Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A New British Invasion

The latest British invasion of our shores, seemingly ignored by the major media, is an interesting reversal of the usual linguistic pattern whereby Americanisms are spread around the world by our pop culture, raising eyebrows in London and sighs in Paris.

I refer to the appearance in our printed media of words and expressions that I think of as characteristically British. When Jay Leno recently made a joke about $8.7 billion of our money "gone missing in Iraq," he was using an idiom rarely heard on this side of the pond until about five years ago. We used to say that the money or the person or whatever is missing, but because of TV shows and films from England, presumably, we are now comfortable with "gone missing." What was unidiomatic in American English has become idiomatic.

So, too, with "queue," used by Netflix and certain theaters (or is it theatres?). I suppose we are enriching our linguistic options by having another way of saying "line," but I have not heard anyone in the U.S. say "queue up here, mate."

I can't be the only one to notice all this and confess to having done very little research on British-American usage. But I listen and read attentively.

I've noticed being "sacked" used by the New York Times, which assumes its readers know that this is UK slang for fired, laid off. I don't find "get the chop" making its way over to these shores as yet, however. More and more Americans have been "booking" (rather than simply making) reservations in recent years and feel comfortable using, at least in print, such trans-Atlantic words as "randy," "smarmy," and "bespoke" (for tailor-made suits, as by the chaps in Savile Row).

The whole topic of slang is a bit dodgy, as the Brits would say, and endlessly changing, especially in the global village made possible by new technology. So, among the 1.5 billion speakers of English around the world, there's always a good chance of being misunderstood by someone using the English language.

Chances are we will always be two countries divided by a common language, in the words of G. B. Shaw (or was it Winston Churchill?). The Brits are likely to agree with Oscar Wilde's witty proclamation: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."

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