Guest blogger: Right of reply to Xavier

By Jim Tyson

"Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?" (Henry Sweet)
The French never care what they do, actually,
as long as they pronounce it properly.
What’s my problem?

[…T]he Brits are, more and more, speaking a foreign (or semi-foreign) language. I refer, of course, to American English.
What is one to say? A friend of the English language expresses – eloquently albeit with occasionally wild diction – his concern that it’s going to hell in a handcart because of Americanization. (Note to our French friends, we capitalize differently). Well, it’s rather like those gifts one gets at Christmas: one appreciates the sentiment but the generosity is undermined by absolute lack of use. You see, not a single example offered is demonstrably a case of Americanization and if it were, one would be forced to ask "So what?" British people just don’t suffer linguistic anxieties like this. Our patriotism – not to mention our blaggardly jingoism – simply isn’t focussed on fears of being swamped by American culture.
[…]people would lose some – or a lot – of their individual character, of their identity. And the Americans aren’t rushing to adopt British English. The traffic is overwhelmingly one-way.
Well, Xavier, the Americans – that is those North Americans who are Anglophone rather than Francophone or Hispanophone – hardly have to rush to adopt British English. They bought the whole language, lock, stock and barrel from us several centuries ago. If now the ex-colonies influence the English of the old mother country, we shan’t worry simply because we’ve already won the language war: the United States is an Anglophone country.
Let’s look at Xavier’s first examples:
1) First, three monsters that are now so firmly settled that they’re probably impossible to get rid of:

Now the objection, one assumes, is to the use of these words as sentence adverbials. I can’t think of any other objection. But what evidence is there that this usage – objectionable or not – is an example of Americanization? Certainly, Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage points out that not only is this locution found in the work of some of our best writers but that it is firmly established by the 17th century when only a few straggling pioneers were speaking English in North America. How can it plausibly be an Americanisation then?
Xavier moves on to words which he feels have squeezed out British English terms for not good reason. His examples are very good:
movie (what was wrong with "film"?)
Truck (is "lorry" on the way out?)

Now, I’m happy for the sake of argument to accept nolo contendere movie and truck and guy as loans from American English. But the complaint is worth investigating. What is wrong with these loans? After all, this is a pervasive fact about language. Like most languages (the exceptions being truly exceptional), English borrows promiscuously. What interests me and needs explaining, if Xavier’s hypothesis is to make headway, is why this is nonetheless relatively rare. Why borrow movie but retain trousers? Why borrow truck but not elevator? Why borrow guy but not mac…oh no wait, it was the French who ended up with mec for guy! Sorry, wrong Americanized culture I was thinking of…
Finding loans from US to British English isn’t evidence of any overwhelming Americanization of British English – after all, I could probably find plenty of loans from Hindi if I tried and not a few from Australian English. Alone and unsupported by other evidence, they don’t demonstrate anything. After all, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.
On then to the Superfluous Additions. Well superfluous they may be (rather, as I always think, the à is superfluous in boîte à outils – we manage perfectly well with just toolbox) but are they Americanizations?
meet with ("Yesterday, Tony Blair met with president Bush")
visit with ("come and visit with us one day")

OK. This one could be Americanization if Ruskin (1850), George Eliot (1872) and Frank Norris (1903) are supposed to have got it from American usage.
consult with ("we will be consulting with our allies")
Not a chance. This usage consult with is far from an Americanism. It’s attested in English since at least 1618.
join with ("he joined with his friend")
Attested since at least 1548. Sorry.
Well. I’m afraid that one out of four is below par. The case, I submit, is far from proven for this little lot.
What of the foot and a half long words? Are these transmitted to perfidious Albion from America? Let us see.
at this moment in time : 6 syllables when one ( "now" ) would suffice.
in excess of: ("win prizes totalling in excess of 7 thousand pounds!"
"I owed in excess of £ 25,000" (what’s wrong with "more than"?).

Well, maybe Xavier is on to something here. This nasty little phrase is first attested in 1860 (that I can find) and by John Tyndall. I always knew scientists couldn’t write and isn’t science itself just more damnable American modernism?
On to the ominous "Verbs that become transitive, when they shouldn’t be":
to protest a decision
Transitive uses of protest including this one date back at least until the 16th century.
to appeal a sentence
Good lord man! Do you mean it? This usage is so ancient and venerable that your calling it into question might well provoke apoplexy at the inns of court! Anyway, Caxton, again, has this in 1481. Of course, the date 1492 isn’t set in stone. Maybe Xavier knows something about the "discovery" of America that the poor English don’t?
to debate someone ("the president debated his opponent in the race to the White house")
One that I must chalk up to Xavier again! This could be an Americanism since I can’t think of any obviously antique examples and Google only throws up very recent ones.
I don’t want to flog a dead horse but I’ll take the other examples briefly.
Verbs that lose their transitive status:
"I’m hurting"

There are attested intransitive uses of hurt since at least 1225. I wonder hear whether it’s not just that this particular locution "I’m hurting" has the odour not only of American English but of therapy speak and thus causes the bile to rise. I confess, I don’t like this one either but I know that it’s just plain prejudice on my part. There’s nothing to compel the conclusion that this is an Americanism.
to access ("he was unable to access his own front door")
Entirely modern and I am willing to bet money that its first use was in America. I have no proof alas.
to impact ("how will the decision impact people’s lives?")
As far as I can tell this is modern. There are early verbal uses of impact but not with this sense. This doesn’t reek of Americanism to me but I can find no evidence either way.
to scapegoat
Another modern use of an old noun. The references I can find are equally divided between American and British examples. Case not proven.
Only attested late 20th century but I can’t find any evidence of its origin. I do wonder though what the alternative would be?
societal (what’s wrong with "social"?)
Nineteenth century and the first uses I can find are American! We have at last, I think, an undisputed Americanism! It is an ugly word – as most agree – but there are reasons to think it serves a purpose. Social means just being the result of happening in a social setting. Societal, as far as I can see, means the result of taking place in one particular society (that is to say one organised in just this way) rather than in some other. So, maybe we need a neologism here but not this ugly and plausibly American one?
Nope. This is attested since the 14th century and couldn’t possibly be an Americanism.
I shan’t deal with the suspicion of further insidious American influence and the horror of moving stress patterns in British English: it’s all too awful to contemplate.
What do we have at the end of the day? Just a list of examples most of which upon examination are not plausibly Americanisms. They were presented by Xavier as exemplars of linguistic imperialism without any evidence but it only took a moment with a few good reference books to sort most of them out. But why did the question arise in the first place? I submit that a shadow is falling across Europe: the shadow of anti-Americanism. I’m as much a left-leaning, pinko, commie, liberal as the next man but I have observed over the last few years how America has come to be scapegoated – sorry, I mean blamed – for all the ills that we Europeans perceive around us. Now, some of those ills undoubtedly originate in America – more specifically in the United States – but do they all? Am I alone in thinking that as we Europeans lose our cultural confidence, those of a right wing persuasion seem inclined to look with alarm at the Muslim world and Africa while those of us who still – in our hearts – are singing that l’internationale sera le genre humain are apt to look west for our anti-heroes?
Until we have some evidence the fear of Americanisation remains just one fear among many and while many people might find the examples that Xavier put forward ugly and reprehensible, I think we can show for most of them that America just isn’t to blame.
By | 2016-10-18T15:50:03+00:00 February 15th, 2007|Culture|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Tony February 15, 2007 at 1:36 pm

    A well-considered survey of the subject.
    “….after all, I could probably find plenty of loans from Hindi if I tried…”. Yes, indeed, the OED lists 470.

  2. Ron February 15, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Your comments are quite correct, Jim. I had hesitated to comment on Xavier’s remarks, but many of his criticisms were reminiscent of criticisms made by my American grade school teacher fifty plus years ago. They may be poor English, or they may be exemplars of how the language changes. But in most cases there is nothing peculiarly American about them.
    Incidentally in the States we are peppering our speech not only with Britishisms but also Australianisms these days. It sounds so posh!

  3. Xavier Kreiss February 16, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Many thanks for taking the trouble to write such a detailed rebuttal to my text. I also thank you for your fairness and sense of humour. You may well have caught me out more than once. You also give me credit when you agree. However, some of your criticisms are perhaps unfounded .
    Many of my replies to them are already in my answer to Tom’s remarks commenting on my contribution . Repeating them now would be unnecessary and tedious, so I hope you won’t think me rude if I refer you to them.
    Your quote: I laughed out loud! I was asking for that one…
    You say: “not a single example offered is demonstrably a case of Americanization and if it were, one would be forced to ask “So what?”.
    Not a single example? In some cases, you may argue that the origin is dubious. In some cases I may be plain wrong. But I’ve lost count of the number of sources that bear out most of my points. You’ll see one or two examples in my answer to Tom. I quote my sources, for instance, on “protest” and “appeal”. Concerning my point on “debate” (as in “debate someone”) – I found a whole article about it in the New English Review (granted, that publication is not necessarily the Bible of English practice) and answer at length.
    Does this, in my opinion, make you “wrong” ? No. The language is very flexible, many people use certain terms and condemn others, etc. The cases of “hopefully”, “thankfully”, “protest”, “debate”, “appeal” etc, are, I have noticed, the subject of some debate.
    “We’ve already won the language war”: well, yes, the US is indeed anglophone, although I believe Spanish is catching up somewhat. The original language obviously came from these shores. But it seems that many terms are coming back this way (some having actually originated over there), and changing the language here. See, again, my answers to Tom.
    As for worrying about it (when you say “so what?”), well, I do worry, but that’s purely personal. Remember: I stress more than once that as far as I’m concerned, people can speak English any way they like.
    Perhaps -whatever our disagreements may be- the English language would be less threatened if people such as you, with your obvious depth of knowledge and love of it, made up the majority of the population.
    How long will this debate go on? I don’t know. But I am glad that my rant has prompted such thoughtful rebuttals as yours, and those of other contributors to Céline’s blog.

  4. James Palmer April 7, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    I´ve arrived late, but this whole discussion interested me. I am a native English speaker (UK) who has lived in the USA and had a lot of exposure to (at least certain types) of USA English over the last 7 years. I spent 1 year out of the last 3 living in the UK (the rest of the time was in Spain, the USA and Chile) and am very fond of USA English. There is certainly a lot of bad usage you find in the UK, but I don´t really see it as a result of the evil Americans. Some of the usages (“visit with” is a clear one) are certainly typical of contemporary USA speach with certain meanings (my USA “Mom” said to me last time we spoke “it´s always good to visit with you on the phone”, something my real mother would never dream of saying, and not because she dislikes me). I am afraid I side with the ´what´s all the fuss about´ side. Maybe Xavier, like Eliza Doolittle, just speaks English too well to be English.

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