I pick on the BBC now and then, as part of my series on How the English Are Ruining Our Language, mainly because I like to listen to the BBC World Service’s News Hour in the morning, and Razia Iqbal is a constant source of entertainment to me. It turns out, though, that somebody at the BBC thinks we Americans are ruining their language. Today I came across this article from last September on the BBC’s web site. A person with the surprising name of Hephzibah Anderson, writing about a book by one Matthew Engel, asserts that “Americanisms are killing the English language,” by which she seems to mean the Southern-English dialect of the written English language. (She says, “Because by English, I mean British English;” but she obviously doesn’t mean Scottish English or Liverpudlian English or Welsh English or Yorkish English, or any dialect of English as it is spoken outside of English public schools.)
What she is worried about seems chiefly to be vocabulary, rather than grammar. I think she doesn’t need to fret so much. The vocabulary is changing on this side of the Atlantic, too, mostly because of computerese and commercial speech, as I never tire of pointing out. But vocabulary changes constantly, and, at the end of the day, England is probably giving as good (and as bad) as it gets in that game. Don’t get me wrong: it annoys me, just as it annoys—and rather depresses—me to see advertisements all over Europe in English, rather than in the native languages. But most of the Americanisms Ms. Anderson deplores are neologisms here, too, or were at some point.
Take apartment. Americans used to live in flats, just like the English (when we didn’t live in tenements), but in the mid-Nineteenth Century American real-estate marketeers imported (and Anglicized) the French word, appartement, as a sexier alternative. (Apartments already existed in English, referring to a separate suite of rooms within a large house, as in “the state apartments at Duke’s Denver”, but as an alternative to flats it’s an import from Paris.)
She remarks on elevator, not as a noun (as opposed to the good old English lift), but as a verb:
As in, Ahmed was ‘elevatoring’ towards the top of his profession in Manhattan.
Why would a Brit object to that? It’s the English, after all, who insist that a house could use “a good clean”, and who enjoy “a bathe” now and then. If they can noun verbs, why can’t we verb nouns? Anyway, plenty of nouns get used as verbs in “British English”, and nobody objects: dog, track, sound, race, hand, head—the list is endless.
If I were Ms. Anderson, I’d be more worried about the British elimination of the subjunctive and prepositions, and the bizarre pluralization of pronouns (so as to avoid gender), all of which are happening here, too, but which are happening much faster in England because of the unified school system and the national press.
By the way, one of the words Ms. Anderson particularly deplores, cookies, isn’t really an Americanism at all—that is, it did come to England from America, but it doesn’t come from American English originally. It’s Dutch, just like boss, coleslaw, and Santa Claus. Maybe that will be some comfort to her.