Anti-anti-Americanismism

A recent article on the BBC America website features “10 Things Americans Say… and What They Really Mean”. It begins with an unpromising generalisation and a gratuitous sideswipe:

When it comes to the spoken word, Americans are a truly baffling bunch. So we’ve decoded their most irritating idioms.

Here’s an example of said “decoding” which, though it may have been intended as humour, seems to me sour and condescending:

When an American shop assistant says, “Have a nice day!”
Translation: “Honestly, I don’t care what kind of day you have. But please tell my manager I was friendly so I get extra commission.”
Definitely doesn’t mean: “I will sob myself to sleep if I subsequently learn that you had a less than adequate day.”

“Have a nice day” isn’t always said with perfect sincerity and literal intent, but that’s trivially true of many ritualised expressions. It doesn’t make them unfriendly or hypocritical. Here’s another “translation”:

When an annoying American says, “Your shirt is so cute!”
Translation: “That’s one good looking upper body garment, be it a vest top, a t-shirt or an actual bona fide shirt – with cuffs and a collar.”
Definitely doesn’t mean: “I’m sexually attracted to your blouse.”

Each item repeats this unedifying formula: everyday expressions given sarcastic, mean-spirited misreadings. Many rely on what Lane Greene succinctly calls “selective hyper-literalism: refusal to understand idioms as such”. Most wilfully ignore context – which, when you’re having a conversation, tends to be pretty central to proceedings. The article finishes by asking: “What Americanisms bother you?”*

The BBC has form with this type of cynical provocation. Last year it published an edited talk by Matthew Engel in which he grouches about “ugly and pointless new usages” that he believes entered BrE through “American cultural imperialism”. (It had so many errors – e.g. hospitalize is not new, or American, or “vile”, necessarily – that Language Log gave him a score of 20% for history. See also Gabe Doyle’s considered post on the implications for journalistic standards at the BBC.)

I say cynical because this fostering of antipathy towards American culture is a reliable way to generate huge web traffic. Language-inspired feelings are seldom so strong as those evoked by a detested phrase, hence comment sections swell with torrents of transatlantic peeving. The BBC duly followed up with 50 of the “most e-mailed” Americanisms, many of which (to my great lack of surprise) were not Americanisms at all.

I refer the anti-Americanism brigade to this passage from David Crystal’s 1968 book What is Linguistics?:

Very often – much more often than one might think – people make statements about their own speech which are utterly wrong. . . . And a similar ignorance is usually at the basis of an Englishman’s criticism of ‘Americanisms’ in others’ speech, where what is being attacked is normally any usage which does not conform to his own feeling about what is ‘proper’ English, whether it stems from America or not. Few people know exactly which parts of the language have been directly influenced by American usage, and unfortunately they tend to use the label ‘Americanism’ as a general term of abuse.

Briefly addressing the furore, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I said the purist point of view seems misguided because languages and dialects in contact gradually and incessantly blend and blur into one another. AmE may currently be the most influential English dialect(s), but the influence is not one-way. I’m all for preserving and celebrating dialectal distinctness, but the history of English is fundamentally characterised by constant commingling.

Peeving is psychologically fascinating, if dispiriting. We enjoy it because it lets us blow off steam and maybe sublimate other annoyances and frustrations. Our latent misanthropy is exercised. It’s very natural to take language usage personally, so tangled is it with our sense of identity. Leonore Rodrigues, at As a Linguist…, says language is an emotional matter because it’s “largely responsible for representing our thoughts and personalities, our values and beliefs”.

So what to make of geographically motivated word rage? Why do regional idioms and variants so easily provoke all this unreflective hostility? If public peeve-fests suggest to you a kind of tribal bonding based on out-group rejection, you may be on to something. At Language Log a few years ago, Mark Liberman wrote about the mutually reinforcing cycle of “social annoyance and public griping”:

Linguistic sins, real or imaginary, are not really what’s driving this process. And the original emotion of irritation, though sometimes expressed in colorful displays of (mock?) disgust and anger, is also secondary, I think. The real key is the public ritual that Christopher Howse called “naming and shaming”, which helps the group to converge on a set of norms.

What’s most interesting is often what we tend to overlook, or are reluctant to inspect, such as why we react the way we do to particular sounds and idioms. Most of us have pet peeves, but we can treat them as objects of dispassionate interest instead of poking them perversely like a sore tooth. Or maybe that’s just the scientist in me. Grant Barrett put it well, on the BBC website, no less: “‘I hate this word’ is not productive but ‘Why do I hate this word?’ is extraordinarily so.”

Your thoughts would be welcome. And do have a nice day.

[image from Black Narcissus (1947) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger]

Update:

Lane Greene at the Economist is similarly irritated by the 10 Things… list, and suspects there’s just “no one in charge of language coverage” at the BBC. But he rightly praises a more recent piece there, by Cordelia Hebblethwaite, which is linked just before the image above.

*

* The following week had a reversal of sorts, titled “10 Things Brits Say…and What Americans Think We Mean”.

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27 Responses to Anti-anti-Americanismism

  1. I must admit that there are a few items of American speech that irritate me, (for example, using ‘like’ every other word’ and ‘ya know what I mean,’) but I would rather be a descriptivist than a proscriptavist. Language is organic and ever changing and not worth getting one’s panties in a bunch.

    • conorjh says:

      The “like” construction is actually very useful: “. . . and I was like ‘what the fuck, why are you fucking with me’”, it allows pieces of imagined reported speech to be used adjectivally. It should be valued as a genuine extension of how language is used.

      • Stan says:

        I agree, Conor. I was chatting to someone recently who’s studying the word, albeit a different kind of like, and we both sang its praises.

        Jessica Love wrote a good article on quotative like at the American Scholar:

        Is it just a lazier, slangier way of saying says? Linguists are like, No! The general consensus is that the quotative like encourages a speaker to embody the participants in a conversation. Thus, the speaker vocalizes the contents of participants’ utterances, but also her attitudes toward those utterances. She can dramatize multiple viewpoints, one after another, making it perfectly clear all the while which views she sympathizes with and which she does not.

    • Bill Stubblefield says:

      I am an American–an old one. The use of the quotative “like” irritates me as well. Here is my theory (supported only by my musings): When I was a child fifty to sixty years ago, we would introduce a new play scenario by “Let’s play like….” The beat generation and the hippies adopted it in a slightly mutated form “Like, man…..” At this stage, the GenXers and NexGens have transformed it into the modern version of “uuuhhh.”

      • Stan says:

        Bill: I think one reason so many people object so strongly to like is the rather sudden increase in its use in several different ways. I don’t know if there’s any causal connection between its quotative use and what you call “the modern version of ‘uuuhhh’”, i.e., its use as a filler word or verbal tic. I’d be interested in finding out how the various modern uses developed.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I agree with your conclusions. The writing of such articles is a means of using language to define “the other.” To use an Americanism, it’s a way of “circling the wagons” to keep the women and children safe from the savages.

    During the run up to D-day, a then-current saying about American soldiers, if I remember correctly, was “They’re over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.” (Translation: They’re helping us beat the Nazis, but if we had an alternative, we’d do it in a different way, without their help).

    “Have a nice day” is only one iteration of what Malinowski defined as “phatic communion.” the formulaic language used to mark encounters, showing readiness for interaction. It marks the completion of an inter-personal transaction, just as “Hi, how are you?” marks the beginning.

  3. Shaun Downey says:

    But aren’t a number of the American “-izms” just archaic forms of British English anyway

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Maybe it’s me. I’ve always viewed it as an order. What if I don’t want to have a “nice” day. Maybe I’d prefer a spectacular day. Or even a downright sad one.

    Equally offensive is “good”. As opposed to downright bad a–?

    What a meaningless word nice is. Bland. Tasteless. Like processed food.

    XO
    WWW

  5. Yvonne says:

    I’m all for temperate discussion and agree that the why of the peeve is the issue. Still, ‘relatable’, I just can’t relate to it. It’s my sore tooth and I’ll nurse it until the nerve dies.

  6. Stan says:

    Fuzzarelly: Language is indeed organic. Those phrases aren’t Americanisms, though, at least not exclusively so.

    Marc: That’s true, about phatic communication. Just as saying “How’s it going?” or “How do you do?” is often simply a greeting and not a request for information about the listener’s state. This was an extreme case.

    Shaun: Yes, many are – gotten and oftentimes, for example.

    WWW: “Have a nice day” may look like an imperative, but it needn’t be interpreted that way. I remember you were with Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey in your feelings about nice!

    Yvonne: That’s quite relatable…to. We all have our peeves. I can’t see you attacking or insulting anyone over it.

  7. Jastrow says:

    This list was published on Anglophenia, BBC America’s blog, whose subtitle is ‘Mind the gap’. Emphasising differences between the US and the UK is what they do. One week they run a piece called ’10 Things Americans Do That Drive Brits Nuts’, the week after it’s ’10 Things Brits Do That Drive American Nuts’, and so on. In this case I believe the list was an answer to this one (http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=5672). These articles are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted, even though they do come over as patronising sometimes.

    In my country, France, we completely ignore any other form of French spoken around the world, so we don’t even have these ‘Ten Things Belgians/Quebeckers/etc. Say’ lists to fight over!

  8. dw says:

    That whole blog, ostensibly “a Brit’s guide to surviving America”, seems to be a vehicle for the BBC’s stateside correspondents to vent anti-American bile.

    Its post about “The US school system” was subtitled, for no apparent reason, “Welcome To The Dark Side”.

  9. Claire Stokes says:

    As one of your legions of US fans, I thought I’d venture in to the comments section for the first time to thank you for your multi-pronged response to the BBC. I always enjoy your writing, and agree completely with your psychological points as well as your linguistic ones. So ok then, talk to ya!

    • Second your motion, Claire! I’d be rather nice-day-ed than drop-deaded, any day of the week… All these so-called Americanisms are formulaic, and an expression of social interrelations, why ascribe any darker or deeper meaning to them than what they are meant to be, a corteous greeting.

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @www,

    Somewhat in a similar vein as the adjective “nice” being a kind of neutral, but generally tending toward the mildly positive, particularly in the context of the somewhat knee-jerk, or almost automatic use of the parting phrase for many, “Have a nice day.”, I find the word “interesting”, as a descriptive adjective, to be somewhat namby-pamby, or noncommital, on the part of the ‘responder’, who is likely answering a query as to how said ‘responder’ perceives, say a particular artwork, or rendition of a particular song, that may be perceived as within an unfamiliar musical genre, or maybe defies categorizing into any one familiar stylistic slot.

    I’m sure folks who initially hear, for instance, Tuvan throat singing for the first time, might be pretty perplexed, yet at the same time fascinated as to what they are hearing. So they might respond w/ “Hmm…. ‘interesting’.”, to an inquiry as to what they may have thought of it at first listen.

    For me the word “interesting” just reflects a sort of lazy, or perhaps confused, or unsure off-the-cuff assessment; kind of a convenient default word for, ‘I’m really not entirely sure how I feel right now about such-and-such….. but I think I sort of like it…. but then again, maybe not.’. Interesting.

    Another, fairly current little pet peeve I have, is the use of “so”, in predicating the answer to a question*. I listen to a lot of National Public radio, and talk-radio on my local KPPC/ FM station here in L.A., and I find that particularly w/ so-called ‘expert’ invited guests (often academics, or political analysts) on these call-in shows, after the host poses a question, ofttimes the guest professor, or politico will automatically start their response w/ “So…..”, as if they are setting us up for some authoritative, definite, sage revelation.

    Maybe it’s just a bit of the pedant coming out in these responding radio show guests, which would be understandable w/ say certain academics, who spend much of their working hours in the class, either lecturing, or leading student discussion in tutorials, and such.

    SO I guess we should just live w/ this minor speech ‘tic’.

    One intriguing Brit word, “gobsmacked”, (meaning inexplicably overcome w/ amazement, or emotion), I’d basically been entirely ignorant of until that amazing Scottish middle-aged singing phenom, Susan Boyle, ‘erupted’ onto the global music scene about five years ago.

    On the popular U.K. reality TV show, “Britain’s Got Talent”, after here triumphant first performance on the show, which blew audiences and judges away (including doubting Simon Cowell) w/ its power, pitch-perfect tonality, and emotive feeling, Ms. Boyle exclaimed that she was totally “gobsmacked” by the sheer universally positive reaction to her vocal performance.

    I confess I had to actually go and look THAT one up. The definition pretty much reflected Boyle’s stunned, but elated reaction to all the sudden deserved adulation.

    The word “brilliant”, meaning outstanding, or first-rate, appears to be a pretty common Brit superlative, and may be catching on somewhat here in the U.S., although not widely it seems.

    The Aussie retort, “No worries, mate”, or just plain “No worries.” seems to be heard more often on American shores these days, particularly w/ the younger adult set. Just anecdotal observation, here, on my part.

    *I don’t think this is particularly a quirk more common on the side of The Pond, or the U.K. It’s likely a wash.

  11. Stan says:

    Jastrow: Naturally there’s nothing wrong with tongue-in-cheek teasing, but much of the list seems more unpleasant than entertaining. Implying that Americans are stupid and hypocritical and calling their common expressions “irritating” isn’t very light-hearted. Thanks for the interesting observation about French, and for the information about ‘Mind the Gap’: I noticed the blog’s formula, which is why I also linked to the follow-up post on “10 Things Brits Say”. But that too is insulting to Americans, suggesting that they interpret idioms literally instead of inferring sense from context or asking for clarification when necessary.

    dw: “Welcome To The Dark Side” is a bit much. I don’t think I want to explore any further.

    Claire: That’s very kind; thank you! I don’t know about legions of fans, but you are most welcome.

    Alex: As you say yourself, interesting is a “convenient default”. People don’t always have the time or energy to find a different word or to express their reaction at analytical length. Regarding So…: Lexicon Valley had an excellent podcast about this use of the word. I think you’ll enjoy it, if you haven’t heard it already.

  12. Liz says:

    It’s probably because I’m middle aged and middle class, but I quite like being wished a nice day, and usually take pains to return the favour. It may be fairly meaningless, but it adds a touch of humanity to humdrum interactions, and it’s certainly preferable to rudeness or surliness.

  13. MichWalkden says:

    Perhaps I’m showing my immaturity here but I love language baiting a pedant. As long as there are people who are genuinely offended by blended language I will continue to chuckle quietly to myself.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Opps!

    Apology to my local NPR station here in L.A. .

    That should have read KPCC/ FM, not “KPPC”, as I typed in my last post.

    The station has been going through some mixed-to-solidly- disgruntled listener push-back over the past few weeks w/ the canceling of long-time popular talk-show stalwart, engaging veteran broadcaster/ journalist, Patt Morrison’s early afternoon 2-hour show; the unexpected, sudden exiting of host Madeleine Brand (she up-and-quit last week), and the earlier expansion of her show hours by an extra hour w/ the addition of a co-host, A Martinez, who came highly touted by station execs from ESPN Sports radio.*

    It’s been a rough stretch for both station management and loyal listeners and financial contributers, alike.

    So, needless to say, they don’t need the added insult of my misidentifying them in my post. (As if my little flub amounts to a hill of beans in the greater scheme of things.)

    *KPCC’s all-purpose broadcaster, Alex Cohen, almost immediately replaced Madeleine Brand as A Martinez’s co-host this past Monday. She brings a very with-it, street-wise, L.A. savvy sensibility to the show, and is adept at on-air improvisation when things go slightly awry. In just a week together, I have to admit I already feel a sense of some genuine chemistry happening between Cohen and A.

    Initially I had my serious doubts, as Madeleine and A., though co-hosts, seemed like they were working from completely different studios. I believe Brand resented, to some degree, having to share the on-air spotlight w/ Martinez, even though her show was expanded an extra hour.

    A little side note: Cohen is also a semi-pro team roller derby ‘player’, w/ the game-face moniker, “Axle of Evil”. So don’t mess w/ Alex, on the ‘derby’ oval track, or off, for that matter. HA!

  15. Stan says:

    Liz: Well said, though I don’t know if it has anything to do with age or class. I’d like to think most people appreciate a sincere expression of goodwill, however corporatized some might find it.

    Michelle: I think that’s justifiable! Some positions, such as narrow-minded pedantry, deserve to be challenged; if it can be done with a sense of fun, so much the better.

  16. klyse3 says:

    I’m curious as to what British shop employees say…surely they can’t mean what they say! Or do they simply scowl and you accept their complete non-interest in your well-being?

    Overall, highly interesting topic that just looks like another example of the British trying to make themselves feel superior.

  17. Stan says:

    klyse3: I don’t know what British shop employees routinely say, but I imagine there’s a study of it somewhere. It’s an interesting topic all right. I think it’s obvious that the pragmatic context of these interactions should be taken into account when we go to analyse them.

  18. [...] In British English versus American English, lexicographers galore explored Britishisms and the Britishization of American English, and Stan Carey discussed anti-anti-Americanism. [...]

  19. the ridger says:

    Do British people really reserve “cute” for things they’re sexually attracted to? This causes me to worry about all the “cute house/flat” ads I’ve seen.

  20. Stan says:

    Karen: No, it’s commonly used for things that are just generally attractive, typically small or childlike or sentimentally appealing. So baby animals and children are often called cute, and the word can also be applied to buttons and buns and noses and clothes and yes, houses.

  21. [...] September saw some (unnecessary, we thought) anti-Americanisms. But luckily, Stan Carey and Robert Lane Greene had a thing or two to say about [...]

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