The British are Coming!

When my siblings, Emily and Nicholas, and I were little rascals, we would have pretend tea parties. Because that’s just what you do as kids. Imaginary crumpets taste marvelous, and the kitchen sink water “tea” is so hot that you burn you tongue and simply can’t bring yourself to eat the broccoli mom made for dinner later. We would cheekily always ask each other, “Would you like a spot o’ tayyy” and “Would you like some strawbry jahm, suhr?” and then roar with laughter because we sounded British and posh and therefore, our tea party was way more brilliant.

It’s funny that even as kids, we knew that British English had some sort of caché to it. Maybe it’s because Emily went through an awkward phase where she listened to the Jeeves soundtrack, which began as a series of short stories about a British butler/valet in the early 20th century and was subsequently turned into a musical. Maybe its because I always enjoyed Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Maybe it’s because Dad would plop us down in front of the TV to watch Monty Python sketches (there was one that scarred me for life where this big fat guy takes one last bite as he is egged on by John Cleese the waiter and BLOWS UP. That and accidentally watching with horror the shower scene from Psycho at age eight were two defining moments of my childhood).

Whenever we would play “olden days” or “orphans” (neither as twisted as “the Hate Game”, in which we would split up into teams in two separate rooms, write mean letters to each other that often included crude illustrations, deliver them down the hall to the opposing team and eagerly await a letter of retaliation. ???) we would naturally play with perceived British accents and eat “porridge”  and “pudding” like Oliver Twist. For Americans, British English sounds old–old times, old traditions, old people who say things like “Yes, of couuuurse” and “Yes, Yes, I see, I see”… That’s why characters in movie that takes place a long time ago in a foreign land always speak with British accents. Because it’s old. But more on that in another post. And that’s also why I giggled inside when one of my British colleagues used the word “fortnight” in casual conversation. “Fortnight” for me is pretty much on the same level as “four score and seven years ago” (for alla y’all who are too shy to ask, a score = 20 years, so you do the math). I wanted to respond something like, “Yes, I shall sendeth thou an email in an hour’s time, good sir”.

ANYWAY, friends and family have been hitting me up non-stop with the New York Times article about the 21st century British invasion of the American language. Blimey!

It seems its been going on for some time now–I didn’t even realize (or realise à la English English) that a ginger, or to book tickets, or chat up, will do or spot on weren’t native to the US of A. But apparently, journalists, Northeastern professors, restauranteurs, bankers and fashion people are hearing more and more British slang and expressions pop up in American speech.

The article claims that saying queue instead of line, brilliant (or even bril, ugh, some obnoxious person would abbrev that), flat instead of apartment and the worst, football for soccer are being more and more commonly heard. Where specifically though? Is this really affecting all Americans? Or just New Yorkers who want to sound well-traveled or hide the fact that they originally hail from Ohio?

The more I read this article, the more I realise it’s just a bunch of NYC yuppy pretension. This is blatantly journalists and their well-connected banking and fashion world friends who have British clients or business partners trying to make this a thing. I ran this past my dear friend and fashionista Chrysan Tung, who works for a boutique clothing shoppe in NYC, and she has attested to hearing this balderdash among her ranks. Other sources from back home say they are oblivious to this across-the-pond vocab allegedly seeping off the tongues of their fellow compatriots. So please, New York Times, before you start running your mouths about all this, why don’t you ask some normal people whose offices don’t have a direct line to their London bureaus?

If you’re not using Britishisms ironically, we may need to ask you to put a quarter in the Douchebag jar. The NYT article chalks this “star spangled burst of Anglophila” (groan) up to the media and the fact that America and Britain are “closer than ever” and that Americans are now describing themselves as “die-hard Arsenal fans” who “bleed Manchester United or Chelsea blue”. Oh please, that’s almost as obnoxious as people who are naming their kids “Beatrix” and “Hadley”. Americans like beer and Amurrrican football and anyone who watches the World Cup for any other reason than an excuse to start downing beers at your neighborhood bar at 6am to “catch the game” needs to take it down a knotch.

OK I’m kidding, maybe I’m getting carried away, I’m not trying to deny anyone the right to love the sport that more or less the ENTIRE world goes gaga over. (What is the deal with that? Why does practically every young school-age American kid play soccer, but wouldn’t tune in for Barcelona vs. Madrid?)

Note to self: Write post on why American football is called football at all, because aside from that first kick-off it seems like feet are pretty much not to be utilized aside from booking it down the field.

I love the Brits and the UK, but just because we get each other’s TV shows more easily does not imply at all that our worlds are colliding. I’m sorry, I take that back—just because we remake British TV shows like Shameless, The In-Betweeners and The Office because we can’t understand a good old Manchester accent and prefer to look at unrealistically hot people on TV, that does not mean we are becoming any more alike than since we ran the British off the continent. Twice (everyone forgets about the War of 1812 when the Brits tried to take back what we won, and burned down the original White House! Bloody hell!).

But interestingly enough, even though we Americans are very proud of our ever-evolving language, we’ve always been influenced by the Brits and looked to them for linguistic guidance: back in the days of the colonies and before the Revolution, British people pronounced their R’s, which is why they appear in spelling. The British R-lessness, which has probably become one of the most defining traits of British English, came about as the royals and the wealthy wanted to distinguish their speech from the commoners, so they began dropping their R’s. And this trickled out all the way to America–ever notice how all along the Eastern American seaboard, traditional accents or dialects are usually R-less? Like in Boston, “New Yawk“, Savannah and Charleston. The r-dropping has been mangled and speakers from these cities certainly don’t sound British, but the habit was picked up from all the contact that these big port cities, who had contacts with British ships on a daily basis. It was a matter of prestige–if that’s what was all the rage in Britain, it became the rage in those states that had lots of contact with our former compadres.

I’ve recently started saying cheeky, but that’s only because my boyfriend is Irish and speaks with an accent that’s somewhere in between British and Irish. He pronounces all his T’s like T’s and not D’s (example I say liderally and he says literally, because there’s a f*cking T) and asks me what I fahncy for dinner, to which I reply “Well, I fancy…” but it just sounds AWFUL with my accent. My Irish friends always said, “Oh that’s grand!” for “that’s great!” but would say it like “grahnd” and not “graaand” like it comes out when I say it. My fahncy becomes faaancy and nasaly and totally ruins the charm and sophistiqué.

I unfortch haven’t been in the States very recently, so IDK if this ridiculousness is actually occurring. I will attest to the aforementioned list of words that I wasn’t aware were originally British, but seriously if I’m home next week and some one invites me to go watch a football game with them and then they run to the loo after a pint of lager, I’m crackin’ skulls.

Coming up: Why the bad guy is always British, What’s up with all the extra U’s in British spelling

Cheers y’all!

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Accents, America., British, Dialects, Just for Fun, Language, Musings, Videos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The British are Coming!

  1. Louise Egan says:

    Jolly Brilliant, Alice! Love your mum and fa.

  2. marie bartlett says:

    Hi Alice, totally enjoyed this. But, here in little old Greenfield,MA, the other day I was late for an appointment, and the physical therapist said to me, “No worries.” And last weekend, at a 6am bird banding class that Jeannie had at Middlebury, the professor said something about not getting too wonky. So it does seem like Britishisms might be spreading, even outside posh NYC.

  3. alicestockwellegan says:

    Hi Aunt Marie. No worries? Is that British? I feel like that’s pretty common…dunno!

    • Louise Egan says:

      Actually, I hear “no worries” and “wonk” and other expressions a lot too, and didn’t realize they were anything but a variation from the original. But fyi, turns out that “no worries” is Australian: here’s from Urban Dictionary:
      Pretension creeps in with “queue” instead of “line” Because “queue” is not even a word in American English and is blatantly British — like saying “shed-ule” instead of “schedule.” And “unconsciously” calling soccer “football” — and thus momentarily confusing whoever you’re talking to and then having to say “woops – I’m just so British these days (or something)” — is 15 on a pretension scale of 10.

  4. Jim Egan says:

    Niece Ailz, I like your eddgggy writing style (like unfortch, Bloody hell, rascals). It makes your father’s children’s book writing sound milquetoast.

  5. Kevin says:

    Bloody brilliant! You wanna know what IS creeping into common usage (that I hate)? “No problem” and “No worries”—which are actually from JAMAICA or Oz, and sound OK (barely) when they say it. But when the waiter brings me a burger, and I say, “Thanks! This looks great”. and he responds, “No problem”—I’m like , “just say “you’re welcome”, you douchebag–I KNOW it was no problem–I ordered it, you brought it. That’s your f*&^%ing JOB! It was a hamburger–you didn’t just replace 3 flat tires for me”

    If I hear “No problem” one more time, there’s gonna be a BIG problem!

    Great writing! Keep it up!

    • Joan Bent says:

      I’ m fascinated with all the creative writing! Kevin brings to mind several pet peeves of mine – Waiter -“-Are you DONE with that?” My reply” No, I haven’t finished” or “Are you still WORKING on that?” No, I”m. still playing” with it.

  6. Jon D says:

    Glad to see you’ve inherited your parents’ sensitivity to all things aural. Whenever Randy barked in British English, I would tease him for being pretentious and he would rephrase in the American vernacular. The difference was very subtle.

    I’d be interested in your comments on young Brits versus old Brits. Does anyone under 60 speak like Charles? Young Brits generally sound as if they’ve just come from the dentist — which, of course, is seldom the case in Britain, but that’s how they sound.

  7. Pingback: Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Magali ‘the Trilingual’ Lemahieu | Language and other musings

  8. Pingback: Best, Alice. | Language and other musings

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