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Date: 22 June, 2012
'Like nails on a blackboard, it would irritate me every time I heard it.'
Helen Angove on the differences between trousers and pants
Well, I’ve been living here in the US for eight years now, and I think I’ve finally gotten used to the language.
(Did you see what I just did there?)
Before I moved to the States, I think that the word, “gotten” would have been in my top ten list of most hated Americanisms. Like nails on a blackboard, it would irritate me every time I heard it.
And yet, if you stop to consider it dispassionately, why should this innocent word provoke such a strong reaction?
It is a perfectly respectable past participle of the verb “to get”. There seems no objective reason for it to elicit this kind of visceral response.
Every now and again, lexicologists and others get their knickers (British English)/underwear (American English) in a twist as a result of media reporting of the differences in language between the two sides of the Atlantic, and a classic example of just such an article by appeared on the BBC website about a year ago. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/14130942
It was unfortunate for journalist Matthew Engel’s professional credibility, however, that many of the examples he chose were words that had a venerable history of use in British English long before they were found in the American literary corpus.
The article opened the floodgates for everybody who had any kind of pet peeve about the importation of American words.
And, this being the internet, it wasn’t long before the counter-arguments started gushing out as well, many of which pointed out, quite reasonably, how many of the cited hated words or phrases were actually archaic British English terms still in current usage in the States (math) or just creative language play (winningest).
These usages may grate because they are unfamiliar to British ears, but they are not, I argue, inherently evil.
Besides, don’t forget that the emigration of language travels both ways! British media is less ubiquitous in the States than American media in the UK, so the flow of words from British English to American English is not as torrential: but it does happen.
Take for example, the word “ginger” meaning “redhead” (thank you Ron Weasley and Prince Harry!), “gastropub” and “baby bump”: all exports of recent years.
Why, then, do many people find American imports so annoying? I suggest that it has its roots in the dominance of the United States in world politics, and the pervasiveness of the American media.
Objecting to imported American vocabulary—with the implicit subtext that the people who use these words are less well educated than ourselves and possibly also somewhat insular—allows us Brits to express some of our irritation at this state of affairs and gives us an excuse to feel smugly superior.
I’m not going to try and address, here, whether it is reasonable or not to be irritated at the ubiquity of American culture: that’s a subject for a whole new article.
But surely our annoyance does not excuse the tarring an entire culture with the feathers of ignorance and parochialism simply because their vocabulary has diverged from ours?
Helen Angove began her working life as an electrical engineer on the south coast of England, took a brief detour as a pricing analyst for an electricity supply company (which was as much fun as it sounds) and then veered off in a different direction altogether by becoming a priest in the Church of England.
Now, however, she is living with her husband and two children in Southern California and, against all the dictates of common sense, is exploring the possibility of writing as a viable career choice.
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