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Whose language is it anyway?

We Brits have a fascination, usually positive but sometimes disapproving, of American words that we notice have come into common usage on this side of the pond. Although it is not quite that simple! Many of us are also using American words without being aware we are doing it. Or believing a term is American when in fact it has a long and noble record of usage in England.

Here are some words we know are American, but like anyway: Movie, cool, cookie. A lot of words came to England in the last century via films (movies), popular music and books: concrete overcoats, taken for a ride, bump off. Somehow the American terms seemed more glamorous, especially to teenagers, who found them ‘cool.’

There are also words we know are American and tend to dislike, often because they are verbs that started out as nouns: to diarise, to reach out, to impact. Many of these terms are associated with business, so rather ‘uncool,’ as well as being less acceptable to an older, more conservative age-group. But there is no denying they are in increasing use, even in non-business circles.

Some words are in such common usage, we never think of as being American: hangover, commuter, double-decker. So, if you commute into work on a double decker bus suffering from a hangover – can you fool yourself that you are living the American dream?

Conversely there are words that we are sure are American, but are not: gotten, trash, wow. In fact the first two appear in Shakespeare plays, and ‘wow’ is sixteenth century Scottish. The words probably travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, got forgotten in the UK, and then travelled back to the old country in the twentieth century.

Then again, there are words that appear both sides of the Atlantic, but mean something different: US: baby (UK – girlfriend/ darling), US: pants (UK – underpants), US: pavement (UK – where the pedestrians go, not the cars).

Finally there are words that mean the same, but are spelt differently: color, honor, program. It is commonly understood that Webster (of dictionary fame) pioneered this form of spelling as he wanted to standardise written American, and thought he’d simplify it whilst he was at it. True, but a lot of such words started out in English minus the ‘u’ etc. centuries ago, and just got embellished over time.

This is just a brief survey. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 26.000 Americanisms in English. These, along with all the words we’ve adopted from the Greeks and Romans, India and beyond, just add to the richness of the language.

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