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.

Best wishes,

Grant Barrett

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, 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 He lives in San Diego, California, with his linguist-lexicographer wife and their son.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 27th 2011, 3:49 AM
Comment by: Peter K. (Lewes, East Sussex United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Can I add my own thoughts about the influence of America on one Limey? I simply acknowledge it as a welcome fact among other facts. The enrichment of English has been the reason for the success of the language. Shakespeare came up with new words, most famously, and I feel we should all rejoice in the constant reinvention, innovation, and refreshment of words wherever they originate. English is inherently a bastard tongue, founded on import and now export. French, German and all kinds of other words from science and business and journalism bustle in for adoption all the time.
As a long term reader I have rejoiced in discovering new writers. It is reactionary nonsense to bluster at Americanisms. The last hundred years has been the most fruitful in our language's history. How stale we would be without Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, Salinger, Vonnegut, Donald Ray Pollock, Robert Lowell, Damon Runyon, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Raymond Carver, Louis Auchincloss, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen - and Charles B. Schulz. 
I could go on for several pages, and a thousand names, but as an English user in England I rejoice at this fabulous rich compost from the 'other side'. I may be an old git - I'm 70 - but I love words, especially the ones that are new and natty, and the ones that leap freshly from the page and grab you by the balls.  
Needless to say, I often find myself defending my corner as friends deplore American usage, but I note that I am often the one who reads the most. That sounds smug and conceited, so I'll quit right there.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 4:47 AM
Comment by: Geoffrey BH (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
If British and American English are both derivative, they may both derive from some English of the past. What is certain is that English, by simple implication of terminology, must be the language of the English, that is to say the inhabitants of England, a country with identifiable borders within the wider Great Britain which forms, with Northern Ireland, the State of the United Kingdom.
It would perhaps be better to call American what it is and complete the work of alienation commenced, as an act of policy (or was it spite?), by Noah Webster with the idiosyncratic spellings of his dictionary.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 6:13 AM
Comment by: Sarah S.
Maybe this whole thing is more of an attitude issue.

As someone who is frequently called upon to adapt US-generated promotional materials for 'rest of the world use', I feel that the term 'the rest of the world' is a big clue to that 'attitude'.

Of course, it is deeply ironic that we British don't like being in the homogenous 'rest of the world' bracket, given our own history of the British Empire, when we thought we were in charge of everything.

Americans who understand us know when to push our linguistic boundaries - and those who don't just end up pushing our buttons.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Tom W.
Jolly good article Mr Barrett. Wicked awesome dude. Word. :)
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
It's probably apt that you chose Sainsbury's as a reference in this lively rebuttal, given the rapid expansions of Asda Wal-Mart Supercentres. The Wal-Martisation aka Americanisation aka globalisation can translate to the kind of cultural imperialism anyone would hate. Hence it doesn't really matter if these are Americanisms or not; it's a cultural irritation and perhaps fear of cultural loss that's at play.

Long live every version and dialect of English! Be unique. Understand language. Celebrate the differences, linguistic, culinary, retail, whatever. ~
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 5:17 PM
Comment by: Russell C. (Wooster, OH)
The fundamental issue is exactly what Grant said; having hair doesn't make you a barber. I got back to the good old US of A from a trip to the UK only last night, after attending, of all things, a conference on corpus linguistics. During that time, I was reminded - as if I needed to be - by my wonderful but extremely parochial parents that as far as they are concerned, anyone who lives outside of a 40-miles radius of Burnley in Lancashire doesn't speak "real English" anyway. I suspect that the "40-mile radius rule" applies unconsciously to the majority of English speakers. I'm sure that from my parents' point of view, the influence of "Americanisms" is no more terrible than the influence of those "bloody southerners" who say "fink" and "fought" instead of "think" and "thought." And those "daft buggers" in Yorkshire don't even know what an "oven bottom" cake is (it's a type of bread).

These claims of linguistic hegemony, whether by superpowers or chavs from the East End make for great press, splendid pub discussions, and opportunities for people to engage in chauvinism of the highest order.
Wednesday July 27th 2011, 8:26 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Having now read Engel's column, it sounds to me like he's actually decrying the acceptance (by his countrymen) of what he's terming Americanisms more than he is criticizing Americans for having Americanisms.

I also think he's not aware of what his complaint really is.

Pretty funny.
Thursday July 28th 2011, 12:36 AM
Comment by: Naomi G.
right on
Saturday July 30th 2011, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, Peter K!
I find a deep sense of agreement with your ideas about the English language.
Particularly, the parting shot of "being grabbed by the balls". Crude but powerful.
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Joyce U.
This comment is a bit tangential, but why is it that so many folks use the word "myself" in place of me and/or I?
Tuesday August 2nd 2011, 6:20 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Joyce, I think it's an effort to be super correct, or else hesitancy about using 'me'.

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Ben Yagoda is keeping track of Britishisms creeping into American usage.
A Way with Words
We interview Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, hosts of "A Way with Words."