First, a quiz. Choose the country in which the following words or phrases originated, by writing either a “B” (Britain) or “U” (United States) next to the number. Answers are at the end of this post.
- The bee’s knees
- Quad (that is, square at a university)
- To ramp up
The quiz is stolen -- or, as Brits would say, nicked -- from Lynne Murphy’s entertaining and enlightening new book, The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English. Murphy grew up in America and since 2000 has been teaching linguistics at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. That makes her the perfect person to chronicle the differences and similarities between the language as it’s used on either side of the Atlantic. Since 2006 she has done so on her blog, Separated by a Common Language. (The title of the blog comes from a remark traditionally attributed to George Bernard Shaw, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Neither Garson O’Toole, in his authoritative Quote Investigator blog, nor anyone else has been able to find direct evidence of Shaw’s actually making the remark. O’Toole found a similar quote from an 1887 Oscar Wilde short story: “Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”)
Now, Murphy has gone big picture with the book. Having read it, I understand that if the phrase gone big picture had appeared in the British press, a significant number of people would go ballistic. As they would about the phrase go ballistic. That is because it is an article of faith among the British chattering classes that American influence — as in such locutions and in the poster child for the alleged despoilment, Can I get a coffee? — is ruining the Queen’s English. As I suggested in a Lingua Franca post in October, and as Murphy’s book definitively demonstrates, that view is a gross exaggeration.
There are two main problems with it. First, for all the go ballistics, big pictures, and can I gets, there are roughly the same number of British expressions that have traveled (British: travelled) west and become popular or established in American English. I have been chronicling them for more than six years on my blog Not One-Off Britishisms, and, after something like 500 entries — including go missing, go pear shaped, and go bonkers — the end is not in sight. (My latest post is about bestie, for best friend, which I didn’t realize was originally a Britishism till I read The Prodigal Tongue.)
Second, despite the undoubted examples of trans-Atlantic linguistic cross-pollination, American and British English remain distinct nationlects (Murphy’s coinage), in vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. The grammatical differences are fewest in number but still pungent, as seen in these hyphothetical exchanges:
A: Manchester United have a match today, don’t they.
B: Yes, have you got a ticket?
A: I might do.
B. Let’s meet for a McDonald’s and chat about it.
A: Michigan State has a game today.
B: Do you have a ticket?
A: I might.
B. Let’s meet for a burger at McDonald’s and talk about it.
The best part of The Prodigal Tongue is when Murphy drills down deep into these differences and emerges with unexpected narratives. I think my favorite is the account of the -ise suffix in such words as utilise and organise. That’s British, while utilize and organize are American, right? Not so fast. As Murphy writes, “It’s a complicated situation with a complicated history.” Such words entered English vocabulary in force in the 19th century -- and, until the middle of the century, -ize spelling was preferred in both countries -- as in lionize, minimize, and serialize. But in the second half of the century, British taste shifted to -ise spelling: perhaps inspired, Murphy says, “by the large number of 19th-century -ise words that were borrowed directly from the French, including galvanise, mobilise, and polarise.” At roughly the same time, Americans began to shift to -ize spelling, in large part thanks to its main cheerleader, the lexicographer Noah Webster.
Meanwhile, over in Britain, -ize saw a revival after it was championed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which began appearing in 1884. Then things changed again in the 1990s and Britain swung decisively back to -ise. Murphy ascribes that development to the rise of spellcheckers and the internet, which led, she says, to two lines of thinking: “1. spellings should be consistent within a document. ... 2. if Americans are spelling it -ize, then -ise must be ‘the’ British spelling.” Today, she says,
-Ise is not just a suffix,; it is a badge of honour [note “u”], declaring to all and sundry I AM NOT AMERICAN. True to form, when wanting to look not-American, British English looks more French.
I learned (British: learnt) a good deal else in the book and if your to-read list hasn’t got (American: gotten) too long already, make a place on it for The Prodigal Tongue.
As for the quiz at the top, if you enjoyed it, there are more such questions here. The answers: 1-U. 2-B. 3-B. 4-U. 5-U. 6-U. 7-B. 8-B. If you got five or fewer right, you’re within the law of averages and you’ve proved Murphy’s point. Six or seven, you can count yourself as clever. And if you scored 100 percent, start your own bloody blog!