Books

Do we give a hoot?

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

‘There is room for a very interesting work,’ Gibbon observed in a footnote, ‘which should lay open the connection between the languages and manners of nations.’ The manners of the peoples of the United Kingdom and of the United States are very different, although not always in the way that received prejudices have it: any English visitor to America must be struck by how much politer most Americans are than the average run of his compatriots.

But The American Language, as H.L. Mencken called his great book, has developed in a way that isn’t always dainty. It has a vigor and color of its own, and a rich vocabulary which has combined with the central advantages English already possessed. Apart from its flexible syntax and rudimentary grammar, it has long had, to a degree quite unmatched by other European languages, two vocabularies, as Jacques Barzun observed, nearly parallel — formal and vernacular — which make it ideally suited to be the global lingua franca.

Here in our damp little island we have mixed feelings about this. English is our language, the gift to the world by which, along with football, cricket and some other sports, we may well be remembered when otherwise we’re one with Nineveh and Tyre. And yet it’s American English that has conquered the world — and us. As Matthew Engel says in his highly entertaining That’s the Way it Crumbles, we are often uneasy or plain resentful about this Americanisation, and have been for the best part of 200 years.


Few of us now think of ‘belittle’ or ‘reliable’ as Americanisms. But when Jefferson used the former in 1785, the European Magazine was derisive: ‘Belittle! What an expression! For shame, Mr Jefferson!’ And in 1864 the Dean of Canterbury snorted that ‘Reliable is hardly legitimate … Trustworthy does all the work required’. But that was always a losing battle — more so than ever with 20th-century popular culture, above all the movies once they became talkies.

Not all English writers were linguistic nationalists. Orwell pointed out long ago how P.G. Wodehouse, supposedly a paragon of Englishry (though his books are really set in a magical never-never land), used numerous Americanisms. Engel expands this into a considerable list of PGW’s borrowings, all before 1930: ‘call it a day’, ‘easy money’, ‘hookey’ (as in ‘playing’, rather than the English ‘truant’),’ on the level’, ‘wise guy’.

This is one of several diverting lists. Plenty of Americanisms which we no longer even know are immigrants arrived in Edwardian times or during the Great War (‘cakewalk’, ‘give the game away’, ‘railroad’ as a verb, ‘sex appeal’). In the 1920s, there was ‘gangster’, ‘down and out’ (which Orwell, another symbol of Englishry, used as the title of Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933), and ‘give a hoot’ (which Neville Chamberlain used in a letter in 1938). In the 1960s we got ‘back off’, ‘spin-off’ and ‘blue collar’ (100 years ago we called office workers ‘black coat’ rather than ‘white collar’ — which are both now meaningless, to look around an office).

Such lists can’t be comprehensive — when did ‘cool’ and ‘laid-back’ arrive? — and in any case Engel takes an ironical view of this. He knows and loves America and many things American, as do I, from Philip Roth to Doonesbury to baseball, even though he is a former editor of Wisden and vice president of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. But although he also loves the American language, he rightly bridles at completely superfluous imports. On election night I heard one pundit talk about ‘ballpark figures’, when we don’t have ballparks here, and another say that someone or other would have to ‘step up to the plate’, which is as ubiquitous as it is ridiculous. Almost no one in this country who uses it is even aware of its original meaning: the baseball batter who goes to the plate to try and hit a pitch. Why not ‘time to go to the crease’?

But this book is also a caution against linguistic fogeyism, which can become foolish and poignant at once. Brian Jones, the dissipated and doomed Rolling Stones guitarist, came from Cheltenham, where his father was a church organist (I’d forgotten that if I ever knew). That’s enough of these Americanisms, father complained to son: Couldn’t you just sing ‘I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction’?

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