Monday, March 21, 2011

Not One-Off Britishisms

I don't usually review other websites here, and I don't really want to start now. But I'd be interested to read what you think of Ben Yagoda's site Not One-Off Britishisms.

Yagoda is a journalism professor at the University of Delaware and author of many things. I first became aware of his worries about BrEisms in AmE in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called "The Elements of Clunk." There he bemoaned "a whole new strain of bad student writing."* To quote from that:
Another manifestation [of clunky student writing] is a boom in Britishisms: not only the weirdly popular "amongst," but also "amidst," "whilst"—I actually have gotten that more than once in assignments—and "oftentimes." (In a parallel move, the stretched-out and unpleasant "off-ten" has become a vogue pronunciation among youth, as has "eye-ther.") In spelling, "grey" has taken over from the previously standard "gray." I haven't seen "labour" yet, but the day is young.
Not One-Off Britishisms is kind of a blog, but what it is really...well, I'll let Yagoda explain. From the sidebar at the site:
Over the last decade or so, an alarming number of traditionally British expressions have found their way into the American vocabulary. This page offers a growing list of Britishisms that have been widely adopted in the U.S.–that is, they are not “one-offs.”  Each entry offers a definition/American equivalent, followed by quotes representing the first and most recent American usages I’ve found.
Some entries include a link to a Google Ngram. This is a nifty tool that allows you to search for the frequency with which a word or phrase was used year to year. The link provided here compares the use of the Britishism and the traditional U.S. equivalent in the “American English” corpus between 1990 and 2008, with a “smoothing” level of 0. (Don’t ask.) In some cases–e.g., advert, bits–Ngram data is not applicable because the word or phrase can be used in two or more different ways.
For each entry, readers are ask to vote on their opinion of the Britishism in an American context. By “over the top,” I mean that the word or phrase (still) comes off as mannered or affected. In my humble opinion, the key factor in this is whether there’s an equally good American equivalent. [...]

Yagoda's project is a perfect (although not as loud) counterpoint to the oft-heard British complaint that Americanisms "permeate, pervade and pollute British English" (Hardeep Singh Kohli, Sunday Times, 7 Nov 08--and if you like that one, I can give you plenty more), and it gives me some comfort to know that not every American is a victim of American Verbal Inferiority Complex.


Now, the longer I live in the UK (it's been more than 11 years now), the more out-of-touch I am with what Americans (other than my nearest and dearest) are saying--but some of the BrEisms that Yagoda picks out as "widely adopted" strike me as not so. For one thing, some of them are things that Americans have sent me puzzled emails about. For another, the sources Yagoda cites are very often New Yorkers, if not The New Yorker, and most come from the NY-DC corridor. The Google Ngrams show general trends in publishing, but I would be willing to bet that a fair number of US-published books are written by New Yorkers, if not British expats. I'm having a hard time finding out how many of the 685,000 British expats in the US are in New York, but many commentators seem to agree with  A.A. Gill that "The British have colonized Manhattan". And an awful lot of them seem to be in publishing. So, it could be a trend in a certain milieu. But if you're watching FOX** instead of reading Vanity Fair, it might not affect you too much. I'm not saying that all the BrEisms are coming from UK expats; I have no trouble believing that Americans in their milieu are easily influenced by chic-sounding British words. And if that continues, those words may make their way into general American English. But my impression from non-NYCers is that these words are far from "widely adopted."

There's also much reason to be suspicious of the Ngram data. Looking at the first ten 2007-08 sources for chat show in the Ngram that Yagoda presents, one finds that four are about British television (I haven't bothered to look into their authors' backgrounds), two are from Cambridge University Press dictionaries (offering it as a synonym for AmE talk show), one is by an Oxford-educated professor in the US (possibly UK-born) , and two are by (orig. AmE in this sense) faculty at UK universities whose university webpages show no educational experience outside the UK. So that's 90% that seem to be appropriately British in the American English "corpus". The remaining one is by a Brooklyn-born journalist who lives in Washington, DC.

On the other hand, if you look at the relationship between chat show and talk show in British English using an Ngram, you'll see that AmE talk show has overtaken chat show in the UK (supposedly) in the same period. And looking at the data comparatively in the allegedly AmE books, chat show barely figures in comparison to talk show.

I also note that some of the things that Yagoda mentions in the Chronicle article have been in variation in AmE for a long time--for example, the pronunciation of either. And his description of often sounds like how I started pronouncing it as a child. Can we conclude that recent fashions from them are due to British influence? Are Americans even aware of these as being "more British"? (He goes in that article to try to tar the spelling advisor with the British brush--until he discovers that it's regarded as an AmEism. Click on the link for my discussion of it.)

So, in the end, I think it's the kind of site that would interest readers of this blog and so I point it out and hope you'll visit it (particularly if you're American). But I'd also like your feedback on whether you think that the "Britishisms" that Yagoda notices are indeed widespread in AmE.

As a final note--why Britishisms?  What's wrong with the good old word Briticism? I give you the Ngram for American English:



Britishism (red) has outnumbered Briticism (blue) only since 1990.  As long as we have a good old standard word for it, why use a new one?  (And no, it doesn't seem to be because of the British people in NY.)



* In hono(u)r of Yagoda, I'm using American punctuation, rather than my usual indecisive mishmash.
** Please, stop.