Not to toot my own horn (or should I say “Klaxon”??), but I like to think of myself as a person who knows more than the average American about the difference between UK and US English. I lived in the UK for my last two years of high school (and while I attended an international school with an American curriculum, I had a British boyfriend, spent a substantial amount of time with his friends and family, and worked in a British newsagent for a summer). I was well-versed in slang like “snog” (to make out with), “fancy” (to like in a romantic way, as in “I fancy you”), and “pissed” (drunk). Then I returned to the UK to pursue my Master’s Degree in Translation and Professional Language Skills, so I took entire courses dedicated to writing and editing, in which I regularly embarrassed myself because of my flagrant Americanisms. I specifically remember one group translation project that involved using the word “impact” and one of my classmates actually shuddered at my suggested wording.
But despite all of that preamble, there was still plenty for me to learn from Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.
Lynne is an American linguist and professor who has been living in the UK since 2000, and her book deals with some of the common myths and preconceptions Americans and Brits have about each other’s language in a very reasonable, academic, and at times humorous way.
She introduces the concepts of “American Verbal Inferiority Complex” in which most Americans tend to assume that our English simply isn’t as good or impressive as the English spoken in the UK (guilty!) and “Anglo-creep,” which is when Americans begin to use British expressions, especially because they perceive them to have a certain air of sophistication (also guilty—but I think I have a valid reason for this since I spent my formative years nearly immersed in UK English).
One of the sections that I found especially fascinating was on the words, spellings, or usages that are perceived to be American but actually originated in the UK, and vice versa. Lynne strongly cautions us that most of the time when we find a BuzzFeed-esque list of “17 British Expressions Americans Should Start Using Instantly” (or something along those lines), we should take it with a grain of salt. Often these lists are not compiled by linguists, and therefore they get the facts wrong. My absolute favorite example from this section is the term “poppycock,” which apparently often appears on such lists. However, the word poppycock originates from Dutch (meaning “doll’s poop”) and it was first adopted in the US rather than in the UK. So now you know!
Another section that I found especially entertaining was on “Janus words” (named after the two-faced Roman god), which have opposite meanings in each country. For example, in the US and UK, the verb “to table” has the exact opposite meaning—in the UK, to table something means to bring it up as a matter to discuss and attend to, while in the US, to table means to decide not to discuss or attend to as a topic. The Brits see the table as the physical space where the discussion is taking place while Americans think of the table as a metaphorical storage unit where you put things away that you never want to think about again. Similarly, in Britain, if something is “moot,” it is up for debate while in the US that term means “not worth debating.” Get a little preview of this section of the book in Lynne’s Quartz post on Janus words.
I also appreciate that Lynne touches on some of the cultural differences between the UK and US, since these can impact our linguistic choices as well. She writes:
“Americans generally want to feel like they are appreciated, like they belong, and like everyone is equal in an interaction… Those desires affect how we interact. For instance, Americans give compliments and personal information very easily in order to build a sense of familiarity. Some traditional “good manners” fall by the wayside because they don’t aid the cause of making people feel close and equal. Friendliness, not just formality, counts as politeness.”
I’ve definitely experienced this when attempting to create casual conversation with new acquaintances and inadvertently stepping into a minefield of off-limits topics (for more on this, I highly recommend Watching the English). Lynne also provides several examples of Americans being scolded in the UK for not using the word “please” often enough. It turns out that we often believe that we can create the same effect by using a friendly tone of voice and that using the word “please” can often come across as insincere or an attempt to put unnecessary distance between the speaker and the person they’re addressing.
Finally, I feel vindicated by Lynne’s argument that while Brits may like to blame Americans for the globalization of English, it’s actually because of them that English is spoken as widely as it is:
“English would not have become a global success if the British hadn’t planted its seeds far and wide. Today over sixty countries, most with British colonial pasts, have English as an official language. No continent is English-free, even Antartica. And on every continent, it was the British who first deposited English, not Americans.”
The Prodigal Tongue is both a fun and informative read, and it provides excellent fodder should you ever find yourself in a heated discussion over whether Americans are ruining English. (Spoiler alert: we’re not!)