Showing posts with label overstatement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label overstatement. Show all posts

Is Americanization speeding up?

Today I got to hear myself on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth talking with host Michael Rosen and anti-Americanism-ist Matthew Engel.

This is just a picture. Click HERE for the program(me)!
Biggest regret: that I completely blanked on the fact that sidewalk is originally a British word. Had to go home and read about it in my own book manuscript. I also regret that they cut a bit I said about British music artists singing in their own accents. (So please read this instead. I think the producer/editor might have thought that the reference to grime music would be too much for the Radio 4 [orig. AmE] listenership.)

But listening now to Engel repeatedly saying that American English influence on British is constantly increasing, I wish I'd pointed out this:

The 20th Century is often called "The American Century". The 21st Century is looking a lot less American. To be sure, it's not looking like the British century either. That came the century before.

American culture (and words) could easily spread in the 20th century because it was hard to produce and distribute recorded entertainment, but the US had the capacity and the economy and the marketing savvy to do so [And I mustn't forget the Marshall Plan, which my colleague just mentioned to me.] America was inventing and manufacturing all sorts of things and putting names on them and selling them everywhere. Two world wars and the cold war had Americans stationed all over the world using their slang in the presence of young recruits from other countries. The 21st century is looking rather different.

The 20th century brought us talking pictures and television. Radio, the most affordable form of broadcast, remained a more local proposition--though the recorded music could be imported. (Though the word radio, well that's an Americanism.) The 21st century is the time of the internet and of personali{s/z}ed entertainment. The popular songs are less universally popular, because people have more access to more different kinds of music on download. Instead of two or three or four choices on television, there are hundreds. And if you don't like what you're seeing you can go on YouTube or SoundCloud (or other things I'm too old and [orig. AmE] uncool to know about) and find all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. People go on the internet and meet each other and talk to each other, meaning that there's more opportunity than ever for there to be exchange of words between people, rather than just reception of words from the media. The slangs that young people use are sometimes local to their school or area and sometimes particular to an international online gaming community or music fandom. The notion of community, for many people, has internationali{s/z}ed. Language is moving in different ways now than it ever had the chance to move in the 20th century.

In the meantime, all indications are that the US is becoming politically more isolationist and more of an international pariah. Are its words going to flow so freely abroad? Will there be a taste for them?

The American century has happened. I don't know whose century this will be (please, please not Putin's), if indeed it will be any nation's century. (Better a nation's century than a virus's century, though.) American words will continue to spread to other parts of the world, but I can't see the evidence of Engel's strong claim that the imbalance between US and UK word-travel is increasing faster than ever.

At the start of the 21st century, British words seem to be entering America in greater numbers than they were a few decades ago. Much of this has to do with journalism and how international that's become. The online versions of the Daily Mail and the Guardian are extremely popular in the US. There are more US fans of Doctor Who now than in its Tom Baker days. Harry Potter is the single most important thing that's happened to children's publishing in the English-speaking world in my lifetime, and though the editions sold in the US are translated into American to some extent, it's actually only a small extent. Americans are reading and hearing more British English than they have in a long time.

The scale(s) is/are still tipped in American vocabulary's favo(u)r. But as far as I can see, there's not a lot of reason to believe that the degree of the imbalance is rapidly increasing. Yes, the number of American words in British English constantly increases, but there's more westward traffic now, more UK coining of managementspeak, and new local youth cultures making their own words in Britain. The tide hasn't turned, but there is (mixed metaphor alert) (orig. AmE) pushback.

And if English continues to be popular as a global lingua franca (due to its momentum, rather than the foreign and cultural policies of the UK and US), then more words may be coming from other places altogether.
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This mail from American Susanna had me chuckling:

I wanted to tell you my experience with the term gutted. I've always associated it with "eviscerated", especially when applied to a human being. When applied to a document or law or something of that nature, to me it means "emptied of its important features". If referring to things like a burned house, it means destroyed so that nothing remains but the outer shell.

Last year I took to reading the online version of a newspaper in Scotland; I can't remember which one now but I was in the midst of a fascination with the Orkneys so it was probably in that vicinity. In the headline about a break-in and theft at a home, the newspaper said the residents were "gutted". Well! That seemed quite callous to me, to put a word that harsh in the headline. I assumed, you see, that the residents had been killed and eviscerated. So I wrote a note to the editor saying I thought it was pretty bad form.

Imagine my surprise to receive an email from a reader of the newspaper letting me know that the newspaper editor had published my email with a laughing note about the differences in American vs British English! Because, as you know, gutted in British English means some variation of "highly distressed".

I will tread very lightly when emailing non-American newspapers!
A good lesson for all of us!

To give a little more info about BrE gutted--it's a relatively recent, informal (some would say 'slang') term. It was added to the OED in its 1993 edition, with quotations going back only to 1984 (but, of course, it could be much older in speech). Their senses for it are: 'bitterly disappointed; devastated, shattered; utterly fed up'. The last of these doesn't ring true for me--I'd usually interpret it as 'devastated'--that is, a feeling as if you've been emptied out. Of course, it's used for much lesser things as well. Google "I'm gutted" and you'll get lots of sport-related exaggeration.
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adverbial dead

For my birthday in October, Better Half promised me a weekend away before the birth of Grover. But since I (a) spent the first half of my third trimester in (the) hospital and (b) was cheated out of the second half entirely, that didn't happen. So this week he took Grover and me for a plush few days in the New Forest. And there, in the village of Hythe, I photographed this sign:

This was convenient, as I'd been meaning to take a photo of such a sign in Brighton, but since I'm not a tourist in Brighton, I rarely have my camera with me. So, it was great to see one while I had my camera at the ready on our mini holiday/vacation.

Needless to say (since I've posted a photo of it), this is not a sign you'd see in America. There, such a sign would probably have an unmodified slow or go slow.

In this context, dead is an adverb modifying slow. It makes me chuckle involuntarily for two reasons: (a) dead slow is not as idiomatic in AmE as in BrE and therefore the literal meaning occurs to me when I read it, and (b) in BrE adverbial dead is frequently a colloquialism, and therefore it seems a bit funny to see on a sign.

Since I get the literal meaning of dead slow when I read it, it strikes me as an oxymoron. If something's dead, it seems to me, it wouldn't move at all, so it couldn't be slow. But that "logic" is misplaced, since AmE, like BrE, uses dead as an adverb with other adjectives that indicate a glimmer (or more) of life--for example dead certain and dead tired. So, we could use dead with slow, but we tend not to.

If one hears a lot of colloquial BrE, one knows that dead can go with just about any adjective in certain informal registers. For example:
Dom looks dead sexy in eyeliner and black nail varnish (=AmE nail polish) [comment on]

... I also watched "Sky High", which was dead good. [...] It's odd really, some of it is DEAD POSH, like the lobby and the millions of people tidying plates away at breakfast, and some of it ISN'T, like the mucky marks on the walls and the water dripping on your head in reception. [...] We then had a LOVELY bit of tapas (ooh, it was DEAD nice, roast potatoes and hot garlicy [sic] tomato sauce, ACE!) ... [a (orig. AmE) mother-lode of deadness in a description of a Singapore holiday from MJ Hibbett--I haven't bothered to mark all the other Briticisms in that]
The OED, however, classes dead slow as a non-colloquial usage (going with dead calm and dead tired) rather than this all-purpose colloquial intensifier. At any rate, it all sounds dead British.
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british overstatement

The British are masters and mistresses of understatement, one is told. Yeah, well, maybe.

For your consideration, my current list of most hated, painfully overused words:
  • essential
  • fanatical
  • excellence
I've grumped about excellence once before, and I'm sure that it's come in from US corporate-speak. So let's concentrate on the adjectives, which seem to represent the full extent of many advertising copywriters' adjectival vocabularies.

The bus that goes past my house says that it offers Essential Travel for our City. If I weren't boycotting the word, I could shop at Essential Records or Pet Essential or let (AmE prefers rent) property at Time Essential and listen to The Essential Mix on Radio 1 or read the dozen or so publications that say they are the essential guide to the city and what's going on in it before heading over to the Essential Festival, essentially.

If fanatical is less used, it's only because there seems to be a rule that it must only be used in alliterative phrases. The Odeon cinema (AmE prefers movie theater) chain is Fanatical About Film. Upper Crust sandwich shops are Fanatical about Freshness. And everyone else is Fanatical about Football.

Another relevant example is brilliant (informally, brill), which in recent years was the overstater of choice among young people. Now it's amazing, which I hadn't noticed until a Swedish colleague pointed it out. We were in my office when a student came and asked to borrow a book. Our interaction went something like this:
Me: Here you go.

Student: Amazing! Thanks!

Me: You can give it back to me at seminar.

S: You're amazing! Thanks!

SwedCol: [muffled giggles]

These are not the words of an understating culture--and yet they are so repetitively and unimaginatively used. One can't really find too much fault with the young people, as youth everywhere get infected by the buzzwords of their age. But the advertisers? Aren't they supposed to make us want to buy their product, rather than wanting to track them down in their offices and bludgeon them with thesauruses?

Could it be that overstatement is so foreign to British culture that those who try to do it cannot help but do it badly? Perhaps overstatement should be left to Americans, who do it so effortlessly. Mission Accomplished!
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)