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Word Nerd: Insidious Britishisms flood U.S. kit

A couple of years ago, the BBC asked its indigenous population to relate which barbaric Americanisms most infuriated them. This plea drew countless entries from Brits angry about the bastardization of Shakespeare’s tongue.

Here is but a soupçon of the vituperative replies:

  • “Can I get a …” It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the ’90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really.
  • What kind of word is “gotten”? It makes me shudder.
  • The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option,” tell them that their “most best option” is learning grammar.

It would appear that North Americans can now equally complain about an inundation of Britishisms. Some months ago, I wrote in this column how prevalent the word “bespoke” has become in North American circles to refer to high-quality items and services.

After all, it wasn’t so long ago that its usage on our continent was virtually non-existent. And bespoke is hardly the only British word or expression making inroads in the North American vernacular. Here are two others making inroads on the west side of the pond:

chav. The OED defines chav: “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”

This term is increasingly being used in North America, probably due to the insidious (and sometimes invidious) influence of YouTube.

Here are two examples stemming from the U.S.A. that I spotted on the Internet: “Nah I’m not buying those sneakers man, they are so chavvy.”

Someone from Boston posted the following on a language newsgroup: “Chav is gaining currency as Americans understand that not all British people are posh. Boston/Cambridge is rife with international college students, so it may just be a blip, but I’ve heard it in a suburban grocery store to refer to some hooligans outside the store.”

piece of kit. When American science-fiction author John Scalzi wrote on his blog last year that the latest iPad was a “lovely piece of kit,” he was deluged by followers who thought his using the expression was highly pretentious.

Scalzi retorted: “Apparently being an American, I should have settled on ‘Dude, this tablet is bananas,’ or something else equally comporting with my nation of origin.” This usage appears to be popular with American techies.

For example, Zach Whitaker on ZDNet writes, “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world: a media on-the-go bag has to have every piece of kit you may or may not need.” The term kit in British English since the late 18th century has referred to equipment or a uniform.

So why are we seeing an upsurge in Britishisms in North America? The trend is most prevalent in northeast parts of the continent, particularly among media commentators.

According to American linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, whereas in the past it was a British-sounding accent that conveyed prestige in certain North American milieus, now it is Britishisms that area considers classy. Zimmer states that the emphasis nowadays is not on sounding aristocratic but on sounding intellectual. I think, however, we can’t understate how globally connected the world has become and as a result English is undergoing a process of ever-increasing internationalization.

Although many words were Americanized when J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series surfaced in 1997, the term “ginger” to refer to redheads was not and as a result of the millions of North American Potterheads, the term gained currency.

Media influence also was in play with the term metrosexual, a fashion-conscious heterosexual man. This word, which blends metro and heterosexual, surfaced in England in 1994, but the American television program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy so popularized it that by January 2004 it was declared the American Society’s word of the year for 2003.

Blimey.

Howard’s book How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts was published in May by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver.

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