America's slippery slope into Britishisms

Alex Williams / New York Times News Service /

Mitt Romney is not the “bumbling toff” he’s made out to be, wrote Daniel Gross, an American journalist, in a recent Daily Beast article. The latest iPad is a “lovely piece of kit,” in the words of John Scalzi, an American science-fiction author writing in his blog, Whatever. The Chicago Bulls were mired in uncertainty less than a “fortnight” after their star player Derrick Rose went down with a knee injury, according to an article in The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, last spring.

Crikey, Britishisms are everywhere. Call it Anglocreep. Call it annoying. Snippets of British vernacular — “cheers” as a greeting, “brilliant” as an affirmative, “loo” as a bathroom — that were until recently as rare as steak and kidney pie on these shores are cropping up in the daily speech of Americans (particularly New Yorkers) of the taste-making set who often have no more direct tie to Britain than an affinity for “Downton Abbey.”

The next time an American “mate” asks you to “ring” her on her “mobile” about renting your “flat” during your “holiday,” it’s fair to ask, have we all become Madonna?

Cultural shift

This star-spangled burst of Anglophonia has “established itself as this linguistic phenomenon that shows no sign of abating,” said Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware, who last year started “Not One-Off Britishisms,” a repository of such verbal nonnative species, like those above, culled from the American media. “The 21st century ‘chattering classes’ — which in itself is a Britishism — are the most significant perpetrators of this trend,” he added.

Perhaps it is a reflection of a larger cultural shift. Arguably, the distance between Britain and the United States (please, not the Pond) is as small as it has ever been. In an age of BBC livestreams and borderless websites, Americans track the Middletons in near-real time via British gossip sites, absorb the Queen’s English through televised imports like “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” and “Doctor Who,” and take in newspapers like The Guardian, now considered must-reads for many Northeast Corridor influencers, via their iPad apps over “a coffee.”

Or maybe it’s just pretension, an instance of long-simmering Anglophilia among the American striver classes bubbling over into full-fledged imitation — or in the view of British observers, parody.

“I’m getting sick of my investment banking clients saying ‘cheers’ to me,” said Euan Rellie, a socially prominent British-born finance executive in New York. “Americans say ‘cheers’ like Dick Van Dyke in ‘Mary Poppins,’ with too much enthusiasm. It must be delivered laconically.”

Predictably, people who traffic in trends for a living seem most susceptible.

“Fashion people live to sound British, the same way they over-pronounce French and Italian words because of those country’s fashion weeks,” said Peter Davis, the American-born editor of Scene, a New York society magazine. In an industry where British-born editors like Anna Wintour, Glenda Bailey and Joanna Coles set the tone, ambitious underlings trying to sound front row “use Brit-speak to sound, well, more ‘posh.’”

“I have heard people who grew up far from London uttering that a runway collection was ‘brilliant’ or just ‘bril,’” he added.

And, Davis said, “Fashion editors worry they will get ‘sacked’ if their next issue or story is ‘rubbish’ and not ‘clever’ enough.”

Some phrases that were rarely heard five or 10 years ago suddenly seem ubiquitous. The absolving term “no worries” (a keystone of the Australian patois, but apparently British in origin, according to Yagoda) has all but replaced “no problem” for smart-set Americans under 40. This is the same bunch who has started saying “queue” instead of “line” and describing malfunctioning electronic devices (as opposed to health-care debates on Capitol Hill) as “wonky.”

But borrowing from the Mother Tongue can be a slippery slope into absurdity, said David Coggins, a writer who lives in the West Village. “You find yourself calling your friends ‘lads,’ which is generally accepted,” said Coggins, 36. “The next thing you know, you’re calling them ‘chaps,’ which they might loosely tolerate. And then you say ‘tallyho’ and you’re greeted with a blank stare.”

Cobi Levy, a New York restaurateur, said he often finds himself lapsing into Cockney rhyming slang, saying “all gone Pete Tong” (a reference to the BBC disc jockey) instead of “gone wrong.” “I’m sure it’s ridiculous, but I don’t do it consciously,” said Levy, 36, who grew up in San Francisco. “Five of my best friends are Londoners.”

This outburst of Brit-envy has not gone unnoticed in Britain. The Guardian, The Telegraph and the BBC website have all weighed in in recent weeks to poke fun at such linguistic shoplifting, as did the tabloid Sun, known for its Page 3 girls, which included a Yank-baiting photo showing a stereotypical ugly American with a gold chain and a Hawaiian shirt, slurping a can of lager, otherwise known as “beer.”

The articles cited examples from Not One-Off Britishisms, where Yagoda (a New York Times contributor) often charts the popularity of terms using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases year by year in millions of books. When rendered in graph form, certain British phrases, like “have a look” instead of the standard American “take a look,” look like the Nasdaq charts for a hot Internet stock.

But Yagoda is not the only academic to study this Anglo-American cross-pollination as a hobby. Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex in England, nominates a British-to-American “Word of the Year” (recent winners include “kettling,” meaning to corral a crowd, and “ginger,” for redhead) in her blog, Separated by a Common Language. She generally notices the tendency among Northeastern media types. Indeed, for them, conspicuous displays of trans-Atlantic flourish provide a subtle professional and social benefit.

Lost in translation

But often something gets lost in the translation. For example, there’s “chat up,” which she said, “means ‘flirting with intention to bed’ here, but is used in the U.S. to mean ‘talk to.’”

This is a contemporary tic with deep roots, of course. Americans do, after all, speak English (although some Britons might disagree). British phrases have been wafting across the Atlantic since tricorn hats were the rage, as have British books and, in recent decades, TV shows and pop records.

But rarely did the cultural imports make a noticeable impact on the way we talked — aside, of course, from a tiny population of hardened Anglophiles, as well as the Monty Python fans who just couldn’t stop quoting the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch in terrible public-school accents. The massively popular British Invasion bands of the 1960s were generally too busy aping American rockabilly and blues artists to act as the Johnny Appleseeds of British vernacular.

That changed with the explosion in media, Internet and otherwise. Americans now live in a swirl of Ricky Gervais, Simon Cowell, Russell Brand and Adele, said John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University. “We have a generation of, essentially, adults who grew up on Harry Potter,” he said, adding, “The British accent is just in our ears. We can hear Great Britain in a way that we couldn’t hear it even 10 years ago.”