We all know that British people like to complain, and recent months have seen a rise in online blogs, communities and websites dedicated to just this. “British People Problems” is the name generally attributed to any online space where feelings of national identity are cemented through collective moaning, and one of the most frequent topics is the seemingly feared corruption of British English by American English.
“My friends have started to say pants when they mean trousers.”
The influx of American words into everyday life in Britain is proving to be a sore point for many Brits, who, like the French and their Académie française, trying their hardest to reject any linguistic borrowing from other languages (and it is so often from the English language), take great offence at hearing Americanisms pronounced by other Brits. But should we really be getting so up in arms about it all?
British English and American English would have been the same at the time when English settlers first went to America. Yet little more than a century later, Noah Webster published America’s first dictionary in which he recorded words which were necessary for everyday life in America, such as “skunk”. A brilliant linguist, his aim was also to reform British spelling, which he considered outdated. Many of his spelling reforms caught on, such as “music”, instead of the previous “musick”. Others, however, did not: he famously tried to change the spelling of ‘women’ to “wimmen”. Clearly, then, we Brits have been using American words and spellings for centuries. Moreover, some words which we reject because we think are American were originally British words which fell out of popular use in the UK only to remain popular in the US: “candy” and “diaper” may sound quintessentially American to British ears, but in fact are not originally American words.
Of course, linguistic borrowing is a two-way street. “Ginger” (as opposed to redhead) has entered the American vocabulary thanks to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Other words, with less obvious or specific origins, such as “autumn” instead of “fall”, “flat” instead of “apartment” and “roundabout” instead of “traffic circle” have all been noted. Even some of our more vulgar words seem to have made their way across the Atlantic, including “bloody”, “chav” and “innit”. Unlike the British, the Americans seem to enjoy using their new, borrowed words, which is perhaps due to the stereotype in America of all things British being automatically sophisticated.
While the danger to British English seems minimal, it is only natural, especially from a nation so prone to complaining, to feel irked about the influx of borrowed words. After all, they sometimes do cause confusion – talking about your “pants”, which in British English means “underpants”, instead of your “trousers” is bound to lead to embarrassment.