The Good Word

The Britishism Invasion

Language corruption is a two-way street.

This summer, journalist Matthew Engel took to the BBC website to bemoan the corrupting influence of U.S. words on British English. Readers were invited to weigh in with their picks for the worst of the worst, and within a day, nearly 1,300 had responded, with nominations including Can I get a …?, 24/7, and deplane. (“Johnson”—the Economist’s language blogger— pointed out that most of the entries weren’t Americanisms at all, but rather clichés, neologisms, or merely expressions that happened to annoy the complainer.)

This narrative should sound familiar. In fact, the language historian Dennis Baron pointed out recently that Brits have been whining about “Americanisms” at least since 1781, when John Witherspoon coined the term. So it may shock you to learn that British words and expressions have, of late, been worming their way into the American lexicon as much as the other way around.

The proposition is hard to prove, so I’ll start with two examples, both tied to specific news events. In May 2001, Chandra Levy, a congressional intern … well, what did she do? Disappeared was the traditional choice, and it was fine as far as it went. After thousands of iterations, however, the word seemed a little threadbare, and its vaudeville-magic-act associations ever harder to ignore. Perhaps that’s why, on May 18, Helen Kennedy wrote this sentence for the next day’s New York Daily News (I put relevant terms here and elsewhere in italics):

“Police don’t know exactly when Levy went missing, but that was the last E-mail or phone call anyone got from her.”

Go missing had been used for several decades in the United Kingdom; the Levy case marked the beginning of its ascendance here.

A scant two years later, it became clear that the United States would invade Iraq. Months passed; we did not invade. Then we did. Journalists again faced a question: what to call that preliminary period? In September 2003, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman chose a Britishism to offer a collective answer that now appears inevitable, referring to “how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war.”

I said that the influx of Britishisms is hard to prove, but some helpful metrics do exist. Google Ngram can measure the relative frequency with which a word or phrase appears in various corpora of books and periodicals. increased about 1,000 percent, with the sharpest rise between 2003 and 2005.

And the following chart shows a nearly infinite hike in American use of went missing from 1980 to 2008, with the bulk of it coming between 2001 and the present:

These two phrases are anything but unusual. Dozens and dozens of Britishisms have taken up residence here in recent decades. For the past six months or so, I have been chronicling them in a blog, Not One-Off Britishisms. Entries include:

Advert (instead of advertisement or ad), bespoke, bits (instead of parts), brilliant, called (instead of named), chat show, chat up, cheers, a coffee, cookery, DIY, early days, fishmonger, full stop (instead of period, as in the punctuation mark), ginger (a red-haired person), gobsmacked, had got (instead of gotten), Hoover (as a verb), in future, keen on, kerfuffle, mobile (as in mobile phone), on holiday, one-off, posh, presenter (a television host), queue, sell-by date, shite, short-listed, snog (passionately kiss), sort out, spot on, starter (instead of appetizer), straight away, take a decision, top up, twee, wait for it, wanker, and whilst.

If any of these sound suspicious to you, look ‘em up on my blog. For most entries, you’ll find data from Google Ngram or other sources such as Google Trends and Lexis-Nexis, plus other sorts of information to make the case.

Take laddish. The adjective derives from a new spin on lad, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “A young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish.” Brits have been tossing around laddish since around 1986 (again, according to the OED), but the word didn’t become current in the United States for another 15 years or so.Rock critic Ann Powers was an early U.S. adopter, writing in the New York Times in 1999, “Blink 182 showers its fans with laddish love.” Since then laddish has appeared in the Lexis-Nexis database of major U.S. newspapers more than 160 times. (The total count is somewhat clouded by the recent arrival on the sporting scene of Mandy Laddish, a Notre Dame women’s soccer player.)

Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot? First and foremost, because the Internet has dramatically speeded up linguistic crosspollination among national or regional forms of English. If a writer can sit in her bedroom in Indianapolis and have immediate access to the Guardian, the Economist, and, the fresh new words and phrases she finds there will surely find their way into her prose. The chattering classes—broadly defined to include all manner of blogger and online correspondent—have a persistent desire for ostensibly clever ways to say stuff. They have borrowed from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, teen culture, African-American vernacular, sports, and hip-hop, and they increasingly borrow from Britain.

I date the run-up (that’s an alternate meaning of run-up: increase) in Britishisms to the early ‘90s, and it’s surely significant that this was when such journos as Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Andrew Sullivan, and Christopher Hitchens came or consolidated their prominence here. Shortly thereafter, the Spice Girls had a hand in popularizing poshand ginger. That word—used by Brits as a noun equivalent to the U.S. redhead—has become even more pervasive with the Harry Potter onslaught: One of the main characters, Ron Weasley, is ginger. J.K. Rowling introduced to American eyes quite a few other Britishisms as well, brilliantly cataloged on the Harry Potter Lexicon site.

Now for the obligatory is-it-good-for-the-Jews? bit. The No. 1 danger is pretentiousness; we all know, and roll our eyes at, chaps who say “chap” and talk of their time “at university.” There is a poll at the end of each entry on my blog, asking readers to vote on whether the expression at hand is Perfectly Fine, Borderline or Over the Top. They generally seem to feel (and I agree) that the over the toppest are the Britishisms that have an exact U.S. equivalent: advert, called, bespoke, presenter, chat show, queue, whilst, and full stop, for instance. There exists in our country a perfectly good word for the smaller dish that is consumed before the main dish, and it’s appetizer. Starters are for people who wear hunting jackets with Turnbull & Asser ascots, which really isn’t appropriate dress at Famous Dave’s.

But when there’s no American expression with quite that meaning, a good Britishism is a useful addition to the lexicon. Run-up and go missing fall into this category, as do one-off, top up, and chat up. All these have made or are making their way into the American active vocabulary as straightforward, uninflected phrases.

A final category comprises terms like kerfuffle, laddish, plonk (cheap wine), twee,and gobsmacked. They have the advantage and suffer the fate of all vogue words and catchphrases: At first, they come off as clever and hip, but their expiration date comes swiftly, after which they’re nothing but clichés. Sorry, sell-by date.