeving

The BBC Magazine ran a piece by Matthew Engel last week entitled, "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?" The Beeb then asked its readers to single out the American expressions they most despise, and in a followup gathered the top 50 peeves. The reader query generated a huge response — 1,295 comments were posted before the BBC closed down the comment section — but the most entertaining and incisive reactions came from language bloggers.

On Language Log, Mark Liberman pointed out that few of Engel's supposed "Americanisms" were first used in the United States:

In the end, this article never really tries to answer the question posed by its headline, "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?" Calling certain words ugly, pointless, or vile expresses the irritation, but hardly explains it. And the premise that these words are an alien intrusion is false more often than not.

...[I]t doesn't matter whether the "Americanisms" that "irritate people" are actually from America at all. The BBC News editors promise their readers, at the bottom of Mr. Engel's article, that "A selection of your Americanisms will be published later". As long as Mr. Engel can rally his compatriots to share the experience of communal irritation at alien linguistic intrusions — real or imaginary — he will have done his job.

When the top reader peeves were published, The Economist's Johnson blog offered commentary from Robert Lane Greene (an American correspondent for the magazine whose book You Are What You Speak was recently excerpted here):

Is "physicality" a real word?  Yes, first noted in a book published in London in 1827. 

Transportation. What's wrong with transport?  Nothing. What's wrong with transportation? Brits prefer "to orientate oneself", Americans prefer "to orient oneself". Not worse, just different.

What kind of word is "gotten"? It makes me shudder.  It is the original past participle, from old Norse getenn, now obsolete in English English, but surviving in America. Participial "got" is the newcomer.

"I'm good" for "I'm well". That'll do for a start.  That'll do what?  Linking verbs including "am" take adjectives, not adverbs. "I'm healthy," not "I'm healthily." There's nothing wrong with "I'm well", since "well" is also an adjective, but nothing wrong with "I'm good" either.

"Oftentimes" just makes me shiver with annoyance. Fortunately I've not noticed it over here yet.  The OED cites six hundred years of British usage of "oftentimes", including the King James Version and Wordsworth. 

"Hike" a price. Does that mean people who do that are hikers? No, hikers are ramblers!  And words sometimes have multiple meanings!

Going forward? If I do I shall collide with my keyboard.  If you cannot understand metaphorical language, colliding with your keyboard is the least of your worries.  A visit to the neurologist may be in order. 

The most annoying Americanism is "a million and a half" when it is clearly one and a half million! A million and a half is 1,000,000.5 where one and a half million is 1,500,000.   By that logic, could "one and a half million" not be 1 + 500,000, or 500,001?

Back on Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum had this to say:

As a Scottish-born long-time American citizen working in Edinburgh among numerous fellow Americans, and a frequent visitor to London and other UK cities, I should have seen it somewhere by now; but I have never encountered hostility to America, Americans, or Americanisms in ordinary everyday interactions in Britain. I mistakenly ordered a bagel to go yesterday (I should have said "to take away"), and nobody snarled. The furiously anti-American minority that the BBC has tapped into seem to keep their hatred of us and our speech tightly suppressed, letting it out only in blog comments and letters to the editor (particularly the Daily Telegraph, which is famous for its letters expressing how "appalled" people are by purported grammar errors, neologisms, etc.).

And on Separated by a Common Language, the go-to blog for British/American language differences, Lynne Murphy (an American expat teaching linguistics in the UK) explained why she finds the BBC piece "offensive":

The piece is driving a huge number of people to the BBC News website... As I type this, it is the 'most shared' piece on the site and the seventh most read (on a very big news day). But it is the journalistic equivalent of (orig. & mostly BrE) piss-poor reality television: let's get people to say things that might be controversial, and then we'll edit it into something that will get people arguing about which words to throw off the island. Two American views are printed as sidebars to the article; both, like the material in the article itself, are from readers who sent in comments. If we can call this journalism, it is completely passive journalism. Perhaps next we can have viewers' thoughts about whether it's going to rain tomorrow, rather than paying all those expensive weather forecasters. (Not to say that viewers' thoughts---or their photos of tornadoes---are never welcome on news program(me)s. That's why we have vox pops and letters to the editor. But putting up a lightly-moderated forum of people's gripes about language does not constitute news or journalism. We get those for free on the web already. We don't need our public broadcaster for that.)

One could understand commercial television or newspapers doing such things--the more viewers they recruit, the more their advertisers pay them. But this is the BBC. This is what I pay a television licen{s/c}e fee for. I want its online publications to live up to the organi{s/z}ation's charter to 'inform, educate and entertain'. And when they say 'entertain', I'd like it not to be throwing Christians to the lions or dwarf bowling or just letting people air their prejudices and ignorance with no (orig. AmE) reality check

Murphy dissects the first 25 in the list of 50 peeves, and promises to take on the second half of the list in the near future.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 21st 2011, 4:09 AM
Comment by: Peter K. (Lewes, East Sussex United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Much of the dislike of so called American English is the thinly disguised resentment towards today's US supremacy. My personal take on American English is largely positive. Noah Webster die the language a great service when he adopted sensible and logical spelling; take a simple example, 'center'. That spelling is logical, and yet pedants prefer 'centre'. I cannot see any logic in the French spelling. I could go on, but I will stop at 'gotte', a trult English word that simply fell out of use here, but which is common in the US. How much better than 'got'.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 5:15 AM
Comment by: Rentia P. (Cape Town South Africa)
The phrase 'Oh my God' has to be the most annoying in the world just because it seems to be the only phrase in America to express shock, disgust, happiness, etc. etc. Never mind that most of these people probably don't believe in a higher deity.
'Aluminum' caused a bit of a stir when I visited my American in-laws recently: I had to point out to my father-in-law that it does not follow the other elements with an -ium ending...
Thursday July 21st 2011, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Joseph M. G.
I agree with all but one of R. L. Greene's criticisms of the criticisms. The response "I'm good" to "How are you?" implies virtue, honor, suitability, pleasantness, wholesomeness, adequacy, competence, loyalty, etc., well before it implies healthfulness; whereas the response "I'm well, thanks," or "I'm fine, thanks" (the latter is preferred) deals directly with health. "I'm well" trumps "I'm good" every time.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Judith C. (Newport, OR)
I think it is all irrelevent. just enjoy people and their differences. It makes life interesting doesn't it?
Thursday July 21st 2011, 12:46 PM
Comment by: lattewoman (VA)
Language is a living thing until people stop speaking it. Living things change. There's no point in wishing they didn't. Following your own preference keeps your version alive a bit longer, and maybe (not likely) stem the tide in the new direction.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Sagar M.
I ain't going nowhere! when it should be anywhere.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 5:22 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
My voice correlates word by word with Ranita, P. and as well as with Judith C.
Non believers should avoid pronouncing the phrase OMG as they do not have any realization for higher deity.
However, "out of box" aptitude is more appropriate now for today's world and people's variety of dialect creates diversity in language also.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 6:28 PM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
Geoffrey and Lynne may have some identity problems aggravating their language problems. He is a "Scottish-born" American accusing the complainers of "hating us and our language." Geoff, I think it is a bit careless to call criticism, or even irritation "hatred." One's children can irritate us but we do not hate them. Born in Scotland, I believes, makes you a GB citizen for life, does it not? You do have a dog in this fight, but you don't know which side he fancies.

Similarly, Lynne is an American saying that the Beeb is "our broadcaster." Don't you mean "your broadcaster, Brits." like you mean "your Parliament", "your buses," "your police," and "your language?" Paying for something (like a TV license) doesn't make it "ours" anymore than does your bus fare, theater admission ticket, the Tate Modern, Hampton Court, or the wax museum.

Praps you meant to say "your broadcaster" and left off the Y. I certainly don't want to be too harsh, but when you decided to live in England, you undertook to observe their rules and accept the shortcomings of their culture (like socialized TV, short opening hours for pubs, subway trains closing at the end of the night, yobs, no means of self-defense, good roads, newly secure cell phones). I wouldn't complain too noticeably as a guest in a nation that owes you nothing.
Thursday July 21st 2011, 8:38 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
This merging of the two versions of our beautiful English language is inevitable. I do admit though, to being a pedant. I like our English/English way of spelling and some phrases DO irritate me i.e 'train station'? No its not its; railway station. I could go on... Its the way I was brought up, I think. Apart from that, I think that you are great.
I have a book which I recommend to you 'Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions', by Orin Hargraves. Look it out!!
Friday July 22nd 2011, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Eugenia R. (Metro-St. Louis, USA, MO)
As an American, I have always been fascinated by all things British. I've visited the UK several times and thoroughly enjoyed delving into the rich and varied history that is Great Britain. I also love the fact that our shared language, which is intrinsically the same, can be so very different at times. But that very simple type of diversity is what makes it so bloody much fun!

In response to Rentia P's comment:
"'Aluminum' caused a bit of a stir when I visited my American in-laws recently: I had to point out to my father-in-law that it does not follow the other elements with an -ium ending..."

Neither does platinum, tantalum or lanthanum. Do you say "platinium"? Of course not. The only obsessed-over one seems to be aluminum...

In response to Ferial E R's comment:
"...and some phrases DO irritate me i.e 'train station'? No its not its; railway station. I could go on..."

Sorry, but "railway station" makes no sense. It's a train station; it's where the trains arrive and depart, not the rails. Passengers embark and debark the trains, not the rails. Following this line of reasoning, instead of a "bus station", we should be calling it a "roadway station". /Uh, wait... what?

However, I am going to look up the book you recommended, as it sounds quite interesting, so thanks for that bit of info. :-)
Saturday July 23rd 2011, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I LOVE to hear the true Britons speak! The precise, peculiarly correct articulation, and the rat-ta-tat flow of those rapid shots of pellucid enunciated sound of human speech heard in no other known language. I look up to those speakers who so beautifully typify the speech patterns of those most truly "British".
By comparison, it sickens me to hear the sometimes almost unintelligible speech of our own American youth! All is not lost in dear old England!
Saturday July 23rd 2011, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
To Roger Dee

Which Britons? Which American youth? To single out one manner of speech or accent from either country seems so all encompassing. Maybe you mean the BBC speech, close to the Queen's English, I think. But what about Scots, Bromley (or whatever it is that Birminghamians refer to themselves as), Cornish, York... I could go on and on...

And do you mean southern American speech, (that is southeastern American), your own flat Michigan midwestern accent (I happen to like that one), the Pennsylvania Dutch of southeastern Pennsylvania, the Bronx, the other New York accents, Rhode Islanders speech, which?

Or is an ethnic thing with you?

Neither the US nor Canada has 'one' sound. Neither does Britain.

Saturday July 23rd 2011, 11:00 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
All language and speech is de novo of greatest curiosity to me.
I mean that high-flauting speech done by the Queen!
I mean that lazy, almost unintelligible speech, I hear all too commonly among American youth.
No one is being "singled out". It is what I hear among those speaking within earshot in my own individual experiences.
I hope you are not trying to be politically correct and hoping some poor, lazy uninspired soul who never worked a day in his life might be offended by the degrading sound of truth? There IS universal truth.
Dear Jane B., I always enjoy your comments. Let me know you have a broader perspective than to believe I'm motivated by consideration of ethnic, race, gender, or class values.
My comments were simply a statement of my own fascination with a consideration of the many differences in English speakers.
There is no value judgment to be made. Speech patterns are highly specific but of great regional difference. Even birds have their differing dialects from region to region.
Hoping to hear back!
Sunday July 24th 2011, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
But Roger, I am assured by my British friends, that the same problems exist with their youth, in their humble opinions, of course!

Your post did 'sound' as if you possessed the notion of one British voice; there are many.

My problem is that I just cannot understand many of the dialects (is that the correct term? This is another item that confuses me.) I do have a hearing problem, but back in my youth, I got totally lost trying to reach my dad in Maryland through a 'southern sounding' operator.

Some of that I can get now, but if it comes out too rapidly, I'm lost.

About 30 of us eagle watchers once had an international understanding breakdown. It concerned an original poem.

Someone in England didn't think the rhyming was right. We tried matching various words to get the sounds sorted out for that verse, where we thought there was a problem.

My Brommie friend who had written the poem was frustrated. The online discussion lasted for about 45 minutes as we tried to work out how to pronounce 'bay' (for example, as I can't remember the exact word).

Frustration continued and continued in Birmingham, and finally my friend called me. "Jane," she said plaintively, "how do you pronounce 'soar'?"

It was two totally different words that the group had heard as not rhyming as it turned out!

That, at least, got settled, even though I have difficulty with her accent (and my hearing doesn't help!)

So it's not just the sound, but the message. Hmmm... that strikes a chord of a different tune. The medium wasn't getting the message across.

Well, McLuhan (spelling uncertain) was a home town lad!
Sunday July 24th 2011, 3:59 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks for your more than civil response!
I'm happy I didn't come across as some angry old malcontent--nitpicking over obscure points of view that Noah himself would find problematic!
Skill in expressing one's personal ruminations, is a project I have as yet not mastered!
Even at 80 years of age, 14 post-grad years of study, and 35 years of medical practice as a rural family physician--I am still surprised at the seeming void that exists between sincere individuals as they use a common language to share ideas.
Sunday July 24th 2011, 10:27 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Hey, Roger, I'm not far behind you in age, if not in years of education, but I did teach English for many years, and have had the advantage of many British friends who happen to speak English in different ways. LOL

Discussion, not anger. That's our way here.
Monday July 25th 2011, 2:02 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
It that what they call it in Parliment? But certainly true in "polite society"!
"Let everyone be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to anger..." James 1:19, The Bible
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Mesa, AZ)
As anAmerican businessman who has spent a great deal of time in the UK, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing o do is speak as I do at home (with the exception of not using sports metaphors). So when words like schedule, patent, missile or laboratory come up, we acknowledge pronunciation differences, but all parties understand the meaning and can get on with business. It is just one more variation when working on an engineering project with people from London, Bristol, and Scotland, or with the U cadences of Oxbridge.

Interestingly, I have found things different in Ireland. The Irish seem to feel honored when the American speakers soften their speech with a bit of the brogue.
Tuesday July 26th 2011, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Mesa, AZ)
In my previous comment, I originally wrote "the American speaker softens ...", and ran into the his/her/their problem. Deciding to use the gender-neutral "their", I failed to remove the definite article. Sorry.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 6:13 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (Atlanta, GA)
American English reflects our glorius freedom.
Freedom to be unique;
freedom to break the mold;
freedom to short cut;
freedom to create;
freedom to explore;
freedom to be foreign;
freedom to express your opinion;
freedom to change;
freedom to be vile.
Thursday July 28th 2011, 9:41 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
AND much, much more, Sandra!
Tuesday August 9th 2011, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Doctor Dee (Medina, OH)
ain't no Big th-ang!
Thursday November 15th 2012, 11:38 PM
Comment by: frank G.
1-1imy native tongue or mother tongue is german . BUT born in hungary had to take hungarian education . started to pick up slowly tediously avoided classes for being bullied and beaten up i hated the hungarian upbringing . my first two years in elementary school were completely wasted .by third year slowly started picking up hungarian . BY AGE 15 i was fluent

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