Invaders! The enemy is at the gates, and he looks just like us, but with better teeth. And really, we want to be his friend. And there are no gates. I’ve filed this piece under “Rants” and with good reason: I’m about to get right off my bike about British English’s gradual erosion and the slow, insidious advance of a simplified (dumbed down) form of American English.
Let’s be clear, I’m not anti-American at all, nor am I particularly pro-British. The actual cause of my ire is the British media’s – and, consequently, the British populace’s – failure to hold on to and use its wonderfully rich, expressive, and often funny indigenous vocabulary. Instead they – we – lean increasingly, lazily, on a limited range of words: Those used in US TV programmes and films (or shows and movies, as they are becoming) and, particularly, on this here internet.
Some time around 2005 I saw a billboard advert asking “You dress your salad, why not dress your veggies?” Dress your what? In Britain, the word vegetables has always been contracted to a simple veg. Meat and two veg, a basic meal, and a euphemism for male genitalia; a veggie is a vegetarian. After I’d got over the inevitable knee-jerk stuffy apoplexy, I became intrigued; someone at the ad agency had made a conscious decision to use the word veggies. Why? The likeliest explanation was that it’s more universal. Well. Ad agencies aren’t exactly standard bearers, guardians of tradition, upholders of…anything, really. So we can’t expect characteristics as uncool as principle or consistency from them.
They annoyed me with another attempt at universal appeal, one December a few years earlier. For a long time the billboards in the centre of East London’s Old Street roundabout, facing each point of the compass, carried Gap ads. As Christmas approached, the usual slew of ethnically diverse (but culturally WASPish) models appeared, wearing woolly jumpers, scarves and bobble hats for that Jesus feel. The accompanying text read “GAP – That’s holiday”.
Excuse me? What?
In Britain, the word holiday is (almost) never unaccompanied, whether by an article or a…er…modifier? I’m no linguist, and while I could Google about, I’d rather be honest about my (lack of) credentials. But holiday isn’t a commodity like oil or depleted uranium. An exception: If someone starts a new job, you might ask “How much holiday do you get?”, meaning annual leave. Otherwise, you need a holiday, it’s the school holidays, we’re all going on a summer holiday. As the chap says in Rockers, now me vex. I complained to my friend Kiera, a native New Yorker, who added some interesting mud to the water.
“That,” she said, meaning the word that, “is very British.” That’s true, I thought. The phrase “this is true” is odd to British ears.
I didn’t draw any conclusion from this, except that when a representative of one culture tries jumping into another’s territory, like a visiting politician getting involved in a traditional ceremony, the result is an embarrassing mess.
Language changes faster and faster as communication becomes easier. More and more information is at our fingertips (that’s got to be good, right?), but in our hurry to suck it up and spit it out, nuance, variety and depth of expression are lost.
I call the language I speak and write “Englandish”. I use bits of slang from all over the English-speaking world and occasional archaic expressions, and I do like swears. I try to keep it in check, though, as I believe communication is paramount; while I might have been weathering a fuckload of vicissitudes due to bare poltroons all up in my grill, if you ask how my day’s been I’ll just say “Shit, thanks!” So you see I’m not averse to outside influences; on the contrary, I enjoy the myriad deviations from “The Queen’s English” that come with geography, age, profession and so on, right down to little spelling variations. An S here, a Z there, a U or not? One L or two? Local colo(u)r. Even within America itself, though, local vernacular must be crumbling slowly under the weight of Friendsish. Independent businesses close, neighbourhoods and vocabularies are strip malled, shit gets Starbucksed up. I’ve noticed my own inclination to use a more “universal” language when online; a more universal form of English, that is: “Standard” US English. You know what they say: If you’re not part of the solution…you’re part of the precipitate.
Most of the people I communicate with…with whom I communicate…online are American and they’re all erudite and funny and shit. In my experience, your average educated American (which may well be you) is better-read than your average educated Briton (which may well be me. And if you try to quote me I will deny everything).
America is justly proud of its literary heritage; most Americans I know, even those who’ve had no English education beyond high school, have read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Salinger, Lee (Harper, not Spike) etc. while the UK school system seems to think twentieth century literature begins and ends with Wodehouse. Shakespeare and Dickens feature in my school memories, and, unusually, I recall a cool English teacher called Steve handing out brand new copies of Catcher in the Rye – but he was American.
The internet, though, with its dense, short-form bursts of communication, is a different thing; I’m thinking particularly of Twitter, where the 140 character limit necessitates brevity. A stripped-down grammar comes into play – it’s certainly functional, and while the exaggerated emphasis-heavy use of CAPS, emoticons (ugh), Twitter-specific #hashtags and acronyms can be played with FTW, there’s not much in-betweenness. Although there’s something to be said for a format that prevents sentences like that last abomination. What I’m getting at is this: Communicating more information, to a greater variety and number of people, in fewer characters and less time, is draining the colour from the language, and giving rise to a featureless one-size-fits-all style. A wider audience with a shorter attention span is forcing us into less expressive territory.
I was guzzling a rather watery latte and a slice of agreeably dense blueberry cheesecake in the National Portrait Gallery’s underground café, earwigging furiously as the family on the next table chatted. They were an intelligent, articulate bunch, but when the teenage daughter related the experience of entering one of the many galleries above us, she became stuck. She needed an adjective, a grey shade between awesome and lame. I think of myself as a fairly heavy internet user, but I didn’t grow up with it; if I had, it’s likely that I’d have a yawning void between WIN and FAIL too. Punctuated, perhaps, by “meh”.
When I ordered the coffee and cake, did I say “Can I have” or “Can I get”? I can’t remember. Of course, the correct form is “May I…”, but I’m not here to stickle.
Here in the UK, a new piece of slang occasionally worms its way into everyday speech. In recent years, chav has become a common title for a particular form of wretched lowlife; similar to trailer trash, bridge-and-tunnel or bogan, but particularly British and (sub)urban. As its star rose, various theories regarding its heritage were bandied about: That it began in the town of Chatham in Kent, or it was an acronym (Council House Alcoholic Violence), but in fact it derives from a Romany word, chavo, a kind of casual “friend” – pal, buddy, mate. How did this happen? I have no idea! Isn’t it great though, how it’s crept in through a crack in the language? In the lift at the Converse shop in London’s Carnaby Street, a sanctioned graffiti scrawl asserts that “Trainers is what chavs call ‘em” [my apostrophe]. Well, no, it’s what British people call ‘em. But really, sneakers is a better word, reflecting their soft shoe shuffle nature and the fact that most athletic footwear isn’t used for sport. Whoever scribbled that scribble probably talks like Josh Peck’s character in The Wackness, though. Word.
Another mystery: Bare. A term exclusive to teenagers, it means many, very, a lot, considerably. There was bare Somalis on the bus innit. I ain’t got home ‘til midnight, Dad was bare angry. Again, I have no explanation, although many years ago I was told “…because it’s BEAR!”, and my educator reared up like an irritated grizzly. There was a club night called Bear Foolish for a while…but bare has become the standard.
I’m quite fond of innit too, a contraction, obviously, of “isn’t it?” Although it’s considered thoroughly chavvy, how does it differ from n’est-ce pas? A slight deviation is that it’s not usually followed by a question mark. In attaining single word status, it’s become more definite, giving its preceding statement emphasis, yo.
Hopefully I’m not coming across as provincial – I’m all for global culture, but at the moment that manifests itself as a worldwide awareness of Jersey Shore, Justin Bieber and bukkake. Recently a phenomenon called “Globish” or “decaf English” has received some press. Globish is a condensed form of English used by people whose first language isn’t English, and it’s a fine thing – a simple communication tool. It’s a gain, not a loss. I resent the smoothing-over of English’s surface. I like the way that referring to an urban railway as the Tube, Subway, BART, Métro, T or El immediately places the speaker in (or from) London, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Boston or Chicago. If my friend from Leeds directs me down t’ginnel I know to head down the alleyway…and where would I be without the multitude of words for bodily parts and functions? I’d laugh less in a world bereft of norks, bellends and clunges.
Just as First World banknotes contain minute amounts of cocaine, the British digestive tract – even that of a veggie – contains traces of fish’n’chips. When cod become extinct, super scientists will be able to clone them from a thousand miles of British intestines.
Chips will always be chips. Fries, French (frîtes) or otherwise, are widely available, but they’re long and slim. Chips are chunky chunks with fat-saturated skin (goose fat, if you’re in a particularly aspirational gastro joint) while the flat things that come in bags are, and will remain, crisps. The ad agency (yep, them) once tried to flog Pringles as “friendchips”…they won’t be doing that again. Their wretched array of twentysomething layabouts munching Pringles and talking bollocks didn’t help, but Michael Caine, Judi Dench and Winston Churchill couldn’t have fronted that campaign to victory.
Chips is chips, and I can’t imagine pavements, artics, cinemas and mobiles becoming sidewalks, semis, movie theaters and cells in a hurry. But pod words lie in wait, replacing existing words when they fall asleep. Stores are replacing shops. Intelligent becomes smart, smart meaning well-dressed disappears, stupid becomes dumb, dumb becomes mute. Spring becomes summer, summer becomes autumn…how long before autumn becomes fall? Will the word autumnal disappear, to be replaced by…what? Fally?
The unnecessary-but-BRITISH-damn-it “and” (“Come AND look at this”) is disappearing – and I’ve heard people asking for the bathroom. It’s taken considerable control to prevent this essay from becoming a series of rabid yelps (“Bathroom? Do you want a fucking bath? Do you want to “take” a fucking bath? You leave that bath where it is…” etc) – although bathroom (as opposed to toilet, lav, bog, or shitter) probably appeals to the middle class Brit’s innate politeness.
I’m trying not to judge individual words, but there are a few terms I find abhorrent. A Guardian journalist recently wrote a piece lamenting the ill-mannered stupidity of commenters in the paper’s online Comment is Free boards. While CiF comments have a long way to descend before they achieve YouTube’s “ur gay fag” levels of reprehensibility, they can be venomous and ill-informed. The journo’s complaints certainly had merit – but as far as I was concerned, he completely blew his credibility by calling commenters “retards”. A noun – re-tard; there are plenty of alternatives – moron, idiot, imbecile, fool, dickhead, or the good old British wanker – that don’t imply cognitive impairment (although, admittedly, it may be their origin). Well, it’s commonplace in North America and I have no problem with Americans using it. But a British journalist in his forties? While he’s unlikely to possess a vocabulary on a Will Self/Stephen Fry scale, he should have a pretty strong arsenal of insults. Was he trying to be down with the kids? Nice one, Disco Dad. Tosser.
“Language evolves” is used as a blanket dismissal, supposedly excusing laziness and sloppiness. The last time I had the misfortune to run into this argument, the arguer was trying to justify her use of gay as a pejorative term. Instead of calling her behaviour fucking disgraceful (which was my first inclination) I suggested that yes, language evolves, but the people who use the language can influence that evolution; we can accept or reject new usage, rather than adopting it without question. It took a long time for gay to become simple non-judgmental shorthand for homosexual. Should it now be traduced thoughtlessly? Should we allow that? We should not, that would totally suck balls.
Additionally, disconnect is a verb and buff is not an adjective, although sexy, when brought back as a noun, is fun.
I’ve set out a messy little manifesto here, haven’t I? It’s personal, though; I don’t intend to dictate, and I’m only criticising those who should know better, whose lazy-cool-laissez-faire-whatever attitude is slowly eroding the beautiful quirks which make communication hella entertaining and educational.
Ay, there’s the rub innit. Laziness is easier than…that other thing, the one that’s harder, and that’s the cause of most of these changes. But even for the conscientious objector-and-over-analyser (me) there is temptation. I’ve already mentioned sneakers; aeroplane sounds a bit childish, and as celluloid fades into the past, movie makes more sense than film. I’ll probably come round eventually, although when airplane appeared in two separate articles in a recent Guardian – British journalists writing in a British paper, letting the side down again – I was proper narked. Pissed off, not pissed, it was mid-afternoon, I hadn’t touched a drop.
And then…ah yes. I must admit, there are a few Americanisms I adore. What is an asshat? Do you know? I don’t, but it’s funny. And my favourite, something I’ll have to do eventually, one day…suck it up.