The BBC News Magazine has been running an ongoing discussion of the differences between British and American English. Ite’s an amusing discussion, but an important one for American writers who set their stories on England. We might call the discussion, “How Not to Sound like a Bloody American!” Here’s an introduction to the problem, written by Matthew Engel last July. I’ll follow it up with some readers’ additions in the coming days.
American culture is ubiquitous in Britain on TV and the web. As our computers talk to us in American, I keep having to agree to a license spelt with an s. I am invited to print something in color without the u. I am told "you ghat mail". It is, of course, always e-mail - never our own more natural usage, e-post.
As an ex-American resident, I remain a big fan of baseball. But I sit over here and listen to people who know nothing of the games talk about ideas coming out of "left field". They speak about "three strikes and you're out" or "stepping up to the plate" without the foggiest idea what these phrases mean. I think the country has started to lose its own sense of itself.
In many respects, English and American are not coming together. When it comes to new technology, we often go our separate ways. They have cellphones - we have mobiles. We go to cash points or cash machines - they use ATMs. We have still never linked hands on motoring terminology - petrol, the boot, the bonnet, known in the US as gas, the trunk, the hood.
Yet in the course of my own lifetime, countless routine British usages have either been superseded or are being challenged by their American equivalents. We no longer watch a film, we go to the movies. We increasingly have trucks not lorries. A hike is now a wage or price rise not a walk in the country.
Ugly and pointless new usages appear in the media and drift into everyday conversation:
I am all for a living, breathing language that evolves with the times. I accept that estate agents prefer to sell apartments rather than flats - they sound more enticing. I accept that we now have freight trains rather than goods trains - that's more accurate.
Many British people step up to the plate and have ideas out of left field.
I accept that sometimes American phrases have a vigour and vivacity. A relative of mine told me recently he went to a business meeting chaired by a Californian woman who wanted everyone to speak frankly. It was "open kimono". How's that for a vivid expression?
But 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 encourage the diversity offered by Welsh and Gaelic - even Cornish is making a comeback. But we are letting British English wither.
Britain is a very distinct country from the US. Not better, not worse, different. And long live that difference. That means maintaining the integrity of our own gloriously nuanced, subtle and supple version - the original version - of the English language.
This is an edited version of Matthew Engel's Four Thought broadcast.